Paromita Vohra is a filmmaker and writer who works with fiction and non-fiction across various media to dwell on desire, feminism, urban life and popular culture. She has directed several documentaries including the pathbreaking Unlimited Girls, Q2P, Morality TV aur Loving Jehad: Ek Manohar Khani and Partners in Crime as well as the prime time TV series Connected Hum Tum. She has also written the feature film Khamosh Pani. She currently writes two newspaper columns, Paronormal Activity in the Sunday Mid-day and How to Find Indian Love in the Mumbai Mirror. She loves antakshari, poetry, cooking and earrings. Ice-cream sometimes, parmesan often, ishq always. More at www.parodevipictures.com (link). Less @parodevi (link)
ishq & Ice Cream: Because Too Much of a Good Thing can be Wonderful
Why is it that we conjure up flowers inching towards each other and can’t seem to get past the “India is the land of Kamasutra” adage when there’s talk of desi erotica? What are we missing here? Filmmaker-writer and founder, Agents of Ishq, Paromita Vohra has a few theories.
One day a researcher came to interview me for her research on moral policing and romance, themes I had worked with in Morality TV aur Loving Jehad: Ek Manohar Kahani, a documentary film I made in 2007. Despite our common concerns, our conversation skittered around a tad nervily. We agreed on the problems, but the narratives we traced around them seemed almost oppositional.
For her, moral policing was primarily about right-wing fascism and the regrettable incursion of capitalism into Indian love via Valentine’s Day. For me, it felt like a moment to wonder what young people were actually doing with love, which caused this moral panic. Maybe the moral panic simply masked the potential romantic revolution afoot in small town India?
I struggled to mirror her concern for the morally policed future; she struggled to see why I celebrated the tasteless, psychedelic kitsch of Archies shop cards and couples in small town parks.
Sometimes, it seems taste is almost as moralistic an arbiter as the moral police; that being tasteful is the liberal dress of restraint. Behaving with ‘propriety’, doing all things in moderation, or ‘dignity’ then becomes a subtle progressive moral policing – which acknowledges sexual freedom intellectually, but retains some squeamishness about sex itself. It is comfortable discussing sex as violence, disease and sexism, but rarely as sex; and unable to see talking about sex itself, as political.
For this very reason, there is, I feel, an unconscious and joyful rebellion in the lovers’ use of an aesthetic that is frequently dubbed “cheap”: names scratched on benches and fort walls, the pussy-pink and red and purple Valentine’s Day cards and preposterous stuffed toys, the florid Valentine’s Day messages in Hindi and Marathi. To call it cheap is factually correct, as it costs very little. But the shuddering description “cheap” recoils at the hormonal poetics of excess, one that accepts no limits and boundaries on the person or political, which defies canonical templates of expression in every sense.
One of the most charming examples I’ve encountered of these ideas converging, is the Indian Lovers Party in Chennai, fighting for the rights of lovers lobbying to have an ice cream cone as its election symbol – because going by what couples are eating on Marina beach, ice cream is as much the food of love as music.
To come back to the conversation with my researcher-friend, ice cream featured there too. Perhaps to diffuse the odd unease that I was being loved for my intellectual insights, but causing some bewilderment with my avidity, I brought up a conference I’d been to in Delhi. And how, I’d been so bored that the only good thing about the day had been the Nirula’s Hot Chocolate Fudge sundae I’d eaten afterwards.
At once, we were in sync – my researcher friend and I. Her face lit up – she loved it too and we talked animatedly, of our youthful excursions for it in college. I waxed eloquent: That hit of dense dark chocolate fudge, that undulation of creamy vanilla in your mouth. The connection wavered at this point. “This is amazing,” she said, but in that restrained way Americans say “that’s hilarious” without collapsing with hilarity. “I would never admit to liking and eating a hot chocolate fudge to anyone. I’m so amazed that you are doing so.” Her hands spread out to indicate “in an unrestrained fashion” perhaps.
And just like that, the unease was back, a pre-monsoon cloud that neither rains nor leaves. I felt I had been somehow gauche. I felt maybe a ‘traditionally built’ woman like myself should not be discussing food like this for obvious reasons. I felt a certain self-doubt and pushed away the weight of embarrassment trying to sit on my shoulders.
