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Ending the conspiracy of silence

`We need to challenge received assumptions, to challenge the idea that sex is inherently dangerous and negative.'

THE last couple of decades have witnessed an explosion across the world of gender studies, in particular, sexuality studies. India has begun to feel its strong reverberations. The long conspiracy of silence (even perhaps silencing), is now beginning to be challenged in both academic and popular discourses. The varied essays in Brinda Bose's collection address questions about the role of sexuality in contemporary Indian culture.

Though the expression and representation of desire in Indian culture is ancient (the Kamasutra is not its only proof), in the present-day political reality, we are being pressurised to believe that desire is a dirty word. This collection of essays implies that it is time to consider why.

The articulation of female sexual desires remains completely contained within a larger patriarchal terrain, in which the right-wingers forcibly create a nexus between morality and patriotic fervour for a "traditional" culture that we are told that we are fast losing.

Challenging received notions

In her very useful Introduction, Bose posits the significant question: "how do we distinguish between `good' and `bad' sexuality, between promiscuity and sexual freedom, between sexism and decency?" To merely apply received moral and ethical criteria is not enough. We need to challenge received assumptions, to challenge the idea that sex is inherently dangerous and negative. Ratna Kapur points out that the laws governing prostitution penalise women who are sexually outside marriage; these lead to similar notions of chastity being used to judge women following a failed marriage, even to the point of dismissing a woman's allegations of rape. Kapur insists quite rightly, that in the context of sexual speech, there has been too much censorship and far too little latitude for women to pursue their own sexual speech.

Denial of rights, ignorance, rejection is "only the beginning of dialogue, rather than the end." This belief has led to Bose's collection of 12 essays and one short story. Perhaps as the editor herself admits, Translating Desire covers a spectrum almost far too vast in its sweep of contemporary Indian culture. Interestingly, the essays come from a variety of perspectives — cultural, literacy, sociological, anthropological, legal, creative — yet they share a common infusion of feminist politics. Bose's six categories range from a reading of masculinist Hindutva (P.K. Vijayan) to a remarkably written analysis of food as a vehicle of female desire (Anjana Sharma). Ratna Kapur reads between the lines of the cultural politics of a lesbian agnipariksha for middle-class sisters-in-law in the movie, "Fire" which caused such frenzied and widespread reactions. She points that in pre-colonial India there is more than enough evidence of the existence of several complex discourses around same-sex love, rich metaphorical traditions of representing it, and even more significant, the use in more than one language of names, terms, and codes to distinguish homoerotic love and those inclined, proving beyond a doubt that this category was not the invention of 19th-Century sexologists, as Foucault claims. In Mahayana Buddhism, claims Vanita, a Kalyanmitra or or compassionate friend is one who instructs, and in the dharma, both men and women play this role. Vanita examines ancient texts such as the Kamasutra, Manusmriti, the Arthashastra, even medical texts like the Charaka Samhita and Sushruta Samhita. Her carefully researched conclusion then, is that 20th Century categories like "heterosexual", "homosexual' and "bi-sexual" are equally flawed and reductionist.

In a particularly beautifully written short story, Sherry Simon has captured in fiction the delicate nuances of love in time of translation. "Translators can easily get lost when they stay away too long, when they try to learn too much about a world on the other side of their language borders", says Simon with much truth.

One of the most enjoyable essays in this collection is that by Dolores Chew. She looks at the politics of feminity from the point of a class which has suffered rejection and unjust categorisation: the Anglo-Indian woman. Promiscuity and sexual availability have been most facilely ascribed to her. Whatever the historical origins of such a situation, the injustice is apparent. Chew explores questions of identity and representation, employing elements that derive from the interstices of race, gender, and marginality, using the vast storehouse of novels written in the 20th Century. In fact, she points out, the woman serves the dual function of representing her sex, as well as providing a metaphor for the colonised object; in the case of the Anglo-Indian woman, this gets amplified many times over.

Udaya Kumar, Karen Gabriel and Srimati Basu consider the perception that the female body has been too often invested with much of the responsibility for harbouring sexual desire.

Sex may be "a beautiful thing" in an ideal society, but it has hardly remained so in interaction with a confused society and culture. The silver lining, of course, is that desire has finally become a speaking subject.

Translating Desire: The Politics of Gender and Culture in India, edited by Brinda Bose, Katha, New Delhi, p.311, Rs.295.

Usha Hemmadi

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