Published Date : 2010-02-27
The Revised Kama Sutra, a novel about a boy growing up into manhood in India and having an American Dream, was described as “very funny,” by Kurt Vonnegut, had a sensational reception in India, and was warmly welcomed by a wide section of the media and of readers for its distinctive voice and its unapologetic language dealing with hitherto hush-hush matters. Since then, it has been published in a total of ten countries and recently been republished in India by HarperCollins as a “classic.”
The novel tells the story of Vijay Prabhu, a small-town, middle-class Indian boy, a survivor of assorted Jesuit boarding schools and the Five Pillars of Oppression—bells, canes, penis shame, girl shame, and sports. Filled with erotic longing and a deep desire to be free of conservative Mangalore, Vijay Prabhu embarks on a sexual and spiritual odyssey that finally ends in America , the land of free sex, free speech, greenbacks, and Campbell ’s Cream of Chicken Soup.
Along the way, this novel gives us new and gloriously comic insights into sex, childhood, colonialism, desire, ambition, women, and naïve Third World dreamers of the American Dream.
Though this is a rich and multi-layered story probing the politics of desire, colonialism, and the missionary position 500 years after the Portuguese arrival in India in 1498, the writing is “such a sheer pleasure” (Financial Express) and the combination of subject, story, and style so unique among modern novels that two reviewers characterized the book as “unputdownable” (The Pioneer) and “delicate and hilarious” (The Face). An utterly “refreshing” and unique India that dispenses with the usual clichés and is irreverent towards all sacred cows..
Thanks to my passing fifth grade that summer, the scene had now shifted a kilometre west of the convent to Saint Stanislaus Boarding House.
Vital arm of an institutional empire that included Saint Stanislaus Middle School, Saint Stanislaus High School, the flagship Saint Stanislaus College, Saint Stanislaus Orphanage, Saint Stanislaus Carpentry Associates Limited, and Saint Stanislaus Pig Farm, Saint Stanislaus Boarding House elicits from this adult narrator a respectful whistle. What a sophisticated, pure male prison! For unlike the high-walled convent, it had no walls. But then, what do boys and men need walls for? To keep out bands of marauding girls? Boys, like male dogs, are roamers. They invade others’ territory and usually piss on it.
Unless, like me, they have lost their boyness and inhabit a saintly netherworld, a no-boy’s-land, a land where you piss on your own leg.
It was a faded yellow, barn-like building standing on the Western slope of Ignatius Loyola Hill, on a red gash of earth washed by the breeze of the Arabian Sea in the distance and the all-natural smells of the pigsty next door. On the upper floor, a dormitory and a study hall looked out beyond the palm-tufted fringes of the town towards the steaming horizon where the Mulki River met the Netravathi River and flowed into the Arabian Sea. On the lower level, a dusty verandah with a few battered carrom tables adjoined a games room, a parlour-with-piano, and a reading room—the walls haunted by group photographs of past residents, fuzzy but compelling records of undernourishment and piss-in-your-pants fear. Look at all of these through a romantic film of grease, dust, and consumptive breath and you have the Saint Stanislaus Boarding House, home to a hundred hearts, two hundred lungs, and sundry battered organs raised on prayer, canes, bullock meat—except on the feast days of Saint Ignatius Loyola and Saint Stanislaus Kostka, when masala dosas and shira were served.
This tiny empire was ruled by Father Edward, whose triangular, stubbled, chocolate milk face and thin muscular body radiated animal magnetism, whose milkwhite cassock rippled angrily as he walked, whose high-pitched, always-on-the-brink-of-fury voice caused more quivers than Tamerlane’s battle plans. He rarely needed to use whole words, making do with the expressions and tone of someone with years of experience driving buffalo herds to village fairs. He had a village voice, cured in the high Jesuit tradition of leading rude masses in prayer. Yet he also had an eye for the pretty young mothers of his students and would use every possible excuse to demand of a student that he bring in his mother, the more lipsticked and bigger breasted the better. When in this company, he could be as unctuous as a parish priest trying to hook a large donation from the local tycoon or bootlegger.
