It’s been like this for days.  A blank screen, a blinking cursor and the sickly stench of failure.  I have been working on my second novel and proceedings have ground to a halt.  Of course, I didn’t imagine that putting sex on the page would be easy; it is famously a cursed endeavour.  Even so, I said to myself, sex is a vital part of plot and character in this story, so surely it shouldn’t be harder to write than anything else. But, it is.  Particularly since I am not interested at sniggering at it through my fingers or approaching it at a safe ironic distance.  I mean to write about sex in this novel with seriousness and sincerity, a resolution that has made me feel like a writer of noble intent, but which has also resulted in barren hours staring at my hands, inert at the keyboard.

No more. Today is the day the drought ends.  I have decided that a brisk early morning walk will revive me and give my writing the fillip it needs.  To get myself in the mood, I read a few lines of The Lover by Marguerite Duras before setting off: “Slowly.  He makes as if to help her.  She tells him to keep still.  Let me do it.  She says she wants to do it.  And she does.  Undresses him.  When she tells him to, he moves his body in the bed, but carefully, gently, as if not to wake her.”

I unlatch the gate.  At 8th Cross a queue has formed for the morning farm-fresh milk.  The owner of the cows looks at me enquiringly over a row of pails and churns.  I smile and shake my head and try to focus on the poster on the wall behind her.  It is for an ‘A’ rated morning show: the hero in purple-tinted sunglasses is flanked by two women who resemble each other, although perhaps a generation apart.  Mother and daughter?  Where have I seen this before?  I recall that in The She-Devils, the erotic classic by Pierre Louÿs, a young man enjoys the favours of three gregarious sisters and their mother.  The action is enthusiastic and relentless, and they certainly all seemed to be having a lot more fun than this rather glum trio on the poster.

Around the corner a vendor pushes a hand-cart loaded with bunches of dark grapes. I am reminded of the moment when the protagonist in James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room says that “Giovanni had awakened an itch, had released a gnaw in me.”  The men are eating cherries in the street; they jostle each other, exhilarated, spitting the pits into each other’s faces, a prelude to a later intimacy. The grapes have disappeared down the road but the cherries are fresh in my mind.  Things are looking up.

A man lifts a shop shutter on Kalidasa Road, revealing tins of varnish, boxes of nuts and bolts, coils of rope. Props, I think: people do use things. All I can imagine, however, is a hackneyed carousel of handcuffs and whips and rubber masks, items that are intended to impart a sense of danger and transgression, but instead make me think of people rushing into tawdry shops in the last frenzied shopping hours before Valentine’s night.  Silk scarves, edible body paint, little silver balls in a mesh bag.  And then I suddenly recall a fish. Shirley Conran has a character do something unspeakable with a goldfish in Lace but I haven’t set eyes on a goldfish in years, and while there is a shop in my neighbourhood that sells aquariums, it seems like a murky emporium that trades only in death and disappointment.  It is not what I would call a sexy place.

I am making my way to Kukkarahalli Lake, a couple of miles from the centre of Mysore.  I feel that inspiration will not dare elude me if I stand and look across the surface of the lake.  Water’s sexy, isn’t it?  The Venus in Titian’s masterpiece Venus Anadyomene emerges from the sea, sensual and fearless, as she wrings her hair dry. Deborah Kerr and Burt Lancaster fell into their iconic embrace just as the surf crashed around them in From Here to Eternity.  The most seductive moment in Sridevi’s career came when she threw herself onto a haystack in the rain, in spite of the fact that her partner was a somewhat unsatisfactory and invisible Mr India. Water, definitely water.

I have reached Kukkarahalli Lake with a sense of renewed purpose. I walk past a table set up by the main gate, barely registering whatever it is they are trying to sell. Flesh occupies my mind – heat, musk and sweat.

A man sitting at the table yells out to me: “Sir, blood pressure check-up?”

The jolt of his voice makes me halt.

“I’m sorry?”

He indicates the paraphernalia in front of him.

“Free check up, sir. Blood pressure and also sugar level.”

His colleague is administering to a woman in a monkey cap and she nods at me, confirming that this is indeed what they are doing.

“No, thank you,” I say, but fail to add that this morning I have come out in search of mental visions that will, with any luck, make my blood pressure rocket.

At one of the pavilions a man is kicking his legs high into the air, arms akimbo.  The expression on his face indicates extreme pain but it is a look that could easily be confused with intense pleasure.  I edge closer.  He is now squatting and lunging, conforming remarkably to this description in Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth: “doubled over…eyes pressed closed but mouth wide open…in blindness and ecstasy.” I am about to scribble a few phrases into my notebook when he begins to box an imaginary punching bag. A few seconds later there is even more animosity, even more aggression.  He swings his arms as if wielding a sword. We have moved from the realm of the possibly carnal to the undeniably martial.  I put the cap back on my pen.

A young couple sit on a nearby bench.  There is an air of the newly wed about them – something a little skittish, possibly even frisky. His little finger is curled around hers.  I sit down at the edge of the bench and try to look unobtrusive. They are talking about the wait for their American visa, the next step before they leave to take up their new jobs in Wisconsin.  I lean slightly forward.  Am I going to hear about prospective sexy times in the Badger State?

“Properties in that part of Milwaukee are going for about $150,000,” he says.

“I didn’t like that last one we saw online,” she says. “There was a mirror on the ceiling above the tub.”

“They can’t all be like that,” he says, giving her a reassuring pat on the knee.

I lean back again.

“Sex is a very difficult business,” I think.

The woman shifts uncomfortably and the man turns to glare at me. They stand up and walk away.  It’s only then that I realise that I have said it out loud.

I look at egrets swooping into the reeds and the warped wood of an abandoned boat. Somewhere behind me there is a throaty laugh, followed by a deep hush. But it’s possible that I’ve imagined it. The surface of the lake begins to swell.  Yes, I think: definitely, water. Even though so far today inspiration hasn’t come from anywhere I’ve looked, I’m not worried. I put my notebook down and turn my face to the sun.  It’s early still, there’s a gentle breeze and I’ve got all day.

This story was originally published in Elle India.

Mahesh Rao was born and grew up in Nairobi, Kenya. His short fiction has been shortlisted for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize, the Bridport Prize and the Zoetrope: All-Story Short Fiction Contest; his work has appeared in The Baffler and is also due for publication in Prairie Schooner. The Smoke Is Rising is his first novel. He lives in Mysore.