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Erotic friction: Sexuality and the subcontinent

Having spent a year exploring sexuality in the Indian subcontinent, author Sally Howard tells Amrit Dhillon that the country that gave us the Kama Sutra is in the midst of a sexual revolution

 

Sally Howard, British journalist and author, embarked on an exhaustive journey across India last year to explore sexuality in the subcontinent as research for he recently published book, The Kama Sutra Diaries. Along the way, she encountered lecherous autorickshaw wallahs, Delhi gigolos servicing rich portly "aunties" and the grotesque Aghoris of Varanasi, who like their sex with a bit of death. Highlighting the contradictions she found in the country that gave the world the original Kama Sutra - a text on human sexual behaviour thought to date back to between 400BC and 200BC - and which is reeling from international scrutiny of its high incidence of rape, Howard was groped by leering men but also found that half the members of some feminist groups are male.

Describe your experience of travelling through India. "I travelled across the subcontinent, from a Delhi rocked by the 2012 gang rape to matriarchal Meghalaya, in the far northeast, and anything-goes 21st-century Mumbai. Considering the current sexual dysfunction of the Indian subcontinent, I was naturally trepidatious about my research topic: Indian sexuality. I also knew from long experience that Western women are subject to 'eve-teasing' [the Indian slang term for petty groping or harassment]. At one point during this trip an autorickshaw driver honked my breasts like car horns. But one aspect of Indians' notorious inquisitiveness is that there is always a group of 'aunties' to come to a hapless traveller's rescue. So my experience was largely pleasurable, and often eye-opening."

What are your views now of Indian men? "There's no such thing as the 'Indian man'. There is a minority of Indian men who get a bad press; these are disenfranchised, uneducated young men who have no part in the 'rising India' miracle. They also have little hope in competing for a wife as the women they'd mate with have been aborted due to the 20-year-long epidemic of sex-selective abortion. So, whilst physical and sexual violence towards women is abhorrent, we have to look with clear eyes at the causal factors underlying this risible trend. On the flip side, there are the young Indian male feminists. Many of the campaign and direct-action movements set up in response to the rise in sexual violence in India, such as art campaigners Blank Noise and flash-mobbers Mind the Gap, have 50 per cent male membership. That's a situation such movements in the West can only dream of."

Describe some of your most interesting moments and discoveries. "I met many lively characters, from a flamboyant gay prince who's setting up an old-age home for retired eunuchs to the lovelorn males of matriarchal Meghalaya. But I was most taken aback by my audience with the Aghoris of Varanasi. The Aghori are an enigmatic sect of itinerant sadhus (Hindu ascetics) who live on the cremation grounds of India's city of death. Their reputation is grotesque: they cake their faces in funeral ashes, eat from skulls, lick lepers. They also make a point of breaking Indian sexual taboos, for example through a notorious tantric rite of copulation with a menstruating woman in a graveyard by moonlight. There are fake Aghoris at Varanasi, using shock tactics as a trick to exact money from tourists, but many Aghoris are on a profound spiritual journey, facing down taboos as routes to the Lord Shiva and the divine, or what the Hindus call ' moksha': release from the cycle of rebirth in death."

Had the relationship between the sexes changed since your earlier visits to the country? "It's evolving, certainly. Divorce is much less uncommon than it was 10 to 15 years ago. Middle-class women are sought-after in the workplace and - as seen everywhere in the world - economic power breeds greater social clout. As a result, Indian women are beginning to have greater expectations of the Indian male. Where problems arise is where Indian men haven't caught up to these expectations. Indian journalist Nisha Susan put it succinctly in an op-ed headlined 'Why Indian Men Are Still Boys', speaking of the modern phenomenon of 'the man who finds it difficult to deal with his girlfriend's higher income; who assumes all young women are interns or secretaries or have slept their way up the professional ladder; [and] who discusses the difference between analytic and synthetic philosophy with his students while forgetting to introduce the wife who brings in tray after tray of coffee'."

What question does your book try to answer? "The sexual conundrum that is India. This, after all, is the land that gave us the Kama Sutra but in which women are still cloistered in purdah [seclusion from men]. Today it's a land where young tech workers are clogging up call-centre cisterns with their spent condoms but one in which the same young couples fear to hold hands in public, on city streets. I wanted to look at India's rich history of the exploration of sex and sexuality against the backdrop of this troubled modern India."

