The tendency to romanticise the past, to read too much into it or too little, is hard to resist. That much-quoted line by LP Hartley — "the past is a foreign country: they do things differently there" — is true to the extent that foreign countries are seen as Arcadian zones of high promise and restored virtue by the provincial. But there's another problem with Hartley's assessment: they not only do things differently there; they do things better, and with an ease of execution that's difficult to comprehend for us contemporaries. That is why the epithet Golden Age is so often invoked when we're talking of the past — in particular the Indian past.
This sort of rose-tinted nostalgia for the ancient era is okay for a layman to harbour. Even historians, within certain limits, can be forgiven such over-sentimental indulgence, but never a novelist. The power of the novel lies in its ability to make contemporary the most ancient of settings and characters. And this can only happen when the past is presented to us in a novel without glossing over or embellishing all its shameful aspects, and its marginal lives.
One of the central conceits of Sudhir Kakar's new novel, The Devil Take Love — a biographical tale of the 5th-century love poet Bhartrihari — is shame, and how it drives people towards the margins of the society. Shame in this case, as in so many others, follows in the wake of desire.
Bhartrihari was a Sanskrit poet of love, considered, even in his own time, the greatest in the world, "whom flatterers," we're told in The Devil Take Love, once "compared to the master poet, the divine Kalidasa himself". In the novel, he is born in a provincial town in a family of modest means, and after the death of his father, travels to the great capital of Ujjayini — "the city that was rarely called by its name but was simply 'the city' to everyone in the land, the greatest nagar in the world" — in order to chase his dream of becoming a famous poet.
Wide-eyed and wonderstruck by the ways Ujjayini, Bhartrihari begins a walking tour of the ancient city — its expansive boulevards and street bazaars — soaking in its cosmopolitanism. He is here, we're told, to attend the ancient equivalent of a literary festival, where a poetry competition is due to be held. Kakar has a lot of fun recreating Ujjayini's Lit-Fest vibe: "The festival of letters was spread over three pavilions in the inner section of the palace where poets recited their latest kavyas, drama ensembles presented scenes from works in progress, and learned teachers discussed the finer points of aesthetic theories."
At the competition, Bhartrihari, already a man of refined poetic sensibility and a wide Sanskrit vocabulary to boot, runs rings around the rest of the participants. His prowess with words takes him far — Bhartrihari soon becomes the court poet of Ujjayini, finds his way into the inner circle of the dissolute king, and offers himself unrestrainedly to a life of pleasure.
"Like a poem," he says in the novel, "a city, too, has its distinct essence, and the rasa of Ujjayini, distilled to a higher concentration than anywhere else, is pleasure."
Kakar is a "distinguished psychoanalyst" (as the jacket copy of this novel describes him) and has written extensively on sex and how we think about it. His work of nonfiction, Intimate Relations: Exploring Indian Sexuality, should be made required reading for not just those who want to understand the subject, but for those looking to get the hang of the essay form. Kakar's nonfiction books do exactly what great nonfiction is supposed to do: delight and inform.
Here, though, we're dealing with a different beast. Sex hasn't exactly been a subject conducive to fictionalisation. The greatest of novelists, and indeed the most daring of them all, have avoided entering the bedrooms of their characters, preferring, as it were, to wait patiently outside and, once the dance of intimacy has ended, resume from there. Kakar, however, refuses to flinch, taking us right into the thick of it.
The pleasure-seeking poet Bhartrihari, a regular at Ujjayini's brothels, is often seen in the embrace of one concubine or the other. There indeed is a racy, three-page-long sex scene in The Devil Take Love, which can be considered a worthy candidate for what's now widely known as the Bad Sex Award. Here's a set of samples, appropriately bowdlerised and left incomplete in this family-friendly copy, of what the reader can expect: "She drops her head down to..."; "I taste the surprising..."; "Her hands begin to urgently..."; "She shudders and gives a loud..."; "My thrusts..."
Anyway, you get the picture. Sex isn't an easy subject to write about in a novel. The worst happens when the writer chooses to portray the act: you only end up making it either embarrassing or funny for the reader. There's never a middle way of gentle sensuality conveyed through prose.
That is why even a writer of Kakar's talent and precision is seen to falter somewhat in this territory. But this isn't to say that Kakar's grip slackens on his novel even for a moment. A page after the embarrassing sex scene ends, we come across this beautiful expression of post-coital reverie: "Our bodies are becoming two now."
The Devil Take Love is also a farewell note written by the great love poet to the whole of posterity. In the second half of the novel, we find Bhartrihari drained of all passion. He falls out of favour with the once-magnanimous king and, after being caught up in a scandal with the king's 13-year-old daughter, is left "waiting for the palace guards to come and drag me to the royal dungeons". His life is over. Desire, once a driving force of his days, is now giving way to shame. And his narrative is his act of atonement.
"The lure of the senses will never let a man go, a fish flailing on their hook," the poet writes on the final page of his confession. And his last attempt at verse ends thus: "Lust swats even those already dead." But poetry saves them, which is why Bhartrihari is still among us.