Hindustan Times (Gurugram) - - Read - Sud­hiren­dar Sharma let­ ■ Sud­hiren­dar Sharma is an in­de­pen­dent writer, re­searcher and aca­demic

KKama: The Rid­dle of de­sire

Gur­cha­ran Das

548pp, ~799

Pen­guin ama or de­sire has a com­pelling qual­ity that preys on hu­man vul­ner­a­bil­ity of­ten at the cost of the other three goals of life or­dained in the scrip­tures, Dharma, Artha and Mok­sha. Overt em­pha­sis on these three goals may have de­val­ued kama to the ex­tent that its im­mense cre­ative force has been left un­ex­plored by most. In re­al­ity, mid­dle-class mo­ral­ity has placed kama solely within the sen­su­ous­ness of a hu­man body, lim­it­ing it to the idea of ro­man­tic pas­sion that ful­fils one’s ca­pa­bil­ity for (sex­ual) plea­sure alone. If it is in­deed as de­plorable as it is made out to be why do philo­soph­i­cal trea­tises and an­cient texts fea­ture it as one of the four goals of life?

With an as­tute mind and a keen ro­man­tic eye, Gur­cha­ran Das pieces to­gether the rid­dle of de­sire to re­store some bal­ance as kama con­tin­ues to os­cil­late be­tween what he calls kama op­ti­mists and kama pes­simists. While the op­ti­mists seek to draw a mean­ing­ful pur­pose of life from it, the pes­simists con­sider it a hu­man lim­i­ta­tion. Sim­ply put, kama’s cre­ative and de­struc­tive pow­ers are man­i­fested within the con­fines of plea­sure seek­ing. Not only a force of na­ture, kama is a prod­uct of cul­ture and his­tory re­flected in myr­iad hu­man emo­tions rang­ing from love, af­fec­tion, com­pas­sion and joy to adul­tery, be­trayal, jeal­ousy and vi­o­lence. The chal­lenge lies in strik­ing a bal­ance be­tween these ex­tremes.

Un­like poets and philoso­phers who are usu­ally pes­simistic about kama, pro­tag­o­nist Amar me­an­ders from the so­cial­ist to the lib­eral era with­out deny­ing kama a place in his life. He nur­tures it as an in­vest­ment to tran­scend hu­man lim­i­ta­tions. From a child­hood crush to an ob­ses­sion in mid­dle age, with fam­ily life and two daugh­ters in be­tween, he is hit by kama’s myth­i­cal five ar­rows dur­ing var­i­ous stages of life only to learn that love is a process that de­vel­ops and changes with time. The fun­da­men­tal lone­li­ness of the hu­man con­di­tion gets the bet­ter of so­ci­etal moral con­straints as Amar sees that at­tach­ments be­yond those per­mit­ted by so­ci­ety are any­thing but an in­fringe­ment on hu­man free­dom. Can de­sire be al­lowed to re­main hostage to the norms set by so­ci­ety and re­li­gion?

Told as a fic­tional mem­oir, the book is an am­bi­tious un­der­tak­ing on bal­anc­ing the di­chotomy of kama’s ex­is­tence in the body and its re­flec­tion in the mind and its role in draw­ing the in­di­vid­ual to­wards find­ing the true mean­ing of life. Sub­ject to how the reader per­ceives the nar­ra­tive, kama is a story of phys­i­cal de­sire seen through the per­cepts of the mind. It views de­sire, as es­poused in the Rig Veda, as the first seed in the mind. It is the unique chem­istry be­tween the pro­fane and the sa­cred, marked by a jour­ney that be­gins with ro­man­tic love and cul­mi­nates in pri­mal en­ergy. Kama is at the very root of be­ing hu­man.

It is through this story of pre­dictable char­ac­ters that Das weaves his study of de­sire which helps the reader un­der­stand its con­tem­po­rary rel­e­vance. For all the pu­rusharthas, the goals of life, the task is to re­pos­sess the cre­ative life force of kama to re­store har­mony in the chaos of mod­ern ex­pe­ri­ence. It is time to think be­yond the nar­row con­fines of kama as a sub­ject of sex­ual de­sire. The essence of the Ka­ma­su­tra, as a metaphor, needs to be rein­ter­preted to free it from the gra­tu­itous sense of guilt, thereby help­ing peo­ple gain re­lief from the stresses of life. Were the prin­ci­ples of the Ka­ma­su­tra part of the con­tem­po­rary way of life, the world would have been dif­fer­ent in­deed.

This book could not have come at a bet­ter time even as dif­fer­ent mean­ings are be­ing as­cribed to hu­man sex­u­al­ity and re­la­tion­ships. Mar­riage, monogamy, adul­tery and, vengeance will per­haps have dif­fer­ent con­no­ta­tions in the fu­ture. To make it easy to com­pre­hend the im­pend­ing ir­re­sistible trans­for­ma­tion, Das in­vokes Proust: ‘What mat­ters in life is not whom or what one loves… it is the fact of lov­ing’. As the book sketches the sub­tle land­scape of de­sire, it re­minds the reader of the in­di­vid­ual’s duty to ful­fill his or her own ca­pa­bil­ity for plea­sure and to live a full life.

Das de­serves praise for trac­ing the his­tory of kama and its mul­ti­ple strands across the his­tory, cul­tures and philoso­phies of both the East and the West and cre­at­ing a mo­saic of mean­ings and in­ter­pre­ta­tions while ad­dress­ing the rid­dle of de­sire. What must not be for­got­ten is, as Tol­stoy re­marked, ‘...the ev­i­dence of other peo­ple is no good, all of us must have per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ence of all the non­sense of life in or­der to get back to life it­self’.


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