Sex Is Forbidden
A Novel
Tim Parks
Twenty-two-year-old busty round-cheeked lovely Beth is a sexual terrorist. When Carl wants her, she's with Jonathan. When she's with Jonathan, she's talking about Carl. When she tires of them, she is singing with the band in a seedy pub, rubbing up against Zöe ... and, eventually, sleeping with her.

As I say, she's a sexual terrorist, if there can be said to be any such a creature. But she's no beast. She worries, too --- especially about about the fact that Carl wants her but Jonathan can take her or leave her. To get back at them, she tries to commit suicide, but not alone. She invites some young French men along for an evening swim in the middle of a storm.

She gets rescued (but one of the lads, Philippe, doesn't make it). The moment she gets out of the hospital she heads over to the Dasgupta Institute there in the English countryside to do a ten-day session retreat, then decides to hang around and do "service," working as a volunteer in the kitchen, preparing food, setting it out for the initiates, cleaning up afterwards.

But Beth working, ostensibly, on enlightenment, is still Beth. She also works on temptation: pulling in the guys with her luscious body, and, when they make a move, she runs away PDQ.

§   §   §

Servers have it easy there at Dasgupta. They are supposed to observe the rules: no touching, no fondling, no sex, maintain silence. But it's hard to prepare, dispense, and clean up after a 150 others without asking if the rice and lentils are ready. Beth makes the best of it, however. She's such a bombshell. All too many fall in love with her. As we do.

Not content with just the working folk, she also sets herself the task of seducing the leaders. I tell you, she's a twenty-four hour terrorist, and her bombs are her various body parts and her attitude.

Here we are on the holy grounds of Dasgupta, with its chanting, and silence, and this well-endowed young lady has the gall to sneak into the rooms on the men's side, not permitted for the ladies: then to find a journal, sort through his things, read his letters.

Later she steals (naked!) into the bed of the holiest of holies, the thin, lovely, ascetic, vibrant, gorgeously pious Mi Nu Wai. Guess what she's about. Say her name slowly. Get it? Got it? Good.

It's fun to attend this retreat with someone who wants to badger the pious, sabotage the efforts of the supposedly holy. How does she get away with it? Beauty, youth, daring, wit ... and gall. Here she is with one of the matriarcal leaders when they're alone in the kitchen:

    "You know, though, sometimes I think all I need is a good hug."

    I shook myself in a shiver like a dog and looked straight at her, grinning. We were about a yard apart. The trickle moved again.

    "Would you hug me, Mrs. Harper?"

    She let her tongue slip over her lips and set down her mug. "The Dasgupta is not a place for hugs, Elisabeth."

    I felt evil.

    "I know it's against the rules."

    "I'm afraid it is, yes."

    "Does that mean you'd hug me, if the rules were different?"

    She stood, unblinking, slow and pale and swollen in her baggy nightdress ...

    "Hug me."

    I moved towards her. ...

    "Please Mrs Harper. It's been ages. Hug me tight."

    When our bodies were almost touching, she opened her arms. I could already feel what a warm, soft, motherly embrace it would be. As her hands closed around me I wriggled free and ran.

Later the next night Beth sneaks in to Madam Wai's bedroom. strips down and wriggles into bed next to her patron saint, dead asleep. When the saint-of-saints wakes up, Beth tries to pull her into the Beth minefield with her. Why not? It's worked with everyone so far.

She says à propos of leaving the ashram,

    "If I go back I'll just mess up with men again. And women. I've had things with girls too. You know Mrs Harper tried to kiss me?" I laughed. "She's really attracted to me. I think she really likes me."

Beth is a master, too: a master flirt (I mean, she got me.)

And Mi Nu Wai? Will she succumb to the master tease? Perish the thought. She's a master too, remember? Guru slips out of bed, sits in chair, keeps her distance, eyes Beth neither with fear, nor anger. Only with perfect graceful calm:.

"I love breaking the rules," Beth says. "I'm glad I got Mrs Harper to hug me. I bet I could get Meredith" --- one of her roommates --- "into bed if I put my mind to it." Then, quickly. "There's something piggy about that girl." Then (as quickly), "I regret all my betrayals. They make my life insane." In professional baseball, this is called a "switch-hit." She rambles on: "But it was fantastic having three lovers at the same table. All happy to be with me. All enchanted by little old Beth."

Mi Nu Wai knows what's going on. She stays on, keeping a respectful, wise distance between the two of them, listening, listening.

Finally when Beth asks for a hug, she laughs out loud, says, "You're a bad girl, Beth. You're a bad girl. Go to sleep now."

And she does.

§   §   §

Sex Is Forbidden is a great study of the elephant of lust in the china-shop of the holy. It can bring back old memories to those of us who have on occasion tried a holy retreat. If someone I knew were going off for a session, I would make Sex Is Forbidden required reading. Not just because it makes its point by drawing such a precise portrait of the tempters and the tempted being pushed and pulled, but because the practice of Buddhism isn't a sand-box. There are masters up there sitting at the top of the heap that can drive you mad with their conundrums and pompousness. Sitting on your ass for hours at a time can be and often is a royal pain. Shutting up the mind is like grabbing soap in the bathtub.

And the rewards (even from a small investment of time) can be sensational. Author Parks knows the drill. We suspect he has been through it a few times himself.

Beth is all lust; but she is not untouched by the surroundings. This is our notorious flirt, in the kitchen, after a siege of meditation, getting ready to cook the vegetables: "I felt weirdly mesmerized looking at the dark broccoli heads and pale broccoli stalks."

    My breathing went softer and I was suddenly aware of it. I had the feeling I was seeing something that wasn't the broccoli really, even though, as Dasgupta would say, when you are looking at broccoli, you are looking at broccoli, nothing else.

The tension between the pious and impious is palpable; it drives the plot unceasingly. It's fun, and sometimes achingly funny. And some lines should be written out and hung on the refrigerator until they've gone yellowed and torn. Two of my personal favorites are,

    Sensual pleasure is like honey on a razor's edge.

And on "Vipassana vanity,"

    I would like to learn not to feel superior to everyone, though I don't suppose I ever will. Actually, I'm already thinking how superior I am, wanting not to feel superior. And how superior of me to have recognized this paradox. And to have admitted this stalemate. And so on and on.

--- Pamela Wylie
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