India in the 1960s. We were growing up very quickly, and could not imagine the luxury of a boudoir, or even a room of one’s own, closed to others. There was no concept of such a space, and yet, the onus was on ourselves to hide, for protection. But hide we couldn’t, for youth was everywhere, and when strange eyes wandered to rest on ours, they excited us enough to look for ways to form the private. It was at once painful and beautiful. It hurt because it felt so intense, and when sweet attentions became too obvious to conceal, we built secret passages, and found paths unknown even to ourselves.
Our mentor was Sushil – “a woman of good character.” She was always the first to design our moves. At night, when we had made sure that no one was awake, she would ask us to collect in the open, sometimes under the light of a full moon, and she would read to us sections from the Kama Sutra. She had torn pages from a translated edition, and had sewn them inside the stuffing of an old cotton pillow that had grown stiff and dry with age. She carefully brought out these sheets of paper to read to us. It was a ritual, and we listened with our eyes, ears, lips and hands, enjoying every word, straining to catch a glimpse of the grey, worn out illustrations that occasionally appeared magically on her pages.
Even more wonderful were her modifications and narration. One of our favourites was the description of women from different regions of India.
“Tell us about women from Andhra,” we would ask.
“They have tender bodies, they are full of enjoyment, and have a liking for voluptuous pleasures.”
“Tell us about the women of Punjab.”
“The women of Abhira, and those of the country around the Indus and the five rivers are gained over by – I cannot pronounce the word – mouth congress.”
We could not understand mouth congress, but it did not matter. “Tell us about those in Maharashtra,” we cried excitedly.
“The women of Maharashtra are fond of practising the sixty-four arts; they utter low and harsh words, and like to be spoken to in the same way, and have an impetuous desire of enjoyment.”
There was silence for a moment to allow the gravity of this to sink in, and for the visuals to set in. We were lost in admiration of this wonderful disclosure, this sharing of emotive and prohibited sensations.
“I will now replace woman with man,” whispered Sushil. “I like it so much better. Listen!
When the man begins to show outward signs and motions, the woman should intentionally hold his hand. At parties and assemblies, she should sit near him and touch him under some pretense or other, and having placed her foot upon his, she should slowly touch each of his toes, and press the ends of his nails. She should also press a finger of his hand between her toes when he happens to be washing her feet; and whenever she gives anything to him or takes anything from him, she should show him by her manner and look how much she loves him.”
The moon was resplendent, and we could tell Sushil was enjoying herself.
“I will now replace again. This time, I will simply take out the men. It sounds even better. Quiet! Promise you won’t tell anyone of these secret readings.”
We all promised most earnestly, waiting for her to continue, hanging on to every word she said.
“The girl should try to be alone with her beloved girl friend in some quiet place, and at odd times should give her flowers and perfumes – it said betel nut and betel nut leaves, but I hate betel nut. Therefore, I take it out. I simply take out what I don’t like and replace it with whatever I like – ‘She should also talk to her on the subjects she likes best, and discuss with her the ways and means of gaining over and winning her affections. It is only when she is certain that she is truly loved, and that her lover is indeed devoted to her, and will not change her mind, that she should then give herself up to her.”
And so it went. “The Kama Sutra according to Sushil” we began to call it. She did what she liked with it, and had us listening as visuals followed one another at breakneck speed, spilling over with energy in our minds, keeping us from our beds, and placing us together in a tryst of sorts, a tryst of imagination.
We graduated from high school and then university. Suitable matches were sought out for us. Sushil started keeping to herself, and the Kama Sutra was left unopened. We seemed to have outgrown it. Except for Sushil. She still kept it sewn inside the pillow, and occasionally, when she took it out to show us, we saw how it had been written over, with the original print now blackened and illegible.
One of us was engaged. Another one was soon to be engaged, and Sushil and her family had moved to another city. The photographs of many suitable grooms were shown to me, but marriage seemed distant and frightening. I continued to study as an excuse to not have to face the prospect of marriage, and I wondered about Sushil. More than ever, I wanted to have her read to me under the light of the moon.
“Sushil is not well.” This came from my mother, and then from my father. I found her address, and wrote to her, but did not hear back. I wrote again, this time, inviting her to come and see me. Again, there was only silence.
I left my hometown. Some thought I had run off with a stranger. Others thought I had gone away for “further studies,” a term used for when there is little else to say. I kept writing to Sushil hoping to hear from her.
And finally, there was a response:
“I received most of your letters, but did not write back. It was too painful. Years ago, when you were collecting your many certificates and degrees, I was wondering about myself. My family thought there was something wrong. They took me to “village doctors” who threw roasted chillies on me, hoping to ward off my evil spirits. The smell of those chillies made my eyes look like those of a sick woman. Permanently. They thought I was haunted and made me look hunted. Well, you know what I mean. Then, there were these medications prescribed by a variety of physicians. My mother made sure I took them, but I cheated, and found ways of keeping them under my tongue while I swallowed a lot of air. Later, I spat them out like the betel nut juice I always hated.
But the visits never stopped. They took me to homeopaths who gave me small, sugary pills. I quite liked the taste, but I could not cheat because they dissolved almost immediately in my mouth. I had a feeling that these would take my words away from me, words that I loved more than anything else. I still have the old torn sheets from the Kama Sutra, and I continue to write over them.
You might have heard that I am no longer with my family. I am no longer in India, and I am no longer on medication. I am in my little world, and if you ever want to see what it is like, feel free to join me. I will be waiting.”
Nilambri Ghai is an editor of Montréal Serai.