This book proved somewhat of a mixed bag for me, throwing together the annoying and the interesting in about equal measure. I will have to admit, though, that at least the degree of my displeasure with some aspects of The Kama Sutra Diaries may not have been Sally Howard’s fault – it was rather unfortunate for her that I read her book with India: A Million Mutinies Now still fairly fresh in my mind. One cannot really blame Sally Howard for not being V.S. Naipaul, and it is decidedly unfair to compare her book about sexual mores in India past and present to what may very well be one of the greatest travel books of the last century – but it is really hard, if not entirely impossible, to avoid if one encounters them in such close proximity; so I’m giving advance warning that this post should be taken with even more grains of salt than usual.
Sally Howard shows that she is chiefly a journalist (rather than someone with literary ambitions for her book) by frequently catering to the lowest common denominator in her readers – even though the current level of general education may be at an all time low, is it really necessary to assume readers are not familiar with the names of Richard F. Burton and Sigmund Freud? This may not be a very essential point, and your mileage on this may vary, but I for one find it borderline insulting to have those names explained to me. Minor niggle though it may be, it does tell us something about the kind of reader Sally Howard seems to expect for her book, and that would help explain the other, somewhat more major issue I had with The Kama Sutra Diaries.
In spite of the book’s subtitle “Intimate Journeys Through Modern India”, the author thought it necessary to include several chapters on the history of sexuality in India. Which is not per se a bad idea, it even makes a lot of sense: It never can harm to have some historical context on what one is writing about, and the subject certainly is a fascinating one in and by itself. Unfortunately, however, Sally Howard does not appear to share that fascination, or else does not manage to transmit it very well, and as a result her treatment of it is cursory at best – those chapters of The Kama Sutra Diaries that concern themselves with history are very bland and not really all that informative either – they have all the appearance of being summaries of what tourist guides told the author and all the charm and depth of a Wikipedia entry. Obviously, this book is not meant to be academic and one should not expect too much detail and analysis from something which is, when everything is said and done, meant to be light reading. But even by standards of popular history this falls flat and completely fails to evoke any fascination about the vagaries of sexuality through the history of India, which one imagines would be considerable in the right hands, and instead gives us the listless drone of a bored tour guide.
However, the historical parts are only a few chapters which take up only a small part of the book; most of it concerns itself with contemporary India, and it is here where The Kamasutra Diaries finally start to shine. One can tell that Sally Howard has a real interest, and more, feels passion towards this aspect of her subject, and thus her travels through various parts of India (in company of an Indian friend going by the nom de guerre of Dimple who in the course of their travels contributes some illuminating commentary) exploring sexual mores and – the real emphasis of this book – through them, gender relations make for fascinating reading, offering insights into areas that weren’t covered by Naipaul and would be hard to come by for anyone not living in India. It also seemed to me that the contemporary parts were markedly better written, the author’s enthusiasm for her subject infusing her prose with a life the historical parts are noticeably lacking. She does remain more descriptive than analytical, but that is quite all right because she spreads out a wealth of varied information in front of readers who in all likelihood have not only hear of Burton and Freud but are also capable of drawing their own conclusions from the narrative Sally Howard provides.
What does emerge from this narrative (did for me, in any case) was a portrait of what it means to be a woman in present-day India, navigating a frequently difficult between traditions (very much a plural, and more often than not conflicted between themselves) and modernism, fear of repression and desire for freedom. This struggle is of course all-too familiar but it is was very interesting to see the shape it took and takes in India, and in the end, those aspects rather balanced out the annoying bits.