A short (and it cannot be long) survey of recent English erotic writing in India


Published on 29 May 2016 in Scroll.in

erotica

Cinema, television and life itself have raced far ahead of what’s been written under the label.

It was about eleven in the night when a friend called up for a chat. He asked what I was up to and I cheerfully told him about the book of erotic short stories I was reading. He smirked at my response and asked me to “carry on”.

I am not sure what it is about erotic writing that, on the face of it, amuses people. The impulsive tendency to relate it to something perverse is rather strange and I wonder if it’s the doing of the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy written by EL James, that has confined erotic literature to a space where it is perceived as kinky, and not beautiful. Of course, a good portion of that perception comes from how comfortable one is when it comes to talking, writing, or reading about sex. But it’s not for nothing that the trilogy sold over 200,000 copies in India which goes on to show that some readers are slowly embracing the genre, albeit shyly.

I don’t have statistics to qualify my point here, but most of the readers I have encountered reading the book – in trains, buses and offices – have been women and the slight smile forming on the corner of their lips appeared to symbolise their fascination and fantasies.

Formula sex writing

Making headlines in the world of book publishing are Sunny Leone’sSweet Dreams and Sweet Dreams Part 2. The former adult film actress has discovered the power of the written word, thanks to Chiki Sarkar’s Juggernaut, which has made her erotic short stories available for download at a most reasonable price of about Rs 6 per story.

Sadly though, the tales aren’t stirring enough. Regular episodes of a home or office situation, a predictable sexual tension building between two characters, some teasing here and there, eventually leading to you-know-what. Leone tries very hard to inject romance and emotion, but it just doesn’t work. Her prose is simplistic and the content is over-focussed on getting the scene right.

The two books are the top-sellers on the Juggernaut app, which helpfully lists the top of its own charts. But they only suggest that sexually stimulating writing is still pornography by another name for many – fortunately, not all – erotica writers. Not that there is anything wrong with pornography, but you don’t neither need the erotica label, nor the packaging of a book, to read as much of it as you want, thanks to the internet.

Sex as liberation

And yet, there were signs that erotic writing in India might have been coming of age, although whether readers are beginning to accept without preconceived expectations and moral judgement is another matter.

Take for instance A Pleasant Kind of Heavy and Other Erotic Stories, an anthology of nine short stories by Aranyani, the nom de plume of the Goa-based Amrita Narayanan. Published by the Aleph Book Company in 2013, the stories have women taking the lead, unabashedly expressing and being led by their sexual fervour. The act for them isn’t limited to penetration. Eroticism is synonymous with liberation here, and there are heavy undertones of arousal in ordinary household chores such as chopping and cooking.

These are everyday women and it is a relief to know they’re aware of their appetite for sex, which is not dependent on anything remotely phallic. Aranyani’s tales free themselves of definitive closure and deliberately so, for the purpose of leaving the reader feeling a pleasant kind of heavy is successfully achieved.

Sadly, the book has turned out to be more of an exception than the beginning of a rule. Sreemoyee Piu Kundu’s Sita’s Curse: The Language of Desire (2014) did try to take up the cause of the quintessential middle-class Indian housewife and her hush-hush sexual plight. This is traditionally fertile ground for pornographic fantasies, but Kundu’s book managed to hit the right spots and bring sex to the fore, though in an over-cooked and not really liberating manner.

Life or art?

Ultimately, it has to do with the success of the writing in provoking expectation and desire, in reaching out to parts of the body-mind combination that are not usually touched by the mundanity of everyday life, even of everyday sex. Graphic descriptions of checkbox sex are increasingly irrelevant for titillation in a world ruled by free video.

So, if erotica is really an upgrade of the commercial love story, with more explicitly depicted sex thrown in, it falls into the no-person’s land between merely entertaining and deeply affecting and disturbing. Ananth’s Play With Me is an example of a commercially-oriented love story packaged with a racy, narrative generous with sex.

It’s not often that you get to know the genesis of a book. Ananth’s idea started out as a conversation at the time when EL James was ruling the shelves. He said, “This genre was largely untapped, especially in terms of contemporary fiction. I had earlier written two erotic pieces for my own pleasure that I showed to the editors and that’s how the idea for the book got started.”

