Book review – The Ascetic of Desire

“Of what use is the practice of virtue, when its results are so uncertain?” – Kamasutra 1.2.21

Thus begins the book ‘The Ascetic of Desire’ by Sudhir Kakar. I chuckled, marvelled at this insightful comment and promptly bought this book to devour on a flight.

Ascetic of Desire

In this work of fiction set in the 4th century AD, a young scholar is finding his way about the world and discovering his sexuality. Though living in a relatively permissive era, he has questions which his friends, books or even a visit to the courtesan cannot resolve.

One day, he hears about a famous ascetic’s arrival to a nearby hermitage. Rumoured to have been instructed by goddess Ratidevi, the consort of Kama, the god of love, Vatsyayana was the author of a treatise about the art of love-making. His Kamasutra was considered the key to unlocking the secrets of a woman’s desire and pleasure. Intrigued by his work, the young Brahmin takes it upon himself to pen Vatsyayana’s biography. Through him, we delve into Vatsyayana’s childhood and understand how he came to be the master of erotic literature. Also, the biographer’s account of his discoveries about love and lust runs parallel to the narrative.

We get a glimpse into his Vatsyayana’s childhood in one of the famous brothels of Kusambi. With well-renowned courtesans as his mother and sister, he is exposed at an early age to the world of desire. His perspective is shaped majorly by the pride his mother and aunt take in their bodies, their knowledge of the sixty-four arts and their vocation. And this life finally lays the foundation of his masterpiece.

Though it sounds textbook-like at times with its clinical discourse on size, timing and technique, the book presents interesting depictions of royalty, society and sexual mores of those times. On the other hand, the author’s sketch of Vatsyayana’s character seems inadequate, especially his layered relationship with his wife Malavika. And is the Oedipal/Freudian undertone just my imagination? The book loses pace in between and only curiosity keeps you going.

Would love to know what you think. Please weigh in once you finish reading this book.

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