28 September 2007

Step aside dude, let the master show you how

Kama Sutra: The Art of Making Love to a Woman
By Pavan K Varma
Lustre Press/Roli Books
Pages 208
Rs 650

Another version of the Kama Sutra, the 2000-year-old venerable manual to desire and getting it on, this time by the writer-diplomat Pavan Varma, currently the head of the Indian Council of Cultural Relations. And this one comes in shocking pink with an awkward flap-binding that requires the same devious deftness to unravel it, as is required to undo an Indian bra.

What might offend male readers who thought they had broken through social conditioning and thrown away all that crap about fixed gender roles (only women doll up for a night out) and gender-attributes (women always listen, men don’t), is the contumely that Varma heaps on the sexual habits and manners of Indian men. He clearly thinks of men as sexually ignorant braggarts, completely insensitive to their women’s sexual needs, and who are intimidated by women’s new-found sexual assertiveness. What could have been a dialogue of equals, therefore, degenerates into an infantilising school lesson on the birds and the bees.

Varma’s language is more suited to gentle, semi-intellectual, personal explorations into culture and sociology, like in Being Indian. He takes his role as sex guru a tad too seriously, which results in unattractive language laced with bureaucratese and cheesy puns, and a tone as supercilious as a hostel warden who has caught you with Debonair centrespreads under your pillow.

Varma’s ‘demise of the erotic sentiment’ thesis is alarmist, if not a spectre of personal insecurities. Among the class educated enough to distinguish erotica from pornography (potential readers of well-produced editions of the Kama Sutra), sexual enlightenment has more chances of dawning than it did, say, in the 80s and the early 90s -- an age that produced the most egregious sexual fantasies (think the wet sari scene in Ram Teri Ganga Maili).

The Kama Sutra is anyway a redundant source of sexual knowledge. There are the Hollywood movies, the Sidney Sheldons, modern literature, men’s magazines, women’s magazines, and the Internet, acting as surrogate Vatsyayanas.

Despite Varma’s affected disdain for those who reduce the Kama Sutra to a Book of Impossible Positions or a source of titillation, he himself ends up perpetuating the myth: Varma brings little new in terms of either style or recasting the context to make the Kama Sutra a contemporary pillow book. Approaching this otherwise tedious text without any intellectual or aesthetic intent, both Varma and his editors display a want of imagination -- the one and only thing the mahamuni’s (Varma's sobriquet for Vatsyayan) ideal lover should fight shy of.

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