Over the course of these past few weeks, I’ve received a few emails about the column and how some people think I’m blaming US-ians or North American feminism(s) for the problems that we in the Global South are facing vis-à-vis our women’s movements. I wish that were true, for then we’d have just one source to protest, resist and organize around. Seriously though, it would be a bit too naive (and wholly impossible) to have a single reason or group that is the antagonist-bar-none, for “all oppression is connected,” as Staceyann Chin so perfectly put it. We’re all implicated when it comes to perpetuating and maintaining these frames of viewing certain cultures, feminisms, etc. Implicated differently, but we do have a part to play (no matter how small) in maintaining the current (un)equal flow of knowledge production.
There’s a long-running quip in a few feminist circles I’m a part of: One isn’t really an Indian feminist ‘til one has 5000+ words—ready to be explained on demand!—on the Kamasutra. This is because of how many times we’re asked about it as feminists, as Indian feminists, or as feminists who look just brown enough to really know what the text says (this is usually followed by winks, or on a few occasions, hoots). Admittedly, most of these questions come from a place of ignorance; some come from the colonial legacy of seeing “ancient” Indian texts as only those Orientalist historians made popular. The Kamasutra as a text was “rescued” by Richard Burton in the nineteenth century; the way the text was marketed was obviously meant to fetishize and other “Oriental” women as well as call on the “frigid” Victorian women “to be as experimental with their sexuality”—of course, these “experiments” were tailored to suit the needs of Victorian men. Like most of these “rescued” texts, Kamasutra should have faded into the annals of Things No One Should Have Bothered With While Doing History but it didn’t. In fact, it still receives plenty of attention by… pretty much everyone, regardless whether or not they’re interested in its actual content.
For a long time, feminists and academicians alike accused Burton’s text of its imperialism, while many sexologists like Upadhayaya argued that this was indeed India’s tradition—an unbroken, linear, “unsullied” tradition since the Muslims had nothing to do with it—and that to be “Indian” was to perform the nationalistic duty of keeping such traditions alive. So there are two strands of thinking when it comes to the Kamasutra within popular memory: one that looks at the text’s imperialist agenda, and another that equates nationalism to a time before the Mughal Empire, and by extension re-imagines India as suited only for “certain people.”
Ruth Vanita and Saleem Kidwai published Queering India: Same-sex love and eroticism in Indian society and culture wherein they read many “key ancient texts” against the grain to state that they’re texts that challenge the assumed heterosexism of our “ancient Indian society”; Kamasutra, they said, was one such text. Burton’s translations (along with a few other Orientalist scholars like Max Muller, Clarrise Bader, etc.) saw “Indian sexuality” as effeminate, and predictably justified its colonization, whereas Upadhayaya writing in the post-Independence era, washed away any queerness the text may possibly have suggested and re-framed it to fit the needs of the Hindu nationalist agenda. Vanita and Kidwai use all these texts to illustrate how pain and sexual pleasure can coincide and how there is plenty same-sex action going on, enough to say that Kamasutra is a queer and therefore, a liberatory text. On close inspection, the incidences where BDSM seems to be evoked, it is mostly practiced on bodies of Dasis—the slaves in the Vedic age—sometimes by the wives, usually by the husband/master. Again, most queer instances happen under the surveillance and force of the husband/master. The question here isn’t whether people then were “really” queer, nor am I concerned with the politics of BDSM and consent within this particular text (not sure if consent can even exist, if one cannot say “no”). This is where I want to inspect the politics of feminism itself, if slavery is seen as liberatory simply because there are events where the boundaries of “accepted sexuality” are pushed.
Studies like Queering India create a frame that suggests Indian culture is “inherently radical” because “see queerness has always existed here too!” frames that are produced and upheld within Subaltern historiography departments, the very academic disciplines that critique and challenge the colonialism within academia! They tend to equate queerness with progress, backed with Vedic texts like Kamasutra and Manusmriti—both of which mention queerness only within the contexts of slavery and caste/skin-color based sexual domination—and the conversation is limited to “We have always been queer, because our heritage (the texts) say so.” Don’t think I need to point out the dangers of such a limited conversation again.
However, I do want to ask why talking queerness is inherently political, revolutionary, and radical, given that many of these conversations happen at the cost of erasing slavery in ancient India (books like The Palace of Illusions, The Pregnant King come to mind here). Talking sex—especially about the Kamasutra—is progressive, but discussions of the political economy of the text don’t get the same pedestal. How can I claim and embrace queer liberation (as much as I may want to), when it silences someone else? How can we call the queer movements within and outside academia radical if they’re steadily marching toward a Hindu oligarchy?