BOOK REVIEW / Decolonisation and the Swan manoeuvre: The Revised Kama Sutra - Richard Crasta: Fourth Estate, pounds 12.99

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The Independent Online
A WARNING: The Revised Kama Sutra has no pictures, no miniatures of Indian couples enjoying the Swan manoeuvre or the really impossible one in which the woman spins on her lover's member like a runaway tyre bouncing along the motorway. In fact, there is little actual sex in Richard Crasta's novel, but an enormous amount of sexual frustration. Sometimes it's even funny.

Lately, an entire sub-genre of Indian novels has popped up in which the narrators are bright and westernised. They tend to masturbate a great deal and blame the Victorians for turning India into a nation of 870 million prudes. This can be tiresome, but Crasta's novel is humorous and irrepressibly manic. His is a long howl against India's colonialists for eradicating the Hindus' millennial belief in the sanctity and playfulness of sex or, as he puts it, for making them 'lose sovereignty over the little territories between their thighs'.

It is not a fair shot. For 1,500 years the Kama Sutra remained unknown and certainly unpractised by all but a few upper-caste Indians. Poor Indians simply don't have the leisure or privacy, in their crowded huts, for sexual antics. Conservatism existed long before the missionaries.

Crasta, an Indian now living in New York, is at his best on every Indian's obsession with going to America. At age 29, Vijay Prabhu, a south Indian Catholic from a poor, middle-class family, realises he is 96 women short of reaching his goal of 100 women by his 30th birthday. He is in love with an image of America nurtured from Reader's Digest jokes and the songs that his racy, bobbed-haired Auntie Meera plays on her gramophone. He is an Indian Portnoy educated by Catholic nuns.

His sanity is saved by dreams of Jackie Kennedy. The novel is punctuated with letters to her (all unanswered and some unsent). His odyssey continues, fitfully. He visits a brothel where a delightful password, 'the moon is round', opens the door to his first sexual encounter. He makes his excuses and is kicked out. Most of Vijay's sexual guidance comes not from Sir Richard Burton's translation of the Kama Sutra, which the schoolboy finds too prissy, but from pavement purveyors of smut. More useful than the Kama Sutra is another treatise by a priestly sexologist. It is full of dangerous advice, as Vijay finds out, while groping his girlfriend Maya in the rear of a sputtering auto-rickshaw: 'When the woman gets passionate her eyes become like a drunkered one, red like blood, her breath flows fast. At that time the man can make use of any organ without objection.'

When Vijay is not worrying about pimples or memorising sex manuals for the distant event of his first coupling, he is busy earning scholarships and scoring exam firsts. He wins a place in the elite Indian Administrative Service, and becomes a nawab of the bureaucracy; in his mid-teens he governs a district of 25 square miles, with more than a million people. Yet he gives it all up for America, where he is snubbed as an Indian nerd in a cheap anorak. He concludes that America is 'an antiseptic land of loneliness and fiercely loveless cities'.

That's right. Vijay cannot easily find a woman prepared to let him toy with her. In desperation, he mounts an anti-Sex campaign and is forced to flee back to India when thousands of frustrated Americans belonging to 'Jesus Lovers Against Copulation' and 'Romance Novelists Against Pornography' hail him as a eunuch-messiah. He opts for India over America. 'They did not judge you by the name of the crook etched on your polo shirt. It was the more civilised country.' He is probably right.