Madhavi Menon: The English Department, Ashoka University

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Madhavi Menon is a Professor of English at Ashoka University. As one of the most renowned professors on campus, her classes are always in high demand during course registrations. She is also the Director of the Centre for Studies in Gender and Sexuality. Today, she speaks about her interest in Queer Theory, the importance of having a conversation about sex, being indifferent to our differences and about deciding what to pursue:  

Q: Your major work revolves around desire, sexuality, etc. What got you interested in these fields?

A: Desire and sexuality are a large part of all our lives. Desire is something that is constantly policed -- we are constantly disciplined about who to desire or who not to desire, how to behave sexually or how not to behave sexually. It is something that needs to be taken seriously not only as background noise but really as something that forms a very crucial part of how we think and who we are If we are interested in thinking about who we are, not in any kind of Facebooky way of saying,  “Here I am and this is how great I am!” but actually think about the dynamics of how we interact, how we present ourselves in the world, then there is no better way to do that than thinking about our relation to desire and sexuality. This is especially true for women, especially true in India where you have a certain kind of narrative structure within which women are meant to fit and within which they are meant to grow up. I am interested in those narratives that surround us, which almost suffocate us in some ways, but which also, therefore, becomes crucial for us to think about if we are to live with some ethical and political responsibility.

Q: How did you get involved with the CSGS (Centre for Studies in Gender and Sexuality) at Ashoka University?

A: The idea for CSGS was part of a project by a team of three Young India Fellows. I was their advisor and mentor. And then one thing led to another, and before we knew it, we had a Center for Studies in Gender and Sexuality! It was certainly a collaborative effort.

Q With what vision did the CSGS begin? How has it evolved?

A: I think it is one of the most visible, gutsy and edgy Centers on campus. We like bringing in various and varied people for talks. We run sexual harassment workshops. We bring in artwork not just in the form of exhibitions but also plays, dances, music that push the boundaries of desire. This is especially important to do in a University setting because it is the first time people are leaving their homes, and living elsewhere.

Such a Center becomes fundamentally important because it talks about our everyday realities, our everyday activities. But it does it in a manner that doesn't needlessly sentimentalize it -- we do not think that romance and love are things we should all feel. And nor do we moralize it to say “Oh, sex is bad” or “You shouldn't have sex” or, “You shouldn’t have this kind of sex”. And I think that kind of non-moralistic approach to sex and desire is crucial, especially for women, but also for men of that age. To think about desire and sex, not as something depraved or diseased or violent, not even as something that is beautiful and wonderful and romantic, but something that is very complex and that partakes of multiple centers of experience and multiple nodes of being in the world.

Professor Menon's Book on Queer Universalism

Q: This is from one of your books where you talk about Queer Universalism and indifference to difference. How do we bridge this gap where people are anxious about the difference on the one hand, and the notion of queer universalism, on the other?

A: That’s a huge question and there is an entire book I have written on the topic! But just to boil it down: Fundamentally, we live in a world of differences. We are all constantly thinking about people who are different from us or ideas that are different from ours. The question is not to do away with this difference or to ignore it but to ask how differences matter?

And I think living in India puts us in a unique position to think about this question because the history of our cultures has been such that we have always lived with difference. We have always lived with neighbors who might belong to different religions or come from different regions. But we have all spoken the same language and shared the same cultural references and used the same spices. And so, the cultural landscape in India is so closely interwoven that it is actually hard to tell the difference between say Hindus and Muslims or hard to tell the difference between people who might be gay or straight. We live in a country where differences are not drawn in exactly the same ways as they are drawn in other parts of the world. This is our great strength because we haven’t been policing desire as much as it has been policed historically in the West. What my book was interested in doing was trying to think about indifference as the antidote to difference.

When you think about difference, it is all about erecting walls between people but indifference is about living as neighbors with other people. So, there is still difference but you’re indifferent to those differences as differences that define you. Indifference is the term I coined to think about how differences do not necessarily have to be crippling or overwhelming to the extent that they police our desires. My advisor in graduate school always used to say, “Desire is not always politically correct.” We all desire in ways that are going to be shocking in some form or the other. Rather than saying “Oh my God you are a woman, you can’t have sex with another woman” or if you’re a man, “You can’t have sex with another man”, just say, “All sex is shocking, all desire is shocking” and just enjoy that rather than policing it.

