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June 2, 1999


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The Rediff Interview/Lee Siegel

'Writing novels was hard, but scholarly writing was easier'

The Kamasutra, the Indian manual on sex and love, has fascinated many a writer, artist, and film-maker. It inspired Lee Siegel, a professor of Indian religions at the University of Hawaii, to write Love in a Dead Language, a book that blends fact with fiction. It is a love story, a translation of the Kamasutra, an erotic farce and a murder mystery.

Love in a Dead Language The hero of this protean comedy, Leopold Roth, complains, "I am a tenured professor of Indian studies and a Sanskrit scholar, and yet never, never in my life, have I made love to an Indian woman." Imagining that such an intimacy would provide a deeper and truer understanding of what he has spent his academic life mastering, a happily married Roth becomes obsessed with Lalita Gupta, a nubile student and avatar of his fantasies of a sexually-idyllic ancient realm.

Although this California-born Indian girl has no interest in India, the past or him, Roth sets out to seduce her and, at the same time, to teach her who she is in terms of the history of Indian culture. To that end he begins to translate the Kamasutra for her, interspersing that translation with confessional commentary. By inventing a bogus summer study abroad program, the professor is able to abduct Lalita to India.

After an emotionally tumultuous summer, Roth returns home only to be suspended from teaching, left by his wife and beaten to death with a Sanskrit dictionary. Roth's murder leaves the completion of his translation to graduate student Anang Saighal.

Love in a Dead Language exposes the complicities between the carnal and the intellectual, the erotic and the exotic, the false and the true. According to the review, "Readers who love complicated plots, soaring language, etymological puzzles, and academic tomfoolery, will have a ball with this playful instance of literary smoke and mirrors."

A graduate in Fine Arts from Columbia University, with a post doctorate in Sanskrit from Oxford University, Siegel was smitten by teaching when he chanced upon a job in Washington which he had to take up as his wife was expecting. He moved to the University of Hawaii in 1976 when he was offered a position in the Department of Religion. Since then his interest in everything Indian has grown, which is reflected in his books which include Net of Magic: Wonders and Deceptions in India, City of Dreadful Night: A Tale of Horror and the Macabre in India, and now, Love In A Dead Language.

In a telephone interview with Madona Devasahayam, Siegel, 53, speaks about how his new book came about and his impressions of India.

How and why did Love In A Dead Language come about?

There are a variety of ways to respond to this question. My earliest notions of India have to do with the Kamasutra, the temples of Khajuraho, everything erotic and exotic about India. The Kamasutra is not about India, but about dreams of love-making, about facing the reality of longing. There is this temptation to imagine there is something exotic.

When one thinks of India, two books come to mind, the Bhagvad Gita and the Kamasutra. India knows something about religion and sex and we don't know but we want to know.

The worst and best books ever written are about love. My inspiration is the Kamasutra. The book is an attempt to write about love. Most of the people attempt to write about love, some fail, some don't.

How much time did you spend on this project?

I had thought about it for a long time, almost six to seven years. I made a few bad starts. I started off by translating the Kamasutra, making the book an academic one. But I soon let go of the need to be truthful. I guess all lovers do that. I wrote a lot, then junked it, then did nothing for 8 to 9 months. The book was a little bit of a struggle. I decided to make it a narrative for scholarship. It is a pure novel which looks like scholarship. I realized that writing novels was hard, but scholarly writing was easier, and it was easier to get a publisher. In each of books I have played around with two literary genres.

For whom is this book intended?

Anyone who has been to college and has been in love could be the reader. It is not so much restricted to the academic circle. But I think it is a book that is not easy to read, and therefore caters to a specialized audience. I cannot expect people in Hawaii lying in bikinis reading this book. The book makes an argument, it educates. One should have fun reading the book and I hope there a few around who would have a laugh. I am sure Khushwant Singh would be interested in reading it.

What is the feedback you have received from readers on this book?

The review in The New York Times was flattering. I felt so lucky. I liked the reviewer's appreciation. He focused on the language. But readers who read it for page turning plot would be disappointed. People who love me have responded positively and lovers lie. The press was nervous about the book earlier, considering it a tricky book. But it is selling. All my earlier books sold not more than 3,000 copies. But this book is getting much more attention than I am used to.

What are some of the moments you cherish while working on this book?

What is interesting about working on this book was that I spent writing it at my mother's home in Beverly Hills. It was where I grew up as a child. It was there I felt the emotions of a child, a teenager, the first awakenings of love and fantasies of being in India. The long-lost feelings came back to me when I wrote the book in the poolhouse at home. The experiences were more internal.

Why did you choose the names you did in the book?

I am a sucker for Indian languages. People in India have names that mean something. That is so attractive. The names in the book had some association. All of them have some reason. Lalita Gupta means "perfect" and "hidden". Anang (in Anang Saighal) means "bodiless." Roth is taken from my mother's maiden name, and not Philip Roth as the New York Times Reviewer noted.

Why did you to decide to study Sanskrit?

What interested me in the rich culture, the grand civilization that is India. India was a place where one could go to. The past there is persistent with the present. Both the modern and the 1,000-year old co-exist there. I was attracted to the art and culture.

How often do you go to India?

I have been to India about 15 times since 1974. I was in Madras for a long time. So many centuries overlap in that city and I had a wonderful time. I have been to Calcutta, Puri, and I am very happy in Delhi. While in Benaras, I felt as if I were in ancient India. Benaras is a struggle. I worked on a book about jadugars (street magicians) and saperas (snake charmers), and spent a lot of time travelling and performing with them. We had a pet python named Phoolan Devi that we would take with us to the bar and would ask for "Do beer, ek doodh!" ('Two beer and one milk'). I spent my 51st birthday at the Taj Mahal. There is something about walking there and sitting on the cool marble. You love places where you have friends and I love India.


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