I realized I had exchanged the soft and silly world of St. Juliana’s for a rough male world of swinging between trees, for the unsmiling canes of the Stanislausian lumpenJesuits, for food slapped together by sweaty, porcine middle-aged males in shorts and sleeveless undershirts—a world in which life was nasty, brutish, and lived in shorts.
It was the beginning of my future conviction that the forced segregation of the male and the female, by whatever logic—military or political, social or spiritual, sexual or philosophical—is a sin against Nature. That if you take women away from the human mixture, all you have left is . . . pigs.
“Boarding house pigs!” exclaimed the day students on the first day of school, when they saw us bounding down the steep steps from the boarding house to the middle school and joining the school assembly. And we smiled shamefacedly.
As if to stress our newly piggish existence, Life, like a novice novelist, seemed to be getting its symbols straight: the boarding house was famous for its pink or “European” pigs (so-called because of the popular impression among the locals, fortified by assorted British Collectors and Louis XIV’s three or so baths in a lifetime, that Europeans rarely bathed). And the padres were proud of their reputation for rearing the district’s prime porkers—and without doubt the most profitable too because they were fed the boarders’ leftovers, costing the Jesuits virtually nothing. It was rumoured that the chefs had been instructed to cook to the pigs’ taste, because the boarding house was earning more praise, and more profit per kilo, from its pigs than from its boarders.
Gradually, it dawned on us that when the day students exclaimed “boarding house pigs!” they were referring not to the four-legged potential delicacy but the two-legged boarders, who carried about them an unmistakable stench like an Identification Document. The simple explanation for this Great Wall of Stench was that boarders of all ages, from seven to seventeen, had to wash their own clothes (to one stinking shirt add one chembu of water and a dab of 555 Bar soap; then beat the hell out of it on a granite washing stone). A chore they tried to minimise, cleanliness being the least of their worries, for they were often unhappy as pigs without shit.
Except, maybe, for Adolf.
Adolf was the Bombay sharp who sucked up to the moneyed day students and returned with the trophies of his flattery: aromatic, Indra Bhawan masala dosas, still hot in their banana-leaf packing, that he would proceed to wolf down while saying to painfully salivating observers like me: “Want it? Want it? Ha ha, greedy bugger!”
Though Adolf had a round bald spot on his head like Pope Pius XII, it didn’t make him less snotty. “I’m a Bombayite,” he’d crow—meaning he was better than “Indians.” “Indians! Don’t even know how to make blades, man!”
But his chief claim to fame: he knew the latest English songs! Such as “Wooden Heart.”
Adolf seemed outwardly happy, but perhaps such happiness as existed, the happiness of life and boyhood seeping through, was a perverse one, because we were all part-time orphans. For it is a queer thing: to have your father’s place filled by bearded strangers in drag, to be compelled to bow and say “Good morning, Father” to frumpily cross-dressed men your mother has never even met.
But this was a world in which the queer was the ordinary, in which Jesuit padres played Pater to boys they hadn’t fathered and never really would. They were the relics of a nineteenth-century Italian adventure that had climaxed with a college now run by brown-skinned, white-robed heirs, oddities who stood out in the local marketplace, their long white starched cassocks with trouser cuffs peeping out and their sombre expressions standing out amid the local coloured lungis and quizzical paan-chewing mouths. Standing out, if I may say so, like a dog’s balls.
Yet, within the boarding house walls, they ruled absolutely. Because they had perfected the System—which, unlike T.E. Lawrence’s wisdom, was built on five, not seven, pillars: bells, canes, penis shame, girl shame, and sports.
And now, I introduce the never-before-revealed secrets of the System:
THE FIVE PILLARS OF FOLLY AND OPPRESSION
— A Case Study in The Management of The Human Animal, Ages 8-16
PILLAR NUMBER ONE
The boarding house bells, hand-carried or suspended brass artefacts of various sizes, underpinned this System. They told you when to start anything and when to stop; when to come and when to go; when to shower and when to shit. From the 5:30 a.m. bell that rattled your dreaming childbrains (a minute later, Father Benedict the Prefect would walk through the dormitory with a cane and whip any still-sleeping Christian bottoms, it being considered essential penance for the world’s sins to wake up at 5:30 a.m. when all was blackness, and devils lurked behind pillars and under bushes, and hungry dogs with intestinal problems howled miserably) to the 9:15 p.m. bedtime bell, life was so perfectly organised into church visits and study and game hours that you never had to stop and wonder, “What shall I do now?” The bells always tolled for thee, and told thee.
