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Between the covers

A young professional walks into a bookstore looking for books on sex and erotica. A store assistant promptly shows her two books — one fiction and the other non-fiction — on display along with other new releases. Sex is out of the closet in the city’s bookstores.

Sreemoyee Piu Kundu’s Sita’s Curse: The Language of Desire, touted as feminist erotic fiction, and Ira Trivedi’s India in Love: Marriage and Sexuality in the 21st Century, which highlights the dichotomy of society and covers a whole gamut of issues from homosexuality, prostitution and swinger clubs to open marriages, have found place in the new arrival section at Oxford Bookstore, Starmark and STORY.

Both books were launched in the city over the last fortnight and the launch of Ira’s book was followed by a discussion on the once-taboo topic.

“India is going through a sexual revolution. Sex is coming out of the closet, no doubt. But there is a dark underbelly to this revolution that is characterised by rampant sexual abuse. My book has made it to the Nielsen’s bestseller list. That proves there are takers for it in India too,” said Ira, who says she has come across many urban women “liberated” in their views on sex and sexuality. “More people are curious and sex is not a taboo anymore.”

Writer Nabaneeta Dev Sen, who was at Ira’s book launch at Oxford Bookstore, feels books on sex are getting popular because the society is changing and not the other way round.

“The attitude towards sex, marriage and sexuality is changing and that is why such books are being written and accepted. But I am doubtful if such books can lead to any further change in attitude. The subject is always commercially viable. Earlier there was a taboo but now there is a big market for such books in India,” the writer told Metro.

Sceptics and scoff

When businessman Aditya Berlia decided to include “just four pages of mild erotica” in his 330-page Tantra last year, he was scared. “My family thought my image as a serious businessman would be tarnished, though the four pages were very necessary for the plot. Ultimately I wrote the book under the pen name Adi,” said the author. A year later, his book has sold more than 50,000 copies and his inbox is flooded with mail from readers.

Ira and Sreemoyee admit they have had their share of sceptics. “Some would ask me if I wasn’t afraid of repercussions and if I still hoped to get married after writing this, also whether I would be able to talk about the book at the launch in front of my family,” said Sreemoyee, who dubs Fifty Shades of Grey as “smacking of hypocrisy”. “Erika James had to use the pseudonym E.L. James. It shows that somewhere you are scared. Sex should be a liberating experience. I come from a country of erotica and Kamasutra. Desire is for all and there should be equality in the bedroom too,” she believes.

Ira has had people wondering why a Hindu girl from a good family would write on sexuality. “I even received threat mails,” she said.

Copies of Sita’s Curse and Fifty Shades of Grey on display among new releases at Starmark, South City. Erotica contributes to about 15 per cent of the bookstore chain’s total sales. Picture by Anindya Shankar Ray

Sex, not sleaze

David Davidar, the co-founder of Aleph Book Company that published India in Love, feels meaningful non-fiction on sex and sexuality is still unchartered territory. “There is hardly any detailed research on a subject that generates so much interest otherwise. So when Ira proposed to work on the subject we jumped at it. Hers was not merely armchair reporting but a risk-taking endeavour. We hope this book will be a path-breaker of sorts and generate a lot of interest.”

Books on sex can pack in much more than just graphic description. Sreemoyee wanted to “highlight some real issues through feminist erotica” while Ira’s book is the result of four years of research and interaction with 500 people in 16 cities.

Readers agree that erotica need not be about sex all the time. “I did read Fifty Shades of Grey and as a child I would secretly relish Harold Robbins. But to me the movie Bone Collector was a huge turn-on too. It did not show sex, yet even the touching of fingers was erotic in a way. I am open to books on sex and sexuality, but let it titillate the senses the right way. It should be subtle, beautiful and not gross,” said Sangeeta Chakravarti, a city-based content writer in her forties.

Everybody wants it

Calcutta has its fair share of readers who enjoy their Ismat Chughtai, Kamala Das, Tehmina Durrani along with Indian versions of Mills and Boon and Fifty Shades of Grey. Ishani Sen, 25, has read them all and is looking for more. “I enjoyed a collection of erotic short stories by Sri Lankan writers. I have read Savita Bhabhi too as also Saadat Hasan Manto. Let sex not get ridiculous as most erotic literature ends up being for commercial purposes,” said the media professional who is now reading Sita’s Curse.

