Sex Is Forbidden

Sex Is Forbidden

by Tim Parks
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Sex Is Forbidden by Tim Parks

Sex is forbidden at the Dasgupta Institute, the Buddhist retreat where Beth Marriot has taken refuge, and that’s a big advantage. Beth has been working as a server, assisting in the kitchen and helping out—discreetly, so the meditators aren’t disturbed. The meditators are making big sacrifices to come here and change their lives. So the servers must observe the rules, and silence and separation of the sexes are chief among them.

But Beth is fighting demons. She came here at a crossroads in her life, caught between an older lover who wouldn’t choose her and a young one who wants to marry her, and she may have caused another man’s death when she risked her own life swimming out to sea in a gale. A singer in a band, vital and impulsive, fleshy and sexy, she has been a rebel and a provocateur. And now, conflicted and wandering, she stumbles on a diary in the men’s dorm and cannot keep away from it, or the man who wrote it. At the same time, desiring—all too hard—to achieve the inner peace that Buddhist practice promises, she yearns for the example set by the slim, silent, white-clad teacher Mi Nu, and maybe yearns for something more.

Comic and poignant at the same time, swiftly paced and completely engaging, Sex Is Forbidden is an entertaining novel about two profoundly different attitudes to life, and Beth—our narrator—is a character to be savored.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781611459074
Publisher: Arcade Publishing
Publication date: 10/01/2013
Pages: 304
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Tim Parks was born in Manchester, England, in 1954, grew up in London, and has lived in Italy since 1980. His novels include Europa, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, and he is the author of several nonfiction accounts of life in Italy, including Italian Neighbors and An Italian Education. During his years in Italy, Parks has translated works by Italo Calvino, Roberto Calasso, Alberto Moravia, and Machiavelli. He is a regular contributor to the New York Review of Books, for which he blogs.

Read an Excerpt

Sex Is Forbidden

A Novel

By Tim Parks

Arcade Publishing

Copyright © 2013 Tim Parks
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-61145-907-4


Sex Is Forbidden

Sex is forbidden at the Dasgupta Institute. That's one of the big advantages of working here. Of course I'm a volunteer, they don't pay me, so I don't mean really working. I'm a server, officially. Harper says it's unusual for anyone to serve for more than three or four retreats in a row. Which makes sense. Parents don't put you through school to have you spend your life cooking and cleaning for free. They have ambitions for you, they have their plans. It's hard to disappoint.

All the servers here are young, or youngish, between things anyway. I suppose, if you think about it, people are always between things, there's no other way to be. But you know what I mean. Summer jobs, gap years. Sometimes I wonder what things I'm between. I suppose it should be pretty easy to say what the stuff behind you is, how you came to be here and so on. Most people's worries are about the future. But the longer I stay at the Dasgupta Institute the less certain I am about what happened before. In the early days here, when I first sat and tried to meditate, the past hammered on in my head. Everybody gets that. You sit and close your eyes and the thoughts start barking like crazy dogs. They used to, and I haven't forgotten. Just that nowadays I'm not so sure any more what it added up to. Perhaps, churning over and over, the old thoughts have worn themselves out. 1-he torment has faded. Perhaps the truth is I'm not between things at all at the Dasgupta. I'll live here for ever maybe, or if I go, the Dasgupta will live with me.

