Politics of passion

Published : Apr 06, 2023 11:00 IST - 9 MINS READ

In her translation, Meena Kandasamy introduces the third section of the Tirukkural as a feminist and anti-casteist text.

Sex, Shame, Sulks

Lust, Longing, Loss

Devotion, Death, Desire

A 1st century BCE poem puts us to shame in matters of desire. At a moment when scholars and laypeople alike are squeamish about discussing desire, the Tirukkural openly flaunts its sexual credentials.

The Book of Desire
Translated by Meena Kandasamy
Hamish Hamilton
Pages: 208
Price: Rs. 499

Thought to have been written over 2,000 years ago in present-day Mylapore by a weaver named Tiruvalluvar, the Tirukkural does not have a well-fleshed-out history either in relation to its author or its textual composition; all the biographical details we have about Tiruvalluvar are conjectural.

But that has not prevented Tamil Nadu from considering him its most eminent poet in whose honour a 133-foot-tall statue has been erected in Kanyakumari. The height of this statue is a direct reflection of the 133 chapters of the Tirukkural—one chapter of poetry equals one foot of masonry.

The Tirukkural itself has a tripartite structure, with a total of 1,330 kurals (short couplets with four words in the first line and three in the second for a total of seven words) divided among a book on morality (aram), material wealth (porul), and desire (inbam).

The poet and novelist Meena Kandasamy has translated the third book on desire as a standalone text, partly in a bid to avert our gaze from the misogynistic utterances that are sprinkled through the first two texts. Indeed, Kandasamy explicitly introduces her translation of The Book of Desire as a feminist and anti-casteist text, characteristics that her translation showcases in abundance.

Perhaps the most remarkable achievement of the Tirukkural is that it expands our ideas about desire. Too often equated with genital intercourse, desire is in fact far more capacious than such a physical equation makes it out to be. Desire is psychic, social, physical, emotional, and political. Touching on all these aspects, The Book of Desire tells us things about desire that we might not have thought of before, or would not like to think of now. For instance, the book insists that desire ispublic rather than private:

Wine is a welcome joy

when rejoicing—

Public gossip heightens

the pleasure of sex.


Town clamouring

is what we desire;

rumours will lead

my lover to consent.


I am perfect, I have

such self-control, I

would say,

but my hidden-away

lust betrays me,

proclaiming itself



The 133-foot-tall statue of Tiruvalluvar in Kanyakumari. The height of this statue is a direct reflection of the 133 chapters of the Tirukkural—one chapter of poetry equals one foot of masonry. 

The 133-foot-tall statue of Tiruvalluvar in Kanyakumari. The height of this statue is a direct reflection of the 133 chapters of the Tirukkural—one chapter of poetry equals one foot of masonry.  | Photo Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

This public expression of desire also suggests the public production of desire. Far from being a private set of emotions and practices, desire exists among people and things, wars and privations, journeys and public policy. Kandasamy suggests a more utopian idea in her introduction when she suggests that the world of desire “is a world that two lovers conjure together…. Society does not separate the lovers; it exists outside of them” (page 37). On the contrary, the entire village here seems to be involved in this couple’s desire.

Desire as a political tool

Because it is public, desire can be a powerful political tool. Not only in the sense in which Ambedkar advocated for inter-caste marriages as a way of demolishing the virulence of caste, but also because desire is always a public statement that can potentially challenge the status quo. This is why inter-caste and inter-religious marriages are seen as such a threat by and to the powers that be. Indeed, it is this non-adherence to the status quo that Kandasamy finds so politically exciting in the Tirukkural.

In addition to being public, desire in Tirukkural is also masochistic. It revels in its own pain, and even more, it cannot separate pain from pleasure, disease from cure:

Her eyes hold two


One, the glance that


This disease, and two,

The medicine that

cures. (1091)

My dazzling beloved

in my life, I feel alive.

Where she moves away

from me, death comes.


When he leaves, I’m


When he comes, I’m


Caught between these


my eyes know only

sorrow. (1179)

Desire is not only pleasure, it is also sorrow. Or rather, sorrow too is desirable. Desire is not just one thing, and pleasure is not only about fulfilment and happiness. It is far more deeply about dis-orientation, dis-ease, dis-array.

This also means, of course, that desire is neither clean nor straightforward. Nor is it easy to identify:

Little words of anger

Looks of sworn


Such deliberate


Is the sign of intimacy. (1097)



Make love.

These, the lovers’

rewards. (1109)

What will the one

I love do with me,

if he does not

love me back? (1195)

In the Tirukkural, desire is not only about mutual recognition and satisfaction; it is also about the possibility of non-recognition and non-satisfaction.