In what ways is Indian sexuality distinctive/unusual? "Historically, India's notions of sexuality are much more fluid. There's an important distinction made in classic Hindu texts between 'queerness' and the idea of a sexual preference for one's own sex. 'Queerness' in ancient India came under the umbrella Sanskrit term kibla, a term that translators often erroneously translated as 'eunuch'. However kibla is, in literal translation, a catch-all for atypical male sexual behaviour, including men with impotence, men who indulge in oral sex with other men, or anal sex with either gender, men who produce only female children, and hermaphrodites. So 'queerness' in its traditional Hindu concept doesn't refer to sexual acts with the same sex but to an idea of gender 'otherness'.

"In the Kama Sutra, male attraction to other men is considered a universal, if not wholly socially desirable, aspect of manhood, with male sexual play with other men being given the innocuous-sounding nickname masti. Against this backdrop, Western ideas of hetero- and homosexuality - the latter is fast being imported into India - seem very restrictive."

Do you think the Delhi gang rape (in which a 23-year-old woman was attacked on a bus and later died of her injuries) and the ensuing discussions marked an important turning point in Indian society and consciousness? "Rates of violence and gang rape have been on the rise in India for two decades. What we're seeing now, with the global media attention around the December 2012 gang rape, is an inflection point. Now, with the rise of protest groups and the world media's gaze, young Indians are taking a stand and saying enough is enough. And the Indian government, creakingly, is moving in the right direction. In March, a law was passed that makes stalking, voyeurism and sexual harassment a crime (though it falls short, as yet, of criminalising marital rape). The death sentencing of the Delhi bus rapists also sent a powerful message."

What advice would you give the solo foreign female tourist in India? "Not excusing the shocking behaviour of some young Indian men, but if the only Western women they've been exposed to are porn stars and the gyrating half-naked forms of pop stars such as Britney Spears they might make the assumption, through ignorance, that all Western women are sexually available to them. This is something that could be addressed via education. But we Western women, as ambassadors for our breed, also have a duty to challenge these assumptions by dressing with cultural appropriateness when we travel to India: no strappy tops and short skirts or acres of flesh on display on public beaches. For all of its pace of social change, India is still an outwardly conservative society; jeans may be innocuous but Western women wearing micro-bikinis reinforce the stereotypes we all suffer by. So dress appropriately and, when travelling in smaller towns, consider wearing a wedding ring if unmarried, as they're afforded a certain respect. Also consider staying in a homestay, where an Indian family will look out for your safe return at night."

Were you surprised by anything? "I was surprised by modern India's overt commodification of sex: the male gigolos making a buck servicing bored Delhi housewives, for example, is an open secret in the otherwise conservative capital. In another surprising example of the market crashing into the Indian bedroom I met a doctor who's regularly asked to testify when families take their new sons-in-law to court for impotence. There's this sense of being promised an heir and if the poor young man fails to perform he can be sent back as 'faulty goods'."

What are GIGS and BIGS? "Good Indian Girls and Bad Indian Girls, as coined by a best-selling Indian book in 2011 [Annie Zaidi and Smriti Jaiswal Ravindra's The Bad Boy's Guide to the Good Indian Girl]. So the Good Indian Girl looks demure in a salwar kameez and serves her aunties chai; and the Bad Indian Girl goes bar-hopping and indulges in pre-marital sex. In reality, many young Indian women walk a tightrope between these two extremes."

Tell us a bit about Dimple, your Indian companion. "Dimple, who joined me for much of the trip, exemplifies the above extremes. A thirty-something Delhiite divorcee, she's in a sense a trailblazer for her generation, though she's also expected to smile demurely and serve the tea and is under immense social pressure to remarry. So, for Dimple, the journey into India's sexually liberal past was a transformative one, as I hope comes across in the book. She, as do many young Indian women walking the tightrope, has a huge investment in what India will become when its social transformation is complete."

Did you reach any conclusions? "That a sexual and social revolution is underway in India. This revolution will be nothing like the 1960s sexual revolution in the West. The new stories India lives by will be suffused with the old Indian myths, the lovers like Krishna and Radha, the grand traditions of love and sensuality we see in the old Indian courtly poets and the superlative love token that's the Taj Mahal. India, in a sense, is rediscovering itself and I was fortunate to be along for part of the ride."

 

It may not be an appropriate Christmas present for everyone, but The Kama Sutra Diaries is in bookshops now. An Indian edition will be published in March.

 

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