Journey through a sexual revolution

Sally Howard on her travels in India
Sally Howard on her travels in India
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Written in the rolling hills of Holmfirth, The Kama Sutra Diaries is a tale of a hot and dusty land. Nick Ahad spoke to author Sally Howard.

You might expect a book going by the title The Kama Sutra Diaries to be mopping up readers in the wake of the success of 50 Shades of Grey.

Anyone hoping to get hot under the collar will get their wish – but it’s unlikely to be for the reasons they expect or hope. With The Kama Sutra Diaries Sally Howard might well have created a genre.

“It’s become a socio-sexual, pop-historical travelogue,” says Howard.

Fortunately this means that rather than falling between many stools, Howard’s entertaining book seems to occupy them all. She set out, initially, to write a light-hearted travelogue of India, a country she knew from backpacking across it a decade and a half earlier, but discovered something much more meaty along the way.

With the horrific gang rape of a woman on a Delhi bus in December 2012, Howard, already working on the book, realised it had become also timely. The rape case brought global attention to the Indian rape epidemic and prompted tens of thousands to take to the streets in protest.

In March 2013, the public pressure led to the Indian government passing a Rape Law that criminalised stalking, voyeurism and sexual harassment – all of which Howard was exploring in her journey across India.

“It is a country going through a seismic sexual shift and a lot of people have been caught up in this shifting society,” she says.

“The truth is, India isn’t a single country, it’s at least six different countries, all with its own codes and ethics and class structure – and all those different things coming together, rubbing up against one another leads to a lot of tension.”

An experienced journalist and traveller who has written for The Sunday Times, Forbes Lifestyle and The Sunday Telegraph, The Kama Sutra Diaries is Howard’s first book. She wrote much of it while at her parents’ house in Holmfirth – a marked contrast from the hot and dusty hills of the country which is the subject of the book – you might think. “I grew up in Holmfirth and it was good to be in that landscape while I was writing the book,” says Howard.

“You’d be surprised – the deep cleaves of the Pennines are a lot more like some of the mountainous areas of the Himalayas than you might think.”

After falling in love with the country during a first visit 15 years ago, Howard has returned to India a number of times, making friends and colleagues who showed her the underbelly of a society that lives in a constant dichotomy – this is the land that gave us the Kama Sutra, yet young couples are reprimanded by police when they hold hands in public.

“I’m a child of the Western sexual revolution,” says Howard.

“India seems to be going through something similar. The sexual revolution of the 1960s in the West promised many things that never came to pass, but here India is at the dawn of another sexual revolution and it is fascinating to see which way the country will head now. It is also really interesting that the country which gave birth to the most famous book about sex has this almost Victorian attitude to the whole subject today,”

As Victorian as the attitudes might be, there is, as Howard discovered, a sexual revolution happening – and a huge amount going on underneath the surface of the country.

Travelling with an Indian friend, a young divorcee called Dimple, she accessed parts of the land that a Westerner travelling alone might not normally discover. Along the way she met young men puffing up their muscles in pursuit of a masculine image and visited the famous erotic Kama Sutra Temples, carved with thousands of elaborate depictions of sexual acts taken straight from the famous book. 50 Shades of Grey, it certainly isn’t.

Unwanted attention

ONE of the things Howard experienced on her travels was ‘Eve-teasing’.

An Indian slang term that loosely translates as ‘petty groping’, ‘harassment’ or ‘flashing’, and is perpetrated by (typically young) Indian males against Indian females or holidaying tourists.

Howard says that, while disturbing, the incidents can also be ‘quasi-comic’ like ‘the auto-rickshaw driver who distracted a male companion so he could honk my breasts like car horns’.

The Kama Sutra Diaries published by Nicholas Brealey publishing is available now, price £9.99.