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Updated: October 29, 2013 04:21 IST

Sexual cultures of contemporary India

Padmini Swaminathan
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Sexuality Studies
Special Arrangement Sexuality Studies

At the outset, the editor of this brilliant collection of essays makes clear what makes this volume distinct and different “from those frameworks that are a familiar part of a certain strand of scholarship on sexuality”, apart from emphasising the relevance of the volume for the present moment. In addition to the Introduction, the volume has 12 essays.

In problematising the notion that sexuality constitutes a world unto itself, the volume is able to demolish the received idea that the domain of the subject matter of sexuality has nothing to do with, say, politics or economics. Equally significant, the editor elaborates on why it may be difficult to trace the history of sexuality in the Indian context, unlike what has been accomplished in the West, by say, deploying Foucault’s ‘centrally’ fashioned ideas of ‘discipline’ and ‘roles/personalities’; nor does the editor consider it productive to go to the other extreme and portray it as purely indigenous, distinct and untainted by ‘outside’ influence. Rather, he considers it more useful to ask what kinds of interactions, connections and conflicts emerge in the ‘porous zones’.

The Introduction not only takes us through the highlights of the different essays of the volume, but also contextualises their arguments under different headings while drawing upon other works not included in the volume.

In a compelling piece that resurrects and centre-stages the work of Indian sexologist Alyappin Padmanabha Pillay (1889-1956), Ahluwalia provides readers a fascinating account of the ideas that then circulated, domestically and internationally, around the themes of sex and desire.

The essay also critiques the dominant voice and direction that the historiography of sexuality has taken, wherein the contributions of non-Western writers such as Pillay have been completely ignored, despite the fact that “Pillay has left behind an impressive oeuvre on the subject, the majority of it written in English, published for an international audience, and circulated globally through an international network of contacts.”

Through an ethnographic analysis of the functioning of two Family Courts in Kolkata and Dhaka where litigants directly present their cases to judges, Srimati Basu focusses on the ‘sexed, married body’ and attempts to “translate it through the legal record”; the emphasis here is on demonstrating the failures of legal categories and of structures of compensation to capture pain, injury or desire. “Settlements through mediation processes try to establish equivalence between litigants’ narratives and available legal categories … Judges’ admonitions to be faithful to written depositions, the awkwardness of determining sex within marriage, judges’ insistence on eliminating grievance through money, and the inadequacy of economic settlements to address violence are all elements of this complex process.”

Devika’s piece foregrounds the theme of the general abjection of sexuality from the discourse on the Kerala model and from modern womanly ideals; since the early 1990s, in public discourse, the accentuated fears over the sexualisation of both maternal and labouring bodies has led to paternalistic solutions ranging from refurbishing of family life, retreat from consumerism, to provision of employment for poor women to better state protection. “Very rarely has the possibility of empowering women against sexual exploitation through mobilising them around it as an issue for feminist politics… been advanced.”

Jyoti Puri and Svati Shah in their individual essays provide interesting but different perspectives on the Naz judgment. Puri’s critical reading takes the position that, while the judgment has managed to decriminalise sodomy, the regulation of the same continues through the penal code. Shah in her reading points out how the 377 judgment was pegged on ‘three rhetorical posts’, namely, consent, dignity and privacy. When read thus, it places prostitution outside of these parameters: one set of politics becomes legitimate since it [homosexuality] is deemed to be protected as a right of privacy, and as a legitimated identity, while prostitution is legitimated as criminalised, whether in public or private.

Boyce’s piece on same-sex sexualities anchored in small town India poignantly captures the prevailing scenario of silence and the confusion and tension that marks such practices within which people who practice same-sex sexualities live and make sense of their lives “not as social actors who might simply be described in terms of explicit sexual categories alone, but as people who daily navigate complexities attendant to being recognized and disregarded, noticed and ignored.”

Brosius and Phadke centre-stage the theme of romantic love but engage with it in different ways given their different purposes. While Brosius engages in an elaborate discussion of the contexts, contests, symbols and consumption practices that have come to be associated with the celebration of Valentine’s Day in India, Phadke is concerned with questions of gendered risk in relation to sexual consent and coercion confronting young women; the implications and consequences of negotiating such risk through emergency contraceptives even as they try to have fun. It is Phadke’s contention that once we accept the quest for pleasure and fun as legitimate pursuits, “then young women might find themselves better able to navigate their sexual lives”.

The book is an important contribution to our understanding of the cultures of sexuality that marks contemporary Indian society.

(Padmini Swaminathan is Professor at Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Hyderabad)

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