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Love, sex and mauka
As a nation, we may be among the first to throw up a good idea but hopelessly the last to let it save us. We pioneered public bathing, then discovered shame. We threw open the manual on sex, then hid behind the covers. We reduced tantra to a T-shirt, and Eros to an A/U cinema house. For a subcontinent that first carved the yoni and the lingam, we're overly penitent about our sexual art - and what sexual expression we do produce, we subvert into bawdiness. Nevertheless, while a full-blown reclamation of things lost or lapsed is still coming, we've made a start. Erotic literature is back on Indian bookshelves. And guess who's writing and reading it? Yes, it's the second, now equal, sex. A growing clan of women in India is thumbing through the private pleasures of erotic narratives. They've read Anais Nin, Erica Jong, Kate Chopin, Edith Templeton and Pauline Reage. They've even read Maxim Jakubowski's The Mammoth Book of Best New Erotica. They've read the Canticles from the Old Testament. They'll read Granta's newly minted edition titled Sex, after having recently passed on their copy of Electric Feather - a recent anthology of local erotica. And of course, they're writing it.
Eight of the 13 writers who steam up the pages of Electric Feather are women. Ruchir Joshi, editor of this short story compendium, makes nothing of this ratio, saying he just happens to know more women writers who are good. Nilanjana Roy, commissioning editor of EF at the time, echoes, "It wouldn't reflect reality - which is that if we'd asked a different group of writers, we might have had a gender skew in the other direction." Even if it's no verdict on any gender dominance of erotic writing, the message blares like Lady Gaga: more women are writing erotica now than before.
Women in the West have been there, done that, often blurring the edge between diarist porn and erotic art. That's not to say that we in India have been starved of female fantasy. In the 15th century, Mirabai went where few women went before, in her devotional hymns to Krishna. "The sweetness of his lips is a pot of nectar;That's the only curd for which I crave;Mira's lord is Giridhar Nagar;He will feed me nectar again and again". Much later there've been Kamala Das, Shobhaa De, Abha Dawesar, Arundhati Roy, Meenakshi Madhavan Reddy, Advaita Kala and Anuja Chauhan who have edged towards the erotic in varying degrees.
Presumably, our centuries-old sexual straitjacket has been blow open by the tailwind of Western sexual liberation. Those educated by popular culture are inspired by Eve Ensler, Desperate Housewives and Belle de Jour. Indian women are writing about the landmarks of their locality - anatomical and cultural. Lesbian lust at the workplace, the pinprick pleasures of self-discovery in the milling camp of the joint family, primal desires under middle-class ethics - self-assertion from all angles. "An engagement with feminist ideas has allowed women the freedom to give the intimate space importance, to acknowledge pleasure or ornamentation as a very valid place from which to talk about life and the world," says Paromita Vohra, film-maker and contributor to Electric Feather. Nilanjana Roy imputes such literary turns to accepted social and cultural norms in a certain time. "It was far more acceptable for men to write in Henry Miller's misogynistic style about sex several decades ago;it isn't now," she suggests. "It was commonplace for Urdu poets to write of their passion for other men a century ago;now gay writing has had to come out of the closet all over again. The norms for women shift all the time;at present, it's acceptable to speak with boldness about the body, female lust, passion and desire."
Unlike other arts that are more or less public affairs, literature, by its solitary function, is relatively off the censors' list, and one can write and read with little threat of bowdlerisation. But have we really beaten self-censorship? In a country wired with moralistic bare-traps and under-wired with patriarchal systems, does the act of erotic writing become one of caution and evasion?
Not-so-good desi girls
Anita Roy, commissioning editor at feminist publishing house Zubaan, acknowledges that it's incredibly hard to write about sex without making it sound trite, clichêd, overblown or unintentionally comic. "It's perhaps doubly hard for women, because it's not just a question of facing up to the moral police in society, but overcoming the internalised moral police," she says. "Patriarchy, after all, doesn't just work by means of legal or official structures but has to do with the very way we think about ourselves. Being 'a good girl' is something that is hammered into women's heads from a very young age - and that is profoundly at odds with being 'a sexual being'." Zubaan's forthcoming collection of short stories - The Bad Boy's Guide to the Good Indian Girl by Annie Zaidi and Smriti Ravinder - focuses on how Indian women at every stage of their lives negotiate their way around the question, or fight it, or buckle under, or double-think, or do whatever they need to do in order to live the life they want to lead.
