Monday, 30th October 2017

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Madhavi Menon on the gamut of desire

From historical tracings to modern times

By Hia Datta
  • Published 2.11.19, 6:05 PM
  • Updated 2.11.19, 6:05 PM
  • 7 mins read
Madhavi Menon Picture: Shuvo Roychaudhury

Stepping up its endeavour to further the flight of literature through yet another engrossing literary session, Prabha Khaitan Foundation recently hosted an author’s afternoon at Taj Bengal, with noted author Madhavi Menon. She talked insightfully about the history of ideas of desire through the lens of queer theory, enjoining history and mythology in her latest book, Infinite Variety: A History of Desire in India.

The Telegraph caught up with the professor of English and the director of Centre for Studies in Gender & Sexuality in Ashoka University after the session. A deeply perceptive author of other books on Shakespeare and queer theory such as Unhistorical Shakespeare: Queer Theory in Shakespearean Literature and Film, Wanton Words: Rhetoric and Sexuality in English Renaissance Drama and Indifference to Difference: On Queer Universalism, a quick chat with her on a dewy evening brimmed with words and ideas around the capacious world of desire that we all embody and live in.

How do terms such as love, passion, sex that are synonymous with desire, lie in the spectrum of desire? Why do you think it necessary to keep desire undefined?

There are many words that can be synonymous with desire. The one I like the most is probably ‘passion’, because all the other terms have some kind of a moral register in which they belong. So, for instance, if you think of love, there is a sort of sentimental register in which it belongs. If you think of sex, there’s a sort of shameful or sinful register in which it is supposed to belong. Desire and passion are fairly value-neutral in that sense because you don’t know if it is positive or negative, you don’t know who is experiencing it, who is embodying it, and so I like that kind of uncertainty. And I think very few terms actually embody that. I don’t use ‘love’ or ‘sex’ necessarily because we have too many preconceived notions about them. Whereas, the reason that people keep on asking what desire is, is because people don’t have a sense of how to pin it up and that for me is its great strength.

Living in the times post the lifting of Section 377, how has our acceptance of variant sexualities broadened? How do you think queer spaces in Calcutta, such as Cafe #377, or a tag like the LGBTQIA by Zomato contribute to the same?

All of these examples that you’ve given are fascinating. For instance, I’d love to to go to Cafe #377! But all these advances are fairly limited by class and language — very much sort of an Anglophone class that is able to celebrate this kind of movement in the law and change in the law. A lot of people and my queer rights activists will argue that it hasn’t made much difference. The lower down you go in society, or to the more rural towns — it has made no difference, right?

The difference it will make is that the police can no longer arrest you on its basis, but it’s only if you know in order to challenge them. One has to actually say to them that ‘you can’t arrest me on this basis’, which a lot of people don’t know. But, otherwise, in terms of lived reality, it might not have made that much difference on one hand, on the other hand, I actually find rural India and non-Anglophone India is much more accepting than Anglophone India and urban India so maybe it is making a difference where it needs to make a difference and where the need is less, it’s not making that much difference.

If we think about proscribed desires, or desires that are considered shameful or sinful as applying to all of us, then that kind of ‘othering’ is much more difficult to do and I am certainly a fan of that, of not ‘othering’, and of embracing desire in all its unpredictability and its illegalities. Remember when you’re saying something is legal or illegal, we’re living in a very specific context. All these positions on the temples of Khajuraho or Konark, most of those positions are illegal in India today, right? So what does that mean? And we also have to remember that legality is a very time-bound phenomenon, and we need to, in terms of desire, have a much, much longer view, a much more historical lens through which to think about desire.

The #MeToo movement is a commendable step ahead for the agency of women against patriarchal vices, but it also complicates the notion of desire, of what can be deemed as consent and what cannot. What do you have to say about this?

That’s an excellent question and a very difficult and necessary one. I agree that it is always a good thing for women to speak more, and speak up more about our sexual experiences — many of these experiences are unfortunately, as you say, in a patriarchal society and therefore can be unpleasant in many ways and it is important to speak about them. But, for me, women are still not talking about their desires. We’re talking in a very reactionary way about being at the receiving ends of hideous notions of patriarchy — which we are. I would really like the opportunities to be expanded so that we can talk about our desires as well, not only our responses to patriarchal violence. We have never been encouraged to think about what we want, nor to talk about it, or fantasise about it. So if the conversation is able to move to thinking about what it is that women might or might not want — I think that will be the big achievement of #MeToo and I think that’s where we really need to get to.

