Monday, March 14, 2016

Int'l Essayists: Aurvi Sharma on the Body Patchwork, the Text as the Body / the Body as the Text in Meatless Days & the Kamasutra

The Body Patchwork: 
The Text as the Body / the Body as the Text in Meatless Days and the Kamasutra

‘Perhaps I should have been able to bring those bits together, 
but such a narrative was not available to me, 
not after what I knew of storytelling.’ ­– Meatless Days

1. During High School, a common boast amongst my cooler peers was having read the Kamasutra (at night, under the covers, with a torch, while their parents slept). There were frequent claims of prodigious sexual knowledge gleaned from its pages. I was the literary type but the Kamasutra was not considered my terrain. 

2. I wasn’t even interested. I had seen the sculptures of Khajuraho at the age of eight (we lived in a mild-mannered town a couple of hours away), and I knew all about the orgies of those lithe stone bodies. For me, like for most people around the world, the Kamasutra was some compendium of the weird ways people in ancient India twisted their bodies while having sex. 

3. Imagine my surprise, then, when I finally did read the Kamasutra at the ripe age of 30 and was met with pages upon pages about how an urbane gentleman should set up his house, how he should apply make up, the number of times he should bathe in a day, the days of the week he should shave, the best mouth fresheners available, ideal games to play during the day, the foods one must eat, the right clothes for the right time. The sex was there too, but the book turned out to be about the art of sumptuous living for the cosmopolitan, affluent people of 300 ACE somewhere in northern India.

Such glamour lingers within the Kamasutra’s pages. The text remains as much about culture, social mores and psychology as it is about sex. 

4. Sara Suleri’s Meatless Days, written in 1989, is a memoir about growing up in postcolonial Pakistan. It’s the story of Suleri’s Pakistani father, her Welsh mother, her beautiful sister Ifat and three other siblings. There is no plot here, time is broken. Reminiscences jump forward and backward. 

But the memoir is also the history of the young country, formed when India – at the time of independence from the British in 1947 – was divided into two. Suleri speaks as intimately of Pakistan as she does of her family.

5. Besides being the largest mass migration in human history – over 10 million bodies woke up in a country that was no longer their own and had to migrate to the other side – the Partition of India also saw horrible riots. Millions were raped, butchered. 

Pakistan’s genesis and India’s independence, then, floats upon blood, bodies and on dismemberment that soaks Suleri’s exquisite sentences. 

6. According to Wendy Doniger and Sudhir Kakar, one of the aims of the Kamasutra was ‘to civilize the violence of sex, ritualize the cruelty of intercourse.’ 

7. Meatless Days: ‘For Ifat, the event clinched her perception of bodily secrecy and the illicit texture of what happens when something is added onto or subtracted from flesh. For me, however, it was and still remains my sharpest consciousness of the publicity of blood.’

8. Pakistan was created by the process of trimming the eastern and western extremities of India and naming them Pakistan, the land of the pure. But in this purity of intent was a big hole – the country of India lay between the two parts. 

Amidst this strange mutilation, is it a surprise then that I take two odd bedmates, written two millennia apart, and try to suture them together? These are my favourite books – one ‘Indian’, the other ‘Pakistani’. But really, when have I ever been able to take nation states seriously?

9. (Suture is cognate with Sanskrit sutra, meaning thread. It also refers to a genre of ancient Hindu, Buddhist and Jain texts, which are collections of aphorisms.)

10. Sanskrit theatre has the trope of a narrator called the sutradhaar. Literally, a person carrying the thread. 

11. (Before suturing I must also retrieve the thread. Before suturing I must unravel.)

12. What is kama, then? It’s Sanskrit for desire as well as pleasure. In various contexts, it can imply sex, love, longing, affection, a gambling stake, virility. 

13. What am I suggesting? That for the pleasure of inquiry, one can read many things in words – just as one can read many things in bodies, faces and silences – simply for one’s total and absolute pleasure. 

14. In Meatless Days, Ifat tells Sara, all of eight years old, about how all nursery rhymes are about the ‘horrid parts of sex.’

‘“Don’t you think there are some things you shouldn’t tell me?” I asked her once gloomily. “Don’t you think it might be bad for me?”

“If you let it fester, that’s your fault,” Ifat answered.’ 

15. The Kamasutra’s fourth century milieu is lush, concerned not with unwieldy human bodies along with their ejaculate and smells. The Kamasutra is interested in the erotic. 

Wendy Doniger and Sunil Kakar put it succinctly when they say that the Kamasutra’s aim was ‘the rescue of erotic pleasure from the crude purposefulness of sexual desire, of reproduction alone.’

