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Infinite Variety – Madhavi Menon

Infinite Variety – Madhavi Menon

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Infinite Variety – Madhavi Menon

Tanya Singh


Infinite Variety is an enormous repository of interesting and spellbinding fact, extremely well researched and articulated. What archives did you access for this information, and what was that process like?

The archives for Infinite Variety cut across subjects and centuries and expertise. I am interested in the ideas in which desire is submerged and from which it emerges in various forms, and these ideas are not easily found with any particular archive. So, in addition to books, both old and new, and films, my most important archive was people. I would ask questions of people who are scholars or performers or activists in different fields and they would share their wisdom with me, or point me in an interesting direction, or refer me to someone else. People are underrated as archives, but for me, they were all-important. The wealth and diversity of knowledge we carry around with us on a daily basis is really quite astonishing.


From conceptualisation of the book, to the final edited version, what was the journey like? Could you share the most challenging aspects of this journey?

The complete title of my book is Infinite Variety: A History of Desire in India, and the “in India” part of it was the most difficult for me to conceptualise. My formal training is not in Indian literature or art or philosophy or religion, so I wondered how I could speak as an expert on “India.” But then I realised two things. First, my specialisation is in queer theory and I was interested in thinking about questions animating queer theory in relation to the histories of those questions in India. And second, I wanted to put pressure on what counts as “India.” After all, ideas and desires flow across borders — that’s precisely what makes them dangerous. Limiting ideas to a geographical entity undermines the complex ways in which ideas travel and interact with and mutate into other ideas. So the “in India” part of my book is a conversation across the borders of chronology and geography, and focuses on the histories of what affects our desires today and every day. 


Can you tell us a bit about your journey into studying the multiplicity of history, culture and sexuality? What does bringing subversive histories of desire into the foray of the mainstream mean to you?

“There is no such thing as mainstream desire — desire is always subversive. Desire is what undoes the mainstream. This is why it is so strongly policed. From “corrective rape” to “honour killings,” the subersiveness of desire invites brutality in response.” My interest lies, therefore, less in bringing subversive desires into the mainstream, and more on pointing to the subversiveness of even those desires that are a part of the mainstream. For instance, people tend to think of marriage as the most mainstream expression of desire. But equally we all know of the many complex desires that cannot be contained within the bounds of a marriage. Do we ever wonder why no great literature has been written about happy marriages? If we are told that people are, or are about to be, happily married, then that is (at) the end of that poem or story or film. The story of desire is interesting and fascinating and dangerous. It is transgressive. It is not mainstream. It cannot be safe. Or if it is, it ceases to be desire as I see it in this book.


While writing this book, what were the most intriguing, exciting or eureka moments that you had? Moments when you might have felt like the book was really coming together? Chapters that gave you really new insights?

I love every chapter in this book! Every single one contained revelations and discoveries and insights that I had never had before, so it was all very exciting. But there were certainly some chapters that were more troublesome than others. The chapter on “Grandparents,” for instance, tuned out to be a case study of people who are grandparents rather than a study of the sexual lives of our grandparents. I simply could not find enough people to interview in order to shape the chapter around an active consideration of the erotic lives of people who are grandparents. Another shocker was the chapter on “Yoga” because it turns out that far from being conducive to calmness and placidity, yoga is a fiercely contested terrain. Setting a foot wrong can trigger a minefield, so I had to tread very carefully. And of course the chapter on “Celibacy.” Most people wanted to know how on earth I could write about celibacy in a book about desire. I guess they will now have to read the book in order to find out!


Although there aren’t too many books researching in-depth on sexualities and desires, the women’s and queer movement has come a long way. Who are your mentors, or people who’ve influenced you in the past?

 What is amazing about the Indian subcontinent is that there are multiple interlinked arenas in which work on sexuality gets done, so one does not need to depend only on books in order to enter into conversations on the subject. There is a lived, everyday reality to discussions on sexuality here, and I am lucky to have been able to tap into many of those. Everyone who has taught me, and everyone who has engaged with me in discussions on desire, has been a mentor. But by far the most abiding influence on my thinking has been that of the queer theorist, Lee Edelman, who was also my superviser in graduate school. Poets like William Shakespeare (on whose work I have written many books), and Kamala Das (to whom I am also related) never cease to amaze me with their bravery, and their comfort with the shocking underbellies of desire.


What was the process of publishing Infinite Variety like? And are you writing a next book?

The process was astonishingly pleasurable (which is, perhaps, fitting for a book on desire)! My editor at Speaking Tiger, Ravi Singh, is the best thing since sliced bread. His editorial suggestions were always incisive and helpful, and the book is much stronger for his presence in it. I have a vague desire now to write a book on the law (my mother insists I should have been a lawyer) as it interacts with sexualities. If I do, then it will be called, in deference to the brilliant Pedro Almodovar film, The Law of Desire.  

About the Interviewee:

Madhavi Menon is Professor of English and Director of the Centre for Studies in Gender and Sexuality at Ashoka University. She has written extensively on Shakespeare, queer theory, politics, and identity. Her most recent book is Infinite Variety: A History of Desire in India (Speaking Tiger, 2018).