On paths unspoken

This possibility allows us to shift our current understanding of desire as being a predominantly positive thing. We can move, along with the text, on paths that we do not talk about openly but which have nonetheless constituted the stuff of literature over the ages. It is almost as though writing about desire in poetry frees the writer from having to subscribe to the social mores of happiness and success.

Unfortunately, though, this nonconformity also brings to light the seamier side of desire. What we think of today as “sexual harassment” is described matter-of-factly as the very stuff of desire. Our current terminology—gaslighting, abuse, consent—look very different in this book:

My dear life drains


when I think of the


of the man who used to


“We are one life.” (1209)

He has a strict guard

banning my entry to

his heart.

Isn’t he shameless,


To constantly walk into

mine? (1205)

Can we abandon him,

my heart, saying he is


this man we love

who doesn’t love us? (1245)

And in what is perhaps my favourite kural in this translation, the text insists on the violent nature of desire:

The battle-axe of


breaks down the door

of my unwavering


bolted with coyness. (1251)

What goes by the name of harassment for us seems to be desire itself in the Tirukkural. This is a sobering realisation, but rather than making us even more anxious about sex, it should alert us to the fact that we are all in the grip of desires that we cannot fully comprehend or control. In fact, the frank articulation of sexual desire in the Tirukkural points us in the direction of more rather than less sex, but also more rather than less control over sex:

The fierce flood of lust

has washed away

the rafts of shame

and self-control. (1134)

My desire is

an endless sea;

there is no raft

to swim across safely. (1164)

I swim the rough seas

of sexual desire. I see

no shore—in the dead

of night, I am alone. (1167)

open evocation

“The repeated evocation of sexual desire is astonishing when one considers this text was written over 2,000 years ago. ”

The repeated evocation of sexual desire is astonishing when one considers this text was written over 2,000 years ago. We have regressed so much since then that we now pass off Victorian prudery and morality as typically “Indian values”. A big part of these allegedly historical values is the suppression of women and the vilification of female desire. The Tirukkural presciently seems to realise this and mocks such misogyny:

She begs with her eyes,

which speak of how she


for sex—it is said,


the woman is being un

womanly. (1280)

The mockery is accompanied by a celebration of women’s desire:

There is nothing more


than the woman who


to ride the madal,

though she

has desires vast as

oceans. (1137)

The sex

taking place

in my dreams fetches


the lover I miss when

I’m awake. (1214)

Her eyes held tears

as she sulked—we


trembling with desire;

her haste surpassed

mine. (1290)

Even more than flaunting women’s desire, the book complicates our understanding of gender itself. I frequently caught myself wondering who was speaking and to whom.

One day, my man

will return—I shall


I shall devour and

enjoy him,

Until all my lovesick-

ness is destroyed. (1266)

And then, two kurals later:

Engaged in action,

may the ruler taste


I shall join my woman

and feast this evening. (1268)

When is the speaker a woman and when a man—the details are delightfully murky. Perhaps it does not matter? Even though it does not say anything specific about sexual identity, the Tirukkural suggests a fluidity of desiring positions in which both men and women share equally in a vocabulary of longing, loss, and love. Men and women are not separated by the language of desire.

The raga of the Sulk

And perhaps the most endearing aspect of desire described in The Book of Desire is the raga of the Sulk. While singing its praises, the Tirukkural celebrates sulking passionately and wittily as the salt of desire:

Like salt for seasoning,

proportion is


in sulking—a little


spoils the taste. (1302)

Sex takes delight

in sulking, which

delights in

getting sex. (1330)

Petulant, I went to pick

a fight, dear


but my dear heart for

got that,

and ran after him for

sex. (1284)

The drama of desire, laced with sulking and sexual longing, is presented as witty, complex, and multifaceted. Kandasamy’s translation does justice to this drama and allows it to emerge with a passionate energy. The political convictions of the translator are matched by her poetical ability, with the result that The Book of Desire is now available as a passionate text that showcases the politics of desire.

But whether or not this is a recognisably “Tamil” universe, as the translator claims, remains a question. There seems little doubt that Tiruvalluvar’s language does a brilliant job of showcasing the poetry of Tamil. But I am less sure that the celebration of female sexuality, the complication of what we understand as desire, and the calculation of the politics of desire are specifically Tamil in any way.

In fact, what makes The Book of Desire so important is that it takes its place internationally alongside poets like Sappho and against the overwhelming phobia of texts like the Bible. The Tirukkural allows inhabitants of the Indic subcontinent to claim a long history of flagrant desire against the shame-soaked skin to which we have now been reduced.

Madhavi Menon is Professor of English and Director of the Centre for Studies in Gender and Sexuality at Ashoka University.

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