April 19, 2001


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The Rediff Interview/ Psychoanalyst Sudhir Kakar

'Those who are against the sexual revolution need not be so
One of India's best-known psychoanalysts, Sudhir Kakar is a novelist too.

And that poses a problem in itself -- because when he writes, people often ask if his books are an analysis of the human behaviour. If economists and bureaucrats could write novels without pointing the obvious, wonders Kakar, why cannot he?

His last novel, The Ascetic of Desire, based on the life of Vatsyayana, made waves abroad and is available in 12 languages. Now, in his latest novel, Ecstasy, Kakar delves into the astonishing relationship of two mystics. The book has enough conflict, triggered off by the confrontation of Indian conservatism and western rationalism.

Kakar spoke to Roving Editor Ramesh Menon about his new book, corruption, and the sexual revolution.

Let us start talking about your latest book.

It is a novel called Ecstasy. The title may have attractive connotations to some readers, but it really comes from its original meaning: outside oneself. It is a book about transcendence -- of the religious, mystical kind.

What does it deal with?

It deals with a lots of things. It deals with the making of a mystic. It deals with two characters who are very different. One is steeped in traditional religiosity. The other is a modern, rational sceptic but who is not closed to tradition. It deals with their encounters. And how one is influenced by the other.

The characters are modelled on Ramakrishna and Vivekananda. Incidents from their lives are a part of the fiction. It does not however take place in Bengal, but in Rajasthan. It is set in the forties and sixties.

It is contemporary?

It is contemporary in its concerns. The encounters take place in modern India between traditional devotional religiosity and its confrontation with global modern influences.

That sounds interesting. This is very different from your previous books.

There are two spheres of human life where transcendence is possible. One is sexual love and the other is the mystical one. Over 23 years ago, I wrote about Vivekananda and over ten years ago on Ramakrishna. It also dealt with these concerns.

So it has been a long journey. Those concerns stayed and I reworked them in a fictionalised way. So, it is both old and new.

How long did it take to write it?

Three years.

When did you get the time to write? You are quite busy?

I have a busy life. But I try to write.

Did you write daily?

No. I am a very lazy writer. Sometimes I write for a stretch. And then, do not write for days. It is a good feeling after it is done. I finished it as I wanted to feel the pleasure of its completion.

You are seen as the guru of psychoanalysis in India. Has your novel woven in some of the wealth of your own experiences?

That is one of the difficulties in the reception of my novels. When I write a novel, everyone looks at it as a psychoanalyst writing a novel. That should not be the case. Mathematicians write novels. Vikram Seth is an economist and he writes novels. But since I am a psychoanalyst, people expect that kind of analysis in my writing.

There is a lot of insight you could give to writing with your background.

If you look at the various professions from which writers come, I think psychoanalysis is more closely related to novelists than any other profession. So it is a logical step for me. Both deal with lives and its details.

In psychoanalysis, you recreate real stories, in fiction, you create other stories. The creation of life is common to both. Personally, I cannot distinguish much between the two. Psychoanalysis also uses imagination. I use empathy to see the lives of the character.

When you write a book, people expect an analysis in it?

I wonder what people think when they are told that a psychoanalyst has written this book. Not many psychoanalysts have written books. So the expectation worldwide is to see some kind of analysis in it.

Your last book, Ascetic of Desire, was well received worldwide.

I have just signed for the Hungarian translation. The French one came out last month. Now, it is in 12 languages.

Did you start writing the second book soon after the first one?

Yes, immediately after the first one.

So will you now start the third one?

No. I am taking a break. Most who write their first novels are very young. So, it is usually a coming of age kind of novel with all their experiences. So after the first book, they have to wait to write their second one. Because most of their experiences are in the first book. But since I was much older, I could write the second novel more easily.

Are Indian attitudes changing?

There are rapid changes in visible areas like politics and economics. But changes in areas like family ties, for instance, are much slower. Attitudes and family values are changing slowly. Otherwise, there would have been a churning in society.

Is it a good thing?

It is a good thing. It aids stability. The family is the most important cell of social life. It helps us handle turbulence. Otherwise, it would have been disastrous. We can take what is happening in India only because of the family, which provides us a safe haven from where we can go out and battle something or the other everyday.

The family is a great pillar.

Absolutely. It is a great pillar. But it has its own problems. Ours is a patriarchal society. Women have had to pay a heavy price to keep families intact. However, even that is changing slowly. I am glad it is happening slowly as there should be a gradual evolution from the patriarchal society to a more equitable one. Otherwise, the churning would lead to disaster.

The condition of women in many parts of India is still very pathetic.

Women have not got a fair deal. They continue to pay a heavy price for the sake of family stability. With women changing, there is a pressure on men to change too. In the middle class, it is already happening with women taking to working now. There is greater sharing of course with a lot of conflicts. It has increased the workload for women who are paying the price of emancipation. Earlier men looked after the education of children. Now women have taken over that too and they have more work to do.

What about the relationship between the sexes?