16. For example, the 13th century commentator Yashodhara does not consider masturbation as true kama because the pleasure does not involve real eroticism. 

17. In the Kamasutra, the body is the narrative, concerned not only with the 64 arts of making love, or the surreal ways you can twist your body during sex, but the whole social, cultural ramifications of love, desire and sex. In Meatless Days, the narrative itself is a body.

18. The title of Meatless Days refers to Ramzan, the Muslim month of fasting. But in the shadow of this absence, the book is frequently, greedily obsessed with food. 

19. It’s a comparison too tempting to resist. Between one book concerned with ultimate pleasure and another fixated with complete consumption.

20. Consumable things in Meatless Days: mangoes, goat testicles, goat kidneys, the past, context, word, ink, swimming pools shaped as fish, Dadi shaped as shrimp, mother as water, sister as milk.

21. The funny thing is, the Hindu god of love is Kama Dev. He is also called Atanu, which means one without a body. 

22. So the Kamasutra, like Meatless Days, is not about eating to fill up or to survive. Rather, it’s about the pleasure of consumption as well as of withholding, about what it could possibly mean, this navigation of being meatless and meat-full. 

23. Meatless Days: ‘My crucial fault was a blurring of vision that allowed me to equate flesh with information, my poison with another’s meat.’ 

24. Suleri’s father was an influential journalist, frequently jailed for sedition against the Pakistani government. When her sister Ifat was run over by a car while walking outside her home in Lahore, the case turned hysterical. The family found their privacy shattered. Ifat’s letters morphed into evidence, her body into news. Police demanded to carry out an autopsy. Suleri’s father refused.

25. Suleri says, ‘I said a quick goodbye to the sweet assurance of those days when I could claim to know the names of things.’

26. Kama itself can be dissected. The commentator Yashodhara wrote in the 13th century: 

‘Kama is pleasure, and its limbs
Are jewellery, perfumed oils and garlands
As well as forest groves, roof-top gardens,
The playing of lutes, and wine.
Its base is women –
Unrestrained, beautiful, young,
Amorous, flirtatious, clever at flattery,
Drawing to themselves the minds and hearts of men.’

27. A popular brand of condoms in India is called Kamasutra. Colloquially, it is referred to as, simply, KS. This is pretty demonstrative of the exhilarating mash up of the times we live in, where an ancient cultural text is also a brand, an object, a contraceptive. Also, a receptacle, a wall. 

28. The Kamasutra: ‘Pleasure consists in engaging the ear, skin, eye, tongue, and nose. […] The sensual pleasure of erotic arousal that results from the particular sensation of touch.

29. What happens when the text becomes skin as well as the sheath that prevents touch? 

Then the text becomes the body itself. 

30. Dismemberment runs through Suleri’s book and the body is fluid. People change names, roles, tropes, even metaphors. Like the Kamasutra’s unnamed male protagonist who runs between the narrative’s pages from bachelorhood to seduction to marriage, on to boredom, then seducing other men’s wives and finally visiting courtesans, the women in Meatless Days, too, take and abandon identities, mutating into one from another, calling, as Suleri did when she was a toddler, ‘a squirrel marmalade and marmalade a squirrel’. 

31. Meatless Days: ‘“There was a voice that used to say to me, “Put back your body where your life belongs,” but I have never been particularly good at heeding that piece of advice, happy instead to let life and body go grazing off to their own sweet pastures.’ 

32. Suleri on her mother: ‘Long before I watched her face wear like the binding of a book, that creases its leather into some soft texture and acquires a subtle spine free of gilt, knowing better than openly to announce its title.’

33. Faces as books, bodies as text, kama as desire as well as pleasure. The snake eats its own tail. (Tale?) 

34. The Kamasutra:

“The territory of the text extends
only so far as men have dull appetites
but when the wheel of sexual ecstasy is in full motion,
there is no textbook at all, and no order.”

35. The Kamasutra is all about the shringar rasa. Shringar implies beauty, love, attraction. Technically, the word means ‘adorning the body’. 

36. Rasa means essence, but also flavor and juice.

37. Women’s bodies in the Kamasutra are tropes – with thighs like elephant legs, eyes like lotuses, they are always slim-waisted but their breasts are so heavy and tight that not a blade of grass can come between the two. 

38. This surfeit of the body is present in Meatless Days, too, but as its mirror image, a body devoid of lushness, of sexuality, existing as mutilated parts that fall here and there, as if to create pilgrimage spots in animistic origin stories around the world. 

39. Meatless Days: ‘She seemed to live increasingly outside the limits of her body, until I felt I had no means of holding her.’ 

40. Suleri’s bodies hold whole worlds. Liminal, they are cities, words and ink, they are brother, sister, mother and father, also newsprint, context and discourse.

