Wednesday, 10 October 2012

The Light at the End of the Tunnel - Kamasutra part 4

Richard Francis Burton set foot on Indian soil in 1842 after the university expelled him for unacceptable behaviour (gambling, duelling, and the worst charge - independence of mind) and his father bought him a commission in the Bombay Native Infantry, hoping that military discipline would have some positive influence. It didn’t quite happen that way.

Burton, through various circumstances never saw any military action, but it was his extracurricular activities (ie, studying Indian languages with the help of innumerous mistresses) that lead him to a stint in the intelligence service. Although here the kind of information, and seemingly disrespectful attitude towards his superior officers, soon lead to his dismissal from that as well.

He did however document much of what had at the time been unknown to westerners, simply because of their lack of understanding the language. After recovering from cholera, he convinced the doctor to grant him two years’ leave. This was the start of his research into the sexual culture and customs of India. It is believed that Burton came into contact with a later commentary on the Kamasutra, but since most of his notebooks were lost in a fire in 1861, it is impossible to know what he thought about it at that time. The book of love would remain in obscurity for a while longer.

After being looked over for promotion as a translator, an unhappy Burton had to leave India. He travelled to many places including Mecca (in disguise) and wrote about his visit to the Islam holy city. While the resulting books made him famous, it also caused him to be alienated in the Muslim world. His career as a diplomat was always difficult, because people knew that he understood languages and cultures that other westerners didn’t.
His notoriety in British society and his papers on subjects like fertility rituals and peculiar customs of Dahomey, did not grant him any favours with the Royal Geographical Society.

Stints in the diplomatic service in various countries did not satisfy as much as his life in the East either. Through friends Burton came into contact with collections on erotica and sexual customs, later commentaries and transcripts on the subjects, that referred to their reference as the book of the ‘holy sage Vatsyayana Muni.’

If they were to truly dig deeper into the realm of Indian sexuality, Burton and his friend then had to find that reference, the Kamasutra.