The changes are still very slow. The division of work, the patterns of deference, obedience, commands are all changing very slowly in some spheres. The man continues to make the financial decisions and the woman defers to it. Despite the fact that the woman too earns.

The changes are mainly in urban India where the woman has more space.

Yeah. In rural areas the change is much slower.

How have sexual attitudes changed?

Sexual attitudes have changed much lesser than what the media portrays. Sexual attitudes are still very conservative and I do not mean it in a bad sense. Earlier, most of the sexual experiences were in the ambit of the family. Now, it is more outside. So it seems that a lot is happening. Even today, cousins, uncles and aunts are involved (with each other), but it is largely directed outward. It is still accompanied by guilt and shame. Sexuality is still not seen as freedom of the psyche and body. It is still surrounded by feelings of shame and guilt.

But women are experiencing a change...

There is a change in the women in the middle class where they have become more vocally aware of their bodies and can share experiences with other women.

Maybe, it is related with the stability of the family. Sexuality can be very subversive of family stability. This stability is related to conservative sexual morality. The fear is that it can upset all balances. So, it is connected. One believes that for family stability one has to be sexually conservative otherwise the whole thing will break up.

What about attitudes among the young? Are they much more comfortable with their sexuality?

Yes, but in their talk only. Sexual talk is in vogue and they can go along with it. Whether just talking has changed their attitudes, is a difficult question. There is sexual experimentation outside the family so one thinks they are sexually more active. But when you talk to them they are conservative.

The emphasis on virginity is still there. Almost 75 per cent in urban India and 90 per cent in rural India have their first sexual experience after marriage. Men's first sexual experience is mainly with sex workers. Marriage is still the overwhelming venue of the first sexual experience for women.

So not much of changed. There is only a lot of media hype about a sexual revolution. Where is it really? One does not see it.

All those who are against the sexual revolution need not spend so much energy. There is nothing much happening. Sushma Swaraj need not be so worried and spend so much of her time and energy. There is nothing happening that should worry her.

What about Indian attitudes to corruption and ethics?

My job is understanding. One often confuses understanding with excusing. I am not excusing what is happening. The Indian has always been context sensitive. We have had no absolute ethics. That this is bad and this is good. The answer has always been: it depends.

Right from the days of Manu, it has always been this is wrong, but it depends on who did it and in what circumstances. If the Brahmin did it, this is going to be the punishment. If someone else did it, this is going to be the punishment.

Even in the Kamasutra, there is a chapter on adultery. It talks of how to seduce women. He starts by saying that this is wrong and this should not be done, but in peculiar circumstances, this could happen. And he should do it this way. In the end, he would say that this has happened, but should not have happened in the first place.

Our attitude to all kinds of corruption is that thou shall or shall not. But then, you will see who did it and when it was done. We will excuse someone who is stealing to pay for his mother's medicines. We will therefore have problems in dealing with corruption.

Let us look at the latest defence scandal. Don't you see a lot of cynicism around? When you tell people today about a racket, they ask for the proof. When you give them the proof, they say: so what?

(Laughs) Yeah, it is a difficult question to answer. The common man has been put on a pedestal. They are the people who are really responsible. They elect the politicians to power. The question of the wisdom of the common man is overblown.

Is it also that they do not want to act?

Yeah, they just feel that it is somebody else's problem. Let the others fix it. I cannot.

What are the distortions of religion you see today?

We pride ourselves on Hindu tolerance and Hindu universality. That Hinduism is an universal religion and there are different paths to God. If that is the case, what difference does it make if a Hindu becomes a Muslim or Christian. When our right wing activists like the VHP attack conversion, how do they explain this? The VHP also espouse these values. If any meddling is done with these two core values of tolerance and universalism, there will be trouble.

In one of his sadhnas, Ramakrishna practiced as a Muslim. He practised different faiths. It will be interesting to see what the VHP has to say about this.

Why is there a sudden rise in spirituality?

It may be because of the uncertainties of modern life. One would suspect that it is also because the family -- which is supposed to be a safe haven, has started feeling pressures and religion provides one more safety net.

Its main function is therapeutic. It tells you how to deal with emotional problems. Diagnosis, treatment and prognosis of emotional problems are all there in religion. It is pyscho-therapeutic. The traditional family may not be able to provide this. So rise in religiosity is bound to happen.

Earlier, it was the larger Indian family that took care. Grandmothers told you stories...

Grandmothers are not there today. You also do not have the time for rituals. You do not know how to perform them. You get bhajan cassettes to replace the family singing. Stories, myths, rituals are all getting homogenized.

Would you see it as a negative thing?

It is a bad thing as cultural and religious diversities are being lost. But it is good that at least some religiosity is still being maintained.

The Ecstasy review

Sudhir Kakar's earlier books were: The Inner World (1978), Shamans, Mystics and Doctors (1982), Tales of Love, Sex and Danger (1986), Intimate Relations (1990), The Analyst and the Mystic (1992) The Colours of Violence (1996), Culture and Psyche (1997), Indian Love Stories (1999) and The Ascetic of Desire (1998)

Design: Dominic Xavier; Photograph: Saab Press

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