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By Sex writing in English is coming out of the closet in India. Varuna Verma turns the spotlight on the new books that peddle sexuality as their USP
  • Published 20.09.09

Amandeep Sandhu lives life with a big regret. Given a chance, the author of Sepia Leaves would withdraw his book from the market — but only to add a paragraph on how as a boy he held up his mother’s undergarments to his body to feel like a woman. “This is something I omitted from the book, and regret,” says Sandhu.

Sandhu’s 2008 book — which opens with the line, ‘Mama and Baba never touched each other’ — is an exploration of sexual intimacies. “From peeping into Ritu Aunty’s cupboard and finding a bagful of napkins to watching his father pining for his mother, the book traces the boy protagonist’s sexual discoveries,” says Sandhu.

The book’s first print is sold out — but it’s not the only tome that’s gone to town with explicit sex. In fact, when Sandhu’s book was released, few batted an eyelid. “No one came to me and said ‘Oh my God’,” says the Delhi-based author who is now writing a book on sexuality in a boys’ boarding school.

Sex writing in English is coming out of the closet in India. Tranquebar Publishers released a book of erotica called Electric Feather with a performance by belly dancers in the capital on Thursday. Twelve south Asians — all writing erotica for the first time — have contributed to the book edited by writer Ruchir Joshi. “There is a dearth of erotic writing in English. To fill the gap, we decided to challenge a few writers,” says Joshi.

Of course, sex writing was always around in India — right from the time of the Kamasutra. Regional languages had writers such as Ismat Chughtai and Saadat Hasan Manto whose works related to sex. But only a few writers in English wrote about sex, and fewer still did it explicitly. Only once in a while would a writer like Sasthi Brata, author of My God Died Young and Confessions of an Indian Woman Eater, explore sexuality in India.

“These were one-off books,” says Sandhya Mulchandani, who has written extensively on sex in ancient Indian literature and a series on the Kamasutra. “In general, Indian writers in English failed to deal with the sexuality of their characters,” she adds.

In more recent times, there have been some heroic efforts by Khushwant Singh and Shobhaa Dé. But while smutty sex books and railway platform pornography have always been around, contemporary Indian writing in English has generally been devoid of juice.

Suddenly, however, sex is not something to be ashamed of. “In India’s new writing, sex is an integral part of a character’s life,” explains Mulchandani, whose Kama Sutra for Women was published in 2006. Books across genres — from thrillers to romances and chick-lit — come with a touch of sex, she adds.

There is good reason for that. Sex is on the Internet, on cable television, and even in magazines and journals that earlier overdosed on politics. “It’s all around us — from the botoxed beauties of Bollywood to TV shows and the Internet. The significance of sexuality has shot up,” says sociologist Shiv Vishwanathan.

Sex in Indian writings, experts stress, is merely a reflection of the present. “Sex is not there for its own sake in contemporary writing. Authors are just telling their tales, and sex, like any other human activity, happens,” says Debbie Smith, agent in India for literary agency Red Ink.

As old social norms break, bookshelves in India are exploding with outpourings of erotica. Delhi-based publishing house Zubaan is currently putting together a book on erotic stories by women writers from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. “There has been a lot of prudishness around sex writing in India. The more it is written about, the less will it be associated with shame,” says Anita Roy, commissioning editor, Zubaan Publishing.

The eternal favourite Kamasutra is being rediscovered as a book that’s not just about impossible postures. Diplomat Pavan K. Varma’s The Art of Making Love to a Woman looks at how the ancient sex manual explains the female sex psyche. “The book is a contemporary take on the Kamasutra,” says the author, India’s ambassador in Bhutan. Varma says the first edition of his book, which was published last year, is already sold out.

Art curator Alka Pande’s The New Age Kama Sutra for Women also explores the book’s feminine side. “When I began writing on Indian erotica, people thought I was a sexologist,” she recalls.

Curiously, the authors are not people who specialise in sex writing. Psychoanalyst Sudhir Kakar, for instance, has written a fictionalised biography of Vatsyayana, The Ascetic of Desire. Among the contributors to Electric Feather is Sonia Jabbar, who has so far been known for her writings on the Kashmir conflict, and filmmaker Paromita Vohra.