The question, of course, is, whether erotica is being written for a market or as a form to express an essential aspect of life. Says Ananth, “I didn’t approach the subject reluctantly and there was no back-footed approach to sexuality in the book.” He believes he wrote about pleasure in the context of a romantic – or not – relationship. “This is something that we don’t do in real life – approach the effect of pleasure on love,” he elaborates. “It’s dichotomous and one can’t say at what pleasure crosses overs to love.” But while that might be a fascinating literary approach, more often than not, erotica is commissioned, or accepted, with both eyes set firmly on sales.

To complicate matters, real life sexuality and sexual behaviour in India are far ahead of their literary depiction. It’s edgy, it’s multi-layered, it’s outside conventional moral standards, it’s even radical in many cases. At the same time, it also operates within the conventions of patriarchy, misogyny, homophobia and other forms of regressive orthodoxy. Capturing any of this is obviously a challenge.

Then there is the question of personal comfort in taking on a theme that isn’t widely written or depicted. There are hindrances and restrictions that we create for ourselves when it comes to talking, reading or writing about bodily pleasures.

Yet, there have been one or two inspiring projects. Electric Feather: The Tranquebar Book of Erotic Stories edited by Ruchir Joshi is one example of a bunch of Indian writers coming together to produce heartbreakingly real stories “about and around the erotic and the sexual.” In the book, Samit Basu writes about passionate seduction and voyeurism (The Wedding Night Or, Bachelor’s Boudoir), Abeer Hoque breaks all barriers of lust (Confessions), Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan puts to rest the curiosity about a man’s perfect first time (The First Time), and Rana Dasgupta unveils action in the swimming pool (Swimming Pool). The anthology has a total of thirteen effortlessly written stories that are provocative and interesting to read.

Perhaps that’s the thing about excellent erotica. It is devoid of boundaries. It is bereft of rules. It may or may not have sex at all. It may or may not have more than one participant. It may or may not have participants of different genders. It is meant to be fluid, powerful and intense. It should not tug only at your heartstrings, but pull at your very being. It should allow you the pleasure of your imagination. And it should satisfy you right upto the very end.

Stephenie Meyer has swapped her characters’ genders in a new version of ‘Twilight’, but why?


Published on 25 October, 2015 in Scroll.in

Taking a half a leaf out of EL ‘Fifty’ James’s strategy, Meyer has created a somewhat pointless retelling of her bestselling series.

meyerThey say there are two sides two every story. Two points of view, two perspectives, and two different versions circling around a common plot. Popular fiction authors seem to have taken a cue from this. From Stephenie Meyer to EL James, writers seems to be either retelling their bestselling novels from the PoV of their male protagonists, or swapping genders to present the same story in a somewhat new light.

So when Stephenie Meyer recently celebrated the tenth anniversary of Twilight, her insanely popular human-vampire love story, by releasing a brand new book titled Life and Death: Twilight Reimagined, everyone thought she would be retelling the Twilight trilogy from Edward Cullen’s perspective. Turns out we’ll have to wait for Midnight Sun for that story.

This book, however, is a strange, summed-up version of the whole Twilight series, with protagonists Edward Cullen and Bella Swan swapping not just places but genders too. Edward becomes Edyth (female and human) and Bella becomes Beau (a male vampire). To emphasise the transition, the new book has a green apple instead of a red one on the cover. Meyer has also practically changed the genders of every character in the series, the only exception being Beau/Bella’s dad.

Repetitive much?

It’s one thing to stretch the length of a book by introducing new characters or prolong it with sequels, but to retell the same story without any novelty is plain boring. EL James’s fourth book Grey: Fifty Shades of Grey as Told by Christian, a follow-up of the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy, retold from the male protagonist Christian Grey’s PoV, received severe flak from critics and reviewers. While some labelled it “revolting”, others called it “creepy beyond belief”.

It’s possible that with Grey, James attempted to find answers to the inexplicable controlling tendencies of her hero and the reasonable causes of his unconventional, BDSM-practising relationship with Anastasia Steele. But since the story doesn’t drift much from the original trilogy, James’s new version only allows one inside the head of the “megalomaniacal sociopath” that Christian Grey is.

But since when did James care about reviews, especially when the sales figures speak for themselves? According to The Week, the book sold “more than 647,400 copies in the UK” in the first three days of its release. It also “beat the previous UK record holder Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol, which sold 551,000 copies in five days in 2009.” In the US too, 1.1 million copies of Grey were sold in just four days.

