Two things inspire the reviewer when opening a collection of sociopolitical essays. The first is to find that the book begins on a note of such clarity, if not compassion, that one doesn’t immediately feel compelled to adopt an argumentative stance. The second is total battiness. Sarojini Sahoo’s Sensible Sensuality: A Collection of Essays on Sexuality, Femininity and Literature plonks itself firmly into the latter category. Take the glorious logical progression of its very first essay: the author begins by talking about how she used to bicycle as a child, makes a flippant aside about a friend (“Unfortunately he committed suicide. I really felt lonely as I had to go alone on my cycle.”), proceeds to entertain the query of a “Portuguese philosopher” who asks whether bicycling had an effect on her sexuality, actually uses the sentence “wearing or not wearing a bra may not refer to sexual orientation but to sexual behaviour” and finally paraphrases from the Brihadaranyakupanishad. All this in a chapter of just a dozen pages, entitled (of all things) “My Bicycle and Me”.
Sadly, the remaining twenty-six chapters in this bizarre collection of hopelessly outdated and incoherent musings don’t achieve such heights of hilarity as often. Yet one is equally grateful that the work does not rile – as strange as the writing is, it is also utterly inoffensive. At best, Sensible Sensuality reads like the work of a mediocre graduate student, eager to show off what she has read, carefully annotating each observation with a bibliographical note. In essence, even the book’s most cogent ideas are regurgitations with no original perspective or contribution. At the risk of responding to battiness with cattiness, it’s hard to see why Sarojini Sahoo is described as a distinguished feminist writer when this book, in totality, is simply a set of summarizations by a feminist reader.
It is not clear what “sensible sensuality” is, aside from an alliterative exercise. Sahoo’s politics are those of a typical armchair feminist: theoretically sound but without context, experience or ingenuity. For example, a strong sex-positive thread runs through the collection, but from the distance of analyzing mythologies and literary texts, both foreign and Indian. What sex-positivity means in contemporary society and as experienced in the private choices of women both here and elsewhere is not addressed. The closest Sahoo comes is a listing of the lives of public figures, including Kuntala Kumari Sabat, Amrita Pritam and Maitreya Devi. What impact, if any, a few sensationalist anomalies have on the daily experience of the ordinary Indian woman isn’t explored.
One essay in particular illustrates Sahoo’s disconnect from contemporary society to vivid effect: the entire chapter is a response to a blogger, Pragya Bhagat, whom the author claims had compared her, unfavourably, to her grandmother. However, a look at the offending blog post (helpfully provided in the bibliography, of course) reveals that on the contrary, Bhagat had merely written that both the politically-conscious Bhagat and her karva chauth-observing grandmother were both, in their own ways, feminists. There are two levels of delusion at work here: that Sahoo would misread something so perfectly affable, and that she would take it upon herself to include a riposte to a perceived slight on the Internet, of all places, in a book.
Sahoo makes frequent references through the collection to her own fiction – which may well be as groundbreaking as she suggests. But Sensible Sensuality is hardly representative of a lucid and interesting imagination. It is a collection that doesn’t manage to even speak for itself, let alone for any other work alluded to in its pages.
An edited version appeared in today’s The New Sunday Express.