In Gurcharan Das’ latest, philosophy meets fiction in concurrent narratives that examine human desires across civilisations.
Civilisations often attempt to find a harmonious resolution to the dilemmas posed by human desires. India, for instance, suggested a balance between dharma and kama, the West between the Apollonian and the Dionysian principles. Gurcharan Das, in his new book Kama: The Riddle of Desire, weaves two concurrent narratives to examine the nature of yearnings that torment human lives.
The first is a fictional tale in which the narrator examines his relation with three women during various phases of his life. The second comprises reflections over the meaning of love and desire in literature of various cultures and epochs. The book is part of a trilogy, followed by Das’ earlier works, India Unbound (artha) and The Difficulty of Being Good (dharma).
He begins with the idea of kama that evolved from being a prime cosmic principle, a divine energy in ancient Indian literature, to a force that, according to later philosophers like Shankaracharya and Buddha, brings forth negative impulses and, hence, needs to be overcome. India is no exception. Various civilisations have taken a similar trajectory towards kama.
Earlier eras were more comfortable with various aspects of desire. In Shiv Purana, Prajapati Brahma loses his senses upon seeing the naked feet of Parvati. Kalidas in Kumarasambhava depicts the grand lovemaking of Shiv and Parvati that lasts for 150 seasons. Such descriptions are impossible now without invoking the wrath of religious fundamentalists.
The fictional tale begins with the narrator, Amar, reminiscing upon his past. He is in love with Isha, who later gets married to someone else. He eventually marries Avanti, but not before having a passionate affair with the married Isha. He is jealous of her marriage, and rues that jealousy and attachment ill behoves a Nagaraka, the ideal lover described in Kamasutra. A Nagaraka is a ‘heroic’ lover of all women, and not a ‘romantic’ lover of just one woman.
Isha drifts away and Amar has two children with Avanti before he meets the third woman, Amaya, who is also married and reminds him of Chekhov’s Lady with a Dog. A few twists in between, some desertions and reunions before the story ends.
The fiction is mostly flabby, lacking imagination. The characters are uninspiring and, as the author juxtaposes them with the great figures of world literature, appear even flatter. Such intertextuality in which a text is constantly punctuated and illuminated by past references is a significant narrative device, but remains underachieved in Das’ work. The author’s ambition doesn’t realise itself.
Also, as the author dishes out literary references at every juncture of the character’s lives, for instance terming Amar’s affair with the married Amaya as a tussle between kama and dharma, it effectively intellectualises and rationalises the emotion. The elusiveness of human feelings gets dissipated in referential analysis.
Yet, the book redeems itself in its musings as it arrays a staggering range of references from The Mahabharata, Jain and Buddhist texts, Plato, Kalidasa, Shakespeare, Turgenev, Proust, Flaubert, Tolstoy, Manto, etc. The literary anecdotes Das narrates to elucidate various facets of kama are infinitely richer than the ongoing story.
Examining the nature of intimacy, for instance, Das recounts a wonderful tale of The Mahabharata. A sage instructs his disciple Vipul to keep a watch on his wife Ruchi in his absence. Seeing Indra approach her, Vipul enters her mind and prompts her to push Indra away. Though he was dutiful towards the guru, Vipul later realises that intimacy is more overwhelming when it takes place in the mind, as then it is not constrained by external reality. “I had penetrated the body of that lady, placing limb within limb, face within face,” Vipula rues later.
The health of a society is reflected in the space it lends to kama, especially the sexuality of a woman. Various civilisations have spent a large portion of their philosophical and theological energies to restrict and control her choices. Many ills of the contemporary world can be gauged through the distorted space given to kama. Das makes a thoughtful case as he delves deep into the underbelly of human civilisation, but his fiction comes a cropper. If he had limited his enquiry to philosophy and literature, which he evokes with such eloquence, the work could have been on a different plane.
A fiction writer and journalist, the author is currently a fellow at Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla