cover image The Ascetic of Desire

The Ascetic of Desire

Sudhir Kakar. Overlook Press, $25.95 (256pp) ISBN 978-1-58567-007-9

This lushly sensual and thoughtful debut novel by New Delhi psychoanalyst Kakar was inspired by the mysterious Vatsayana who wrote the Kama Sutra sex manual between the first and sixth centuries of the present era. Vatsayana's story, his interpretations of the ancient rules and more iconoclastic views of eroticism, are dispersed to a young fictional student, a Brahman scholar. The student, pursuing the traditional studies of dharma (Holy Writ) and atha (prosperity), comes under the influence of Vatsayana when he begins to dabble in the study of kama (sensual enjoyment), to the dismay of his conservative teachers and parents. Vatsayana's lectures at the Seven Leaf hermitage include the essence of the Kama Sutra and Hindu mythology that guide the student's mind into the wondrous realm of sensual learning, connecting sexuality to food, money, love, spirituality and transcendence. Much of Vatsayana's life and ideas are formed by his aunt Chandrika, a renowned courtesan whose sensual explorations end when she is rejected by a young architect. This humiliation propels her to renounce her erotic life and become a Buddhist nun. It is Chandrika who ultimately puts the erotic theories, myths and speculations into perspective by balancing sex with the tranquillity that comes when desire is finally transcended. Chandrika's transformation, and Vatsayana's eventual betrayal by his wife and his student, provide touching, psychologically complex insights into the notions of both ""ascetic"" and ""desire."" Throughout the book, Kakar offers a tantalizing view of how sex is constructed, dreamed, subdued and performed in culturally specific contexts and through history, rich folklore and marvelous parables. It's an impassioned and unusual tale dense with scintillating details and sexual philosophy. (Feb.)