Intimate Journeys through Modern India
There are 1.2 billion Indians today, and the fertility rate for an Indian woman of childbearing age is 2.59. So, Indians must be having a lot of sex. Ah, but if only sex were all about copulation. How can India produce the Kama Sutra, venerate literal reproductions of the phallus, and yet, as a society, hold seemingly regressive attitudes about sex and women’s sexuality? In The Kama Sutra Diaries: Intimate Journeys through Modern India, British journalist and freelance writer Sally Howard asks this question that has been previously expounded upon by historians, academics and hippies hibernating in Goa. What she brings to this debate is a fresh perspective, new voices and a judgment-free approach to 21st century India’s attitudes about sex, sexuality, women’s lib, kink, sex work, and romantic love.
Howard undertakes the journey through modern India to reexamine society’s tacit condoning of sexual assaults, verbal abuses, and casual groping, sometimes referred to as “eve-teasing,” a uniquely Indian term that connotes anything ranging from whistles from roadside Romeos to flashing. In an interview, Howard explains:
For Western women who, like me, are frequent travelers to the subcontinent, such incidents can be quasi-comic: the auto-rickshaw driver who distracted a male companion so he could honk my breasts like car horns, for example; or an enterprising cyclist who kept pace with a female friend’s train carriage, adroitly masturbating with his free hand.
The Kama Sutra Diaries reads well as a travelogue and sports the right accoutrements to keep the reader engaged.
Tagging along with Howard on her jaunts is Dimple, a young, recently divorced single mother. Howard and Dimple’s journey begins in Khajuraho, home of the erotic temple with friezes showing courtesans (animals included) performing sexual acrobatics in twosomes, threesomes, orgies and as voyeurs. Howard argues that the Khajuraho represent a liberal Hinduism, but when discovered by British surveyors, were derided as a “threat to public morality.” The Victorian British saw in India a rugged, rudderless and morally decrepit society which they sought to civilize by denotifying hitherto traditional classes such as the devadasis and hijras.
Howard and Dimple then explore Shimla, the summer capital of the Raj, and a place for the Victorian colonialists to unleash their sexual proclivities. The pair then continue on to New Delhi, which was reeling from the rape-related death of a 23-year-old medical student during their visit; and to Amritsar, Punjab where young men in pursuit of sculpted six packs downed steroids that could, ironically, render them impotent. In Shillong, in the northeast, they meet young men looking to regain a foothold as “the first sex” in traditionally matrilineal communities that afford them little control over family wealth and inheritance. From the northeast, the pair jet down to Kerala, a state known for its high literacy rates, holiday destinations and “blue” film actresses of thunderous thighs, voluptuous breasts and come hither looks. In the city of Chennai, capital of Tamil Nadu state, which Howard writes is “home to the last surviving classical civilization and last living classical language,” the travelers meet up with sexologists advising couples illiterate in the ways of sex. Their journey ends in Bombay, long considered the nation’s cosmopolitan capital, and:
home to Asia’s most famous red light district, and is where the divide blurs between young boys and girls hoping to make it in Bollywood and those willing to turn tricks for a quick rupee.
If there is a grand lesson for Howard, it is that western and Indian sexuality are inherently different: young Indian couples are engaging in relationships that are informed by home grown love epics and ballads, and western notions of sexuality are tame. There is a sexual revolution in India she argues and adds:
as India takes its first, awkward steps towards its societal and sexual revolution, I hope that . . . India’s sexual revolution will be infused with its ancient myth and spirituality, and with the inheritance of the great Indian love stories.
But Howard goes on to also suggest that somehow that may not happen because the Kama Sutra omits the all-important aspects of sexual union—interaction and relationship. There is little in Howard’s travels and experiences, however, to suggest that there is a sexual revolution in India. Changing attitudes, yes, progressive public policy, for sure, but a revolution? Then again, using the same West vs. East dichotomy that Howard employs, one could argue that the author perceives a revolution simply because the West tends to glorify revolutions in the East. It is perhaps perceived as an indicator that the East is moving onward, and heading west. For Indians living and breathing India, the glorious past of the Kama Sutra and Mahabharata may well be mere remnants of a mythic past, a distant mirage.
The Kama Sutra Diaries excels as a travelogue and the writing is often humorous, reflective and sensitive, with none of the navel-gazing solipsism of an Eat, Pray, Love. Howard does the title of the book justice by anointing every chapter with quotes from various translations of the Kama Sutra. In opening the chapter on Chennai, Howard draws on this quote:
The women . . . though they are rubbed and pressed about at the time of sexual enjoyment, have a slow fall of semen; that is they are very slow in the act of coition—Kama Sutra, On Sexual Union, Burton translation.
Howard’s observations of India and Indians are laden with humor and pathos:
. . . when it comes to the petty sexual molestations I’ve experienced, I never count India. [ . . . ] After all, ISPs, or Indian Sex Pests, are par for the course for the white woman travelling in India; as are the Weekend Crotch Watchers who gather to ogle white women in bikinis on Goa’s beaches.
Her analyses of colonialism through the prism of sex and sexuality are well-researched, informed and intelligent.
If India is a study of contrasts, then navigating Indian sexuality is like trying to intellectualize a Bollywood film. Just don’t do it. The Kama Sutra Diaries is best enjoyed as a travel memoir, peppered with offbeat characters and sensitive portrayals of everyday Indians muddling through love, romance and sex.