In her essay, 'The Laugh of the Medusa', Helene Cixous wrote, "I wished that woman would write and proclaim this unique empire so that other women, other unacknowledged sovereigns, might exclaim: I, too, overflow." It's usually a daisy chain of inspiration that lights that field of "me-too" flames. That and the inborn desire for catharsis. And often enough, rebellion. Rosalyn D'Mello, a 24-year-old product manager at Scholastic Book Fairs, has for three years been chronicling life in a blog that often admits to erotic fantasies and submissions. "Writing erotica is for me the most direct way of dealing with my own desires, my inhibitions, my sexual fantasies. It is quite a challenge to be able to examine your libido on paper: to not be embarrassed by your kinks and quirks," she says.
Women are writing not so much to pointedly win back their bodies from the vocabulary of men (a battle almost won in any case), but to simply penetrate deeper into the terra incognita of their own imagination, to try the ripeness of their own nerve. (As Erica Jong wrote, "Sex is all in the head, pulse rates and secretions have nothing to do with it.") Most begin with tentative confessions in pubescent diaries, invariably burnt, along with the liberality of youth, by adulthood. Now with the blog, all kinds of carnal calculus have come up for public critique and titillation. Rosalyn says, "I've had a range of responses, both positive and negative. There are, of course, readers who are squeamish, and often, I've had to spend a lot of time and energy explaining why I use offensive words like 'cunt'. A fellow member of a writing group once even told me that I write beautifully, but I should 'leave such dalliances behind and concentrate on serious writing'."
Offensive labelling is not what they worry about. "Women who have already given themselves permission to craft independent, creative lives for themselves in contemporary India are unlikely to worry about being typecast as 'bad girls' because they're writing erotica," points out Nilanjana Roy. Tishani Doshi, a dancer, poet and author who contributed to Electric Feather, says she hasn't personally experienced much in terms of reputation enhancement or disfigurement by her erotica spoof titled 'The Delicate Predicament of Eunice de Silva', where she delineates her unlikely protagonist's tentative efforts to surrender her "bone" for the first time. 'Bone' is the only subterfuge - everything else is essayed graphically enough.
Titillating or feminist?
Indeed, if half-measures, innuendo and allusions were the artillery of earlier writers, this sisterhood is all about full disclosure and ploughing a fecund field of epithets and unmentionables and arranging them with assorted precision (but yet to supply a trademark construct like the "zipless fuck"). The cardinal question, however, is: is it erotica? In an article last year, Rowan Pelling, former editor of Erotic Review, rued the mounting wave of pseudo-erotica, where adolescent girls upwards were making a living out of describing countless "zipless fucks", college orgies and other forays into the slick - all merchandised as erotica. "I am certainly not saying that women shouldn't write about sex, merely that they must do so for a reason. Nowadays every two-dime sexual adventuress feels they have an amazing story to tell. And it's often dressed up as new feminism. . ." he wrote.
Rosalyn D'Mello cautions that it isn't merely about titillation. "It's also about politics, power, about submission and domination. Like crime fiction, erotica, too, works on the idea of suspense. But more than suspense, erotica is about the power of suggestion," says the young author.
In the meantime, publishers are ready to put out. After Tranquebar's reported success with Electric Feather, a sequel is on its way. Renuka Chatterjee, chief editor at Westland (Tranquebar's mother ship), says the first edition sold out in a month. They're planning a third run now. "Electric Feather II is under way, and we're hoping to publish it early 2011," Chatterjee says. Zubaan too is planning a multi-lingual anthology with many-sided stories and experiences that will also reveal how language changes when we talk about sex, love and intimacy. And later this year, Penguin will publish a novel by Sandhya Mulchandani called Five Arrows of Kama.
And while publishers are beckoning writers, and writers are working feverishly on the field, readers are collectively converging on the word. Rosalyn D'Mello plans an Erotic Salon in Delhi as a place where writers of erotica will read to an audience works that are unapologetically erotic. "The intent is to create an awareness about what constitutes erotica and to work on creating an audience for this kind of writing. We're also looking to incorporate a visual and aural element, and are hoping to enlist artists to re-imagine the space of the erotic," she says.
After all this time, the texts in India are gradually multiplying. Is this what they call a slow recovery? Hey men!
Lust in the dust jacket
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