Conversations about appetites often go like this. We may remark on food as connoisseurs, display our omnivorous character as a mark of secular superiority, or discuss cooking techniques to show our skill and refinement. But to steep oneself in relish, to lose oneself to the senses, is just too shy of the deadly sin of greed. The experience of food may be converted into knowledge or cultural capital, cerebral things; to speak of one’s bodily pleasure, is almost déclassé. One may display taste for flavours, but not so much appetite for taste.
So it is with the discussion of love, sex, desire. We may speak of sex as politics, sex as culture, sex as sexism, sex as aspiration – foodgasm-orgasm, you know? We may speak of sex in a stylized fashion, to indicate our elevated position as liberated beings, and from there mock the traditional, moralistic or prudish ones who apparently are not. One may, in the consumerist universe, even speak of an aptitude for sex – how to give a blow job, how to achieve orgasm in 5 ways (or as young women in a workshop recently asked me: ‘Ma’am, why are boys always talking about this sexual position 69?’). But we must preferably not reveal, an appetite for sex – the lazy sensuality of steeping oneself in the memory of sex, the yearning for a lover, the voluptuous despair of parting, the shiver of sexual joy and the special laugh of sexual fun.
To find these revelries of the body, one has to trudge dutifully backwards and point to “our erotic heritage.” The distance immediately renders the delicious lascivious, lip-biting excess of ancient erotic poetry venerable, a proxy attendance in the classroom of the libido.
So many polarities are served by this mindset. A polarity of gender – men are always thinking about the sex act, women about love, emotions and intimacy. A polarity of permissible appetites – porn is cheap and harmful, but erotica is refined and tasteful. A polarity of morality – polyamory is automatically progressive, monogamy is de facto conservative.
As the idea of feminist liberation has been sanitized into notions of gender equality, women have begun to declare their voraciousness – they too can gorge and burp at the all-you-can-eat contest of sexual revolution – that, it seems, is the new cry. But it is an interestingly conservative one. Because somewhere it implies, that all (good) sex is the same, and all appetites equal, homogenous and therefore, normative. These assumptions are a way of drowning difference and variation, establishing one way of talking about desire. In some ways this is a ruse for not really discussing desire or allowing questions about whether sex and love are really and always so neatly separate and gendered, or if the real “normal” is that everyone wants sex the same way (calisthenic), in the same amounts (lots). This discouragement from discussing our desires, defining the nature of our appetite for sex creates many secret nesting spaces for self-doubt and shame – even within the declarations of shamelessness and empowerment that are in vogue.
Why, even when it comes to being in vogue, we enjoin these polarities. It is au courant to say we dress for ourselves, for our own sensual enjoyment, not for others. As if dressing for others, indicating that you wish to be alluring to someone, specified or not, betrays the uneasy, undefined reality of sexual appetite. As if it were not possible to simultaneously feel and be alluring for one’s own pleasure and also as a call to pleasure.
But perhaps sex, romance, love, desire, being horny, being lovesick, self-pleasure and mutual pleasure are all allied pieces of furniture in one room, arranged, more tastily than tastefully, to stay in conversation, even if from time to time, they don’t feel so interested in each other? Trying to discuss this is to meet a wavering gaze, which feels there is too much actual talk about sex.
How much sex is too much sex, how much sex-talk too much sex talk? Perhaps the only one who can answer this question is really the one whose appetite has sickened and so, died. For the rest of us, the trials are on.
And how come no one ever considers – how much sex is too little? How much talk of sex not enough?
Maybe this question is worth asking, as we think of how to work against the schisms between genders, between self and others, between utility and pleasure, between violence and aspiration, and to free ourselves from the schemas around sex – where sex is empowerment, sex is gendered behavior, sex is violence, sex is politics, but sex is so rarely, so infrequently, sex. At least one way to do that is to take sex away from the need to always tangibilise it through all these other things – and allow its intangible, experiential aspects some space and time.
Why do it, you may ask. The comfortable – and truthful answer – is that it helps us imagine a way out of the deadlock of gender violence. But this is not enough truth.
