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'We Have Rich Histories of Desire in India': An Interview With Madhavi Menon

"There are all kinds of sexual practices that are illegal in India today that coexisted side by side for centuries without necessarily being named as such and such."

At an online session hosted by the Belongg Book Club & Library, Madhavi Menon, Professor of English and Director of the Centre for Studies in Gender and Sexuality at Ashoka University, discussed her book Infinite Variety: A History of Desire in India.

Excerpts from her conversation with Team Belongg have been reproduced here with her permission. The full conversation can be found here

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Could  you tell us about the central idea of your book – the idea that the history of desire in India is a messy one that was disciplined by colonialism? How, according to you, did colonialism establish the current state of affairs? 

While writing this book, I tried really hard to not blame the British for everything, but I failed quite miserably. In chapter after chapter, every arc of desire I trace screeches to a halt at the door of a certain kind of British colonial manoeuvre, whether it is legal, social or political. There is a lot of evidence to suggest that the British were absolutely horrified by what they found in India. They were horrified by the iconography, the poetry, the sculptures, and termed it all promiscuous. They were horrified by stories about Krishna having a sexual relationship with 14,000 gopis at once, by the stories of the nawabs of Awadh dressing up as women during the feast days of their pirs, by the idea that Draupadi had five husbands.

The sheer variety of desire in India was utterly unprecedented and so they clamped down on that variety. For example, they criminalised the Hijra culture in India by bringing in the Criminal Tribes Act in 1871. They declared that any man dressing as a woman and dancing or singing in public would be arrested. That sort of enjoyment of desire in public was taboo for them. And we can see a direct relationship between that act that interrupted centuries of Hijra culture in North India and where we are today. Hijras have been driven to begging, have had to give up their lifestyle and their source of income, which I feel is a direct consequence of what happened in 1871. And we see these arcs repeatedly – we see the wiping out and criminalisation of desire, which is being carried forward even today.

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In the first chapter of your book, you discuss dargahs (shrines of revered figures in Sufism) as sites through which to understand Sufi traditions of desire in India. Can you tell us more about this – what you in your book call “dargah desire”?

To begin addressing your question, I want to take a slight architectural detour and talk about Jamali and Kamali. As I write in my book, the dargah of Jamali and Kamali is a flat-roofed structure, which on the inside has a dome as the ceiling. This is very unusual, but it’s what I call hermaphroditic architecture: the roof on the graves of female Sufi saints is flat, connoting the paper on which God writes, while the grave surface of male Sufi saints is dome-shaped and has a pen box on top of it, connoting the instrument with which the saint writes his poetry. The dargah of Jamali and Kamali is hermaphroditic because you have both male and female structures in it at once.

Madhavi Menon
Infinite Variety: A History of Desire in India
Speaking Tiger, 2018

What’s fascinating to me are the names of Jamali and Kamali because on the one hand Jamali is the adopted name of Sheikh Fazlu’llah, who built the mosque, but the person behind the name of Kamali is a mystery. You can tell from the architecture of both tombs that they mark the graves of men, and people are unfazed by the fact that these two men are buried together in a symbol of proximity that is meant to connote everlasting togetherness. There are several other examples across the country of Sufi pirs being buried side by side with the murids. I’m fascinated by what it means for men to be buried together in an act that immediately connotes a romantic joining together without the vocabulary of that being a homosexual relationship.

So there is a historical difficulty of categorising desires in India, then? What do you make of this propensity towards namelessness – the inability to name a desire as X or Y?

Yes, we have rich histories of desire in India that do not actually differentiate among different desiring categories. There are all kinds of sexual practices that are illegal in India today that coexisted side by side for centuries without necessarily being named as such and such.

I’ve always been interested in the question of what we gain by naming something and what we lose by naming it. If we’re asking that question in 2020, a certain section of people will say that what we gain by having a name – by calling people, homosexual or bisexual or transsexual – is that we can ask for rights and protections for these categories. I think those are very important reasons. But I think what we lose by naming our desires is a certain kind of fluidity that refuses to let any one of us behave like we belong in a majority.

