Discussing desire in regional literature with authors Rheea Mukherjee and Vasudhendra

The authors were speaking at the Bangalore Literature Festival on the theme 'Body and Soul'.
Rheea Mukherjee and Vasudhendra
Rheea Mukherjee and Vasudhendra
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In 2019, Bengaluru-based author Rheea Mukherjee burst onto the scene with her debut novel 'The Body Myth' and the body was the backbone of a story of three characters Mira, Sara, and Rahil. So it was little surprise that the author was at the Bangalore Literature Festival talking about 'Body and Soul'. 

"My body posture while walking on the road tended to cover the chest because the chest is objectified in a certain way...There is a rigidity that comes with people growing up in a certain way and we have patriarchy on top of this. Society forces you to behave in a particular way," Rheea said, speaking about the theme of the conversation. 

Alongside her was Vasudhendra, a noted Kannada writer and author of 'Mohanaswamy' which discusses the life of a gay person in contemporary India. The book was inspired by his own life experiences and speaking at the Bangalore Literature Festival, Vasudhendra once again drew experiences from his life and from regional and English literature spanning centuries to discuss the importance of body and soul. "I used to train my eyes not to look at a boy and artificially look at a girl, and find her attractive. People from the LGBTQIA+ community are good actors because they are so often having to act in a certain way," he said. 

He cited the example of a poem 'Radhika Santwanam' written in the 18th century by the Telugu-speaking poet and devadasi Muddupalani. "The subject of the book is about expressing the desires of a woman and what she likes and what she doesn't. It was well received at the time," Vasudhendra said.

"But the real challenge came in the early 20th century when Bengaluru Nagarathnamma, another politician, decided to re-edit and publish it. There was hue and cry over this and it was banned by the British and the publisher was sent to jail. It was then translated to english and people realised it was not vulgar at all," Vasudhendra explained. 

He also mentioned a book written in the 1930s which explores the life of a woman who married three men. "On her deathbed, she says that she married three men for different reasons - the first was handsome, the second was intellectual and the third was wealthy. She says she tried to search all three in one person but she did not find anyone like that," Vasudhendra said.

Rheea alluded to similar literature, including in regional languages, which talked about the deviant desires of women and which was read by a subculture of girls and mothers.  "It subverted their restrictive role-based everyday life," said Rheea. Her novel 'The Body Myth' also discussed polyamory as an idea.

Rheea is not only a successful author but she also runs Write Leela Write, a design and content laboratory in Bengaluru. Vasudhendra runs Chanda Pustaka, a publication house that encourages young writers. 

The duo also discussed the nuances of a writer reaching audiences of regional languages, something that Vasudhendra has experienced. "I was a voracious reader of Kannada books. Reading about gay characters, even if it was written not in a celebratory way, was a big deal for me at one point. When I wrote about a gay character in a celebratory way, I got calls and visits from people across Karnataka," he said. "It is a paradox that there are many truths and cultures but only some are highlighted and remembered," Rheea added.

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