Book review

Though full of clichés, these erotic stories delve into what’s dark and dangerous about desire

Tanveer Bookwala’s collection, ‘Wet’, does go somewhere despite the banal sex writing.

The explicit sex scene is one of literature’s great levellers – the place where the inexperienced hack who can barely string together a grammatical sentence might stand on an equal footing with the acclaimed, much-awarded author. Looking for unintentionally funny porn? You can browse the scores of “bestsellers” written by randy teens to impress their friends, and published by low-investment-no-editing houses such as Srishti; but you can just as easily look at the entries that get shortlisted for the Bad Sex in Fiction Award, many of them by heavyweights such as Haruki Murakami, Tom Wolfe and Philip Roth (to say nothing of Tony Blair).

In the first type of book, you’ll find delirious, trying-too-hard sentences like “The friction between a virgin vagina and virile vigor (sic) produced such fire on bed (sic) that it could easily put two flint stones to shame” (from Novoneel Chakraborty’s That Kiss in the Rain… Love is the Weather of Life) or displays of juvenile wonderment (“He pulled off her bra to discover that her lofty [sic] boobs did indeed meet the idea he had of them” – Tuhin Sinha’s That Thing Called Love).

In the other type, equally ludicrous things might be done in a more literary-seeming way: consider “He kissed the slight, rose-coloured trench that remained from her knicker elastic, running around her belly like the equator line circling the world” (Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North). Or “I came suddenly, a jolt that emptied my head like a spoon scraping the inside of a soft-boiled egg” (from Jonathan Littell’s epic The Kindly Ones). Or, for spiritually inclined readers, “She took my head in both hands and guided it downward, between her fragrant thighs. ‘Yoni puja – pray, pray at my portal.’” (Paul Theroux’s A Dead Hand).

There’s a lot to overlook

Which is to say that any writer, regardless of pedigree and experience, whether fumbling and self-conscious or smug and overconfident, can easily go wrong with the sex scene. (It is also possible on occasion that a well-written sex scene provokes discomfort, leading the reader to perceive the writing itself as poor, but I won’t get into that discussion here.) Writing erotica is never easy, it always comes with the risk that you’ll become a laughing stock. And this is why I was willing to overlook some of the more cringe-inducing passages in Tanveer Bookwala’s collection Wet.

It does take some overlooking, though.

The first of the seven stories, “The Clinic”, begins with the narrator watching his wife moan in ecstasy as another man performs oral sex on her. The scene builds in intensity, there is much slithering and throbbing and bucking and dribbling and twitching and plunging, things seem to be going well generally, and the woman, we are assured, is having a grand old time. But then comes this odd little description: “Rocky sucked hungrily on her lips, nipping them, refusing to let go, much like a stubborn dog refusing to part with his meat. The sexual tug-of the dog and the very wet bone, the thrill of fresh meat, Sheila’s legs open, splayed…”

At the end of the passage, Sheila duly “shuddered and came like a deluge”. Later in the book, when another woman being thus serviced “gushes like a waterfall”, I had visions of the author carrying along a snorkelling mask on his own carnal adventures – but sticking with Sheila for now, all I could think was: did she have an orgasm because someone was chewing, dog-like, on her “wet bone”? Sounds like the perfect woman for a lazy, unimaginative man…or for a threesome involving Hannibal Lecter and Rin Tin Tin.

At this point, only two pages into the book, the epigraph “To every woman I have ever known and those I am yet to meet” felt less like an enticing promise and more like a threat. In the fashion of the over-smart reviewer who gets off on trashing everything, I had this sentence scribbled out in my notepad: “If this is what the author thinks will rock the world of women he is yet to meet, female readers may consider filing a restraining order.”

Reading on, though, I found myself willing to give Wet a chance. This is not to say that the banalities, clichés and ill-conceived metaphors disappear, they don’t. Many sentences are overcooked, clumsy (“The steam from the tea made the dust of their love dance...”) or plain wrong (“the desire to see Ria’s breasts were clearly worth the big bucks…”), and some of the writing is like a parody of those annual Bad Sex Award excerpts.

“Sharma’s cock was flicking like a firefly trapped in a jar,” we learn, “His mouth was dry. His erection, erect. (Sic) He looked at his mother-in-law in a bid to kill it.” You’ll find similarly amusing things on pretty much any page. “The Scandinavian, made-to-order shower gel made love to her loofah.” “It was a blasphemous cauldron of smell and taste.” “Abdul tore through her expensive silk shirt, shredding it; the sounds of the seams coming apart echoing around the kitchen like the original sin.”

Annoying but intriguing

So, here’s the obligatory warning: while this book (obviously) isn’t for a squeamish or prim reader, it isn’t for fans of sharp or economical prose either. However, there are interesting things going on here at the idea level. Bookwala’s writing may seem forced in places, but there is nothing inauthentic about the dark sensibility of the stories. A sense of danger runs through them: they are about the many effects of sexual desire, how it can cross over into game-playing and fetishism, how the yearning to submit fully to an impulse can coexist with a deep fear of submission. And there is plenty of matter-of-factly subversive content, as in a passage where a young boy masturbates near the temple where his father is a priest; as he experiences his first orgasm, an ethereal white light flashes before his eyes and he imagines the woman whose photo he is looking at screaming god’s name.

Apart from being attentive to the desirous woman seeking out new sexual identities (in itself a risky thing for a writer to do in our current cultural climate), Bookwala probes the morally ambiguous aspects of sex. In one story, a horny sexologist can’t believe his luck when a voluptuous young woman walks into his office out of the rain, wet but shyly willing to get “wetter”. In another, a man becomes so addicted to porn and to virtual sex with the images on his computer screen, that he barely registers his flesh-and-blood wife. In a tale that involves S&M and an uneasy bridging of the class divide, a wealthy writer(!!) bullies her meek husband around but finds a new life of the flesh with her servant. A phone-sex encounter turns into something with incestuous overtones.

Interestingly, the one story that involves a more-or-less conventional sexual relationship – “The 3 a.m. Show”, about two young lovers setting out to lose their virginity on Valentine’s Day – may be the strangest of the lot, since it takes a surreal turn midway: I won’t give away details, but suffice it to say that the lovers become the stars of a baroque, decadent nighttime performance. At its best – again, not so much in the actual writing but in the concept and structure – this piece about voyeurism suggests what Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death” could look like if written in an age of projection rooms and hidden cameras. It gets my vote for one of the two most intriguing stories in the collection.

The other one is “Tipping the Velvet”, in which a bereaved woman named Gita finds herself gliding, unexpectedly but very enjoyably, into a first lesbian encounter…but that isn’t the most mysterious thing that will happen to her over the course of the night. In both these stories, there is some formal experimentation, including crosscutting (in one passage, Gita, while in the throes of passion, has visions of cemeteries and coffins) – they move back and forth across the line that separates reality from fantasy, private lives from public ones, “normalcy” from “deviant” behaviour.

If this reads like a schizophrenic review, I plead guilty. But that’s the nature of the book: even if you overlook the flaws in the writing, Wet can annoy and intrigue you at the same time. The author profile in the beginning says that Bookwala’s lines “are delicately laced with libido”. Not really: there is little that’s delicate or subtle about this collection. It is bold, brash, in your face, tiresomely florid at times…yet a case can be made that this approach is well-suited to the telling of stories about obsession verging on insanity.

Wet, Tanveer Bookwala, Penguin Metro Reads.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.