The sexual revolution in India is a massive subject to approach, but Sally Howard has criss-crossed the country in her quest for some understanding and to gain answers. She has drawn many parallels with the sexual revolution that happened in Britain in the 1960s, and further back to the period of the Raj, when there was such confluence of cultures, at a time when the 'Britishers', of course, had a huge amount of influence over the varied and colourful native culture in India.
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Sally's journey starts out in Madhya Pradesh (and fortunately for those who are not overly familiar with India, there is a simple map at the beginning of the book) where she views the lusty friezes of the temple complexes at Khajuraho. This is where we first meet the goddess Kali and her yoni (vulva), which is depicted as pealed open ready to take the phallus. And this pretty much sets the tone for this travelogue through India, position impossible; journeying from dance schools in Kerala where the sensuous Mohiniyattam dance is undergoing a revival, to Bollywood splendour in Bombay, body builders in Amritsar and to Meghalay, where it's all different (and where the proverbial boot is on the other foot, and this is not about foot fetishes).
The British feature heavily in India's sexual development, and at the turn of the 20th century they brought with them the prudery and repression extolled by the Purity Campaigners that featured so heavily in the Victorian period (and no, it was never true that the Victorians covered up the legs of their grand pianos, because those piano legs were too reminiscent of a woman's well-turned ankle!). But Sally introduces her readers to some curious devices aimed at killing ardour, like the Stephenson Spermatic Truss, but there are just too many contraptions to mention in detail here. The rate of venereal disease amongst the soldiers stationed in India was much higher than in Britain at that time and there was a burgeoning move towards 'the exotic' across the Empire, which enabled sexual exploration that simply wasn't possible at home in Britain - think of Kitchener, stationed in Widlflower Hall at Shimla, who was a scopophiliac (in his case, gazing at nude young men). The wives of the officers were often left alone for long stints up in the hills in Shimla (the Summer camp for the Raj) and had free reign over the younger soldiers (these women were truly the first cougars). Frankly, it sounds like it was a hotbed of bed hopping!
In present day India there is the arranged marriage, which sits alongside eve-teasing (women suffering molestation) and the reality of a high level of rapes (and as we know, this can also result in death). 60% of marriages in India, says the book, currently suffer degrees of Domestic Violence and Abuse, and 40% of the world's child marriages take place on this continent. Power still largely lies with the male in society and with those who promote a powerful male culture. Yet there are some savvy women - who feature in the book - making some small waves and seeking a more liberated sexual life, whilst negotiating the constraints of traditional values.
This book highlights the vast array of mixed messages and confusion around what is - and what is not - acceptable in the world of sex, both then and now. It underlines that increasingly in modern day India change and upheaval are afoot. Old traditions valued gender-variant men, but under the Britishers, gay sex (or any sex perceived to be 'deviant') was criminalised in 1860, and it is only recently that those ostracised are finding their way back into society. Essentially many groups of people were seen to be a commodity, with the Britisher soldiers sating their lust back in the day; or the old tradition whereby Indian wives would throw themselves on the pyres of their husbands in Varanasi; or the child prostitutes who are still in evidence today.
Today, little is taught about sex in many levels of Indian Culture, so Sally stops off in Chennai (the city of fire), to have a chat with sexologist Dr Narayana Reddy to get the low down on sex education. Ignorance is certainly not bliss for many of the patients he sees and there seems to be quite a parallel between Edwardian England when Dr Marie Stopes was doing her pioneering work and some of the lack of knowledge present in India today (and sadly also in the UK, let's not forget). Pornography is hugely consumed and gives unrealistic expectations amongst modern day young people, especially when the fundamentals of sexual congress are missing.
Overall this is a hugely fascinating exploration of how 90 years of British suzerainty, blended with the polarities of exotic sex and repressed sex, have left modern day Indians struggling with their sexual identity in so many ways. It is full of interesting facts, both on the sex front and more general - whether it is that the Keralan dancers insert chundanga seeds near to their tear ducts to give their eyes a highly desirable bloodshot appearance, or the sadhus in Varanasi who sate their primordial urges, whether sexual (in graveyards) or spiritual (never mind that they find human skulls to make bowls from which to eat their food).
You will definitely come away from reading this book with a greater knowledge of lesser known India, about sexual proclivities and about the clash of cultures in history. A fascinating book.
Cert. Couple Therapy, Dip. Psychosexual Therapy