(Reproduced with permission from Tranquebar and Ruchir Joshi, the introduction to Electric Feather: The Tranquebar Anthology of Erotic Stories. Copyright with Ruchir Joshi.)
Repairing Brindavan — An Introduction
In asking writers to contribute to this book we laid out criteria that were loose to the point of being promiscuous: there was a dearth of good erotic writing in the Indian Subcontinent (by which please read ‘writing in English’) and we wanted to try and start to counter that absence; the writing had to be around and about the erotic, the sexual, and it could be as graphic or not as the writer liked; it had to be a work of fiction and it had to be previously unpublished.
The responses were varied and interesting.
One senior Indian writer, who writes brilliant erotics, disdained to even answer my email. Three others did variations of spluttering into their beer, ‘Me write porn for you!?! No fucking way!’ and promptly crossed their legs, all three. One star of the firmament smiled very sweetly and said, ‘If I find the time, I’ll certainly think about it.’ If I had such a thing as a Wall of Rejections, and if there had been a way to collect that smile, it would certainly have had pride of place. Another writer couched his refusal in the form of a tough question: if it wasn’t to be porn, surely a passage about sex and desire had to be an organic part of a larger narrative about something else? In setting out this model wasn’t I, in fact, inviting sex writing for the sake of sex writing, i.e. that highly undesirable substance called ‘bad sex writing’?
While the putting together of this book, I’ve kept that question firmly in mind because it is a very good question.
When I got the tough question, I had several arguments crowding my head:
What’s wrong with a piece of writing that’s written primarily or solely to excite sexual desire? Surely, as in the eating of puddings and the making of love, the proof lies in the actual experience of the act rather than any a priori idea or theory? Surely, if the writing was good enough, it could transcend grosser examples of whichever genre? Some of our greatest miniature paintings are the porn comic-strips of their day; Anais Nin wrote The Delta of Venus to pay the rent, at the rate of so many francs per page, and it’s a fulcrum work of twentieth-century literature; one of the best film directors working today, Pedro Almodovar, cut his teeth in the Spanish porn film industry and imported many of the industry’s tropes into his mainstream films; and so on and so forth.
Would you, I wanted to ask, have had the same problem if I’d written to you and asked for a story centred around food and eating, or about music and sound, or about the pleasures and traumas of driving in the Subcontinent? And what if I’d said recipes and sheet music and detailed descriptions of gear-boxes were most welcome but not strictly necessary?
How do you know what will emerge if you put your mind, memory and imagination to thinking about desire and sex?
I had all these returns of serve and more, but I also had an idea that the only way to properly answer the challenge was by producing a book that would hold a serious reader. For all those who said ‘no’ there were more writers who said ‘yes’ — again, in equally varying and entertaining ways — and they have produced, each in her or his own style, what I hope is part of a satisfactory reply to our fellow storyteller.
When I spoke to a friend in British publishing about doing this book, his response flickered between disinterest and mild horror. Both the ennui and anxiety came from the fact that even the best bookstores in the UK now have ‘Erotica’ sections overloaded with graphically sexualised versions of Mills & Boons and autobiographies of porn stars with titles like ‘How to Give Great Blowjobs’. Around, above and below these archaic repositories of the printed word is the net, with its ceaseless traffic of virtual bodily fluids, with its elevator-musak of groans, grunts and gasps, with its Calipornification of everything from small animals to large forklifts.
I wanted to tell my friend a story to explain where I was trying to come from: a Baul singer was taken on a tour of Germany in the late ’80s. The man, let’s call him S-Baba, was also one of the greatest living exponents of the millennium-old Bengali folk-music tradition that he represented. But S-Baba, then in his fifties, was also famous for his unceasing libido. One of his hosts, who knew this, thought it would be a lark to take S-Baba into a sex store. For the longest time S-Baba silently wandered around the aisles, staring at the dildos, vibrators, whips, leather suits and crotchless panties. After a while, with great sorrow on his face, he spoke. ‘My god, is this what they’ve done to Brindavan?’
When I first heard the story, twenty years ago, I roared with laughter. The image of the King of Randiness, the one who was willing to chase with his charm any woman between sixteen and sixty, being gobsmacked out of his sex-drive was impossible to resist.
I don’t laugh at the story any more.
I’ve heard the old Baul sing the song many times now: I want to find the road to Brindavan, who’ll show me the way? Nominally, Brindavan is, of course, the woodland of lore where the cowherd Krishna played with the Gopis, stealing their clothes while they bathed, making love, moving from one to the other, pulling everyone around him, women and men, into the dance of love. But the Brindavan for which the song searches is a space that can only be found inside oneself. For me, the denudation of that Brindavan, that ancient subcontinental psychic forest of erotic freedom, where love and physical desire go hand in hand with tenderness, grace, laughter, mischief and the worship of the ecstatic that resides in all our beings, is no less a tragedy than the drying up of our rivers or the inundation of our coastlines.
What I wanted to tell my English friend was that we in the Subcontinent are now sandwiched in a double rape of our Brindavan. If, out of one direction, comes the inexorable rumble of the bulldozers of mostly male-driven hard porn, from the other direction comes the snap and crackle of people setting fire to the forest from inside. This project was conceived in the shadow of the exiling of M.F. Husain on a ridiculously spurious ‘charge’ hatched by the Hindu fascists, and the beginnings of the resurgence of the Taliban goons in Afghanistan; the volume comes out in the shadow of the assault by the Hindu Taliban on young women drinking in a pub in Mangalore. Hopefully, in its own small way, this book will join the resistance against those and other such depredations.
Recently, when I described some of the stories to a friend, they said, ‘Oh, so are you going to call it “Erotica Designed to Disappoint Horny Teenagers”? My reply isn’t printable, even in this preface, but the serious answer is: no, I hope sexually avid subcontinental youth do get some kicks out of reading this; God knows they deserve some home-grown excitement after all we went through when we were ourselves fighting our way through puberty, hiding under our beds everything from low-level, pirated porn to high-level, impenetrable nineteenth-century gumball prose, none of it having anything to do with our lives, which were of course supposed to be sex-free zones in the delusionary chapel of our parents’ world-view.
But, equally, I hope older readers will also feel their boats floating every now and then, boats both sexual and literary. Looking through the stories, I’m happy to argue that this is an anthology which contains some of the most exciting writers working today in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, plus the one from suburban South London.
In the composite picture that comes together, we have sex and desire, anti-sex and the despair that comes from unfulfilled desire, we have great detail and subtle allusion, we have more humour than sorrow, and we definitely have more love than we do hate. This is a collage of a book that works on its own terms. For instance, it is not a representational sampling of the region: people unfamiliar with the Subcontinent will hopefully avoid concluding that there is no same-sex love in these parts, or that Sri Lankans and Nepalis either can’t write about desire or don’t have sex at all; equally, since lust and desire are essentially about keeping rules and other things slightly flexible, we have one extract from a novel that’s beaten this collection to the press, we have stories that do not fit into a strict definition of ‘sex writing’, where other narratives over-ride the sexual without quite managing to lose the undercurrent of desire; in other words, we have a mix and, inshallah, we have a match.
As you open this book and explore it, I hope there will form the charge and bond that should happen between writer and reader, an erotics of discovery which, while being different from the current that passes between two lovers, is not entirely unrelated.