This morning I felt very lazy. The gong sounds at four. Servers don't have to start preparing breakfast till six, so I usually sit in the first hour and a half of meditation and leave when the chanting begins. This is definitely the best part of the day. Why? I don't really know. Nothing hurts before dawn. You walk to the meditation hall through the dark. The morning air feels soft, everything's damp and dewy and it's very quiet. If you are one of the first, you'll see rabbits in the grass. There are stars, and the stars are bright here. Chilly. People wear fleeces with hoods and look like monks or ghosts. Everything feels kind of ghostly and on hold. In the hall your cushion and blankets welcome you. The lights are dimmed. You close your eyes and listen to the others coming in, snuffling and fidgeting and coughing. That can drive you mad. A voice starts in your head: Hey, I didn't get up so early to listen to your coughs and farts, thank you very much. I get enough stink cleaning loos. Then you realize these sounds are cosy. They protect you. That's a strange thing. You're going crazy with someone for constantly blowing her nose and you feel protected and humbled too. This person is making a big sacrifice coming to the Dasgupta and trying to change her life. Who are you to be so critical? In the end it's good to feel humbled and say to yourself, Stop bitching about the poor woman's snuffles, Beth Marriot. You've no idea the shit she may be going through, or the bad things she's between.

So I let the coughs and snuffling be. I accept them, like an itch or a cramp, or the crows scrabbling on the prefab roof. Those crows can make quite a racket. I love the morning session. It's the best. But today I felt lazy. When the gong sounded I didn't get up. Something must be changing. Anicca. Feel the change. Ahneechaaa, ahneechaaaa, ahneechaaaa. I love the way Mi Nu says that word in her singsong Asian voice. Feel the pulsing in your wrists, Beth, feel the tingling in your cheeks. Change. Anicca. Maybe it's the same change that made me pick up a pen. Today, on impulse, I picked up a pen. Writing is another thing that is forbidden at the Dasgupta Institute. Writing and sex.

Not that I ever minded the writing ban. The only rule that really got to me when I first came to the Dasgupta was the Noble Silence. No talking. No singing. For me there are moments when it just seems natural to say right out loud—Good morning, folks! Could you pass the water jug? Hey, you've forgotten to take your shoes off]. Or other moments when I have to burst out singing, When the working day is done, Girls just wanna have fun! I just have to rock and shake and stamp my feet. So silence was hard for me. In fact what's nice about being a server is that you can talk a bit, at least in the kitchen. No, you have to talk to get your job done. Though never to the meditators of course. The meditators mustn't be disturbed.

Actually, I tell a lie. The no-smoking rule drove me crazy too. I'd brought three packs to get me through the ten days and smoked them in the bushes at the bottom of the field. People must have seen. But I never finished them. Eight months later I still have half a pack. You'd think this was a major event in my life, chucking smoking. God knows, I'd tried often enough, with Carl on my back. But now I can't even remember when it happened. Meditation does that. We live in a trance at the Dasgupta. An endless jhana. I like that word. One day I found I wasn't smoking. One day I realized I had stopped thinking, of Dad and Mum and Jonathan and Carl and Zoë. I'd stopped thinking of Pocus, stopped thinking of the future. So the Dasgupta technique does work. I had grown in Dhamma. Except now here I am all of a sudden writing this down. Me who never wrote anything but songs in the past. Actually, I still don't mind the no-writing rule. I mean, it was nice smoking when I wasn't supposed to smoke. I didn't stop because of the rule. And it's nice writing now and knowing I'm not supposed to write. It's made me feel pretty intense this morning. Intensely Beth. Maybe I'm about to switch from being a model Dasgupta server to a crazy, bad-girl rebel breaking all the rules. Then they'll chuck me out and I'll find out what things I've been between all this time.

One of the male servers has a BlackBerry. I was pretty mad when I saw it. Ralph. He's German. Servers get to be around members of the opposite sex when they're cooking. There's only one kitchen and we cook the same stuff for everyone, men and women, new students and old, though there are some things old students are supposed to renounce, of course, like cakes and afternoon fruit. I came in a few minutes early for the breakfast shift and Ralph was sitting on one of the counters bent over the little screen. Ralph is proud of being a server. His cute face goes smooth with devotion. He likes to think of the good he is doing. Without us the meditators wouldn't have the freedom to live in silence, they wouldn't be able to offload their bad karma and sankharas and start purifying themselves. Well, first he tried to slip the thing in his apron pocket, then when he saw I'd seen what he was up to, he asked if I'd like to check my email. He wanted to make me a party to the crime. I nearly reported him. Maybe I should have. 'That's really against the spirit of the Dasgupta,' I said. 'You should be ashamed of yourself. What's the point of us creating this pure atmosphere here if you're polluting it looking at porn on your BlackBerry?'

