A History of Desire in India

Book Review by Bhaskar Parichha

Title: Infinite Variety – A History of Desire in India

Author: Madhavi Menon

Publisher: Speaking Tiger, 2018

Taṇhā in Pali or trishna in Sanskrit roughly means desire, thirst, longing, and greed. Whether physical or mental, taṇhā is an important Buddhist concept found in early texts. Out of the four ‘Noble Truths’, the Buddha identified taṇhā as a principal cause in the arising of dukkha (suffering, pain, dissatisfaction).

Take no notice of what ancient Indian texts said about desire; look at this stupendous book that portrays the notion of desire whilst bringing out its myriad colors. Part of queer theory, it travels across the subcontinent in the hunt for diverse manifestations of desire.

Madhavi Menon’s Infinite Variety – A History of Desire in India is a rebellious account of desire and is full of astonishing analyses and insights. Menon – professor of English at Ashoka University – writes on desire and queer theory with panache. She has authored a number of books resembling the subject: Wanton Words: Rhetoric and Sexuality in English Renaissance Drama; Unhistorical Shakespeare: Queer Theory in Shakespearean Literature and Film; and Indifference to Difference: On Queer Universalism.

Pleasant and edifying, the book, as the blurb says, “reveals not purity but impurity as a way of life. Not one answer, but many. Not a single history, but multiple tales cutting across laws and boundaries.”

In Bhakti poetry, Radha and Krishna disregard marital fidelity, age, time, and gender for erotic love. In Sufi dargahs, pirs (spiritual guides) who were married to women are buried alongside their male disciples, as lovers are. Vatsyayana, the author of the world’s most famous manual of sex, insists that he did not compose it for the sake of passion, and remained celibate through the writing of it. Long hair is widely seen as a symbol of sexuality; and yet, shaved off in a temple, it is a sacred offering. Even as the country has a draconian law to punish homosexuality, heterosexual men share the same bed without comment. Hijras are increasingly marginalized; yet gender has historically been understood as fluid rather than fixed” – the book says it all in splendid details.

Written in an impeccable style, the approach is spanking new and commonsensical. What enhances the beauty of the book is that the author plots a route through centuries, geographies, personal and public histories, schools of philosophy, literary and cinematic works. It meanders through contemporary studies on sexology, dissects Bollywood films based on the subject, depicts symbols, and even juxtaposes the object of desire with yoga, philosophy, and commonplace events.

While Menon examines the numerous faces of desire in the Indian subcontinent, for the most part, we are exposed to amazing tales and factoids dug out from enormous archival material and public spheres. The study ranges from the erotic sculptures of the Khajuraho temple to the shrine of the celibate god Ayyappan; from army barracks to public parks; from Empress Nur Jahan’s paan to home-made kohl; from cross-dressing mystics to asexual gods. It shows us the connections between syntax and sexual characteristics, between mane and warfare, between self-restraint and gratification, between love and death.

Loaded with factoids and figures and with a spiky introduction, the book is neatly divided into twenty long chapters –- desire in education, desire in suicide; law and psychoanalysis, desires among bhabhis (sisters-in laws) to grandparents, desire in celibacy, desire while dating and make-up et al.

The work is phenomenal –- both because of the subject and the approach. That an entire book could be written on ‘desire’ is inspiring. But more important is the way it has been conceived. There is an element of gracefulness, lucidity, and enchantment as one flips through the pages. No one who has a desire can afford to fail to notice this meticulously-researched book.

Together with germane photos to buttress her argument, Menon’s book pivots around   texts, oral traditions, schools of philosophy to exhibit   the sub-continent’s nebulous, many-sided, and rich tradition of desire. Her deft handling of the theme and narrowing it down into a single book is truly commendable.

Infinite Variety: A History of Desire in India is deeply insightful, across-the-board, and stimulating.


Bhaskar Parichha is a Bhubaneswar-based  journalist and author. He writes on a broad spectrum of  subjects , but more focused on art ,culture and biographies. His recent book ‘No Strings Attached’ has been published by Dhauli Books.