Love Lessons

As I explore my Indian-ness for the Indian chick lit--er, social satire--I realize that I will definitely have to cover one very important bit of Indianicia (which means "of things related to being Indian" and which, incidentally, is also not a real word). I am speaking of the Kama Sutra.

Now, growing up, I knew that Kama was the god of love, and Sutra is a type of mantra or form of learning. I'm not saying these are the actual definitions, but this is what I thought they were. However, I did not encounter the Kama Sutra until my pre-teens, when I was flipping idly through TV Guide and saw that Playboy was playing something called "Kama Sutra Stories III." Normally I would have gone to the Indianica expert in our family, but thank God I didn't, because that was my father. The last thing I needed in my adolescence was any Playboy-related discussions with my father. I'd already once asked him if our new car was a Vulva or a Volvo, and he'd looked at me sternly and said "Never, ever say that word again."

But this only delayed my realization of what exactly the Kama Sutra was. And when someone tried to tell me that it was an Indian sex manual--a how-to guide--with all sorts of dirty pictures, I thought they were joking. First of all, everybody knew that only Westerners had pre-marital sex. Second of all, if there was an Indian sex manual, wouldn't I have seen it by now?

And that, in a nutshell, is the problem with Indian sex. Everything in my environment--parents, relatives, Indian books, newspapers--told me that only Westerners were obsessed with sex and made dirty movies. After all, Indians didn't even kiss. According to Bollywood, they expressed romantic feelings by jiggling around their eyes a lot. (Don't laugh. I knew Eskimos had that nose thing, so maybe Indians just didn't kiss). Anyway, when I was confronted with the Kama Sutra again, I was shocked. What kind of Indians were these anyway? And were all these instructions important?

I rather formally studied the Kama Sutra in college in my Hinduism course. It is actually a rather complex book, but there are a few things of importance. Firstly, the Kama Sutra is a guide of Indian etiquette, and only the second chapter is the dirty how-to guide. The rest is on seduction, romance, etiquette when dealing with other people's wives, courtesans, and nice wholesome stuff like that. But it really is like reading Miss Manners, with a Dr. Ruth chapter thrown in. Secondly, it is remarkably gender-equal for its time. It believes that the men and the women feel sexual pleasure--an idea that wasn't present in the West until the 20th century--and part of a man's pleasure came from the pleasure he was giving. My favorite line is from the biting chapter: "Thus if men and women act according to each other's liking, their love for each other will not be lessened even in one hundred years."

So, immediately, one would assume that India was a very liberated country when it came to gender equality. This is far from the case. In fact, the Kama Sutra--a book valued in Western culture but not in the East--is both pro-sexual and pro-gressive, My relatives and every Indian book or magazine I read were either closemouthed or utterly chauvanistic about things like child marriage and spousal abuse, let alone adultery or sex. And gender equality? Please. Men drank; women didn't. Men could have multiple spouses, women couldn't. Male babies were preferred to female babies. The dowry system was alive and well. And, oh yes, that whole burning-the-widow-at-the pyre thing (really only present in rural areas, but still).

This, in reality, was what studying the Kama Sutra in college did for me; it was kind of a philosophical crossroads. This is not, however, what I tell people. I simply look coy and say "Well, I am Indian. We learn these things in private lessons at a VERY early age." A sense of manners prevents me from telling you if I can back this up or not--it would be very un-Kama Sutra like to brag. But that is the best thing about the Kama Sutra; it is the ultimate trump card in the culture wars. The Irishman boasts he invented Guinness, the Italian says he invented pizza, the Frenchmen invented both champagne and cheese. Hell, the Brit even claims he invented civilization. But I just smile, wait my turn and say "Kama Sutra," which means "we invented good sex." Game over.

Conclusory Note: To write this blog entry, I thought I'd do some research and call up my family to ask their opinion of why the Kama Sutra is so revered in Western culture, and so ignored in Indian culture. These are their responses:

Mother: God, why don't you please get married already?
Brother: You asked who about what?
Father: Never, ever say that word again.