That upset him. It was pretty funny. How could I think he was looking at porn? he said. He has a strong German accent. 'Why do you zink zat?' I was struggling to keep a straight face. 'All men look at porn,' I told him. Which is the truest thing on earth. 'Why did you try to hide it otherwise?'

But if I had reported Ralph, to the Harpers, or Mi Nu, they would have been sterner with me for telling tales than with him about his BlackBerry. At the Dasgupta each person must obey the rules because they want to. So long as they're not disturbing someone's meditation, rule breakers don't need to be reprimanded. I suppose I could have made out that Ralph was disturbing me, but I'm not sure a server counts. As an old student, a server is supposed to be above being disturbed. Otherwise why did we learn the method? Still, it does disturb me. It itches, thinking of him having access to the net, thinking of what it would be like to open my email again. Or Facebook. Christ. Perhaps now I've got pen and paper I could write an anonymous note. RALPH HAS A BLACKBERRY. HE SURFS FOR PORN. Perhaps now I've started writing, HI start smoking again too. I could finish what's left of that last pack. Then Ralph could report me. I'd let him get a whiff of smoky breath while we were scrubbing carrots. They'd ask me where I got cigarettes from, since I haven't been out of the grounds for months. I'd confess and say I was sorry. To Mi Nu maybe. Mi Nu Wai. I'd like to have a reason to confess some stuff to her. I could tell her I skived off to the pub some nights. But I don't think Ralph would report me. Ralph likes me. He's always there to help scrape the plates and pull the gunk from the plughole after lunch. Perhaps he let me see his BlackBerry on purpose. Ralph likes me, but he's too young, too sweet, too German. I never went for sweet boys. There must be dozens of more attractive men here. And women for that matter. It's a good job sex is forbidden at the Dasgupta. Maybe there are good reasons for forbidding writing.

I didn't go back to sleep again when I stayed in bed. The others got up with that lovely submission we all have in the morning. They went to meditation. But I lay in bed thinking. After about ten minutes Meredith came back to ask me if I was ill, but since even servers are only supposed to speak when they have to, I didn't answer. Meredith's a chubby kid, rather pretty, I suppose. She has a pretty smile. She's going to start at Cambridge at the end of summer, so she says. I didn't answer. I didn't even shake my head. Now she'll be wondering what's up or what she did to offend me. Jesus. Why am I so mean? I don't know. I enjoy it. I enjoy being nice and I enjoy being mean. I think Meredith deserves a bit of meanness. She definitely needs to lose some weight. If I ever had a chance of going to Cambridge, I blew it way back.

So I didn't go back to sleep but lay there thinking. It's been a while since I did this. In the past when I lay in bed thinking I'd be planning planning planning, I'd be anxious and excited. I'd be writing songs in my head, sorting out practice sessions, rehearsal space, gigs, emails, the website, money. But when I arrived at the Dasgupta I'd jump out of bed as fast as I could because the thoughts were horrible. The moment I woke up my head was pounding. No, that's not right. There'd be one split second of peace before the thoughts came down like an avalanche and buried me. Then I'd curse that second of peace for making the avalanche so much worse. You've got to get over these thoughts, I kept telling myself. Got to got to. You have to kill these thoughts before they kill you. Kill kill kill. The Dasgupta is a great place for killing thoughts. I understood that. I realized at once how lucky I'd been to come here. I'd have died. But those days are gone. They've faded. This morning I just stayed in bed to think about yesterday's find. I wanted to enjoy thinking over something new that's happened, the first in months. Yesterday's find has started me writing. I should be careful.

