WHEN WAS the last time you read a collection of short stories which had lips and limbs spread across its pages? If it has been long, it’s time to indulge in a bit of erotica as Tranquebar releases Electric Feather at the Love Hotel (what a well-thought out choice of venue, you wonder) in New Delhi recently. Edited by Ruchir Joshi, the book is a celebration of the sexual desire, that natural and basic part of the human make-up, and compiles 13
stories of South Asian writers. They include: Ruchir Joshi, Paromita Vohra, Kamila Shamsie, Samit Basu, Rana Dasgupta, Sonia Jabbar, Sheba Karim, Jeet Thayil, Niven Govinden, Parvati Sharma, Abeer Hoque, Tishani Doshi and Meenakshi Madhavan Reddy.
When you meet the author and filmmaker Ruchir Joshi, he is hanging out with his friends at Latitude at Khan Market. When you join them, one of his friends asks if he could order a cake for you. You think of a polite way to say no. And, then, Mr Joshi comes to your rescue. “You don’t want a cake, do you?” he says. We move to an empty table in a corner for the interview.
The music is a little loud for us to hear each other. He asks the waiter to switch it off. The waiter says he could only lower the volume. We have no choice. We begin.
At 49, Mr Joshi bristles with youthful energy and talks animatedly, enthusiastically. The interview, brief and barely half-an-hour, is mingled with peals of laughter, joyous chatter and streams of “goodbyes” and “see yous” emanating from the bunch on the table at the other end.
Mr Joshi, in the preface of the book titled “Repairing Brindavan: An Introduction”, writes about the “varied and interesting” responses of writers he approached for the collection. All he wanted was “sex writing for the sake of sex writing” and not sex as an “organic part of a larger narrative out something else.” In the introduction, Mr Joshi writes how some writers responded: “Me write porn for you? No fucking way!”
So, do most Indian writers (and we are talking only about those writing in English) shy away from writing about sex? Says Mr Joshi: “I don’t think writers have been shying away from sex in writing. It is just that writers are busy people and if you are asking them to write a story for the book, although they are very excited by it, they need some time.”
For Electric Feather, different writers took different time frames. “There was one writer who delivered one and a half years later,” says Mr Joshi. His own story “Arles” – which has Samiran (“he’s been alone with his own hand for so long, he doesn’t know what his c*** will do when confronted again with a real woman”) travelling down the lanes of passion – took a
long time. Niven Govinden, the English novelist, was busy with his book Graffiti My Soul.
Some of the writers, who have contributed to the collection, are getting known only now, says Mr Joshi. “I think it is an interesting collection of Indian writing. I wish I had worked a little hard to get Sri Lankan and Nepali writers, but may be next time,” he says.
In Indian literature, says Mr Joshi, certain subjects have always been taboo. While love has always been there, certain kind of restrictional sex has been regarded as exciting. But of late, the climate has been more and more repressive. “You can’t write about incest, caste, homosexuality, religion, sexual graphics. These things are slowly falling away. This book is a marker of that falling away. The erotic and the sexual should be the central part of our zahn (“there is no English word for it”), says Mr Joshi.
With the changing times – “people travelling, getting married, divorced, remarried” – Mr Joshi says he can see things changing. And the book, he believes, only reflects that – the kind of awareness and the changing outlook.
You are curious to know about the writers who refused to write for the collection. “I don’t want to name names. They refused to write, but they are still my friends. It was not that they didn’t want to write, but because they didn’t have the time to,” says Mr Joshi.
There was one writer, says Mr Joshi, who said, “How can you write specifically about sex. Sex should be the part of the story. You can’t just set out to write about sex.” Electric Feather, Mr Joshi hopes, is a “good reply” to that writer.
Real writers, according to Mr Joshi, are not afraid to write about sex. He mentions Hanif Kureshi and Vikram Chandra. Hanif Kureshi, the British novelist, playwright and film director, was working on a play, he didn’t have time. Vikram Chandra was launching Sacred Games. So, he couldn’t be a part of the book. That gave way to a lot of “young writers”.
Says Mr Joshi: “We initially had a set of writers who were invited to write. They said yes and the deal was done. And we decided that unless something was really bad, we would incorporate all. We thought we would take from whatever they had to offer. Out of the submissions, however, there was nothing that was not good. And then we asked some younger writers to contribute. Some of those younger writers suggested some other names.