41. Suleri on her hunchbacked grandmother, trailing a goat into their house, which was to be sacrificed on Eid: "Like a question mark interested only in its own conclusions, her body crawled through the gates.” 

42. In a stunning argument in the Kamasutra that unfolds over several pages, Vatsyayan makes the case for the female orgasm. He insists that women experience pleasure just as acutely as men. He goes on to compare pleasure with a sentence. 

Just as an object and a subject cohere to produce a single meaning, a woman and a man pleasure each other for their climax. 

46. (In Sanskrit, the word for object and meaning is the same: arth.) 

43. Suleri speaks of discourse a lot, using that dry term in shockingly tender situations, after her sister’s death, after her mother was knocked down by a rickshaw and did not survive. 

(“She would saunter into our house, with three children now, along with her discourse and her face.”)

But Suleri also speaks of her time doing theatre and feels the relief of mouthing someone else’s lines.

45. Meatless Days: “Then she gave us all our gifts – a Chinese name for all of us, carved onto an ivory chop and accompanied with a wad of reddest ink.”

44. The last line of the Kamasutra: ‘He succeeds when he plays the part of the lover.’

47. The Kamasutra can be likened to a play. Like most Sanskrit drama, it is divided into seven acts. The lovers are called nayak (hero) and nayika (heroine). The characters who assist the hero-heroine are sidekick, clown, supporting actor. 

48. Vatsyayan calls the woman-on-top position Purushayitva, which means, literally, ‘to play the man’s role’. 

49. When a woman writes, does the text become gendered too? 

50. As Ifat, Suleri’s wise sister who the book is an elegy to, along with all the women Suleri left behind in Pakistan, tells her, ‘it doesn’t matter, Sara. Men live in homes, women live in bodies.’ 

51. In the Kamasutra, in a discussion of the types of love (love by habit, by erotic imagination, by oral sex, and so on), a curious one is ‘love by transference,’ where the present lover is loved for his or her resemblance to a past lover. 

52. Meatless Days: ‘As she talked on, the voice grew more and more familiar, giving me the strangest sense of déjà vu, but it was only when Fancy darted a guilty sense in my direction that I realised what she had done. She had pilfered my voice! In my absence, ventriloquized me to a T!’ 

53. What are the consequences of the body? 

55. The violence in Meatless Days is real. Suleri cajoles her ill younger brother to sit on a stool with a pot of hot water and camphor on his lap, and inhale the steam. An accident – Irfan spills the water all over himself. 

‘He clutched at his groin and everywhere he touched, the skin slid off, so that between his fingers his penis easily unsheathed, a blanched and fiery grape.’ 

54. The Kamasutra’s chapters:

ONE Sexual typology according to size, endurance and temperament
TWO Ways of embracing
THREE Procedures of kissing
FOUR Types of scratching with nails
FIVE Ways of biting

56. Reading Meatless Days for the third time, halfway through I realise that I have underlined pretty much the whole book. So now next to lines that make me moan with pleasure as one would at a ghazal or a sher, I draw a little heart. 

57. I could not articulate what Meatless Days made me feel, until I came upon these lines in the Kamasutra:

“This is no matter for numerical lists
or textbook tables of contents
For people joined in sexual ecstasy,
Passion is what makes things happen.” 

58. In Sanskrit, bhav means emotion. It can also mean orgasm. 

59. We’re all playing roles in Suleri’s world, writing our messy, plotless stories in her ‘ink-damp’ pages. 

60. ‘Even today I can feel her spirit tell me: “Daughter, unplot yourself.”’

61. (These stunning sentences, so concerned with the body and the text, with the body as the text, deserve not just my attention, for attention is abstract. For books this succulent, only a beating part of my body would suffice.) 

A Pushcart-nominated writer, Aurvi Sharma has been awarded the Gulf Coast Nonfiction Prize, the Prairie Schooner Essay Prize, the Wasafiri New Writing Prize and the AWP Emerging Writer Prize. She has received fellowships from the MacDowell Colony, the Tin House Writer’s Workshop, James Merrill House and Sarai-Delhi. Her writing has also appeared in Fourth Genre, and she is a regular contributor here at Essay Daily.

Craig Reinbold is a regular contributor to Essay Daily and is curating this Int'l Essayists column. Send suggestions, thoughts, comments: @craigreinbold

Vatsyayana. Kamasutra (translated by Wendy Doniger and Sudhir Kakar). Oxford’s World Classics, 2009.

Suleri, Sara. Meatless Days. The University of Chicago Press, 1991.


  1. Good stuff. Enjoyed reading the entire article.

  2. Try Chris Arthur or Tim Robinson, if you're looking for Irish essayists.