The India we live in has many ‘Indias’ within it. So when you talk of desire in India in your book, what is the idea of the India that you’re referring to?

I make it very clear in the introduction to this book that I am not talking about political boundaries. I’m talking about a series of encounters. Desire is born of a series of encounters in which multiple people’s ideas and texts interact with each other to produce something quite phenomenal, which we are unfortunately in the danger of losing right now, because we’re trying to separate things out from one another.

So, when I talk about India, I really talk in terms of geography — everything! But not just everything east of the Indus because I also include Central Asia, which is in Uzbekistan for instance, and Taimur’s empire. If you see the map of his empire, Persia and Hindustan are both neighbours of each other because Uzbekistan is right there in the middle. So there are countries west of the Indus as well that I mean when I talk about India. 

But I really mean this body — the set of ideas that has emerged out of multiple conversations over thousands of years in relation to ideas that might have been very different, that sort of move towards each other, move away from each other in ways that are just fascinating. And, that we have inherited — just think about the richness and texture of that inheritance. I can’t imagine anybody wanting to lose that and, yet here we are, and that to me is the real surprise.

How do you think modern relationships, which have too many definitions and labels, engage with desire?

The one thing that hasn’t changed, and seems to be getting more and more with each passing day though, is our desire for more definitions. That we sort of keep wanting them — I have completely lost track. And my students mention one term and I wonder what does that mean. So our desire for definitions seems to have increased or not abated certainly, and that for me is unfortunate because I feel the minute you want to start defining desire, in smaller, and smaller, and even smaller detail — for example, ‘friends with benefits except on Saturdays’ — we’re paying less attention to desire and more attention to defining what it is. So, for me, I’m not a big fan of definitions and not a big fan certainly of milennials trying to define their desires.

As a major cultural marker, cinema is invariably tied to social realities. How do you think the narrative of desire in India has shaped up through its cinema?

It’s a great question. I was just in Uzbekistan, so I’m still thinking about that as well... when I was in Iran a few years ago, this was true there as well, and in Egypt too. In a lot of countries, what they know of India is Bollywood. They all know Raj Kapoor, Shah Rukh Khan, Salman Khan. Bollywood for me is a really good indicator of the syncretic, desiring histories of India.

A colleague of mine (Jonathan Gil Harris) has just written a book called Masala Shakespeare: How a Firangi writer became Indian, which is all about the idea of the masala of Shakespeare. The masala of Indian cinema is always about this kind of multiplicity and this kind of syncretism and I think this actually is the India that most people around know and love. This is precisely the kind of India that we’re trying to dismantle now.

Even if you see the way our cinema is developing, it’s much more in the direction of arty cinema, much more away from big productions with item numbers and song and dance, right? Fewer and fewer, say Sanjay Leela Bhansali films, and more and more films like The Lunchbox. I mean, I love The Lunchbox — films which are made for Netflix, or made for single-viewing. But no one is going to meet me from Iran and say, ‘Oh, the country from where The Lunchbox is’, but everyone’s going to say, ‘Oh my god, Shah Rukh Khan, Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge’ or whatever it is. Bollywood cinema has been a slice of Indian society, with dialogues, dance, songs, written by Urdu poets, for the longest time. Think Lagaan for instance. But we’re losing that completely now. And I think that loss is entirely tied to this notion of the ‘Swachch Bharat’, moving away from a certain kind of masala Bollywood into a certain kind of pure, narrow, niche Bollywood in which we are losing sight of what India is, to my mind.

How do you keep the conversation going beyond authoring books and teaching as a professor?

I mean those are my only two avenues. For me, the reason I love teaching is because you’re interacting with people who actually can make a difference, you’re interacting with young people who are going to go out into the world and have conversations with all the people. I don’t think there are going to be other avenues, and for me these are very important avenues and I’m going to continue with them.

Up ahead, what’s keeping you excited?

Excitement is hard to come by these days, in this political climate I must say. There is so much to feel depressed about that excitement is actually not coming very easily to me. But, if I have to think about a next, let’s say a book project — the next book, I had always thought of wanting to write something about the law because I am fascinated by the law and I sort of tentatively want to call it The Law of Desire. I don’t know whether you’ve seen this film called the Law of Desire by this Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodovar, which is brilliant. But I want to think about the law because a huge number of laws in any country always have to do with monitoring how people desire — from inheritance laws to marriage laws and divorce laws, so I’m really fascinated. But I’ll think about it I think mostly in the Indian context, thinking about the multiple laws that we have. That’s my next plan.