What’s also true is: It breaks the deadlock within ourselves, the anxiety of definition that overpowers us, paralyses us and renders us alone. It rescues us from looking at sex as an exam we must pass to something we do as naturally as eating, sometimes indifferently, sometimes avidly, sometimes with a dedication to pleasure, sometimes a loving dedication to a partner’s. It is an intangible idea, an idea almost completely to do with sex and the self.
Something like truthfulness – for the truth is perpetually beyond grasping – might exist if the tangible and intangible could co-exist, mirroring the essential nature of human and political existence. And to think of how to do this when we think of sex – is simply to expand the idea of sex as only a genital appetite to being an appetite of the senses, the appetite that works with all of the senses.
As a filmmaker I know that films do this. The fear of cinema, the desire to censor it, arises from its libidinal power to touch our bodies with heightened offerings to the senses, which might move us to anything. In making political films, people sometimes turn their faces away from these visceral urges of cinema. They privilege the tastefulness of proof, tangible realism, a literal-minded, correct politics without uncertainty and ambiguity. They hesitate before the thrills and risks of the beautiful, the joyful, the pleasurable, as a way of touching the audience’s bodies and so, entering their minds and spirits. In the world of liberal political change, this is often seen as an excess, a superfluity, maybe even cheap (oh to be cheap and put a smiley here!).
In my filmmaking work, I have long worked with these ideas, making films that played with sensory pleasure, maybe even a masala overload, to reflect on politics, to make audiences experience with their senses what a different political perspective might feel like, and so become something they might consider or choose. To bring politics down from the high-minded, selfless heights of noble templates (same place where The Ten Commandments hang out) and into the messy, vulnerable everyday place of a passionate relationship with ideas, for all kinds of people – this has been my artistic endeavor in all my films, as may be evident from their pulchritudinous titles (‘Unlimited Girls’, ‘Partners in Crime’, and so on).
And maybe these political, sensory ideas had been in my mind, even in my life as a single woman, living on her own; a woman not puritanical about sex yet unable to buy into the somewhat glib notions of what sexual liberation looked like (an unexamined polyamory for the most), underneath which lurked unspoken squiggles of power and unfairness that it wasn’t easy to point to.
So I wondered how to start a conversation about sex through my work, which could hold the tangibles of sex alongside the intangibles without giving primacy to either? If I were to conceive of a project about sex, for a more multifaceted imagination of sex, how would I do it?
That is how Agents of Ishq, a multi-media digital project was born – not as a replication of these ideas and desires, nor an instruction drawing from them, but as an invitation to define them together, as one might in conversation, as one could in sex.
There was a reason for choosing the internet. It is the home of sex. Sex as porn-erotica, sex as dating, sex as an endless consuming of pleasure and ideas. It is a place where all kinds of people live, making unlikely connections.
The word Ishq, we chose advisedly – desire, romance, infatuation, wanting, love with sex in it, sex with lovingness in it. In my mind, ishq is an umami sex word – a sixth taste you can’t quite define, but know deeply and experience in the centre of your senses.
Agents of Ishq is part art project, part advocacy initiative, part media foray – the refusal to be pigeonholed, helped us to think that we could evolve a new shape of our own with others. I knew only this, that everything in Agents of Ishq, even the ‘List of Sexually Transmitted Infections’ and the ‘Right Contraceptive Match for You’ must be done in an atmosphere of pleasure and fun. That the project must be a garden under the sea, a landscape in the sky – twinkling with mischief, smiling with pleasure, thinking without judging, stating without asserting. In it, each thing that pleasures the senses – touch, images, movement, beauty, fun, music, poetry, puns, dance, theory – must be present, the rarefied and the common, both in one place.
This was done with the secret hope that agar pehel hamari aisi hogi, toh jawab shayad yun hi hoga: that the gesture of invitation would determine the nature of the response, because only the right question can lead to the slow unfolding of love, no?
And it did. As we began work on Agents of Ishq, an entire obscured universe of Indian sexual life opened up, returning our offer of pleasure, with answering pleasures, brimming up to fill our senses. People began writing to us to contribute their stories, which fit into none of the templates that the sex surveys and assertions about Indian sexuality impose on us.
