Much to blog about on the books front – many reviewing commitments have been made recently and I’ve been reading quite a lot. Here are short notes on some of the books, might post longer reviews later.
First, Pavan K Varma’s Kama Sutra: The Art of Making Love to a Woman, a new adaptation of Vatsyayana’s legendary sex manual. Varma’s writing is very accessible; the text, divided into 12 short chapters, doesn’t take much more than an hour to get through. Using one of the basic tenets of the original work (that the fulfillment of women is at the heart of the sexual experience) as a guiding principle, he addresses such topics as “the right setting”, “the embrace”, “the kiss”, “the use of nails” and “the bite” – presenting, in very simple language, Vatsyayana’s views on how these combine to optimise sexual satisfaction.
The fun lies in Varma’s wry observations about the more fastidious or idiosyncratic aspects of the original text – as when he comments on Vatsyayana’s preoccupation with classifying men and women according to penis size and vagina depth: “We are within our rights to wonder how our master collected his data. What kind of fieldwork must this have entailed? How would he have so precisely observed the ‘elephant’, ‘mare’ and ‘deer’ women? Did he sally forth with a scale in his hands?” Even when he’s sticking to the letter of the original, there’s a distinct sense of humour on view. Discussing Vatsyayana’s thesis that a mild form of sadism/mutually agreed-on violence is permitted at the height of passion, he cautions men against overdoing it: “If the woman is moaning with pleasure, being driven to other audible sounds of obvious approval, then the force is within acceptable and pleasurable limits. If she is lying limp or screaming in pain, then she is either beyond help, or beyond pleasure, or both…”
And yes, there are pictures too, many of them, placed in separate sections between the chapters, and worth studying at length – though not as much for their erotic (or instructional) value as for the polite, genteel smiles on the faces of the copulating men (always turbaned) and women, the impossibly intricate positions, and paintings such as the one of a man in mid-intercourse shooting an arrow at a bird while his companion twists her head around to be able to appreciate the sport (the caption reads: “In ancient times, scenes of hunting and lovemaking were often depicted together”). This is exciting stuff on many levels, especially if you’re a Kamasutra-virgin and haven’t seen illustrations of this type before.
(Also see this feature by Kishore Singh about Varma’s book and the other new Kama Sutra, by Alka Pande)
From a very different genre, a novella that’s about levitation of another sort: Azhar Abidi’s elegant Passarola Rising, a historical fiction about the flying adventures of the brothers Bartolomeu and Alexandre Lourenco in 18th century Europe. In the Passarola, an airship built by Bartolomeu, they go on a series of exciting quests, including one to rescue King Stanislaus of Poland from the Russians, and a perilous scientific mission for King Louis XV that's aimed at discovering the exact shape of the earth in order to improve marine navigation.
Alexandre is the narrator and through his ruminations we learn about the differences in the brothers’ personalities. Bartolomeu has few worldly ties of any kind, and in fact seems to be using his airship to escape human narrow-mindedness, to cross frontiers; much to the horror of the Church, he dreams of discovering what lies beyond the atmosphere. Alexandre, though initially a willing participant in these adventures, eventually feels the need to be tethered to something; to “come home” and “settle down”. (It’s another matter that after turning his back on flying, the feeling of disquiet never leaves him.) And both brothers are idealists in very different ways. Bartolomeu dreams that air travel will help people “unseal their eyes” and better understand their fellow men in other parts of the world; but Alexandre, after witnessing the idyllic, unreserved lives of the inhabitants of Lapland, comes to believe that some things should remain a secret, “otherwise no part of the world would be safe from civilised man”.
Abidi’s writing is very economical, establishing a whole milieu and a variety of characters in a few pages (though the abundance of short sentences can occasionally get distracting) and also capturing the spirit of exploration at a time when traveling 200 miles in three days was an achievement to be gaped at. After being a pleasant picaresque story for the most part, his book moves to a different plane three-fourths of the way through, with a vivid description of Alexandre’s suffering during a particularly arduous flight – including a series of hallucinations that convince him that he can’t carry on with this life. And the final pages are very poignant. Without giving too much away, I was struck by the author’s ultimate refusal to romanticise Bartolomeu, to hold him up as a symbol for escape from the petty concerns of the world, drifting forever in time. Instead there is a very specific closure, perhaps even a suggestion that escape isn’t possible.
(More to follow)