Feminist historian, social activist, cultural critic and conservationist Lata Mani’s latest book Myriad Intimacies is a deeply thought-provoking, multi-genre, multi-media experimental offering. In it she seamlessly moves between prose and poetry in texts, music, nature sounds and silences in films, both with color and monochrome montages, to present a holistic view of the interconnectedness of all things in nature. 

Mani suffered a debilitating brain injury years ago. Her work then took a turn from the purely academic to authoring books which married cultural analysis and observation.

Brain Injury

“My own experience with my brain injury brought with it a spontaneous spiritual awakening,” she says. “I began to experience expanded states of consciousness, things that I didn’t have the language for. However, these transformed my perception, and the ways of seeing and experiencing the world.”

At the same time, the socio-political-economic landscape in post-Babri-Masjid India had shifted considerably after both globalization and the Hindutva movement picked up pace. On the one hand, India raced towards economic liberalization and modernization, and on the other, the nation went hurtling in the opposite direction in the social context, towards conservatism, orthodoxy, even extremism.

These changes sparked SacredSecular: Contemplative Cultural Critique (2009) where Mani proposed “bringing contemplative ideas with those from secular traditions such as sociology, history, and economics to bear on any analysis, arguing for a contemplative cultural critique.” 

Instead of looking at the changes in society as opposite forces, she sought to “take indivisibility and interdependence, a concept at the heart of every spiritual tradition, and invite people to contemplate that.” 

Body, Sex, And Time

In her second book on the subject, The Integral Nature of Things: Critical Reflections on the Present (2013), Mani looked at a range of issues like urbanization, globalization as well as cultural shifts in our understanding of body, sex, time, language and etymology, but through the secular lens, emphasizing the idea that things are interdependent and interconnected. 

Myriad Intimacies builds on the concepts and contemplations elucidated in the SacredSecular and The Integral Nature of Things, by presenting its audiences with a chance to explore the idea that everything in nature is connected. 

Experiencing Intimacy

The films integrated within the book—six in all: Nocturne I, Nocturne II, De Sidere 7, Nota Bene, A Sutra in Four Scenes, Words Fall Into Empty Mind, and In Silence the Mind Breathes—were made in collaboration with Argentinian film-maker, transdisciplinary artist and educator, Nicolas Grandi. 

The films compel viewers to pause the whirlwind of conscious thoughts, to open up in order to experience intimacy and interconnectedness within nature as well as human beings. They invite us to take a moment to shut down all the other curated stimuli and the blitzkrieg of images coming in from social media and mass media, to pause, think, slow down, and then bring the inner out to experience things anew.

Disdain For Diversity

As Mani puts it, “I wanted to present ideas in ways that could be experienced sensorially, because the preconditions to be open to facts have been undermined; there is no fearless curiosity about the world.”

Mani also bemoans the fact that a deep “disdain for diversity”—social, biological, gender and religious diversity—exists currently among people. As a consequence, “things that are intricately connected start to seem estranged from each other.”

Myriad Intimacies touches upon various interconnected themes—from tantra (i.e., the concept of interconnectedness) to the Covid-19 pandemic, climate change, identity politics and the #MeToo movement. Mani revisits the subject of tantra in Myriad Intimacies, after first exploring it in The Tantra Chronicles (self-published, 2007).

Body And Breath

Tantra is extremely relevant for the world that we live in because it brings our attention to the sacredness and integrity of matter. It asks us to see human incarnation as  intrinsically worthy, something from which we learn and grow.” 

Tantra, she asserts, also redirects our attention to body and breath at a time when our senses are being deadened due to sensory overstimulation. Our senses, Mani believes, “need to be recouped as sources of intelligence, not just as feelings and emotions to be manipulated by the logic of commercial interests or state ideology.”

Mani explains her tantra standpoint with the concept of the two triangles—self-other-connectivity and self-other-divinity. Everyone, she asserts, is connected to everyone else, as also to the source from which one is created. 

Everything Is Intricately Connected

Atheists and agnostics could replace divinity by laws of nature, which also function in the same way, that is everything is intricately, intimately connected with everything else, affecting everyone else. “A butterfly flapping its wings in Japan can cause weather changes in Brazil.” Thus, tantra is connected to climate change as well.  

Myriad Intimacies, however, is not just about tantra. A passionate and lifelong social activist, Mani’s beliefs on critical race theory and the politics of caste also come out in sharp relief in the book, especially with the chapter dedicated to Rohit Vemula and Pat Parker

Simple-Minded Patriarchy

Mani ruminates on the present condition of extremism we are seeing in both India and the United States; two very different cultures which are sliding back to conservatism. Parallelly, the “hyper capitalist” mode of development focuses on capital profit maximization over all else, and treats human beings as collateral damage, just as it treats nature as collateral damage. 

When people who are afraid of rapid changes encounter such situations, they in turn want to reintroduce some very simple-minded patriarchal systems of control from top down. “They then displace the problem on to other historically disadvantaged groups who are now on the verge of having the opportunity, economic, educational and otherwise, to enter what we call the mainstream society,” she says. Many find that the uncertainty of the world is best managed by blaming somebody else. 

Layered Contrasts

Through Myriad Intimacies, Mani questions many things, but at the heart of it all is one very simple question. “Are we going to recognize that we are deeply related, that even diversity is produced through inter-relations and inter-connection, or are we going to fly against the facts of nature? If we can accept gravity, we must accept interconnectivity. They are both laws of nature, scientific principles of nature,” she says.

Myriad Intimacies is a book of contrasts. It is a layered work that grapples with macro ideas, and at the same time, takes an intimate look at a microscopic aspect of a large idea. The Nocturnes, for instance, was filmed in a tiny urban garden at night, and yet, it gives viewers the feeling of being in a forest.

“So how do we open ourselves to the abundance that is there,” Mani asks, “even in the midst of seeming scarcity? There is a richness available to us if we are able to notice it. Even in the midst of want, there is abundance and generosity.”

We only need to begin to notice the abundance, the generosity. Once we do, the possibilities are endless. 

Nandita Chowdhury Bose is Contributing Editor at India Currents. In Mumbai, she worked at India Today and Society magazines, besides other digital publications. In the United States, she has been a communications...