That’s how the young writers came together.” One such writer includes Parvati Sharma, whose collection, The Dead Camel and other Love Stories (Zubaan), is due in 2010.
Mr Joshi says that he is concerned with people using religion and so-called idea of sexual offence for completely regressive political agendas. It is disturbing even more so as “we are starting to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the banning of Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses“.
When the colonised countries, says Mr Joshi, were fighting for independence, they were also fighting to be free from the yoke of mullah and the priest and things like sati and dowry. “The freedom of choice, the freedom to do whatever you like is a very important thing,” he says.
Mr Joshi, whose enchanting first novel, The Last Jet-Engine Laugh (HarperCollins, 2001), which debated whether the story of a nation can be the story of a self, was critically acclaimed as an outstanding novel of the post-Rushdie era, is currently working on a historical novel, set in Kolkata during World War II. Before independence, there was a “huge pressure” on Kolkata. And the characters of his new novel live in that continuum. When
does the novel see the light of day? “It is getting closer and closer to completion and I am hoping to come out with it next year, inshaallah,” says Mr Joshi.
For his debut novel, Mr Joshi says, he took quite a few “risks”. He had easy options to write some straight stories. “I chose not to as I felt that that had been done by others already wanted to do it differently. I didn’t want to go down the magical realism lane of Salman Rushdie or Gabriel García Márquez. There were other inspirations like Milan Kundera who I love and admire, but didn’t want to write like him,” says Mr Joshi who tried to find
“my own form, my own handwriting, so to speak”.
The reviews were heartening. They kept him going.
WRITER, journalist, photographer and filmmaker Sonia Jabbar, who was the last-minute resort for Mr Joshi, was approached in January this year. Sonia had just a week to come up with “The Advocate”, which tracks the story of the downfall of a lusty advocate in Sitapur (Uttar Pradesh), narrated by his protégé, Salim. “At first, I said no as I was miffed. But then I was actually delighted as it was my first public fiction. I normally don’t write fiction and this was a great relief,” says Ms Jabbar, who has been travelling and has not read the other stories in the collection. Talking about her story Ms Jabbar, who feels that Indian writers writing in English have written about sex when called for and it has not been a major preoccupation with them, says: “My story is about sex becoming a prison for certain people.
However, it is also about a whole lot of other things like sexual attitudes. In the story, all the other social mores, structures and prejudices also get played out.” Ms Jabbar, who has read Mohammed Hanif’s “homoerotic” The Case of Exploding Mangoes (Random House) and Kamila Shamsie’s
Burnt Shadows (Bloomsbury) which bristles with exquisite, sensual passages (“I was deeply moved by them”), is currently working on a book on Kashmir. One of the contributors, Paromita Vohra, whose “Tourists” is the story of a famous Bollywood star, says: “Ruchir and I are friends so it was part of the on-going conversation that we had. One realises that things are getting politically contentious. It has become such a Victorianised and Ramsena-
ised kind of climate that it has become difficult to talk about such things.”
Ms Vohra is a filmmaker (Unlimited Girls, Q2P, Morality TV, Loving Jehad) and writer. She wrote the screenplay for Sabiha Sumar’s Khamosh Pani. She feels that Indian writers in their attempt to write more pan-Indian novels which speak to a larger audience, somehow get inhibited to write for pleasure.
According to Ms Vohra, in literature, as well as cinema, there has always been “the desire for pleasure, sensuality, romance and eroticism” which have coexisted with the traditional, conventional forms. With societies With societies becoming more multi-dimensional, there is more space now to talk about such things, holds Ms Vohra, who loved reading Kiran
Nagarkar’s Cuckold and Kamala Das’ poetry (“No other man has written like that”). She is currently working on a non-fiction book on love in contemporary India.
While you were speaking to Ms Vohra, Mr Joshi slips out for a smoke. You look for him outside for the photo shoot. At first, he refuses, but then relents. However, he keeps saying, “Don’t use my picture. I am not being vain. I seriously feel you should use pictures of pretty people.” You take his leave as he joins his gang. As you shake hands, he says, smiling: “Enjoy writing it.”