How the Body Remembers

By Arshia Sattar 3

Memories of love are physical. It is our skin, writes Arshia Sattar, that recalls what it was to be touched, our hands that recall what it was to touch, and so we revive the corporeality of lost lovers

In Girish Karnad’s Hayavadana, robust Kapila and intellectual Devadutta love the same woman, Padmini. Padmini marries Devadatta but lusts after Kapila. In a hair-raising scene of jealousy and loyalty and sacrifice and love and death that involves a somnolent goddess, the heads of the young men get exchanged. Kapila’s body now has Devadatta’s head and Devadatta’s body has Kapila’s head.  The trio must decide which man is Kapila and which Devadatta. A rishi declares that the head is where identity lies, where personhood is established, and Padmini goes away with the man that has Devadatta’s head. The man with Kapila’s head retires, angry and heart-broken, to the forest. Years later, Padmini seeks him out. She touches him on his shoulder, a shoulder that once was Devadatta’s body. Kapila bursts out, “One beats the body into shape but one can’t beat away the memories in it. Isn’t that surprising? That the body should have its own ghosts—its own memories? Memories of touch—memories of a touch—memories of a body swaying in these arms, of a warm skin against this palm—memories which one cannot recognise, cannot understand, cannot even name because this head wasn’t there when it happened… You touched me. You held my hand—and my body recognised your touch. I have never touched you, but this body, this appendage laughed and flowered in a festival of memories to which I am an outcaste…”

Karnad suggests that the body, too, has memories. Most especially, it has memories of physical love. Memory does not always and only live in the mind and the heart, those incorporeal spaces that have no ascertained physical location. Fortunately, for those of us who live in the mundane world where the gods have receded to mind their own business and magic is performed on stage, our minds and hearts and bodies are united in our memories of love. Unlike broken, incomplete Kapila, our minds and hearts and bodies constitute a singular person that remembers a unique and singular beloved. Perhaps it is memory, both physical and emotional, arising in mind and body and heart, that actually creates and sustains the unified self. At least for a single lifetime.

For all that there are strong and persistent ideologies of rejecting the body within Hindu thought, there are equally old and definitely seductive ideologies that celebrate the body, not only as a seat of pleasure but as a medium for the reception of worldly knowledge. In the Hindu epics, for example, the figure of the renunciant ascetic is powerful and compelling, but he remains on the fringe. The centre of the story is occupied by the king, a man whose personal identity and social function as a warrior is located in his body. But, the kshatriya’s body also can and does feel love. His knowledge of his beloved is physical as much as it is anything else.

In the Valmiki Ramayana, Rama returns from killing the golden deer with a sense of deep foreboding. He is utterly distraught when he finds Sita missing:

“But though he searched high and low, Rama could not find his beloved in the forest. His eyes red from weeping, he seemed like a madman as he ran from tree to tree, from the mountains to the river, weeping more and more as he plunged deeper and deeper into an ocean of grief. ‘O kadamba tree, have you seen my beloved who loved your fruit so? Tell me if you know where that lovely woman is! Bilva tree, where is she, the woman whose breasts are like your fruits who is as delicate as your new shoots in her yellow silks? O palm tree, take pity on me and tell me if you have seen that beautiful woman. Rose-apple tree, my beloved’s complexion has the hues of your fruit. You must have seen her. Tell me where she is! Little deer, you must know where the doe-eyed Sita is! Is she with you in the forest? O best of elephants, Sita had thighs like your trunk, you must know where she is! O Lakshmana, have you seen my beloved anywhere? O Sita! My darling Sita, where have you gone!’ he cried over and over again.”

Sita shies away from Hanuman, Mughal miniature 16th century BCE || The David Collection, Copenhagen (68/1998) | Photographer: Pernille Klemp

Sita shies away from Hanuman, Mughal miniature 16th century BCE || The David Collection, Copenhagen (68/1998) | Photographer: Pernille Klemp

Rama invokes Sita’s presence through remembering different parts of her body—her eyes, the colour of her skin, the shape of her breasts and thighs. He sees her in the trees and animals of the forest and in doing so, he tries to bridge the chasm of her loss by reaching for her physicality. Rama describes not just her outward appearance (her eyes, her skin and her clothes), he recalls her more intimately, more sensually, more completely, when he thinks of her breasts and thighs. Because he intuitively knows that their separation will be long and fraught, his love for her spills out in all its glory, emotional as well as physical. It is the fullness of Rama’s love for Sita that makes this passage so moving, more so because this is the last time in the Ramayana that he will speak of her like this.