To give you an example: In the 2013 Supreme Court ruling that re-criminalised homosexuality in India, a sitting judge in open court said that homosexuality is not a problem or even a phenomenon in India because he himself does not know a single homosexual person. And I think that a statement like that is enabled by frameworks that allow us to separate relationships into neat categories. Because the most interesting aspect of Section 377 is that it does not name identities. Instead, it criminalises “carnal intercourse against the order of nature,” which has been interpreted to mean homosexuality.

But what might we have gained, for instance, by stating in court that every single sexually active person in this country performs acts that do not lead to sexual reproduction, which is often how people understand acts “against the order of nature”? If we draw a boundary large enough to include every single one of us, then a judge will have no ground on which to stand and assert membership in a majoritarian category while denigrating minority categories.

I am not necessarily advocating one course of action over another. Rather, I am advocating that we keep the values of multiplicity and unfixed naming in mind precisely because we are heirs to those kinds of desires. 

An activist waves a rainbow flag after the Supreme Court verdict decriminalising consensual gay sex. Photo: PTI/file photo

 You make some very unique connections in your book, such as between mathematics and Hindi cinema. You describe the mathematics of desire as the logic that two people who need one another are actually one singular unit. And you mention this idea in “Chapter 1.5” on fractions, where you talk about the enormity of desire with reference to Hindi Cinema. Could you tell us about the relationship between desire, fractions and Bollywood?

While the film Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan is being touted as path-breaking for showing us homosexuality in India, queer desire has, contrary to what most people think, always existed in Hindi cinema. If we’re going to look for a homosexual couple – two men who end up together and are wholly accepted by society, then we’re not going to find it.

But if that’s what we’re looking for, then we have to realise that our search for such a conclusion is guided by two things. One is that we valorise the end of a story as being the truth of the story: if a couple does not end up together at the end, then that means it’s all over. And the second is that we seem to valorise a certain kind of literality in which one man has to openly express his love for another man, or a woman for a woman. To me, both these ways of reading are problematic and highly impoverished precisely because we miss out on so much!

Which brings me to the second chapter of my book, which is numbered “1.5” in deference to the film Dedh Ishqiya. This film  is a story about two women who are (spoiler alert!) romantic partners, but the audience goes through the entire film without realising that fact – not because the film doesn’t show them to us as a couple, but because we are such deeply heterosexist viewers that we do not know how to see non-heteronormative desire that does not abide by the two rules I mentioned earlier. And it is this idea of not naming desires that are nonetheless open and free for everyone to see that I find much more fascinating because that is much truer to our lived experience. So the film asks: What are the gaps and corners and fractures in which desire flourishes? What do we do about desire that is not recognisably named? Hindi cinema handles these questions in ways that are much more reflective of and embedded in the histories of desire in India.

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Finally, could you tell us about how people in India respond to desire in the present day?

There seem to be two kinds of people in India. On the one hand, there are those who are straightforwardly phobic – those who want to criminalise anybody whose sexual desires seem to be deviant. And on the other hand, there are liberals who want to mobilise sexual difference in order to fight for sexual rights.

I actually think – and I talk about this in my book – that both these sets of people come with their own sets of issues. The problems of the first set are much easier for us to see: phobia is problematic on all fronts, and this kind of homophobia, transphobia, and misogyny is particularly virulent in this part of the world – the formerly colonised world – which is an almost exact reversal of what the situation was like before the colonisers came in.

I also have a problem with the so-called ‘liberal attitude’ because I find that it tends to become the flip-side of the phobic attitude – that is, even as the phobic attitude wants to name and exclude people, the liberal attitude wants to name and include everyone. There is certainly a qualitative difference between wanting to exclude and wanting to include, between being phobic and being welcoming. But the problem, for me, continues to be naming. Because every act of naming is an exclusion as much as it is an inclusion.

What happens to those desires that fall between the cracks? That straddle categories? That occupy multiple names? The emphasis on naming is a very Western emphasis. I don’t mean this in a nationalistic manner; I mean, rather, that we seem to be blindly following a script that has emerged from very different material circumstances in the West. Naming desires probably makes a lot of sense in many parts of the West because they have a history of silencing. But it makes less sense in our context because we have a history of multiple desires that flourish by not being named as separate entities. And so to hold up that paradigm of naming uncritically, is, for me, problematic.

Shranya Gambhir is the Book Club & Library Intern at Belongg. She helped organise the Belongg Online Literature Festival.