October 05, 2015

Wendy Doniger: 'I do not think it will ever be possible for me to visit India again' (Email interview in The Telegraph)

The Telegraph - 4 October 2015

'I do not think it will ever be possible for me to visit India again'

American Indologist Wendy Doniger is well known in India. In 2014, her book The Hindus — An Alternative History was withdrawn by its publishers, sparking a furore. The 74-year-old professor of history of religions at the University of Chicago is now out with a new book, The Mare’s Trap, which looks at the Kama Sutra. Doniger gets candid about repression, Hindu factions and her fondness for Rabindrasangeet in an email interview. And she tells Smitha Verma that she hopes her book will create a fuss

Q: What made you write The Mare's Trap?
A: I was very troubled to see that Indians were unaware of the importance and brilliance of the text Kama Sutra, and so sorry to see that very few Indians read it at all, or had any idea of what was actually in it, though that did not stop them from condemning it as a dirty book. I was determined to try to call their attention to the book, so that they would see what was actually in it.
Q: Tell us more about the Kama Sutra.
A: The Kama Sutra is a shastra, a textbook of scientific knowledge. Its aim was to teach Indians who had wealth and leisure how to enhance the pleasure in their lives. Pleasure was meant to be all the things that money can buy to make life more enjoyable: music, literature, good food, elegant houses and, most important, sexual pleasure. It was commissioned by courtesans, who were women of education and skill. They were renowned for their intelligence as well as their beauty. They often had a single patron and were trained to entertain the king and his circle as well as wealthy merchants.
The Kama Sutra was not well known among most people in India until the English translation by Richard Burton was published in 1883. Then it became a subject of scandal, and British attitudes to it made many Indians regard it with shame.
Q: What kind of controversy do you fear this book can generate?
A: In fact, I hope for, rather than fear, controversy in general, and for this book in particular. I hope it will generate a good conversation about censorship, attitudes to sexuality in India in the past and present, and the importance of the Kama Sutra in Indian culture.
Q: Why do we shy away from talking about sex for pleasure?
A: The ancient dharma texts insist that sex is only for fertility, and indeed that it is the duty of every husband to impregnate his wife during her fertile period. Vatsyayana's Kama Sutra directly challenges this, arguing that while female animals have sex only when they are fertile, one of the marks that distinguish humans from animals is precisely that human females can have sex when they are not fertile. This is one of many points on which the Kama Sutra is far more liberal than the dharma texts. Modern Hindus of the Sanatana Dharma or Hindutva factions shy away from this and other liberal attitudes in the Kama Sutra, such as the way it ignores caste entirely in its discussions of human relationships.
Q: You conclude The Mare's Trap with the thought that the British were in a way responsible for suppressing Indian erotica.
A: The British had a deep and lasting effect upon Indian culture, in part because they had the power to enforce their opinions, and also many Indians came to admire aspects of their culture and to accept British judgements about what was good and what was bad in Indian culture. This sort of judgement included what I would term a Victorian Protestant attitude to erotica, which regarded the Kama Sutra as a dirty book.
Q: Your books delve deep into Hinduism, the texts and the practices, some of which many Indians no longer want to associate with. Are you a conscience keeper?
A: No one, Hindu or non-Hindu, can be responsible for the conscience of Hinduism. But as individuals, inside or outside the culture, we have the right and, I think, the duty to speak out when we feel that there are valuable parts of a culture that the culture itself does not sufficiently value.
Q: What was your first reaction when you got to know about the pulping of The Hindus: An Alternative History?
A: First of all, let me correct the widespread belief that my book was pulped. Though Penguin India (as it was then; now Penguin Random House) did sign a document agreeing to stop publication of the book in India and to destroy all remaining copies, in fact there were no remaining copies - people quickly bought out all the copies in stores, and Penguin had no more in stock - and so not a single copy was pulped or destroyed in any way. But when I heard that Penguin India had agreed to stop publication, after fighting the lawsuit for over four years, I was dismayed and disappointed. On the other hand, when I saw that people at Penguin India were determined to find other ways to publish the book again, I was encouraged, and indeed I am hopeful that the book will soon be available again in India.
Q: How did you get interested in Hinduism?
A: I became interested in Hinduism as a teenager, when I read the Upanishads in translation and also read books about India by E.M. Forster and Rumer Godden and saw the films of Satyajit Ray. I particularly loved the ancient stories, and that is why I began the study of Sanskrit at Harvard University when I was 17 years old.
Q: What is it about Indian texts and mythology that you find so interesting?
A: Indian texts and myths are so passionate, so full of fascinating human wisdom, ingenious narratives and deep psychological and philosophical insights. They are by far the best stories in the world.
Q: When will you be in India next?
A: I first came to India in 1964 and have been back many times since then. I first went to Calcutta, where I stayed at the Ramakrishna Mission, and then I moved up to Bolpur and attended classes at Santiniketan - classes in Bengali language and literature, and in Manipuri dancing, and in Rabindrasangeet (I particularly loved Akash bhara and Jakhan eshechhile... My favourite places are the caves at Elephanta and Ellora, the temples at Mahabalipuram and Konark, Khajuraho, Madurai, Fatehpur Sikri and Udaipur. But I do not think it will ever be possible for me to visit India again, given the hostility to my book The Hindus. I am very sorry indeed that things have come to such a pass.