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‘Sex was never taboo in India’

Pritish Nandy, whose book of poems also contains Kamala Das’s poetry, re-releases it with Manu Parekh’s drawings; writer reflects on love and sexuality.

books Updated: Jan 06, 2011 15:58 IST
Jayeeta Mazumder

In this book of poems, Kamala Das’s powerful imagery dances in tandem with Pritish Nandy’s lyricism to celebrate love. Das is no more, but her contribution to Indian writing in English has been immense. The book, Tonight This Savage Rite, first published in 1979, has been re-released with drawings by artist Manu Parekh. The book contains 41 poems by Nandy and 34 by Das. Nandy recalls that he liked Das’s outspokenness. But he never knew her much as a person. “She revelled in the fact that she was a woman and made that the dominant metaphor of her poetry. Yes, she evokes shock because it was not so common in those days for a woman to celebrate her sexuality and make infidelity sound like so much fun. She wrote about her warm menstrual blood flowing. She wrote of the ache beneath her belly. She spoke of her need to be made love to — by anyone, any time. It was daring because it was so unabashedly autobiographical. She was a brave, honest woman who treated sex as it ought to be treated.”

Nandy admits the perception of love has changed over generations: “What was sensual for Tagore is no longer sensual for us. Will you respond to a love song by KL Saigal today? I seriously doubt it.” He adds that one cannot recycle fake romanticism in poems of love. “Love poetry is the ultimate test of the life you have lived, the women you have loved, the dreams you have dreamt and the passions you have experienced,” he muses. He strongly feels that there can be no love without passion. “I know of no real love between two people that does not have a strong undercurrent of sexuality. We can pretend it doesn’t exist. But love without passion is nothing. You might as well love a slice of mozzarella,” Nandy argues.

He reasons that sex was never taboo in India: “People in recent times celebrate a mythical morality that we have strangely laid claim to. They have even built an entire political philosophy around this sham morality. This is all fake. India has always had a strong, liberal culture that celebrated sexuality. Read Kalidasa, read Bhartrhari, Amaru, and all the poets of that time. They all wrote about love and sex freely. Till the Mughals and the East India Company came in with their repressive mindset, we were a far more open society. Today we use idiotic and hypocritical moral codes that are not even our own to define what is taboo and what is not. Taboo should be made a taboo word in India.”

Nandy, who has written about 50 books, however doesn’t want to be categorized as a romantic or a modernist, or for that matter, even a poet. “I am not even brave enough to call myself a poet. I write because I know no other thing to do. For me, the opposite of writing is death,” he says. But the writer doesn’t save copies of his books: “I have no copies because I don’t want to carry my past on my shoulder like that old man who Sindbad carried on his. Every time I face an empty screen or an empty sheet of paper, I am a new person.”

The writer informs that Parekh’s drawings were meant to bring in a visual edge to the poems. “Manu thought them up on his own. He has been a friend of mine for years now and he knows and understands the kind of poetry I write. So it was actually quite easy for him,” says Nandy.

At the moment, he is working on several books, but not all of them may be finished. “One day I may finish them if I feel up to it. Or I may simply move on and write some other books. That’s the way I write. My years as a journalist taught me great rigour and discipline. So when I write creatively, I throw all caution to the winds. I write what I want to. I finish what I want to. I publish what I want to,” Nandy concludes.

Poem from the book:
Tonight I shall stay with you and listen to
the wind screaming when the dark slips away.
In the palm of my hand I will show you
the rivers that run every day: I will show you
memories that never go away, even when we stray
unnoticed, drifting in and out of
lovetime.
–Pritish Nandy

The Prisoner
As the convict studies
His prison’s geography
I study the trappings
Of your body, dear love
For I must someday find
An escape from its snare
–Kamala Das

Tonight This Savage Rite is available at all leading bookstores at Rs 399.