The bells also did something else. Heralding our lives’ most precious moments—breakfast, lunch, and dinner—their effect was Pavlovian. Thus did we salivate at the sound of any bell rung close to food time. For the boundaries, goals, signposts of our life were comprised of food; and our intellectual exercise was guessing the next meal’s menu.
PILLAR NUMBER TWO
The police force of Jesuit canes—long, sexy, hard—supported the all-important bells . Like the flute in seventeenth-century Jesuit Paraguay, the cane (or bodi, or danda) was a sceptre symbolising the power of the local jesuitocracy. Every priest or brother was known to have one concealed somewhere in his room or person—a cane he could produce within seconds when the ancient call of the Wild Man sounded within him. The Cane of Father Damocles, S.J., hung over the bottom of every boarder that disobeyed a bell. The cane’s hiddenness made it awesome, endowing a mystic, erotic quality to those brief moments between the decision to cane and the cane’s exposure. Not since the days of British rule, when a handful of Englishmen (five thousand at most?) rode a country of three hundred fifty million, had so many quivering bottoms been ruled so completely by so few.
It was Father Edward who first made me dimly aware of why human beings often relish pain. He had publicly caned me a few times for “talking in class”—an act of absentmindedness no amount of prayer could cure me of. But when he discovered that I sometimes also topped the class, he began to commend me before school assemblies, once publicly holding up my fourteen-page letter to my mother as a laudable example of writing style and volume.
And yet, such was his integrity that neither this growing “respect” for me nor his heartier smiles inhibited Father Edward from what he considered his duty. The next time he caught me talking in class, he ordered me to walk to his office and fetch the cane that was to be the instrument of my punishment.
“Bring me my cane, please,” said he, almost like a lover. Thou shalt know how I loveth thee by how hard I beateth thee. The sacrificial lamb was after all the rage in religious circles: Abraham and God the Father sacrificing their only sons, Saint Jerome being deep-fried . . .
And yes, I obliged, bringing him the rod of my chastisement. How perfect the System had become, to co-opt its victims in its maintenance.
Still, better to be caned and loved than not to be loved at all. Father Edward was the first of a line of Jesuit “fathers” who supplanted my own absent-at-first, and then absent-in-his-ability to love, father. And perhaps it was my yearning for such a father, and not piety alone, which made me send feelers above (the priests always lived above, on the highest floor of whatever premises they haunted) conveying my interest in a priestly vocation. Perhaps it was also the promise of life-long security as well as a ringside seat in the hereafter, of awed nuns bustling about to feed and please their robed, male visitors—penilely advantaged saints, direct representatives of Christ on earth! Yes, it was mainly the rich food, the promise of endless access to bread, butter, and bananas, and roast beef and chicken curry, glimpsed every time I passed by a priests’ refectory and someone opened a door, that, despite the threatened vow of poverty, tempted me.
And then I dreamed of being Pope someday. Why not? If I was first in class now, all I had to do was keep on being first in every new class until I became first in the exam for cardinals and thus Pope! Of course the goofy haircut would be somewhat mortifying and the requisite pot belly would take work, but the grub would be splendid and the grandstand seat in Heaven assured. Mom would be proud, and maybe I could get her a little flat in Rome . . .
I would begin preparations right away by praying extra and hoarding up heavenly merit (“Jesus! Mary! Joseph!,” yielding seven years off your penal time in Purgatory, was my favourite, giving the best value per syllable; what an ass one had to be to say a page-long prayer to Saint John of the Cross, say, and get a mere three hundred days in return!).
PILLAR NUMBER THREE
Every evening at 6:00, when the bell rang to announce the time for taking your daily shower, an amazing thing happened in this sardine-rich corner of the world, famous for producing nuns, nuts, tiles and beedis. Seconds after the bell’s ringing, the three bustling hockey fields would be deserted. Two minutes later, there would be a hurried procession of fifty short boys, looking like little clowns with towels knotted tightly around their naked brown bodies, rushing down from the dormitory towards Bathroom Row, actors in a Third World opera called penis shame.
