“I like to think of myself as a polite person, but there are times when flipping the bird at people or situations is necessary. I specialise in the erotic literatures of ancient India and particularly focus on women’s narratives. A few years ago, my social group spread a story that I was a ‘corporate escort’—because I talk about sex. I had two choices: I could either offer explanations or try to win back my so-called friends, or say F-off and walk away. I chose to do the latter because it is important to have faith in yourself and your choices.
When I began talking about the Kama Sutra 20 years ago, no one was discussing it. But I was determined to introduce it to the world through platforms like the Victoria & Albert Museum and the British Museum, among others, to give it real credibility. This meant that my academics, language, and material had to be impeccable—so I actually studied it as a serious subject, (not just ‘read about it’), and turned it into something that one could discuss in classrooms as well as regular conversations.
Not that I took it up to break any rules. In my head, I was simply uncovering narratives that had been lost. However, people have a habit of discouraging the ones who might bring about a wave of change. I was told there is no such career as a ‘storyteller’, and that ‘pleasure’ was not a subject for polite society. I was also told that I couldn’t speak at a Mahabharata conference because of my ‘reputation’.
The taboos around female sexuality are so deep-rooted that women almost need permission to take ownership of their own pleasure. I wanted my kids to know about my work, and be proud of it, so I insisted that my work was never kept hidden from anyone. I have always worked at my kitchen table with at least 10 copies of the Kama Sutra piled up there at all times for my kids (or anyone else) to pick up, read, or ask questions whenever they wanted.
Reintroducing narratives from our ancient texts helps bring awareness and validation to break barriers. I brought the sari into the UK corporate sector, and long before diversity regulations, I was wearing saris to host management training and leadership courses. For several years, my work was dismissed, even cancelled. Having challenged that bias, today I am invited to corporate spaces, specifically in a sari, to help others find their voice or identity.
But I have not always been this confident...in fact, I used to be very insecure. I felt I was ‘less than’ everyone else when it came to, well, everything—beauty, brains, talent, and I was desperate for approval. But, thankfully, I no longer care for what people think or feel the need to fit in. I have created a space for myself as a ‘narrative activist’, and my battlefield is these stories. As I try to change the world one little story at a time, I am thrilled to receive messages from women (and men) of all ages saying that they have finally found answers and the courage to explore their own pleasure, despite the disapproval of society. I have helped people change the way they perceive themselves, and reconfigure the ‘guilt’ narrative that we are fed, in order to control us.
I admire people who are measured and calm in their battles, who understand the power of ‘tiny steps’ and silences. Change is painful, it has to be done in the teeniest increments so as not to frighten those around you. And change is only effective if you can take everyone with you. Having the courage to practice the change I talk about and leading my life with my beliefs are the achievements I am most proud of.”