Infinite Variety: A History of Desire in India by Madhavi Menon is just what it says it is and so much more. Frog – leaping between a history of impurity, dargahs, the zero, suicides, law, make – up, psychoanalysis, sambandham, paan and sexology, with verve and gleeful abandon Menon takes the reader on a rip-roaring ride across the variegated landscape of love, lust and longing in this land where paradoxically sexual progressiveness and repression have thrived side by side, with neither yielding an inch to the other. When it comes to all things Indian, a strictly scholarly approach seldom works which is why Menon’s writing which is a combination of academia and practicality stemming from her keen awareness of ground reality is refreshing.
As Menon rightly points out much of India’s obsession with high – flown notions of purity and morality believed to have its roots in ancient wisdom and a glorious heritage is in reality the result of a cultural imposition of colonial puritanism and Victorian prudery. She also emphasizes that sexual practices considered taboo in many parts of the world including but not limited to homosexuality, adultery, cross - dressing and transsexual relationships have long been treated with a degree of acceptance in these parts that puts present day moral policing and the draconian section 377 to shame.
Bolstering her case with anecdotal evidence and factoids culled from popular folklore, mythology, classical texts, songs and even, Bollywood, Menon succeeds in capturing the essence of the messy history of desire that has long defied attempts to classify it into neat little categories with labels. In her own words, “Today, the public assertion of identity by sexual minorities is considered a victory, but it also signals the defeat of a history of desire that was resistant to, and flourished by not, being named. Not because it did not dare be named for fear of god or the law, but because it participated in too many pleasures to be able to count them all.”
In choosing to look for desire in unlikely places such as in the love lives of queer grandparents, boarding schools, poetry of Sufi mystics, forgotten tombs, Sabarimala, hair salons and even calendar art, Menon manages to broaden the horizons of our own understanding of it. Dashes of humour spice the narrative with its salubrious take on all things sexual and makes for delightful reading. The puerile obsession with bhabhis, canoodling in parks and porn evidenced by Indians is hilarious especially when juxtaposed against Yoga and grammar. In a similar vein, Menon highlights the opposing faces of sexuality by hearkening back to Vatsayana’s Kamasutra and the notorious Manusmriti. Like her one can’t help but wonder how things would have turned out for all of us, if our British conquerors had based the legal system on the former manuscript rather than the latter.
Regrets aside, Menon’s tome is ultimately hopeful because it asserts authoritatively that when it comes to desire, which is ever fluid and constantly evolving, “rigid distinctions cannot hold.”
This book review was originally published in The New Indian Express.