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’s Sweet 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.
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