Following suit

Those who’ve read Meyer will agree that her books are nothing like the films they’ve been adapted into, as is the case with most book-to-film renditions. Meyer writes for a YA audience and the Twilight series justly delivers the right proportions of fantasy, romance and action. But this new summarised anniversary edition seems to have failed to entice both critics and fans.

To begin with, there is a definitive and hurried closure to the story, which means there is no possibility of a sequel whatsoever. Secondly, teenager Beau isn’t insecure or self-doubting, as was Bella in the original Twilight book. One can imagine the plight of reviewers confronted with a book that instead of breaking gender stereotypes in the present day and age reinforces them. Her creation of the new male protagonist doesn’t in any way challenge the twisted gender biases that the world is trying very hard to counter.

A review in The Daily Beast reads: “He doesn’t cry, he doesn’t stare in the mirror and inspect his perceived flaws, he doesn’t imagine himself inferior to his superhuman lover with the intensity that Bella imagined herself inferior to Edward.”

One wonders then what’s new about this anniversary reprint, because the story more or less remains the same. In another interview with The Daily Beast, Meyer said:

“[Bella] has also been criticized for being too consumed with her love interest, as if that’s somehow just a girl thing. But I’ve always maintained that it would have made no difference if that human were male and the vampire female – it’s still the same story.”

It is unclear whether Meyer’s decision to write a gender-swapped version of the human-vampire love story was an attempt to redeem Bella’s damsel in distress disposition, or was it simply a 10th (has it been 10 years already?) anniversary celebratory book. Perhaps Meyer wanted to assert the fact that men too can be fools in love. However, in making Beau appear as the confident brat in love with a superhuman Edythe, she may have accidentally created a stereotypical, full of himself teen boy.

Between the sheets


Published on 22 March 2014 in BLink – The Hindu Business Line

Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay on being an author who could not avoid writing about sex.

“I slipped on the panty. What I did not know was that I actually slipped on a woman. I actually slipped on her womanhood. I slipped on her sexuality, her love,” writes Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay in Panty. Translated into English from Bengali by Arunava Sinha, the book combines two of her previously published novellas, Panty and Hypnosis in a brand new avatar. Her stories, which have offended people in the past are now included in the canon of contemporary Bengali literature.

Bandyopadhyay speaks about her perception of sexual aesthetics and gender politics. Excerpts from the interview:

How difficult was it for you, as an author of erotica, to present fantasies strictly as fantasies?

I believe in the power of fantasy, but there is no such thing as ‘strictly fantasy’ because we are driven by our desires and desires are purely mirrored in our fantasies. Fantasies have tales to tell, which fortunately or unfortunately largely connect to mainstream life. We need the support of reality even for the strangest level of fantasy. When I write about fantasy, I focus on the pain of not experiencing it. Therefore, for a writer, fantasy resembles naive-realism. I don’t even consider myself to be an author of erotica. I am just an author who could not avoid writing about sex.

How did you deal with the criticism that Panty received?

Panty was published in Sharadiya Desh, one of the most prestigious Bengali magazines, in 2006. Even during those days the story was shocking for open-minded Bengali readers who were supposed to have had a lot of exposure to world literature. I faced huge criticism. People said to name a novel Panty was nothing but a gimmick. That graphic description of sex was a cheap way to sell books. But I paid no heed. I was only 31 and was too engrossed in writing about new ideas at the time.

Do you compare your works with contemporary Bengali fiction?

I started getting positive reviews a few years after my initial books — Sankhini and Panty — were published. People began looking at my books as one of the important postmodern novels in Bengali literature. I found out that comparative literature and women studies department of a university uses Panty as a reference of contemporary Bengali literature and young students are reading it and talking about it.

How much does your own sexuality come into play when you write a story?

My sexuality is insignificant in my writings. But I have my own philosophy on sex. I have my own understanding of sexual aesthetics, gender politics, love, and relationships. These ideas influence me when I write.

What do you make of the impact of Fifty Shades of Grey ?

The metaphysical part of Fifty Shades of Grey and Panty might be similar as both belong to the erotica genre, but I think they cannot be compared. To me, the former is more like a modern fairytale, with bits of 21st century western complexity and with BDSM. But our Indian society is far from accepting Fifty Shades of Grey as real. It has only been a few decades since our women have started experiencing freedom from patriarchal ways, so when it comes to sexual freedom, they are still not as tired as women from the western world.