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Thursday, Dec 02, 2021
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Review

Expatiation Riddled By A Tale

Das’s erudite treatise on the nature of desire—its opposite pulls and its shape in literature—is weakly illumined by a fictional prop with cardboard characters

Expatiation Riddled By A Tale
Expatiation Riddled By A Tale
outlookindia.com
2018-10-09T13:43:39+05:30

The first thing that strikes the reader of Gurcharan Das’s new book, Kama: The Riddle of Des­ire, is its sheer size: Is there rea­lly, one wonders, 550 pages worth of fresh insight into what he describes as a “sense-intoxicating emotion”? As it happens, there is, and Kama is a creditable attempt to encapsulate in a single, voluminous tome the author’s informed grasp of the subject of desire. The prose flows smoothly (despite the odd repetition of a sentence on the same page, and a few typographical errors), and there is strength in Das’s exposition, enriched by an insightful reading of texts. Marcel Proust makes regular intellectual appearances, as does wisdom from the Mah­abharata. We learn from the Panchatantra, even as we encounter Sextus Propertius and Anna Karen­ina. The book is at once a philosophical rumination as it is an explication of legendary works of literature, and on the whole stands on sound legs, adding to the author’s already imp­ressive bibliography.

There are, however, two books in Kama. The first and more appealing of these is where desire is investigated through a broad sweep of history, and a study of the perennial contest between “kama optimists” and “kama pessimists” (a very interesting categorisation). The former welcome desire as a meaningful purpose in life in its own right, and Vatsyayana belongs in this category; the latter perceive desire as another human limitation to surpass in order to arrive in the vicinity of true meaning. The pessimists, as any Indian could tell, app­ear to have won most battles and Das points out that while the Victorians heightened our passion for competitive prudishness, there was always a general “surfeit of kama pessimism” in Indian philosophical traditions. The Maha­bharata is a case in example, where kama is a “many-coloured, brilliant and strange tree”, born from ignorance, anger, ego, ambition, sorrow and much else that falls necessarily in a catalogue of negative things.

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