First, a simple definition.
Penis shame: A psychological affliction, occurring mostly in the Third World, and especially in former British colonies, in which males of the “age of reason” feel ashamed of their penises, and make every possible attempt to hide their defining organ’s existence from fellow human beings.
Now for a case study of an acute mass outbreak of this condition at Saint Stanislaus Boarding House, circa 1962, with appropriate references to the Indian Penile Code.
You see, in truth, one never exposed one’s privates in this all-boy school because every new boarder had either already earned his doctorate in the University of Shame (chartered by Queen Victoria and now a permanent fixture in this Country With No Locker Rooms, this late jewel in her crown), or would in no time. Not shame at anything anyone had actually done, but post-Fall, Garden of Eden brand, original shame that pronounced the penis a thing of ugliness forever. Thus did we, green as we otherwise were, feel truly burdened by the indignity of our external plumbing.
Worse still, as we parentless boys grew taller day-by-day, our unreplaced shorts would grow shorter, and the danger of exposing our growing things grew, causing a great mental burden. (Underwear was still a luxury for the middle school boy . . . but what an elitist complaint! How can you ever become a saint if you worry about underwear? Go look at the painting of Saint Stanislaus on the chapel walls. Do you see him wearing underwear?)
So now: How to protect oneself from shorts that barely exceed the length of a good-sized penis? In the tradition of the American how to book, I lay down a step-by-step guide followed by us young boarders of the time, and perhaps many Indians and Pakistanis still living under Shame’s absolute power. I give you, folks:
Poor Vijay’s Guide To Not Showing Your Lingam
1) When peeing in the public domain (against a wall, say), geometrically manoeuvre your body into a shield against the X-ray vision of peekers.
2) Don’t climb trees or walls; don’t sit at any elevation higher than the masses.
3) In the dormitory—which, besides being a 9:00 p.m.-to- 5:30 a.m. snooze joint is also the Apparel Transition Centre—use the no-show manoeuvre:
a) Unbutton shorts but hold them up through will-power.
b) Tie a furtive towel around your waist.
c) Wriggle and allow shorts to slip down to the floor.
d) Step out of them.
e) Do a little snake-dance to help your new pair of shorts climb up and clasp buttocks and privates.
f) Hold shorts with gravity-defying will-power; or, reach under towel with stealthy hands and button up.
g) Let towel drop. Look, Ma, no penis!
PILLAR NUMBER FOUR
A close relative of penis shame was girl shame, which sometimes followed the daily enacting of penis shame, about 6:30 p.m. or so, when the sun was slowly moving over the Bishop’s Compound and getting ready for its dip in the Arabian Sea. For some reason, this was precisely the time that the just-bathed boys walking towards the study hall would scan the orange-lit playground below and see, hee hee hee hee a fem . . . hee hee hee hee . . . a bloody female of the species!
Simply, the facts about girl shame are these: Shame, red hot Shame blighted the poor boarder boy who admitted the slightest association with the female sex—even historical, even with a mother! So stark and unforgiving was this rule that it made us try to pass ourselves off as motherless, sisterless boys. Ninety-nine percent of the time, the boarding house was a puremale world in which, except for cows and pye dogs and the occasional ice-candy man selling sugared and coloured ice sticks from a box on the back of his bicycle, visitors were as uncommon as ghosts. But when, by rare chance or accident, a young female member of the human species passed through the grounds, we would tease the weakest among us: “She’s your sister! Ha ha! She’s your sister!” To have gone further and said, “You want to marry her?” would have provoked revolt even from the weakest. Yes, in this curiously sexless corner of the world, this boarding house society born of the mating of muscular Christianity, Jesuit educational strategy, and temporarily motherless Indian boys, “marriage” was a dirty word.
PILLAR NUMBER FIVE
In their muscular attempts to create an orderly heaven on earth, the padres did try to impose the law of God on the boarders, while sparing the sportsmen from a heavenly commandment here and a heavenly commandment there, because of the worldly honour (!) the sportsmen brought to the boarding house. But when the Reverends weren’t looking, it was the village toughs who ruled with the help of jungle law: brute strength, protection rackets, and goondaism (and they too spared the sportsmen).