For Sreemoyee, her book was as liberating an experience as it was for her readers. “While writing Sita’s Curse, I used to share extracts on Facebook. The response was overwhelming. So many readers wrote to me, claiming that Meera’s (her protagonist) story was actually the story of their lives. An engineer from south India claimed he was turned on by Meera’s description and pre-ordered the book to read it with his heavily pregnant wife. He said it had helped him regain his marital mojo.”

Sex sells

Sidharth Pansari, the chief STORYteller of STORY on Elgin Road, feels people are now more vocal and ready to talk about sex and sexuality and related issues. “Reading habits have changed and readers seem to have matured from the Mills & Boon series. After the success of Fifty Shades more Indian authors will tread the uncharted path,” he said. The first lot of Sita’s Curse is sold out at the store and fresh orders have been placed.

At Starmark, erotica contributes to about 15 per cent of the total sales. “Erotica has become very popular in recent times. We had to create a space in our fiction category for it. Especially after the success of E.L. James trilogy, a lot of new titles are being released. The target audience is anyone over 18 years. We’ve seen young and old alike picking up these books. In fact, last year a young man approached one of our sales assistants asking to gift wrap Fifty Shades of Grey since he wanted to gift it to his mother on Mothers’ Day,” said a spokesperson for Starmark.

Cover story

Not all readers are as comfortable though. For Rajiv Ghosh, a city-based manager in a multi-national organisation, the book cover makes a lot of difference. “I would feel a little awkward reading a book with sex on its cover in public, however serious its content is,” said Rajiv, who is open to reading new books in this genre if they come with “a good plot and are better packaged”.

Ira herself did not want a very explicit cover for her book, so Davidar had to choose with care and settled for “a heart-shaped balloon”. “We did not want to titillate the senses and trivialise the book,” he said.

It is perhaps the safe covers of Ira’s book as well as Sreemoyee’s, which features part of a woman’s neck in black and red, that have assured them prominent display at stores. Other titles in the genre are more often than not tucked away. At STORY, two shelves at the back of the store, hidden amid stationery and books on rocks, fossils and gardening, stock several paperbacks of the Penthouse series and other fiction and non-fiction on sex and erotica, mostly by foreign authors. The Fifty Shades series is part of the bestsellers section. Starmark, South City, too stocks erotica on the fiction shelves.

Oxford Bookstore has a section on “Romance, sex and passion” at its rear end but the shelves have little else than a few guidebooks on yogic and tantric sex and related subjects. The E.L. James trilogy is part of the romance section here.

For the Tantra author, buying erotica or books on sex is like the condom problem. “People are hesitant to be seen buying such books, especially if they have explicit covers. E-books and online shopping have solved the problem to a large extent ,” Aditya said.

Story well-told

Nandita Aggarwal, the publishing director of Hachette India, the publisher of Sita’s Curse, reminds that sex has always been a part of great literary works and contemporary writers have done well among discerning readers. “Namita Gokhale’s Paro: Dreams of Passion worked because of the strong plot. Any book will generate interest among mature readers only if the storyline is good. A woman protagonist with desires is not a new thing. As of now Indian books on erotica may not be as popular as chick lit but the trend shows that people are ready for more mature books on sex and this genre is here to stay.”

At the end of the day, it is a good plot that matters. “Sex is in the mind and not always regressive or ridiculous. Let sex be part of a good plot, not the entire plot,” said Supreeta Singh, communication and events manager of a city hotel who has just bought Sita’s Curse.

The attitude towards sex, marriage and sexuality is changing and that is why such books are being written and accepted. But I am doubtful if such books can lead to any further change in attitude. The subject is always commercially viable. Earlier there was a taboo but now there is a big market for such books in India
Nabaneeta Dev Sen
Writer

People are now more vocal and ready to talk about sex and sexuality and related issues. Reading habits have changed and readers seem to have matured from the Mills & Boon series. After the success of Fifty Shades more Indian authors will tread the uncharted path
Sidharth Pansari
Chief STORY teller of STORY

Any book will generate interest among mature readers only if the storyline is good. A woman protagonist with desires is not a new thing. As of now Indian books on erotica may not be as popular as chick lit but the trend shows that people are ready for more mature books on sex and this genre is here to stay
Nandita Agarwal
Publishing director of Hachette

I am open to books on sex and sexuality, but let it titillate the senses the right way. It should be subtle, beautiful and not gross
Sangeeta Chakravarti
Content writer

Chandreyee Ghose