A simple google search will tell you that desire means “a strong feeling of wanting to have something or wishing for something to happen” therefore desire is not just sexual in nature, it encompasses multitudes, living, inanimate, internal and external urges, and is ultimately bigger than its one-line definition. Through this piece, I hope to reflect on a few aspects of how desire is punished, policed, and forgiven in India.
Simultaneously credited with the Kamasutra and regressive practices surrounding desire and sexuality, India is an enigma to the modern world. How does the nation even cope with its own duality of being? It copes poorly and inconsistently. This is reflected in our reluctance to talk about sex and sexuality with our children.
This results in the child refraining from telling our parents when we are seeing someone casually because they might bring up the status of our virginity, policing women, their bodies and daily lives, the general lack of acceptance of an LGBTQ+ child because we believe that nobody would desire them sexually or societally so we mustn’t show them acceptance either. The Indian government banned pornography in 2018 but India is still one of the top 10 countries to consume pornographic content in the world, among countless other big and small aggressions against desire and pleasure that we witness every day as Indians.
Carvings such as those in the Khajuraho Temple (pictured above) showed vivid descriptions of sexuality, sexual desire and pleasure in India.
So, how did India birth a sexually liberal text like the Kamasutra and then police desire so severely that it parted ways from its very own enlightened historical identity?
The answer is not straightforward as neither is India. Madhavi Menon in her magnificent book titled ‘Infinite variety – The History of Desire in India’ notes that the hierarchy of caste has for centuries played the gatekeeper of desire, it made known who was an acceptable object of desire and who wasn’t. Even in modern India, inter-caste unions are highly stigmatized.
In 2016, 77 Indians lost their lives to caste-related honour killings. The desire for acceptance and equal rights is strongly and unforgivingly policed with violence as it has been for hundreds of years. So, Indian enlightenment – isn’t the norm by any means, it was however significantly diluted due to the British Raj.
During the colonial era, Victorian values steeped into Indian consciousness. British morality, skewed patriarchal notions, and their intermingling with pre-existing Indian standards for desire instilled a puritanical attitude towards pleasure and sex and introduced the dynamics of power and race more prominently into desire. India shunned its history of sexual liberalism that birthed the Kamasutra and made room for a multitude of identities and went on to adopt western ‘tolerance’ for homosexuality and puritanical notions of morality.
A domino effect resulted in Indian public and private life during this period where Indian inferiority was consciously internalized in terms of the brute strength of our colonizers, their power and control over us, and subconsciously in terms of desirability – We absorbed from our world that white was civil, high-class and therefore better than us, this was perhaps because they were our masters and held power over our bodies and labour and were therefore subconsciously desirable to us as we wanted to be in their position and have control over our lives and bodies.
It’s my understanding that we sought agency and power over our own selves and communities and in the midst of it all our experience of desire and sexuality became tainted by our lack of control and our desire to therefore emulate whiteness. Hence, what we perceived as desirable was our attempt at regaining control of our lives, this haunts us even today in the form of internalized racism. Therefore, it is evident the role power plays in desire.
Internalized racism within the Indian society is witnessed on a daily basis in matters of marriage, the presence of skin lightening products on the market, racist slurs against South Indians, beauty being associated with fairness among countless other examples.
A simple Instagram poll I conducted showed that even in porn, Indians preferred consuming content that featured white performers.
We can’t even bear to look at our own likeness experiencing pleasure because we haven’t been taught to see ourselves as desirable, whiteness is glorified as the default desirable feature.
Fair And Lovely is a stark reminder of the colourism and racism in India which keeps whiteness as a precursor for desirability.
The survey also showed that over 25% of the participants have experienced disgust while viewing porn performers of colour as compared to white performers. It is important to acknowledge this internal bias and show ourselves the same respect and grace we show to our white counterparts. For colonized nations there remains a lot of racial unlearning to do even today to authentically achieve racial equality even within the sexual desire.
Sexual desire and sexuality in India continue to be gatekept by cisgender-heterosexual individuals. With homosexuality being decriminalized in India, not much has changed by the way of the mindset of the masses, only in the recent years and with the younger, urban liberal demographic has acceptance for the community been witnessed while older demographics continue to disapprove of LGBTQ+ unions and, I would argue, desires in general.
In a nation where it is the cultural norm to either allow parents to choose or at least approve of their child’s partner before marriage is allowed, unions, even those resulting out of love, are thought of as cis-het by default. Thereby, being LGBTQ+ alone becomes an act of rebellion and disappointment for the cishet society that largely endeavours to curb the “deviant” desires of LGBTQ+ individuals.
In contradiction, within certain traditions gender-bending gods are revered, and not an eyelid is batted at the sexually explicit depictions in temple statues all in the name of religion, and Trans persons are tolerated if not outrightly disowned as a fabric of the Indian society.
India chooses multiplicity when it suits her, but at the confluence of morality and our multiplicities, I believe we often sacrifice desire as morality wins.
What this means is the average Indian household is likely to undervalue their desire for togetherness and familial love with regard to their child if it comes to choosing between the child and their morality, this is widely seen with the LGBTQ+ community and their shunning by family members. Therefore, the question here lies – How much of India’s treatment of LGBTQ+ persons is dictated by the international system rather than India wilfully acknowledging equal rights of dignity and desire? This is for us all to reflect on.
I would be remiss if I didn’t write about the desires we forgive as a society. Forgiveness lies at the intersection of gender, politics, caste, and class dynamics, and those with an advantage are forgiven more often and more easily. In our patriarchal society, we are highly forgiving of the cis-male desire for leisure and pleasure. For instance, we are all familiar with the scene of an average Indian household with the wife, despite holding down a job herself, left to slog in the kitchen and serve the family food while the man gives in to his desire for leisure, countless times we’ve seen our tired mothers eat last.
India is also exceedingly forgiving of her politicians who even despite having a history of crimes or pogroms are encouraged to stay in power or let off without punishment, because that is how their desire for power is justified by their supporters – “It takes crime to stay in power, so be it!”. The desire for quality education and a good life held by a lower caste, a low economic class person tends to not be supported by upper caste persons unless it serves them in some way too.
In upper-caste circles, privilege reigns and reservations in education and workspaces are looked at with disdain, but the same folks are also quick to celebrate a lower caste person rising out of poverty when their story is presented to them via an upper caste person on the media – herein lies the poverty of privilege, it’s reluctant to extend support but eager to feel good. So, therefore, isn’t desire also inherently selfish?
Even selfless desires such as that of a benevolent person keen on serving society are validated with feelings of worth, the goodness of self and therefore even the desires and actions of service fulfil a purpose and are on some level self-serving.
To not desire is impossible, but do we even know ourselves and our desires? Desire is straight and queer, desire is male, female, fluid and neither, desire is short-lived and sustained, it is physical, emotional and at times spiritual, it is big and small, it carries shame often and a lot of times it results in violence – I wouldn’t say India doesn’t know herself, but that she is still coping with the trauma and legacy of her colonizers who adulterated and augmented what she knew to be desire.
As time has passed, her liberal freedoms have sustained in pockets and that gives me hope for an India that has healed, become in control of her own freedoms, an India where pleasure is not stigmatized, where the desires of all are equal, and sexual desires are celebrated rather than tolerated.