The Difficulty of Being Kama

The book strips age-old salacity and shows Kama in many shades of grey

Published: 04th October 2014 10:00 PM  |   Last Updated: 04th October 2014 11:49 AM   |  A+A-


Kama is deva, a god, but he hardly gets his due anymore. Agni, Vayu, Indra are all invoked with mantras on some earthly business or the other, but Kama’s name is uttered furtively and then greeted with titters. He is one half of a modern byword for pornography: Kamasutra. It is just as the god, in Anuja Chandramouli’s Kamadeva: The God of Desire, tells his stepmother, the goddess Saraswati: “It is highly unlikely that in future people will build temples in my honour or compose beautiful songs for me. I will be lucky if I am remembered enough to be featured prominently in pornographic material; worse still is the distinct possibility that the god, Kama, will be lampooned as the divine pimp!”

Anuja does not go into the ‘why’ of Kama’s fall. That is known to be an outcome of long colonial rule, for Khajuraho and countless other temples across the country testify that Kama’s business was sacred enough to grace their walls till a few hundred years ago. Victorian prudery knocked this minor god off his pedestal, but ironically, the influence he lost in India is now strongly visible in the West.

What The God of Desire does, without trying too hard, is it strips all the accumulated innuendo and salacity that have wrapped Kama over the past couple of hundred years, and shows him in many shades of grey (no pun intended). He is sensitive, sensuous, beautiful, thoughtful and even righteous.

The main episodes in Kama’s story are easy to find, and some of them are widely known—such as his reduction to ashes by Shiva—as they figure in the legends of greater gods, but Anuja’s well-researched book goes beyond the well-known and tells a gripping tale full of drama in a deliciously irreverent tone for what is essentially the minutes of the business of gods.

Here’s Kama speaking to Vasanta: “What is it about these self-righteous holier-than-thou types that makes them run around cursing all and sundry or granting stupid boons to goons? If they have ascetic merit to spare, then they could use it to end poverty, misery, crime, rape and whatever newest outrage the humans have come up with to destroy themselves. But no…the best they can do is punish a poor girl for the unforgivable crime of wanting to get laid!”

BOOK-1.jpgAnd this flows from the mouth of the great goddess, Gauri: “Now that you no longer look like you have swallowed a porcupine or have one stuck up your behind, perhaps we may begin to discuss the reasons for my summons?”

It is perhaps for these liberties that the book is classified as ‘fiction’, not mythology, but it is in fact a very good primer on our gods and goddesses and episodes from various Puranas. The very first chapter, which is about Kama’s birth, tells more about the traits of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva, and sure-footedly negotiates a fraught topic like the libido of deities and their incestuous urges: “Even the Prajapatis, that uber respectable gathering of superior beings, discovered to their horror the inner lecher in them as they ogled their sister to their heart’s content.”

But for the inevitable sexual references in a book on this subject, The God of Desire could have been recommended reading for children. (A sanitized, but not bowdlerized, edition would be valuable). There’s so much in this book that you have probably never heard of: the goddess Saraswati was born a siren named Sandhya, gave up her life in shame and was revived as Saraswati by Shiva. Vasanta, the god of spring, was born from Brahma’s breath as a companion for Kama. Porcupine, alligator and chameleon were created when Indra, who had come to relieve Apala, a woman blighted with a purulent disease upon a Brahmin’s curse, stripped off three layers of her old skin.

There’s never a dull page in this history of Kamadeva, “this indecent creature with his ridiculous bow and flowery arrows,” as Shiva describes him. At the very beginning, the song of Kama makes it clear, “I cannot be destroyed by any creature by any means”. And that’s a self-evident truth in a world with a seven-billion-plus (and growing) population. Kamadeva tells what is not evident—or has been forgotten—in the tale of the god who is driving this growth.


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