In one of the men's rooms I found a diary. While the meditators meditate, the servers clean. The male servers clean the men's side and the female servers the women's. Every day the toilets, every other day the showers and the washbasins. Replenish the loo paper, the paper towels, tampons and sanitary pads, replenish the hand soap and the bio powder for people washing their socks and panties. Fish out the hair blocking the plugs. There are still people who chuck tampons in the loo. I don't mind, the day passes. It's weird how easily you can slip from meditation to washing floors, as if it was the same thing. But we had run out of disinfectant. Of course I'm not supposed to, but I went round to the male side. I hate to leave a job half done and the meditators were all away in the hall. Ralph and Rob were digging weeds from the path. 'Cupboard at the end of the corridor,' they said. 'Dormitory A.'

I got the disinfectant, then, walking back down the corridor, I pushed open a door to see what the men's rooms were like. Why do I do stuff like this? Someone could have been in there, meditating alone, and I would have offended him with my female form. Or even masturbating! You never know with men. Mrs Harper would have a heart attack.

It was a single room, so for someone elderly or disabled, or important somehow. No way I ever had a single room. A suitcase was open on the bed and it was full of red exercise books, which is against the rules. There were pens too, half a dozen biros. I picked up one of the exercise books. Just seeing the handwriting made me feel anxious. It was tall and very slanted, like a strong wind was blowing along the lines, bending the tops of the letters, pushing them towards the edge of the page. I read a few words and knew at once this guy was in serious trouble. Since evidently you're incapable of deciding who you are you may as well become nothing. Stuff like that. Since you've destroyed everyone you've had anything to do with, don't you owe it to them now to destroy yourself? No, it was more stylish than that. I can't remember the exact words. Or more pompous. Definitely an oldie, I thought. Or maybe not. What do I know? Maybe a pompous handicapped kid or a teacher's pet. One notebook was only half written and the last pages had this week's date and stuff about arriving at the Dasgupta and only realizing when it was too late that he wouldn't be able to get back to the locker where he'd left his mobile. No mobile for ten whole days. I smiled because the same thing had happened to me the first time. Happens to everyone. It's a trick they play. Why do I always write as if this were for somebody else? he'd written. That got me weirdly excited.

I took one of the notebooks and brought it back to the female side. Not smart. While the others were in the hall this morning I read it. I mean I flicked through it. The handwriting is terrible and I'm not sure I care that much. Then in the next hour of Strong Determination, when the coast was clear, I took it back, with the disinfectant, before hurrying to the hall. We all have to go to Strong Determination, servers and students alike. It wasn't smart because after reading it I couldn't concentrate on my meditation. Suddenly all the old thoughts and memories were shouting and screaming and stamping their feet again. Suddenly I'm wondering whether all my time at the Dasgupta hasn't been completely wasted.


Total Surrender

Every ten days there is a changeover at the Dasgupta. The vow of silence is lifted before lunch. The meditators chatter like crazy for an afternoon, make their donations while they're still excited and leave the following morning. Retreat over. So if I don't go back to look at the diary for another eight days it will disappear with whoever wrote it and I'll be safe. Another group will arrive and I'll sink back into Dasgupta ways. I've already managed one day. I'm feeling better, my equanimity is returning. I can tell by the tension level in my thighs when I'm sitting. Of course I've no way of knowing who wrote it because I can't be on the men's side when people go back to their rooms. Even then I'd have to be right in the dormitory corridor to see who went to that door or right outside the room when he came to the window to draw his curtains. I don't really know which women are in which rooms. Why should I? There are so many. We don't clean the bedrooms during the retreat, but at the end when you sweep under all the beds it's amazing the stuff you find. Cigarette packs, food wrappers, Cadbury's, Mr Kipling. A brandy bottle once. People look so solemn when they walk to the Metta Hall before dawn with their hoods over their bowed heads but nearly all of them have stuff they shouldn't in their rooms.

Excerpted from Sex Is Forbidden by Tim Parks. Copyright © 2013 Tim Parks. Excerpted by permission of Arcade Publishing.
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