Memory is an essential part of love, it sustains and nurtures it in a hundred ways. Lovers often recall times of happiness and intimacy to each other, using those memories to strengthen the love that they feel at the moment. Sometimes, they share the stories of their love with other people. That, too, reassures them and those listening that their love is alive and well. This remembering is sweet when lovers are together but it becomes poignant, even sad, when they are apart.

Sita, too, in the depths of her despair as a prisoner in Lanka, sends Rama a message that speaks about her love for him. Again, it is a physical memory that she recalls. She tells Hanuman, “The best token I can give you is this message. Say to my beloved Rama, ‘One day, when my body was still wet from my bath, you fell asleep with your head in my lap. A crow carrying a piece of meat in its beak began to attack me and I tried to ward it off with clods of earth. The bird clung to me with its vicious claws and began to tear at the flesh it carried. I was angry with the bird and drew off my girdle. But my clothes slipped off and at that very moment, you awoke and saw me. You began to laugh and I was terribly embarrassed. I hid in your arms and though I was still angry, I was mollified by your laughter. You wiped the tears from my eyes and my face and hissing like an angry serpent, you said, ‘Lady with the thighs like an elephant’s trunk, who has dared to strike you on the breast?’” Sita’s implication with this story is that Rama, who had unleashed an unimpeachable weapon against a mere crow for frightening his beloved, seemed to be doing little to rescue her from a demon who had kidnapped her and was holding her prisoner.

Rama and Sita in the forest Kangra School 18th century BCE

Rama and Sita in the forest Kangra School 18th century BCE

At the very end of the Ramayana, when Sita has disappeared into the earth forever, Rama makes a golden statue of her and places it beside him on all public occasions. Of course, rituals and sacrifices performed by the king need the presence of his queen and so the golden statue fulfils that purpose. But how much more poignant does the statue become when we think that Rama keeps it by his side as a reminder of Sita’s physical absence, a reminder of the body he can no longer touch, the voice he can no longer hear, the breath he can no longer feel. The statue makes Rama painfully and immediately aware of all that he has lost. Some might say that he punishes himself with these memories since Sita’s departure from the world of men was because of his actions. But the statue also points outwards and serves to remind Rama’s people of all that he has given up for them—it was their suspicions that led to Sita’s banishment and eventual disappearance. The golden statue becomes the symbol of Rama’s undying love for Sita. It holds within it Rama’s personal memories of his wife and the public memories of his queen for his people.

Lakshmana refuses the intimacy of memory when Rama is given the jewels that Sita had dropped from the sky as she was being carried away by Ravana. Rama weeps over her necklace and bracelets and earrings, remembering how those ornaments had adorned her already beautiful body. Through his tears, he shows them to Lakshmana, inviting him to share in her loss. But Lakshmana shakes his head and says he does not know the pieces of jewellery and how they rested on Sita’s body. The only ornaments that he can recognise are Sita’s anklets, for he had never raised his head to look at her.Rama is not the only one who recalls the physicality of his beloved at a heavily charged and portentous moment. As he is about to stake Draupadi in the dice game that has crossed all limits of propriety and is verging on the obscene, Yudhishthira conjures up her beauty and desirability through his words in the assembly. Speaking as if to himself, he says:

“I stake Draupadi. She is neither too small nor too large, neither too dusky nor too rosy. Her curly hair is as dark as the evening sky. Her eyes are shaped like the winter lotus and she smells like the winter lotus. She is equal in beauty to Lakshmi who delights in these blossoms. In her physical grace and with well-proportioned body, she resembles the goddess Shri. She has a kind heart. Any man would desire her as a wife for she is rich in beauty and in virtue. She is accomplished in all ways and compassionate, she speaks sweetly—any man would want her as a companion as he strives for dharma, pleasure and wealth. Her waist is slender, her hair is long, her lips are red, her body is smooth and without hair. This glorious princess of Panchala, this slim-waisted Draupadi, she is my stake. I will play you for her, Shakuni!” (Sabha Parwan, chapter 64)

