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Business News/ Mint-lounge / Features/  Lounge Review: Sudhir Kakar’s The Devil Take Love
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Lounge Review: Sudhir Kakar’s The Devil Take Love

Filled with erotic poetry, an ambitious fictional experiment by the author-psychoanalyst

Sudhir Kakar lives in Goa. Photo: Ramesh Sharma/India Today Group via Getty ImagesPremium
Sudhir Kakar lives in Goa. Photo: Ramesh Sharma/India Today Group via Getty Images

When a well-known psychoanalyst and writer, Sudhir Kakar, with a deep interest in sexuality, history and the classics, attempts to write a fictionalized account of the grammarian-poet Bhartrihari, one would expect the project to be instinctually and mutually matched.

Many questions must have reared their heads in Kakar’s mind when he attempted this new novel, The Devil Take Love: How would a first-person voice of the poet fit the narrative? How would the poetry translate into a fictional structure? How would life in seventh century “cosmopolitan" India resonate with that in contemporary times?

The answers to many of these provocations are available through a slow-motion read of the novel, a novel that I spent more time re-reading because pacing was crucial. You cannot rush through this book even though its length is modest. Reading the book with deliberate pauses, with intervals of reflection, was essential.

In The Devil Take Love, aspects of linguistics and grammar are married with politics and history; poetry of an elevated register is married to a contemporary prose form; and stories of love, lust, ambition, renunciation, and more, unfold in a mosaic-like pastiche pattern.

The novel opens with the protagonist announcing his bold presence. “I am Bhartrihari, the court poet of Avanti. My father … named me after the famed grammarian (who he hugely admired), whose theory of sphota—of how the mind orders units of language into coherent speech and meaning …. Which is ironic since, like most poets, I have a deep dislike for grammarians."

This ironically oblique pronouncement at the very beginning is like an opening gambit in chess—it could prove both productive or counterproductive. It is a literary ploy, a novelistic chance Kakar takes at the very outset, a chance crucial to the narrative that ultimately unfolds in the book.

Bhartrihari concedes very soon after this opening in Chapter 1 that “even when they called me a second Kalidasa, I knew that I could never have written a kavya like the Meghadutam". He considered himself “a miniaturist, a master of fragmentary verse, not an epicist who can sustain poetic fervour through a long narrative poem".

So, unsurprisingly, the poetry quoted in this novel is of a Sappho-like fragmentary nature and is highly erotic. The cadence of the language used is ornate and overly lyrical (as it would have been in those ancient times), and the metaphors can appear anachronistic and over-the-top:

your breasts are like the globes
on elephant foreheads —
a splendorous receptacle for pearls.

Or here are other examples where “Ambika’s wetness trickled along my thighs as I slid into another woman"; or “drinking the headiest wine the gods have made … the elixir of sexual self-discovery"; or even the verse by Govinda, the court poet of Kannauj:

As her amorous partner casts her garment aside,
feasting his eyes upon her nakedness,
her hands go first to between her thighs, then to her breasts,
then to her lover’s eyes.

The “eyes" here are crucial because the climax of a sexual act or union is not just felt in the lovers’ groins, but between the two ear lobes, in the mind’s “eye".

The Devil Take Love is an ambitious fictional experiment to take on in a world where pornography is mainstream and almost passé; where subtlety and the languorous poetic dance of the act of love-making is largely gone; where success or satisfaction is judged by performance. The novelist has to overcome all these realities of a contemporary modern-day reader—that Kakar is mostly successful in making this happen is a testimony to his skill and passion.

Kakar already has a vastly impressive oeuvre that includes The Ascetic Of Desire, Ecstasy, The Crimson Throne, Intimate Relations: Exploring Indian Sexuality, Tales Of Love, Sex And Danger; and his fine co-translations with Wendy Doniger of The Kamasutra. The Devil Take Love, his latest novel, is a worthy addition to that list.

Sudeep Sen is a poet and the author of the forthcoming book of fiction, EroText (Penguin Random House).

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Published: 19 Sep 2015, 01:02 AM IST
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