The Parrots Of Desire: The Irony And Ecstasy Of 3,000 Years of Indian Erotica [#BookReview]

Posted: April 20, 2018

The Parrots of Desire brings to us valuable sources, conversations, and insights into human sexuality as it is perceived and experienced by ancient and contemporary Indians.

Time and again women have been shamed for owning and acting upon their sexuality. While things were worse in the past, they aren’t very great today either.

Sexuality & Desire – an Indian perspective

A society that can watch a “Munni Badnaam Hui” or a “Sheila ki Jawani” without a hiccup, chokes when a woman in real life becomes vocal about her sexual desires. We, as a community of people, can worship Khajuraho for its brilliant portrayal of human carnal pleasures and marvel when foreigners write about it with utmost passion, decide as a community that a woman has to however be bound by the shackles of “laaj-lajja” while our men feel free to not think twice before rubbing against a woman’s body.




Patriarchy decided once upon a time that a vagina is ‘pure’ only until its hymen remains intact, for reasons of its own. That a penis is regarded with such significance that it can keep or shake an entire person’s honor, is in itself a vociferous depiction of the bleak reality we live in.

And yet one cannot help but wonder at the irony: that this is the land of Kamasutra and Amaruśataka, where stories are unabashedly told about the pleasures of love-making. Which is why as a modern day reader The Parrots of Desire: 3000 years of Indian Erotica by Amrita Narayanan proved to be an enchanting read for me.

A seductive range of topics

This is an enlightening compilation of erotic stories, verses, poems since ancient times, to contemporary ones. Just a look at the topics covered is enough to make a reader swoon – figuratively and literally. The reader is taken through a roller-coaster of changing dynamics of erotica through various sections such as –

  • The Art of Seduction
  • Ennui in Marriage
  • Rapture and Longing
  • The First Time
  • Anguish, Abandonment and Break Up
  • Anger, Punishment and Make Up
  • Men’s Wish to be Women
  • Women on their Own
  • Nostalgia
  • Suspicion and Confusion
  • Coda

The book starts with a gritty introduction; with Bramha proclaiming “Sex is the gloss of our lives” one sudden day, in reply to one of the questions of all Gods as to “Why sex?” thereby creating an engrossing picture of what is to come.

The ride after this is in turns bumpy and peaceful, sometimes disgusting, sometimes suffocating, some other times simply one of understanding, and yet by the end the reader would have a fair idea of various sensitivities about this often secretive, ubiquitous, ‘life-affirming’ idea that forms such an integral part of human lives.

Sources of these stories

Stories from many of our scriptures

Upanishads like Brihadaranyaka Upanishad to Shvetashvara Upanishad, to verses and stories from Kamasutra, Koka Shastra, Amaruśataka, Gita Govinda, Gatha Saptasati and Rtusamaram in order for the reader to form an exhaustive opinion about the age-old depictions of this otherwise taboo theme.

The contemporary writers

Kamala Das, Deepti Kapoor, Ismat Chughtai, Mridula Garg, Saadat Hasan Manto, Ambai, Mirabai, Perumal Murugan, Kiran Nagarkar, Tarun Tejpal, Ginu Kamani, Bindu Bhat, Manjula Padmanabhan, Pritish Nandy, Mahendra Bhalla and Krishna Baldev Vaid.

Diverse narratives

What makes this eclectic set of write-ups, verses and stories so remarkable, is the way they take us from troughs to mountain-tops to rock bottoms in terms of approaches. The diversity in the sources and writers ensures that the reader experiences various ways in which different people could interpret something which is talked so little about.

For example, one cannot help but notice the difference between how men and women write about sex and the emotions associated with it. While the Kama Sutra focusses on impressing on women the ‘techniques’ for sexual pleasure as understood by Vatsyayana, an ancient philosopher born in roughly 600 BCE, a restrained contrast can be noticed in understanding the nuances of intimacy in the works of Tamil Sangam poets, and the subtle shift gradually changes into a large wave as the contemporary women writers take up the platform. Vatsyayana’s love-making may border into misogyny sometimes, or can contradict itself and hail women as goddesses. There doesn’t seem to be an in between. At the same time, some contemporary write-ups seem more humane, more nuanced and considerate.

The brutal realities of sexual acceptance and the ‘others’ mentality is also portrayed through stories such as “The Cure” by Gitu Kamani, where a woman with an unusual hormonal imbalance tries to break the stereotype of the ‘delicate’ female and the result is almost tragic. What surprised my literary acumen was an extract from Gita Govinda! In this Jayadeva has depicted Radhika to be stronger than Krishna in the bed, while Krishna, the lord, seems to be weak and craving. The text was hailed as a work of enormous prominence then, and one cannot help but think what would be our reaction to such a thing considering today’s times.

Progressing or regressing?

That brings in another meditation, are we progressing, or regressing, or are we just digressing?

The angst of being deprived of of a fulfilment of one’s desire, and the natural yearning of a human body for them are ideas that our culture is not comfortable with. Especially where women’s sexuality is considered. Chee, chee, is there such a thing? Despite the fact that it is one of the most inexorable activities of human beings; a basic need, and not just in order to procreate, the principle of it resigns itself to merely being just that.

The anthology speaks of every type of man and woman, and their fantasies and reactions to the needs of their body. There are some chapters which might make you feel slightly creeped out when they speak about the sounds made during intercourse and foreplay. There is also a story about a girl being sent to her aunt’s place to keep her away from boys, that ends up into a harrowing story of domestic abuse by the most shocking perpetrator, not once losing its subtlety, thereby making it even more disquieting.

The book was a brilliant experience overall but my feminist sensibilities have a grouse I must mention. It touches very vaguely on lesbianism but stays visibly away from homoerotic narratives that are man to man. It also doesn’t talk as much as it should about the trans-community. I was looking forward for more edifying layers, specifically of people other than the cis-gender heterosexual people because I firmly believe that books like these could be excellent sources of knowledge for people in the LGBTQ community – surely our ancients had more to say about these realities before they were touched by colonialism?

Barring this, it is an educational experience, and I am sure every reader will derive things from it. If nothing else, it will expand our worldview a tad more than what it already is, and that, I believe, is the most rewarding thing for any reader.

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Top image via Amrita Narayanan’s FB profile pics and book cover via Amazon

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