In ‘Jewels like Flowers: About Men’s Bodies and Women’s Desires’, Elise wrote of the penis:
“As for the erection? When addressed to one who it desires, and one who desires it, it is, simply, paradise on earth. It should be photographed, drawn, filmed, written, sung, sculpted… Why do we never see it?”
AK, a young man of 21, from Dharavi, in his podcast of his “rainy season ki kahani”, ‘Park Mein PDA (PDA in the Park)’, narrates:
“Usne mujhe smooch kiya toh aise laga jaise uske moon mein se mere moonh mein koi alag si taste aayi, ek meetha sa taste. Jaise mere hothon ko koi taste mili hai jo woh chhodna nahin chahte hain.”
He smooched me, and it felt like some unusual, sweet taste entered from his mouth into mine; a taste my lips would never be able to let go of.
Rogue Hasina, a 23-year-old from Bombay wrote, in ‘The Flower of My Secret’:
“Speaking of strokes, after overcoming the initial hesitations, sexual self-exploration was always a pleasurable experience. I realized how my body was capable of producing pleasure that was so fleeting yet so profound. Any remaining reservations I had about my actions dissolved after I experienced my first orgasm (hell yeah!).”
Satya, 19, yearns for a girl who is scared of sex and satisfies himself with drinking her in:
“Uski ankhen bahut hi pyari hain. Woh chashma lagati hai. Uski ankhen dekhta hoon toh lagta hai main usmein doob jaaoon. Uske baalon mein aisi sugandh hai jo mujhe bahut achchi lagti thi. Woh apne kaan mein ek hi earring pehenti hai. Thodi ajeeb hai, par acchi lagti hai.”
Her eyes are adorable. She wears glasses. I drown in her eyes. Her hair has a peculiar perfume which I just love. She wears only one earring. She’s a bit odd but I really like her so very much.
In story after story that people sent us, unsolicited, what unfolded was a world throbbing with sensory awareness, an appetite for pleasure, which revealed a beauty, self-awareness, vulnerability and sexual strength. When invited with no hint of shame or pressure to present their narrative in a narrow political frame, people offered stories of great openness and layers, without pontification and false moralities – progressive or regressive.
They simply shared, through stories of sex-love-desire, a part of themselves. Joined to a whole, sitting alongside our information on safe sex, relationship types, sexual orientation, they formed a whole menu for appetites of every kind. A place you could come into and break sexual bread with.
Mainstream lecture-ousness matched by moralistic lecherouness, fears this appetite and keeps talking about repression and morality as if these are our only sexual realities (though they are certainly a part of our reality).
Yet are we not, in South Asian culture, at one level comfortable with our sensory appetites? With our love of food, our 500 pickles, our daily soaps, our 90 years of film songs, remembered, remixed, ringtoned, relished, do we not reveal the insatiable appetite of our senses? Why wouldn’t we be so in our relationship to sex as well? Who is served by pretending that we are a sexually repressed culture? Somehow explored via its appetites, the culture itself doesn’t co-operate with this perspective.
What would be the point of doing this then – looking at sex as an appetite of the senses? It is in the end, the only radical possibility. Only when we can accept these appetites in their complete unmatched set as sex, can we begin to acknowledge that we, each of us, is simultaneously in multiple sexual relationships.
The relationship in which we swap music with that one person, the other one in which we cannot stop talking whenever we meet, the one whom we have sex with once a year, the one with whom we have sex all the time, the one whose gaze we always hold a little too long, the one who likes to cook for us, whose food we always savour with a thrill, the one who makes us smile with how he dresses, so we dwell on his body and never hide that we do. In some way, when seen through the prism of the senses, all of this is sex, all of these are sexual relationships.
And maybe if we can see that and respect and love it and enjoy it, we can loosen the chastity belt of hierarchy, from our minds and hearts and groins, imagining a world of varied meaningful loves and sexes and selves. When, through the world of sex, we privilege the world of the senses, as much as the world of the mind, the tangibles and intangibles of power, the interplay of the objective and subjective in truth and fairness and love, we may become vulnerable, assailable, to change.
Then, maybe we can all be agents of ishq (and ice cream).