In the introduction of the book, The Parrots of Desire, editor Amrita Narayanan says that to read erotica is to also become keenly aware of the argument that looms over the genre. The tussle between literary romantics who embrace the erotic wholeheartedly “for the gloss it adds to life” and the religious traditionalists who are well aware of the power erotic literature can have over the human imagination and “their potential to cause chaos”.

This anthology features 3,000 years of Indian erotica. Right from the Rig-Veda and Tamil Sangam poets to modern writers such as Kamala Das, Sadat Hasan Manto, and Ismat Chugtai. The book makes an affirmation that we must seek the life we want for ourselves. So, there are stories about why should we even be bothered with sex, to the tepid anticipation of the first times, breakups, and nostalgia to women seeking pleasure on their own.

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But if one looks beyond this beautifully designed and executed book, we seem to be living in an era of dichotomy. While we have an erotic tradition of over a thousand years, we currently also have anti-Romeo squads. No concept of sex education in our schools and a film certification board which is eager to shoot down any film where a woman is in control of her own sexuality. I ask Narayanan, a clinical psychologist, and Homi Bhabha Fellow, how literature can help in bridging this gap?

“Every time we read in a way that re-imagines the world as erotic, we daydream – consciously or unconsciously – alongside our reading, and in doing so, we add to our own storehouse of erotic imagination.”

“That storehouse allows us an inner space in which the erotic can stay alive, a buffer zone in the mind from erotic poverty. And yes, the no-sex education schools and anti-Romeo squads do put us at risk for a poverty of the erotic because they rob and make unsafe the erotic shutting off our own erotic imagination.”

The Goa-based author says that a couple of years ago, Simar Puneet of Aleph Book Company contacted her with this idea for an anthology of erotic writings from India that covered “all time” as it were. It was an exciting thought, to connect writers across time and Indian language on this subject of the erotic so she was quickly persuaded. Then came the massive task of excavating the older texts and finding good translations for which she relied primarily on internet searches and references from literature professor friends.

She informs, “At a concrete level one of the roadblocks was getting permissions which is always a mammoth task for an anthologist who is using others’ work. Although I had help with this process, it still felt like one of the main challenges and many of the good translations were prohibitively expensive to use. At a conceptual level, I had to sit for a long time with the works I had chosen, before I could see the threads that connected them that then allowed me to write the opening essay. But it was an enjoyable sort of challenge, and rewarding as I drew the lines that connected the themes.

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Her own professional background of a clinical psychologist did feed into the creative process as the excerpts are arranged in sections are all organised under “erotic states of mind”. From rapture to anguish, make-up to break-up as well as the trans-sexualities for example men who long to be women she feels erotic states of mind is one of the most useful and interesting ways of thinking about sexual desire, “I think I owe that structure to my background in psychoanalytic psychology.”

The book features several stories of women taking charge of their sex lives. As someone who has researched extensively on women and sexuality, does she think we are making considerable progress in the department? Or we could learn a thing or two from our previous generations?

Amrita adds, “I think women who exercised erotic agency lived in many different generations, but perhaps at this time, due to the internet and due to more work in translation than ever, there is the possibility to think of oneself as part of a group of women who exercise erotic agency. And there is a power in that group as the individual no longer stands alone.

“One of misogyny’s sources of power comes from our collective of stories and to the extent that we can shift our reference collective of stories. We are a bit too acculturated to stories of women punished for their erotic agency.”

One of misogyny’s sources of power comes from our collective of stories. To the extent that we can shift our reference collective of stories. We are a bit too acculturated to stories of women punished for their erotic agency (for example Shoorpanaka or Ahalya). And not familiar enough with voices of  women rewarded for their erotic agency. For example Radhika in Muddupalani’s “Appeasement of Radhika” or one of the women’s voices of the Amarusataka whose erotic agency is rewarded with more love and adventure. By reading and aligning and daydreaming alongside women from previous generations we can be part of a collective that gives us the psychological drive to take charge of our sex lives individually.”

With horrific cases of rape (including marital rape, which still isn’t considered problematic by Indian courts) being reported every day. The recent onslaught of pornography, which is clearly from the male gaze, in many circumstances, a passionate interaction between two people is just reduced to an act of power play. How do we even challenge the dynamics in the bedroom when many women are just told to please their husbands – no questions asked?

Narayanan says, “I think there is a quite a continuum of sexual rights issues, if we think of them on a continuum that runs from bad to worse, we could put a poverty of the sexual imagination including pornography on the bad side and sexual violence on the worse side.

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So, if you are in a situation of experiencing violence, then you are probably not thinking at all about your pleasure, but simply about your safety. In other words, we are in Maslow’s hierarchy in which intimacy needs are only met after safety needs. For women who are in a safe situation that is free of violence (or only includes agreed-upon sexual aggression), they might have the luxury to ask questions about what they want in bed.

“I think the first step to challenging the dynamics in the bedroom, for women to start putting words to describe those dynamics and also putting words to their own erotic fantasies and how they might interrupt the dynamic to get their erotic needs met.”

Book Cover for Parrots Of Desire
Book Cover for Parrots Of Desire

From short stories to those spanning a few pages, poems – long and short – the book has something for everyone. Narayanan asserts that the central point of such a range of offerings is to stir the erotic imagination; she also wanted readers to take away the sense of a community of erotic adventurers, so they may participate in their own, not alone but with other stories alongside theirs.

She says, “My hope is that there is always something for the reader no matter what his or her erotic mood. So if you want to be titillated or comforted, if you want instructions on how to leave your lover or help with contemplation on how to endure him, if you want to be reminded of an old love or to figure out how to seduce a new one, there is something for you in this book.”

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