So one day, inspired by Sport & Pastime, which fired my imagination with the exploits of Gary Sobers and Pataudi and Al Oerter and Bob Hayes, I plotted my own eventual escape from jungle law. Energised by the boarding cuisine, which regularly included testosterone-rich unnameable parts of bullocks, I flung myself into sports with the energy of a demon . . .
I would be . . . a hockey star! Goodbye to the Age of Saint Juliana’s Convent when one’s objective in sports was primarily to stay clear of moving objects and people, to stay rooted to the safest spot until compelled to flee. Goodbye to the era of stones and paperballs kicked past chair-leg goals in tiny and grim living rooms.
And hello, hockey; a game in which two opposing teams, with opposing points of view but similarly crooked pieces of wood, attempt, by means of merciless bludgeoning, to persuade a ball to follow their own will and point of view.
Dear hockey mates: I want to hit that ball between the quaking legs of a goal post, past shit like goalkeepers and backies, right up its arsehole. Oh to be the choreographer of the hockey ball’s sinuous dance, to direct it in a serpentine path past defenders I have outwitted, and then with a lusty shout to shoot the ball with unstoppable momentum into the goal . . . then to be carried high on the shoulders of my teammates, be embraced, handled roughly, thus reclaiming touch, the warm feel of another human body . . .
But as Uncle Achu always said, when stumped for an answer, “But life is different!” Life, in other words, is not kind to the physically flimsy, the emotionally abandoned, to former candidates for sainthood. My hockey game did improve, which meant I progressed from worst hockey player to fourth-worst player. But once, attempting an 800-meter race, I almost screwed up the event by getting entangled in the tape just one lap behind the leaders. That’s when I decided I was going to play a bigger game in a more universal field.
* * *
“It’s time to tell them about Jackie,” said my editor, Pam. She wore a thong bikini, which is a very distracting thing when one is sitting on Fire Island Beach and trying to edit a manuscript of a literary character. Especially distracting when one is faced with such perfect rear globes as Pam has. (Pam advised me to change “ass” to “rear globes”: “You can’t overdo alliteration. ‘such a perfect ass as Pam has’—it stops the reader in his tracks,” said Pam. “Like your ass does me,” said I.)
“About Jackie Kennedy? Now? Isn’t it too early?” I asked, surprised.
“Always give them a tiny taste of what they’re going to get later,” said Pam. “Let them know there’ll be champagne and roses, satin and lace, cake and ice cream—and not just brown padres and underprivileged Indian brats.”
“Roger,” said I—a silly thing to say, since her name isn’t Roger, and I wasn’t going to roger her on the beach right at that moment. And I admit it wasn’t a good way to work, let alone edit a novel—seagulls, surf, and callipygous Thou beside me. But what can I, weak soul, say except that I pretty much would have agreed to anything, that I would have handed her my artistic judgement on a platter? Besides, who am I to complain, you approximately one billion envious Third World males, right?
. . . .
“Exuberant, unabashedly raunchy picaresque novel . . . indefatigable good humor transcends the personal to stand for the contradictions and struggles of India as a whole. Considerable, irreverent charm.” –Publishers Weekly
“Very Funny!”–Kurt Vonnegut
“Irreverent, unputdownable . . . has a comic timing never seen in any Indian novel to date.”–The Indian Express
“An Indian novel with a difference . . . an entertaining romp of a novel, with the Hindu culture at odds with Western sexual freedom. A startling change from A Suitable Boy, Heat and Dust, or The Maneater of Malgudi.”–Tim Manderson in “Tim Manderson’s Special Selection”, PUBLISHING NEWS, U.K.
“Humorous and irrepressibly manic. An Indian Portnoy educated by Catholic nuns.”–The Independent, U.K.
“A verbal craftsman . . . hilarious.” –Time Out, London
“A delightful and zany debut. Crasta has managed a voice, unlike most Indian authors. This book is the Empire striking back at the new colonists, the land of Coca Cola and Kentucky Chicken. With his zany sense of humor and a chutzpah fed of locker room bravado and a no-holds-barred attitude towards all holy cows, including the Church, has tossed up a desi kind of Portnoy’s Complaint.”–India Today
“The episodic nature of sex is most believably represented. Hilarious and delicate”
–Kimberly Leston,The Face, U.K.
