Book Review: Sensible Sensuality by Sarojini Sahoo

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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Sadly, the remaining twenty-six chapters in this bizarre collection of hopelessly outdated and incoherent musings don’t achieve such heights of hilarity as often.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.

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6 responses »

  1. As I have read the book ‘Sensible Sensuality,’ I possess a very opposite opinion to you. I feel, your review is a result of misreading and is sufficient to mislead the reader.
    You have written, the ‘bicycle activities is the most prominent factor for which the Portuguese philosopher asked whether the bicycling had any effect on sexuality. This is the point, where you failed to understand the whole text.
    Margaret Mead, in her anthropological study in 1935, concluded that the differences in temperament between men and women were not a function of their biological differences, rather, they resulted from differences in socialisation and the cultural expectations held for each sex. Simone de Beauvoir’s well known saying that ‘Women are made, not born’ supports that theory. But author felt from her child hood experiences that the theory did not seem to true in her case. She has written: “I started the first article of this book with “Bicycle and Me,” where I wrote of my experiences of childhood. As my father had an obsession for a male child, he wanted to see me as a boy and therefore, I was dressed as a boy; my hair was cut like a boy’s; and I used to play boyish games with boys instead of girlish games with girls. In my second blogging, I mentioned my Portuguese friend’s query, where he asked whether this had any impact in my sexuality in later life or not. It is clear that these cross-gender activities did not make any difference in my later life and I grew up normally as a woman.” (Being Feminine: A Matter of Socialisation or Biology?). From where did you get the ‘bicycling theory’ then?
    You have misread and also have mislead readers by saying Pragya Bhagat’s blog was misread by the author. Pragya described her grand mother as an old woman, with all the spirit of a common house wife and never was a feminist and if she could run a shop and maintain her family in a foreign country, what is the need of one to be a feminist. Author has replied very reasonably that “If Pragya’s grandma feels fasting for her husband empowers her, I have no problem with that. My problem arises if her Grandma would force Pragya to make fast in ‘krava chauth’ against her will, just like patriarchal society has been doing for an eternity. Our patriarchal society has exploited sexual difference to create systems of inequality and has exposed the facts of sexual politics. The patriarchy always tries to induce the women with three unauthentic attitudes.”
    Actually, in India, there is no more books on feminine discourse or the western Feminist ideas still have been un touched by feminist authors. It is the first attempt to evaluate these western ideas in feminine aspect. More over, author possesses very different views from western feminist. Dr. Sahoo has opposed Simone De Beauvoir’s ‘other’ theory, where she writes: “There are inherent physical, behavioral, emotional, and psychological differences between men and women and we affirm and celebrate these differences as wonderful and complementary. These differences do not evidence the superiority of one sex over the other but rather, serve to show that each sex is complemented and made stronger by the presence of the other. As a different unit, similar to man, the female mass has their right for equity as well.”
    In total book, the author’s attempt to glorify ‘femininty’ instead of ‘feminism’ can be seen and this is though controversial, is a new attempt in the field of feminist discourse. You have marked, the title does not utter the word feminism rather it points our the term ‘feminism’
    Many times, misread also make a reviewer to mislead and what happened in your case. I believe, a reviewer should be hones,un prejudiced and should be a sincere reader before reviewing any text.

  2. I differ from your point of view. The book ‘Sensible Sensuality’ is an exquisitely composed collection of essays in which the author, opposite to many of social anthropologists’ socialization of gender theory, presents the essential difference in sensibility towards sexuality in the male and the female. Very much authentic to her arguments Sahoo analyses why sexuality is a major factor to the understanding of feminism. There are altogether twenty seven essays in the collection. Some of them are of personal in nature. For example, in the first essay “Bicycle and Me” she narrates the experiences of her childhood. She grew up as a boy and was dressed as one and used to play games with boys and she concludes that the cross gender activities had no impact on her later development as a woman, as earlier the social anthropologists claim that gender differences in behavior and personality characteristics are, made by society, not borne with birth. She theorises that the gender behaviors are due to biological and physiological differences.
    In reviewing Simone De Beauvoire’s ‘other’ theory, Sahoo says that Simone was influenced by Marx and Hegelian theory and asserts categorically that the western feminist’s attempt to refuse motherhood for the sack of women liberty is not justified. Sahoo analyses how motherhood and sexuality are closely connected to a woman’s experience and her gender identity. An excitingly new perception is introduced to explore the dynamics in mother-daughter conflict.
    Another major concern of the author is to justify the term ‘femininity’ in stead of ‘feminism’. And the movement is not for heterosexism, but for the equality of two genders. Sahoo is for motherhood, for heterosexual two gender relationship and for a proper parent hood away from gender biased ideas. She is of the view that marriage should be taken out of the social domain and explores some of the myths and idiosyncratic notions on sexuality and relates it to mysticism and politics. The reader is taken through the multifaceted dimensions of sexuality. She tries to discover the physical, psychological, anthropological and sociological possibilities of sexuality. According to her sexuality is connected with creativity.
    The book is eminently readable and will be a delicious, intellectual treat to anyone interested in the problems related to feminism. The delectable simplicity and engaging lucidity of her language and the unassuming stylistic strategies render her writings easily accessible to all.

  3. Where’s the beef?
    That was a popular advertising campaign slogan of a fast-food restaurant chain in the eighties and nineties here in the States. How it applies to your review is simple: perhaps you approached this compilation of blogs in search of something that would not be there to begin with. You searched for ‘beef’ but never found it and thus were disappointed.
    It is important to consider that Dr. Sahoo is first a writer and author and second, a feminist — at least that is what she has been labeled. But the real point and theme of much of her work has little to do with feminism but rather equality of man and woman, where a man and woman each have things that make them special and who they are, and where EACH can and should play an important role in the many different societies in which they live all over the world. If that philosophy makes her a ‘feminist,’ so be it. I would tend to view her as being an ‘equalist.’
    So while your review was well-written and makes sense with good structure and logic and argument, I can’t help but imagine that you approached Sahoo’s compilation of blogs with a pre-conceived notion of what you would find, which is, of course, your choice.
    And the best part, more readers will now be encouraged to read her work and judge for themselves if the beef is there or not and in doing so, become better educated and informed about the possibilities in their own lives. Thank you for the opportunity to respond.

  4. It seems to me not impartial review,of course i had gone to her many articles,though i am not a writer may be not understand articles with the point of critic,but i feel her soul in her articles.

  5. It is wonderful book, but I must say the topic is not 2+2=4 type, which agrees everyone; instead it is social science which is not exact science. It is highly debatable topic if someone totally disagrees with DrSarojini Sahoo, I don’t think it is objectionable or unusual thing.
    Bicycle as a child is not only point or main point of the book, it just mean that her father had an obsession for a male child, which is still very common, he wanted to see her as a boy and therefore, she was brought up as boy, but cross gender activities had no impact on life.
    How you get the impression what you have written in review is not understandable
    As you comment about remaining book as you describe “the remaining twenty-six chapters in this bizarre collection of hopelessly outdated …….’’,
    I think you have not read the book properly; skimming is not enough to write a review.
    To disagree with writer’s point of view is another thing it is positive attitude, but to write a review in ridiculous way is another thing.
    It is not justification to great writer Dr.Sarojini Sahoo

  6. I haven’t read the book, but I can tell you one thing from the title – sensuality simply cannot be sensible. The last time it was, they created the Stepford Wives. Just FYI.

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