THIS IS A MOST unexpected book. From anyone, let alone a public figure. Let alone from Gurcharan Das—optimistic prophet of the Indian economy, philosopher of personal and public ethics, staunch supporter of neo- liberalism, recent cheerleader for Modi- nomics, grand old man of newspaper columns and a hundred corporate consultancies, a man who has also written at least one fine play and a sensitive family saga about Partition. Kama: The Riddle of Desire is a book about desire in the fullest sense of the word—it is about love and vulnerability, about self-doubt and betrayal, about wanting more of everything and being haunted by settling for less. These are not declarations that one associates with a man who appears greatly assured in all his public avatars, a man who has spent the last three decades telling us what we should be thinking. Kama is also a book about sex, not in the abstract sense, but about physical pleasure located in the body of the narrator (could he be the author himself, one wonders). When we read Kama, Das offers us a journey into the life of a body as much as the life of a mind, and in Das’ narrative, the body diminishes through life but the mind expands.
There are multiple strands in this complex book which is part memoir, part treatise, part life-lesson and most obviously, a tantalising roman-à-clef. It is a book that could only have been written by an older man who looks back with a sense of satisfaction on a life well and fully lived, a life packed with great good fortune, sometimes brought to a stutter by small mistakes, but an overall success when judged in terms of all the purusharthas, the goals of life, as prescribed for an average Hindu male householder.
Das places Kama as the third in his series of explorations of the purusharthas as explicated within classical Hinduism. His earlier books, India Unbound (2000) and The Difficulty of Being Good: On the Subtle Art of Dharma (2009), address the prescriptions and dilemmas of economic well-being (artha) and moral well-being (dharma), respectively. Like these two, Kama is also a door-stopper of a book, coming in at just under 550 pages. But then, tracing the history of kama and erotic love across centuries and cultures and traditions is no mean task. As in The Difficulty of Being Good, here in Kama, Das mines the intellectual and literary traditions of the West as well as those of Hinduism, showing us that humankind’s profoundest ideas are shared. As are its greatest fears. Das is erudite at the best of times and there is nothing he enjoys more than mulling over an idea, passing it through the many filters that he has gathered from readings that are wide and deep. In Das’ hands, the mystical, often mysterious utterances of the Rig Veda stand in counterpoint to the ecstatic certainties of the Gita Govinda. Vatsyayana, a celebrant of sexual pleasure, and St Augustine, a denouncer of the body, can rub elbows as ideas of spiritual love, physical love, platonic love, romantic love, renunciation, sublimation, lust, desire and even the mellow sweetness of old and tired love run across pages, tripping over each other with mostly gay abandon. The ancient Greeks are as much a part of Kama as classical Hindu thinkers and poets. Proust appears with metronomic regularity, offering Das a prism through which his own life and experience can be refracted. The great Russian novelists of the 19th century open up a vast landscape in which the author can wander, noting the varieties of love as one might note and enjoy different flora and fauna. Das gains as much insight into love from the subtle nuances of Chekov’s short stories as he does from the purple adornments of Kalidasa’s Kumarasambhava.
In the hands of Das, the mystical, often mysterious utterances of the Rig Veda stand in counterpoint to the ecstatic certainties of the Gita Govinda
More than once, Das cites the same half verse from the Mahabharata which says, ‘There is a melancholic sadness at the very heart of kama.’ One does not think of the Mahabharata ever speaking gently about love, and so the recurrence of this tentative endorsement of love surely points to Das’ capacity to read carefully and well. Not only is he able to extract a statement of such refined delicacy from a text that is dominated by the language of war and a quest for political power, he can bring it to our attention in such a way that we embrace it as an adage for life, to be shared with friends when the lights are low and the hour is late.
Das uses the five arrows in Kama’s bow as one of the ways to understand love in its different moments and manifestations. In their classical Sanskrit iteration, Kamadeva’s arrows sequentially incite fascination or attraction, followed (somewhat darkly) by disturbance, burning, dessication and destruction. But Das parses these moments differently, seeing love as a fundamentally elevating force rather than a movement towards destruction or annihilation. In his own exegesis, Das finds it more useful to acknowledge the fear of love’s power when he divides kama into what he calls ‘optimistic’ and ‘pessimistic’. ‘The optimists focus on the creative, life-giving and transcendental powers of love, while the pessimists worry about its excess and subversive power.’ Elsewhere, in the larger social commentary about the times in which we live that punctuates the book, Das speaks more loosely about the optimists who are open-minded and freethinking, while those who he calls pessimists tend to be conservative and less ready to embrace difference and change.
But when Das speaks metaphorically through Kama’s arrows and contemplates the kinds of love they can generate, he brings to each love a sense of loss and a fleeting nostalgia which often catches the reader by surprise. For him, Kama’s first two arrows ensure that we fall in love and move towards intimacy. The third arrow reminds us that we have to work to make love flourish and grow. The fourth arrow makes us see that love is waning, that we need to shore it up at a time when we have run out of the resources that nurture love. The fifth arrow leads love to annihilation and this, Das says, can only be the moment of surrender to the divine, an elevation available to the mystic, if not to the rest of us. Das rightly cites the Gita Govinda as a sublime example of this surrender while in a physical body (Bernini’s sculpture of Saint Theresa expresses the same moment of ecstatic union), but it is here that I believe Das’ erudition falls somewhat short. Sufi mystics have provided us with the most exquisite poetry about fana, the ecstatic moment when lover and beloved become one. The individual soul is annihilated in the love and by the love of the divine. That poetry offers us an entirely different teleology about love and an entirely different image of the end, as it were, of love. I would have been very pleased if Das had turned his eclectic and catholic gaze onto the difference between love that surrenders in the body and the love that dissolves this final, human separation from God. Das’ frame, like that of many Indian intellectuals (including my own), is circumscribed by our knowledge of Western traditions of thinking and writing. There is still much to be gained from within that frame, but in the 21st century, our gaze must turn to a larger world in order to truly expand and challenge our ideas of desire and the power of transformative love. Although Das speaks almost exclusively of love between individuals, Kama: The Riddle of Desire reminds us that it is time to think beyond the personal, embodied beloved. As storms of hatred swirl around us, it is only love that can ‘speak through the earthquake, wind and fire’ and be ‘the still small voice of calm’.