Q: Do you think having a conversation on campus through CSGS would have an impact beyond Ashoka?

A: Absolutely. The immediate way that that would happen is when students go out into the world and have these conversations outside. The other way of exporting these conversations, of course, is by writing and publishing, which faculty at Ashoka are prolific at doing.

But word gets out also through having conferences such as the one we are having in conjunction with Wellesley Centers for Women on the topic of “Sex/Ed.” The typography of the title is such that the word actually looks like ‘Sexed’ with a line in the middle. We are not talking about sex education in the sense that “here is a Biology notebook and here is a male dummy and a female dummy body.” We are talking about that relation between sex and education which is often a very uncomfortable relation because the educational setting has often been a pressure cooker for thinking about desire We are getting people from all over the country and abroad. It is happening in Delhi so we are hoping there will be a wide cross-section of audience members.

Q: Quite a number of students these days, especially at Ashoka, are very confused about what they want to do in life. Were you ever confused about what you’ll do in life or have you always known that Literature was your calling?

A: You know, I am one of those annoying people, unfortunately, who always knew what she wanted to do. Not always actually (laughs). I think I wanted to be the Prime Minister of the country for a long time!. But, seriously, I always knew I wanted to study English. I even always knew I wanted to study Shakespeare which was what my dissertation and my first two books were on. I think the object of study or the object of what you might want to do in life is less important than how you want to go about doing it. So, there are thousands of scholars in the world who study Shakespeare. But the question is how do you do it? “….” The most valuable thing for me with my education was really trying to figure out a set of questions that I was interested in, not really the answers or the object that would fulfill that question at any one given point in time.

Q: Theory helps us think about things we don’t think about in our daily lives. But this theory is often inaccessible. Not only in the sense that theory is difficult, but the books are expensive. How do we get people to think about this then?

A: There is a reality about the way in which we live that we need to take more seriously. And this reality is both what we encounter in books and what we face in everyday life. Reality is not causal— you can never really say that she studied this so she’s doing this. Rather, reality is a relationship of symbiosis. I grew up in Delhi, in a landscape that was drenched in desires that weren’t always categorized, and so my interest in queer theory grew. I did not become a scholar of queer theory in order to be able to explain the desires around me. If anything, my interest in queer theory because the desires around me couldn’t always be explained. Even as our access to books is difficult, we always have access to these multiple ways of life about which we need to start thinking seriously: how and why do we live in particular ways? We are fortunate enough to live in a landscape where we are able to see transvestites, hijras dotting the landscape. We are able to do this because, despite galloping evidence to the contrary, we still have more than the rigid sexual categories that the West has had for so long. Unfortunately, the more people of your generation become Americanized, the more you import rigid sexual identities. but there are counterintuitive ways to think about desire that are very much our lived reality and we need to take those more seriously while we wait for the books to arrive and cost less.

Q: If you were a student now and you had the choice of studying either at Ashoka or at any other college in Delhi, would you choose Ashoka?

A: Well, first of all, I so would not want to be a student now! I feel really bad for all you people: it was much easier being a student when I was a student. So, I feel a mixture of awe, admiration, and sympathy for all of you because your lives are actually much more difficult than our lives were. And even though I thoroughly enjoyed my time at my own university, if I had the choice now, I would definitely come to Ashoka, without a doubt!

There has been a lot of buzz on campus among the first years who have yet to take classes with Professor Menon. From the beginning of the semester, they have been curious to know why Professor Menon has been an idol for most Ashokans, no matter what their majors. And now since all of you know a bit more about our charismatic professor, we wish everyone the best of luck for the upcoming 'Hunger Games' for Professor Menon’s courses next semester.

All images are courtesy of CSGS, Ashoka University

About The Author

An avid reader, she reads almost anything she can lay her hands on. She can share anything except cookies. She also enjoys moonlit walks, whistling and basking in the winter sun.