Adil, Sreemoyee and Srijit at the table talk organised by The Park. Picture: Rashbehari Das
t2: How did this book come about?
Sreemoyee Piu Kundu: It began with a woman I saw every day in Bombay. I used to be a journalist and every day when I would go from Bandra to VT, I would see this Gujarati woman in a tiny chawl. Her physicality is what caught my eye. I was totally drawn to her. Sometimes she would be feeding chilli to her green tota, sometimes she would be whispering on her phone, sometimes biting her nails. Whenever it rained she had this habit of opening her mouth to taste it. She had the saddest murky grey eyes. I saw her every day between 2.35pm and 2.45pm. She never looked at me but I knew she wanted to be watched because after a while I knew she would come, it was like an unspoken silent relationship.
I used to constantly wonder, does she have lovers, does she have children, does she smuggle in men in the afternoon? What does her husband look like — is it somebody who matches her beauty, her sensuality? She was almost like a classical Kalidasa painting or temple architecture, like the ones we see at Konark or Khajuraho. She was full, beautiful and luscious. My colleagues used to tell me to go up and find out her name, some would tease me — ‘Arrey you are a closet lesbian’. But that’s not it. In a strange way Meera, that’s what I called her in my head, was alone too. It is the kind of aloneness you wouldn’t understand if you didn’t live in Bombay.
Then the floods of July 26, 2005, happened. It took me three days to get back home to Bandra. I developed an allergy called leptospirosis and was hospitalised for three weeks. When I resumed work I never saw Meera again. I didn’t have the courage to find out (what happened to her), a part of me was scared she had drowned. But at one level the rains freed her. I like to think of Meera as someone who wanted to be free and I think I owed her that. That’s how I ended my book too.
Srijit Mukherji: You call your book feminist erotica. My question is about the qualifier. You are saying there is erotica, then there is feminist erotica and then there is Fifty Shades of Grey. How would you distinguish among the three?
Sreemoyee: The feminist erotica that I have grown up reading is of Anais Nin or of Sylvia Plath where the story of womanhood is integral to the sexual explicitness. Sita’s Curse is sexually loaded, almost every chapter has sexual tension, sexual politics and sexual intimacy. But it is also the story of a woman coming of age, of a woman getting her first period, of a woman who is separated from her twin brother because she attained puberty. So for me an erotica is only a language of expression. For me the story of Meera is also the story of her body and the fact that she could attain freedom through it....
Srijit: I am very intrigued by Sita’s Curse, especially in these times where there are various perspectives on religious tolerance and so many wings — left, right, up, down... — so in the middle of all this you start a book with quite a graphic prologue... you were not intimidated by the thought of a right wing?
Sreemoyee: Without sounding like a naari morcha person, I am a writer and my job is to write a book and a story that I believe in. What happens later I have not been worried about. The response Sita’s Curse merited before even being published, I believe we are ready for a book like this. There is always going to be some right wing, some left wing, some radical. This is my third book in the sequence I wrote and it had four offers from four top publishers and one of them actually told me, ‘We love the sex, it works, it’s well-written and poetic, but can you just make Meera some 20-year-old girl and make her in a short skirt and office-going?’ And I said you are basically making me write a desi version of Fifty Shades of Grey. I call Meera Patel the hero of the book and for me the book works because of the realism.
t2: Not just the first scene, you have addressed other issues too throughout the book, which a lot of people might have a problem with, like Meera having sex with a Guruji...
Sreemoyee: That was deliberate. I had begun writing Sita’s Curse as a short story, it was to be a part of an anthology of erotic stories and then I realised this was bigger than 12 or 15 chapters. I started doing a lot of research. From Octavio Paz to Jayadeva’s Geet Govinda and the Tamil poet Andal, who wrote such beautifully mystical poetry in the sixth century. And suddenly in the midst of all this academic research comes an inbox message from a lady in Jaipur who introduces herself, sends her home address and says can I meet you and the only person who knew about this was my editor.
This girl who I call Neeti was paraded to a Guruji. She was then 19 years old and he was 63. She was abused... it was very painful. He told her I am going to do these religious postures and you are my vaahan. This was a family Guruji to whom the family had been going for the last 25 years. I was so enraged. I looked at her and said, ‘Neeti, didn’t you ever tell your husband?’ She showed me a burnt mark on her face and said, ‘Woh baahar baithe hote thhe. Ek baar koshish kiya, jala diya unhone (He used to sit outside. Once I tried to tell him, but he burnt me).’
My victory was when I sent a copy of the book (to Neeti) and she wrote back to me in English. She has got an email id with ‘Meera’ in it. She wrote to me saying, ‘I hold your book and cry. I have started learning how to make pickles and I want to sell it. Some day I want to be like your Meera, I just want to be free.’ My book gave her some strength.
Srijit: Coming back to the ruffled feathers, the fate of M.F. Husain or Taslima Nasreen or very recently Wendy Doniger... don’t these scare you?
Sreemoyee: It scared my publisher. They battled over the title for a long time. But I am lucky that my publishing editor [Nandita Aggarwal, Hachette India] is a rock and she is probably gutsier than me in these matters. She had a legal team go through the book and the only question I asked my publisher was — are you going to pulp this because I feel very bad if a book is pulped.
Adil Hussain: I have not been a man of literature but I feel that sexuality is the subject we have not been talking about at all. From my experiences right from my childhood, I guess it’s with almost everybody in the world, our actions are driven from that place. We are sexually driven human beings but we don’t talk about it. But it has been talked about by Kalidasa....
Sreemoyee: Exactly. Even our Bhakti literature like Jayadeva’s Geet Govinda has it.
Adil: I have been identifying with this book through my experience of how I have suppressed myself. I couldn’t even talk about anything to my parents. There was just that one ‘bad’ friend who teaches you how to masturbate, how you can go and chupke se look at women when they are bathing and all that. It was five years ago that I realised most of my actions, including major decisions of my life, had been driven subconsciously by sexuality. It is one of the most important aspects of human evolution and we don’t talk about. We have to accept it, embrace it and not judge it. I have read a lot on this because this has been a subject that I was obsessed with — what is this energy, how people are driven by it and transform it. So, I feel not only India is ready but also I think India needs to be made ready by books like this.
Malancha Dasgupta of t2 sat in on the chat