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Desire: Through the eyes of literature

Desire continues to be a contentious domain that legalities have often failed to articulate. The silencing of desire is intrinsically tied with our inner selves

Rini Barman

Federico Garcia Lorca had once said, “To burn with desire and keep quiet about it is the greatest punishment we can bring on ourselves.” Silences that seem like punishments are of many kinds and the silencing of desire is intrinsically tied with our inner selves. It is not necessary that documented language can fathom all of it—but the hope lives on. This year saw Section 377 of the IPC being scrapped by the Supreme Court of India in a historic moment. Yet, desire continues to be a contentious domain that legalities have often failed to articulate. The LGBTQIA+ community, currently, is battling with the outrageous Trans-bill that was passed in the Lok Sabha. One of the grounds on which it has been opposed is its unwillingness and failure to differentiate consensual sex work from human trafficking. Besides, it also does the grievous mistake of not consulting sex workers and trans-persons for the bill.

Each time, middle-class and upper-caste morality somehow seeps into our perceptions of what desires mean and entail. Amrita Narayanan’s The Parrots of Desire (2017) , quoting Plato and other philosophers argue that while the erotic has been feared for its power to “destabilise” hierarchy, in India, it is deeply linked with the core values of the traditional hetero-normative family structure. The norms of self-expression were harsher for those who chose to transgress. For example, many Bhakti poets are seen struggling with the erotic idiom in their poetry—a compelling account of the medieval times. For women poets, erotic anxiety was coupled with a visceral longing.

How many elephants followed Narayana Nampi
the day he walked transformed by bliss
past the town adorned with flags, banners,
each threshold anointed with a golden urn—
I dream this recurrent dream, my friend.(

From Andal’s “Varanam aayiram”, translated by Priya Sarukkai Chabria)

Sharanya Manivannan’s new novel, The Queen of Jasmine Country (2018) is one such bouquet that retells the life of poet Kodhai, popularly known as Andal in 9th century Puduvai. Apart from expert allusions of desire brimming in every page of her book,the rites of menstruation are the most interesting.

We often situate menarche as the onset of “desire” that needs to be conventionally “curbed” or disciplined. But Manivanan’s portrait of Kodhai’s menstruation is filled with a botanic enticement that seems surreal. She shares, “Menses should seamlessly be tied with open conversations on sexuality, her menstrual periods that follow should not be regarded as polluting or taboo, the links to fertility and marriage (in previous eras, the menarche ceremony essentially announced that a girl had reached marriageable age) must be dismantled.” She also writes that “there is nothing in these rituals that says we cannot dream, for it is desire that makes the world”.

Plenty of books grappled with the meaning of desire (Kama) in the past year. Madhavi Menon’s Infinite Variety (2018) has one such intriguing chapter on Shunya (Zero) and how it has the potential for dynamic wholeness—hence it shouldn’t be shunned. In a lot of regional poetry across different states, we get glimpses of zero not being “no thing” but simply “not one thing”—a great definition of desire. On the other hand, Gurucharan Das’s book Kama: The Riddle of Desire (2018) finds newer avenues as the protagonist challenges himself with the desire to act. This book is however, too dependent on the mainland narration of the epics in the sub-continent, and less interested in dismantling the canonised structure they occupy.

It is clear thus, that mapping the erotic is a herculean task. But the attempts to dismantle mapping and instead ask new questions about older myths about desire is what makes new writings worthwhile. One such dream-like account is Sinjini Sengupta’s Elixir. It explores the alternative (also desirable) life of a woman through her string of dreams. They become the pathways to shrug off her embedded fears and sub-conscious emptiness, not all of which are sexual. The book is pacy, rich in imagery and quickly digestible; but underneath it, lies the horror of loneliness. Surfing worlds of desire that Sinjini’s protagonist seeks in real life, tell us how dreams are often whimsical extensions of our deeper longings and how nasty that cycle can be.

The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad says, “You are what your deep, driving desire is”, thereby establishing our secret selves with the erotic. The erotic is but only a part of desire that is firmly rooted in the power of our expressions. Lorde in her essay, “The Uses of the Erotic”, states, “In order to perpetuate itself, every oppression must corrupt or distort those various source of power within the culture of the oppressed that can provide energy for change.” At the moment, the Lok Sabha bill-makers who are seeking to put desire into boxes would do well to note that.

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