The session ‘Love and Longing in Hindustan’ was introduced as a panel on writing erotica which was immediately denied by one of the panellists, Madhavi Menon who corrected that it was actually about love and longing as the title suggests. Madhavi Menon works on questions of desire, sexuality, identity, and the law. Professor Menon is the author of Wanton Words: Rhetoric and Sexuality in English Renaissance Drama (2004), Unhistorical Shakespeare: Queer Theory in Shakespearean Literature and Film (2008), Indifference to Difference: Towards a Queer Universalism (2015), and most recently, Infinite Variety: A History of Desire in India (2018). The panel also included Pavan K Varma who is a writer-diplomat and now in politics, where he was till recently an MP in the Rajya Sabha, and earlier Advisor to the Chief Minister of Bihar, with the rank of Cabinet Minister.

Pavan starts off the discussion by talking about one of his books, Krishna which comprises of 5 different chapters. He jokingly says that out of the five chapters, his friends read only one chapter titled ‘Lover’ and applauded him on the great work he has done with the book. On a serious note, Pavan explains that in the Hindu worldview, there are 4 goals to have a balanced life which are Dharma, Artha, Kama and Moksha. He goes on to say that Kamasutra is actually not just about impossible positions and explains how it is actually a philosophy. He explains how the question of why this philosophy, why Kama is required is asked at the very beginning of the book. He explains the answer to this question by saying that the way to attain Moksha would be to achieve Dharma, Artha and Kama in proportion. From this, he says how the pursuit of sensual actually has always had philosophical validity.

And when that was the situation in the past where we had such acceptance, he questions how on the other end today, we have these band of evangelical illiterates who go about policing couples with the aim of “protecting our culture” when they do not even have an idea about what our culture actually holds. He explains how the actual criticism came for the first time from the British who said that our culture was filled with things which were obscene and shouldn’t be talked out. He explains how the relentless criticism from the British about our culture has clouded us.

Madhavi explains that when she started writing her book, she initially didn’t want to refer to Kamasutra as she considered it to be clichéd but she had to refer to it as she was teaching about it. She says that it is surprising how little the number of people who have actually read this astonishing text which is extremely non-judgmental and extremely expansive. She says how in the book, the author mentions the scholars who say that Kamasutra shouldn’t be taught to women but Vatsyayana, the author actually argues that women should indeed be taught these arts.

Pavan explains how it is important to be in touch with our own traditions and mythological stories. Having said that, he launches into a story about how Lord Shiva was in deep meditation and the gods worried if he would ever get out of this state. In order to wake him up, they send Kama. Pavan says that the journey of Kama in Tulsidas’s ‘Ramacharithamanas’ is described so beautifully in regards to how the flowers, trees, bees and the breeze along with all other elements were attracted to him and how that was the amount of power he has. When Lord Shiva after reducing Kama to ashes by opening the third eye turns to Parvathi to offer her a boon, she says that there is nothing more to ask now that Kama wasn’t there anymore and asks him to revive Kama. Kama is then revived but without a body which leads to the discussion of how desires always were present everywhere and never resided in a single body which was actually an expansive understanding of desire which existed earlier.

The panellists ended the discussion with the expression of their desire to have more such conversations in the future.

About the Author: Bhargavi Komanduri is a final year student at BITS Pilani, Hyderabad. She has profound admiration for writing, reading, theatre, dance, movies, chocolates and chai. Being a seeker of good art in all shapes, and forms; Bhargavi also strives to be on the creators’ side of creation. Her journey has just begun as she unleashes her poems and thoughts every week. Find her foray into this new found creative spirit, on Medium, here – She currently writes for Bookstalkist.