Review: Infinite Variety; A History of Desire in India by Madhavi Menon
From Ayyappan to celibacy, from sambandhams to dargahs, parks and sexology, Infinite Variety; A History of Desire in India by Madhavi Menon looks at them all with an erudition that cuts across categories. The author blends serious scholarship with a deep understanding of popular culture, folk lore, myth, religion and worship, and ‘Indian’ ways of both seeing and unseeing.
In our current state of straitjacketed Victorian propriety disguised as high Hindu probity – itself a result of the colonial encounter that produced the reform movements of the latter half of the 19th century, that in turn led to movements as varied as Gandhism and contemporary Hindutva – it is easy to forget that, in India, categories invariably bleed. Down the millennia, Indians have been obsessed with ideas of classification and purity in the public and private spheres and also in radically opposite impulses. This has resulted in both social stratification and the rise of schools of thought that reject it outright. It is this understanding of our essential complexity that Menon brings to the world of Indian desire, which she states is “the opposite of swachh Bharat”. “We live in an intellectual stew that does not incline us towards the single and the clean. Rather, a tendency towards disorder is a way of life here – from the way we drive to what drives our desires,” she writes as she looks at different objects, relations, acts and places and traces the relation of each of those ideas to desire.
Along the way, the author takes us from the Jamali Kamali tomb in Meherauli to Sabarimala in Kerala; from mathematician Shakuntala Devi’s book on homosexuality to Section 377 to what could have been if the colonial state had based its laws for Hindus on the Kamasutra instead of the Manusmriti; and from the story of her grandparents to Savita bhabhi, the fact that Indians have pushed aside the Canadians to become the world’s third largest consumers of online porn, and the lesbian twist to the usual devar-bhabhi affair in Deepa Mehta’s Fire. In the excellent chapter on bhabhis, Menon collapses more categories by synthesizing her Shakespearean scholarship with her superb reading of popular Hindi cinema.
This could have been a ponderous academic tome. Instead, Menon brings in much droll humour. The chapter on Hair made this reviewer laugh out loud: “The Kamasutra’s hero would be termed effeminate for the attention he pays to the lustrous locks on his head. Today… long hair for men is considered a rebellious style restricted to the entertainment industry, whose members also sport gleamingly waxed chests. For the rest of the Indian masculine world, it is acceptable for heterosexual men to have a hairy body and a bald head.”
And then there’s her intellectual magpie’s talent for finding gleaming factoids. From the Brahma Kumaris being picketed by disgruntled husbands in 1930s Sind for promoting female celibacy to founder of the Indian Psychoanalytic Society G Bose’s disagreeing with Freud about the nature of the Oedipus Complex, and Bhishma’s castration in the Jain Mahabharata, Infinite Variety is a Trivial Pursuit aficionado’s delight.
But it is the true scholar’s ability to craft those shiny factoids into strong and thought-provoking theories that makes this a book simultaneously intellectual and accessible. Best of all, it presents the reader with the hope that the locus of this volume, India itself, can never be confined to narrow categories for too long.