Book Extract

'That very night, Eunice and Deb, eager to progress with their passion, went to Sathyam Cinemas for a late film — one of those Hollywood romantic comedies. Eunice had been so excited at the prospect of being out on a date that she didn’t even bother with popcorn or chips. She waited in the dark for Deb’s arm to find its way across her shoulder, which it did.'

From The Delicate Predicament of Eunice de Silva by Tishani Doshi (Electric Feather: The Tranquebar Book of Erotic Stories)

Journalist Jabbar’s story The Advocate is about the sex lives of people in a small Uttar Pradesh town. “It was a big release getting into the head of a middle-class man and exploring sexual mores and attitudes,” says Jabbar. Vohra’s Tourist is about a young woman and a Bollywood star who time travel and land on a deserted island. “Initially I had issues like what my mother would think if she read the story. But I got over it,” says Vohra.

As Indian erotic writing takes a literary turn — these are not books that need a brown paper cover — Tranquebar pins big hopes on the new volume. “Sex sells. We are looking forward to huge sales for the book,” says Renuka Chatterjee, chief editor, Tranquebar Publishers.

When Chatterjee started her career in publishing, the four-letter synonym for sex was frowned upon. “It was either deleted or marked with asterisks,” she remembers. That’s all in the past. “In the last five years, writers have become very comfortable with erotic writing. Most manuscripts we get have sex as a natural part of the story,” says Chatterjee. Next week, Tranquebar releases Ghalib At Dusk and Other Stories, a book by Nighat Gandhi that deals with middle class Muslim families and has an underlying sexuality in every story. Another of its books — Urmilla Deshpande’s A Pack of Lies — is all about sex, drugs and music.

Sex books don’t make up a separate section in book stores any more — it’s become a part of every storyline. In October, the Delhi-based Tara Press will publish a collection of thriller stories by five writers which have it all — sex, rape, mystery and investigation. “There is always a sexual angle behind every human story,” reasons Anuj Bahari, owner of the publishing house.

In 2005, Tara Press published Kusum Sawhney’s Ayala on incest. “Incest was never a conversation piece in India. But once the book was out, I was taken aback by the number of people who told me tales of sexual encounters within the family,” recalls Sawhney. She is now writing a book that deals with the life — including sex life — of a middle class, married woman.

Journalist Aniruddha Bahal, whose novel Bunker 13 won the Bad Sex in Fiction Award in 2003, says it is high time Indian authors began treating sex as a part of life and writing. Critics might have disapproved of Bahal’s comparison of a woman’s sex drive to a revving Bugatti, but he is proud he put it in. “Bunker 13 has as much sex as there is in one’s life. Indian authors are now returning to normal, and giving sex the time and attention it deserves,” he says.

Sexologist Prakash Kothari has seen the demand for sex shoot up in urban India. “A number of women tell me that they plan on leaving their husband because he doesn’t have a satisfying sex drive. This was unheard of a few years ago,” he says. Also, as the marriage age goes up, promiscuity increases. “Since there is more sex happening, there is more requirement of knowledge on sex,” explains Kothari.

The turn towards sex in Indian writing is evidently a part of an overall cultural change. “As the young generation becomes blasé about sex, it gets reflected in the writing,” says Tranquebar’s Chatterjee.

A growing publishing market in India has also broadened the writing base. In money terms, the English book publishing market in India is valued at Rs 6,000 crore. It’s growing by a tenth every year. “As the market booms, books of every genre — from self-help to erotic fiction — are finding ready publishers,” says Zubaan’s Roy.

Till a decade ago, Indian writing in English was like putting up a sari shop for the westerner, says author Sandhu. “Back then, authors wrote about arranged marriages, joint families, chappals and cuisine, to attract the white man’s attention. But the new generation is writing for the Indian reader. So they write about normal, ordinary happenings like conversation, college life, every day angst and sex,” he says.

For Indians, sex, clearly, is no longer only in the bedroom. It’s also reaching every bedside reading table.