“A Dickensian tale of a young boy’s travails, a comic-sexual odyssey, and a modern Joycean anti-novel. Peppery wit, no-holds-barred, desanitised, Rabelaisian. His concerns lie with the basic instincts of the middle class.”–Times of India
“333 pages of pure fun punched with serious matters of contemplation, topped with irreverence at its healthy best. A Pickwickian comedy. The Glossary is a marvelous example of meaningful iconoclasm . . . sounds which make the book sparkle, an audio-reading delight. Exciting innovations . . unabashedly candid, honest, sharp, Camusesque . . . may seem too daring to some.”–Debonair
“Delightfully witty . . . unputdownable . . . a novel written from the heart. From the first sentence to the last, the story unfolds in a manner that is not dissimilar to the languid stretching of arms of a woman after making love. Should be read for the sheer pleasure of reading. “–The Pioneer
“Hilarious contemporary Indian novel shot with some serious undercurrents . . . a rich and multifaceted novel . . . an indictment of colonialism and the colonial legacy on which we depend. A surrealist vision of India . . . Important.”–The Hindu [Selected as the BOOK CHOICE of the fortnight by this most distinguished Indian newspaper]
“The author’s approach to sex is warm, sensitive, and very, very funny. He may well be the best humorist we’ve had in ages. [But] the book is also about growing up in a time much more innocent than our own. Crasta’s tale is both quaint and poignant, qualities sadly absent from life in the naughty nineties.”–Business Standard
“The hero is a Tom Jones. Crasta builds upon sex and colonialism–both being tools of control. Sex controls the body; colonialism the land and the consciousness of its people. Crasta uses sex as a liberating phenomenon.” –India Abroad, New York
“Manages from the first page to overturn most of our expectations of what the Indian novel should be . . . He gives us a different India, a surprising and refreshing one. The book is clever, funny, lighthearted, readable and sexy . . . rampant, riotous, Rabelaisian. It is that great thing, the novel of literary quality which is capable of being enjoyed by a wide readership, and it has an utterly original voice.”
–John Saddler, Transworld Publishers, U.K.
“A craftsman of letters. Hilarious. Almost read it nonstop.”
–Khushwant Singh, prolific author/critic, India’s most widely read columnist.
“Penguin’s hot new book now making waves has a hero with a perpetual bulge in his pants and the Stars and Stripes in his eyes. An undiluted ode to the omnipresent Oedipus in the Indian male psyche. Personifies the post-Independence Indian male.”–Canara Times
“The book is about growing up with a half-empty stomach and a constant state of arousal . . . In a bittersweet satirical way, the book is about the life of an average Everyman from India. Crasta, who has taken the humor in the book to the point of near subversion, has managed to encapsulate the feelings of an entire generation of Indian men.”–Masala Magazine, New York.
“A serious, intelligent writer who means business. Witty, snappily written dialogue . . . an insightful protest against the way the colonial mentality still pervades our lives.”–Society
“Crasta has created waves with his non-conformist novel . . . which has arrived on the Indian literary scene with a resounding bang. The author delves into the labyrinthine relationship between Indian men and women, especially across class lines. A brutally honest picture of the male mind. It is an examination of the identity of the Mangalorean Catholics and Indian Christians living in an overwhelmingly Hindu society and of their complex relationship with their ancestral religion.” –Amrita Bazaar Patrika
“Much that is real and genuine. Surprises you with its remarkable perceptivity.” –Times of India.
“Sensational . . . fascinating . . . a writer who refuses to say things the way they’ve always been said, and manages to find new ways of saying them. A writer who makes you laugh, but also makes you question your value systems. Revels in bawdy, earthy sex, but talks poignantly and yearningly of love. A refreshing revolt against our boring, middle-class mores . . . our rarely confessed prudery. Crasta has spoken out against censorship, against oppression.”–SOCIETY
“Delightful . . . unpretentious . . . such pleasurable reading.”–FINANCIAL EXPRESS.
“He brings to the English language a freshness we’ve stopped expecting from our reigning literary lions.”–Business Standard
“The Rushdie of Catholicism”–The Asian Times, London
“Enough to get him banned and excommunicated.”–The Hindu