Desi Shades of Erotica

After the Fifty Shades of Grey phenomenon, the Indian publishing industry is seeing a revival of erotica
AROUSAL
With men spotted at  airport lounges reading  such stuff in full view of  others, it is clear that  erotica embarrasses few  nowadays

The prologue of Sreemoyee Piu Kundu’s second novel begins with Meera masturbating on a rainy morning, as her husband and mother-in-law are heard banging on the door outside. And Sreemoyee writes: ‘With one hand between her breasts, Meera dragged the cushion upwards; her lips quivering in the dull heat under the darkness of the rezai. The rains were coming down harder. She smelt them up close, her eyes closed. Like a blind man smiles softly at the sunset… smiles from a place inside. Taking a deep breath, Meera positioned herself carefully against the cushion, pushing harder against it… faster, faster… feeling her insides give way like boats washed away at high tide.’

It was while working on her first book, Faraway Music, that Sreemoyee first started thinking about intimacy in literature and how Indians approach it. Her female protagonist, whose story she was telling, falls in love with different men as she gets on with life, one of them being a 50-year-old painter. While penning those love scenes, Sreemoyee realised that she could write about sex in a no-holds-barred way.

Faraway Music is slated to be published by Hachette India in January 2013, but rather than wait for that, she decided to write another book, this one about a 40-something middle-class housewife called Meera who finds herself through a sexual encounter in an internet chat room. Sreemoyee realised that sex could be used as a tool to tell a story. In Sita’s Curse, expected out in late 2013, Meera’s husband Mohan suffers from erectile dysfunction and finds pleasure in making her indulge in kinky sex. “Meera is inspired by this woman I used to see everyday on her balcony in Dadar when I was working in Mumbai. She was gorgeous and I often wondered what kind of husband she had. My protagonist finds herself through sex. After all, flesh is the only truth in the world. She feels beautiful when she touches herself,” says Sreemoyee. “Why be hypocritical? Kalidasa has composed so many poems about the sensual body of the Indian woman, and the same woman is so shy about sex. Aren’t we all Meeras then?”

Sreemoyee’s work is part of a new wave of erotica writing in India. Ever since that much-maligned book, Fifty Shades of Grey (which has sold over 40 million copies worldwide) hit Indian bookshelves, it seemed inevitable that erotica would be the next big thing for Indian writers. After all, Fifty gave rise to many books—like Sylvia Day’s Bared to You—with such tags as, ‘If you liked 50 Shades, you will love this.’ Local bookstores are now packed even with old erotica, and not just Jackie Collins. It is also true that this genre has been around for a long time, be it John Cleland’s Fanny Hill, about the sexual misadventures of a young girl, or Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn; and some even describe Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita as erotica. In India, even if we leave aside the Kamasutra, writers like Shobha De and regional writer Nalini Jameela, who wrote An Autobiography of a Sex Worker, have been at work for quite a while. What we are seeing now is a sudden resurgence, thanks to Fifty.

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As a writer in the midst of writing an erotica novel myself, I bought a mass of books in the guise of research, and it has been quite a ride. I devoured Bared to You because the heroine was as enthusiastic about sex as the man, but threw one book out that had a nympho librarian who gets off on a man who writes her obscene letters and then has sex in the library basement with a ‘cute’ professor. Jackie Collins, though, was too tame. Her The World is full of Married Men, once described by Barbara Cartland as “nasty, filthy and disgusting” fell short of my expectations, and was much like an episode of Bold and the Beautiful: fun but not at all erotic. It would seem like the right time for the country-of-origin of the Kamasutra to have its own erotica authors, with stories like Sreemoyee’s, about Indians and their sex lives.

Writer Rosalyn D’Mello, who is writing an erotica book titled A Handbook for My Lover, says it reads almost like a series of letters written by a younger woman to a much older lover. And she did not just rely on her own basic instincts while writing it, but did plenty of research as well. There are many references to Roland Barthes’ A Lover’s Discourse, Anne Carson’s The Beauty of the Husband, John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger, Alain de Botton’s The Romantic Movement, Anaïs Nin’s writing, Henry Miller, Jeanette Winterson, Kamala Das’ poetry, and Ovid’s Cure for Love.

“A sex scene is best when it isn’t describing the act of sex but rather the anticipation of it,” says D’Mello, “It is desire that is most erotic.” She is also editing an anthology of Indian erotica, and thinks such writing should be taken seriously, the way sci-fi, fantasy or other genres are. She considers it a legitimate genre in itself, one that can be powerful, revolutionary and feminist. “There’s a fantastic range of stories in the anthology,” she says, “From works by pre-modern women writers, to medieval and more contemporary names, the stories explore sexuality in intriguing ways—some work as feminist and erotic retellings of stories within popular culture, some revel in their post-modernity, some are embedded in fantasy, while some are plainly about the sensuality of food. All great writing is erotic, and what makes great erotica is writing that is able to suggest, that is steeped in nuances, rather than that which is outright explicit.”

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Publishers are pleased, of course, by all this. Caroline Newbury, vice-president, marketing and publicity, Random House Publishers India, says that Fifty revealed the Indian market’s potential for erotica and took the genre mainstream. “Buyers of Fifty Shades have come from across gender, age and [other divides] and from all walks of life to make erotica a truly mass-market genre,” she says, “We have sold over 200,000 copies across the trilogy already in India, and the market is now seeing a host of other books in the same genre hitting shelves. And even though we aren’t actively commissioning any erotica right now, that doesn’t mean we won’t in the future.” Even earlier, grandmothers of today grew up reading Mills & Boon novels, which do erotica in that lovely romantic way. And with men spotted at airport lounges reading such stuff in full view of others, it is clear that erotica embarrasses few nowadays.

Publishers in India see the genre vibing well with mass readership, but do not have any specific criteria to pick works of erotica. Vaishali Mathur, senior commissioning editor, Penguin, feels that erotica has been around for centuries and does not see its appeal fizzling out any time soon. Yet, it still needs to be formulaic to an extent. “Savita Bhabhi [an internet sketch character] is a good example as it was set in a certain everyday mould,” she adds, “The more relatable the characters are, the better the story works. Erotica would work for the same reason porn or love stories work—they have a readership.” She also says that since erotic writing is a specialised form of writing, it cannot be forced upon a writer. “I have been more inclined towards authors who can write in this genre naturally.”

Says Kausalya Saptharishi, commissioning editor for fiction at Rupa Publications, “Like crime is a reality, so is erotica. Why should it be underground? India has also changed—more people are in live-in relationships and other such socio-cultural changes have occurred. As publishers, we need to push the envelope and tell stories that showcase a fresh perspective on the genre, reflecting the times we live in. It’s catering to what today’s reader wants.”

For me, reading and now writing erotica has been strangely liberating—as you let go of the sexual inhibitions in your head, a slightly freer-thinking you emerges. And it is just so much fun, what with all the sexual repartee in play. As Haana Lui writes in her charmingly titled Suck (she has another book called Lick), all about an oral fixation between consenting adults: ‘He sank his teeth into her ass, hard, drawing blood. “And now you wear my mark,” he finished proudly. “Your ass is mine.”’