The disrobing of Draupadi Mughal miniature 16th century BCE

The disrobing of Draupadi Mughal miniature 16th century BCE

For all the sweet tenderness in Rama’s recall of Sita and her body when he finds her missing in their idyllic grove, there is something dark and desperate in Yudhishthira’s words as he stakes the woman he loves. It is almost as though he is announcing the value of his stake to himself and to his opponents. He reminds himself what it meant to have Draupadi as his royal consort, as a wife shared with his brothers, but most importantly, as a woman that he has loved and cherished in private. He recalls her in all these aspects, but what makes his recollection of her physical body and her sweet nature so disturbing is that he is speaking in a crowded assembly, before the very men who will humiliate her further. Perhaps aroused even more by this description of her, Duhshasana will drag her out in her bloodstained garment, Karna will call her a whore, Duryodhana will bare his thigh and pat it suggestively, Duhshasana will pull the gorgeous curly hair that Yudhishthira spoke of and will attempt to tear off her clothes so that her desirable body, dwelt upon so lovingly by Yudhishthira, is exposed for all to see. All this will happen while her five husbands watch with impotent rage and the elders of her clan, both men and women, feed Draupadi to the wolves, as it were. Yudhishthira’s recall of Draupadi, hair by hair, nail by nail, in the public assembly is about his own degradation, about the love that he has just betrayed.

If remembering constitutes love, what does forgetting mean in the same context? What does it mean when you forget the physical form of your beloved, when you can no longer hear their voice in your head, no longer recall the texture of their skin, the look in their eyes when they wake in the morning, the shape of their shadow? Does it mean that you don’t love them anymore, that you have patched over the hole in your heart and moved on to another life, perhaps even to another love?

In The Dreams of Tipu Sultan, Girish Karnad adds an interesting dimension to forgetting the physicality of someone that you have loved. Hussain Ali Kirmani was Tipu’s court historian, a chronicler, rather, for he recorded things as they happened. When the play opens, he is talking to Mackenzie, a British officer who has asked Kirmani to write about Tipu’s last days. Together, they recall the final siege of Srirangapatnam when Tipu was killed on the ramparts of his fort, fighting alongside his soldiers. Mackenzie reminds Kirmani that for both of them, their loyalty is to history, to facts and not to emotions. Kirmani responds, “You mean memories. But that’s where the real betrayal lies. Do you know, I was just trying to remember what he looked like on that last day and I just couldn’t.” Further into the conversation, Kirmani says, “I remember thinking, I will never forget that expression on his face. But I have. For the life of me, I can’t remember his face at that moment. It’s such…such a betrayal.”

People say that all memories, even the most cherished and nurtured, fade over time. But the emotions they used to conjure up can remain as strong, even without the memories. Nonetheless, Kirmani knows that the loss of physical memories feels like a betrayal of the beloved. In love, if we forget, we erase the presence of the beloved and thereby, the beloved him/herself. If your beloved has died, how much more painful it is to forget the sound of the voice, the touch of the hand, the kiss of the lips. If we cannot recall these, the beloved has died a second time. Their first death is when their heart ceases to beat and their second is when you can no longer remember what their beating heart sounded like when it whispered in your ear.

This article was published in the Oct-Dec ’17 issue of The Indian Quarterly. This issue marked 5th anniversary of the magazine, and is based on the theme “Love”.



  1. C. N. Ramachandran October 23, 2017 at 7:19 am - Reply

    It is a scholarly article, well-written, and it is thought-provoking. One can easily agree with her generalizations, amply supported with references to literary texts, that ‘memory is an essential part of love’ and that ‘forgetting the lover’s physicality amounts to betrayal of love.’
    But certain incidental comments appear to be misleading. For instance, the very title ‘How the body remembers.’ Aren’t all memories physical, originating in sensuous experiences of this world, living and non-living? If we argue that the body remembers even when the mind has forgotten, we will have to accept that even when the mind is dead the body can react to certain sensual stimuli.
    Secondly, somewhere in the middle, the article, it seems, mixes up two different arguments: rejection or celebration of the body over mind is one thing; it is entirely another to argue that the corporeal body has its own existence independent of the mind. I am not sure we can equate these two ideas or arguments. In “Hayavadana,” Girish is regretful that orthodox Hinduism rejects the body and upholds only the mind.
    Thank you for an excellent article.
    C. N. Ramachandran

  2. Zaida October 25, 2017 at 8:18 pm - Reply

    Absolutely sublime Arshia. Love it. Thank you- it’s both informative and so moving! Thank you

  3. Balram October 25, 2017 at 8:44 pm - Reply

    A very well articulated article. Enjoyed reading!

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