Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Repairing Brindavan: by Ruchir Joshi

(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and it could be as graphic or not as the writer liked; it had to be a work of fiction and it had to be previously unpublished.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.

Ruchir Joshi

Calcutta 2009

Electric Feather: The Tranquebar Book of Erotic Stories

This one's personal.
Back in the late 1990s, a friend in publishing asked me to scan the manuscript of an anthology of Indian erotica. It was a magnificent anthology, accurate in all respects, containing excerpts from every key ancient and medieval Indian manuscript on the subject--the Koka Shastra, the Ananga Ranga and of course, the Kama Sutra (non pop-up version).
It was also the least erotic book I have had the honour of reading. As I ploughed through the grimly earnest taxonomy and the stern injunctions of our ancients, what came through was the sense of sex as yet another social duty and domestic chore to be studied alongside the granary yield figures or the household accounts. Indians had the answer to the population problem in their own backyard--if we taught the ancient erotic shastras in school, burdening young minds with the 15 different kinds of permissible fingernail marks you can leave on your lover's body and the correct occasion on which to make the cry of the peacock as opposed to the moan of the jungle cat, no one would ever have sex again in this country.
Years passed, I joined publishing briefly, and one of the first things I heard was that Ruchir Joshi was doing a contemporary erotica anthology for a rival house. My colleagues and I suppressed a moan (the low moan of the twice-kicked street dog, not the full-throated moan of the langur at dusk, if you're wondering) and came to terms with our jealousy--it was the right editor/ author for the right book at the right time. Chiki Sarkar at Random House did a superb job of setting the book on its way, but for various reasons, the book moved on from Random, and we at Tranquebar were lucky enough to get it.
Electric Feather is out; the launch is at the serendipitously named Love Hotel, Ai, tomorrow (17th September) at 7 pm (Delhi, MGF Mall--please RSVP Tranquebar if you'd like to attend); and I'm very happy that Tranquebar brought the project to term despite my departure.
Because of the zealousness of the moral police in India, and their touching insistence on peering into the bedrooms of the rest of us, we've had an odd gap in Indian writing. There is bad literary sex (Indians find themselves nominated for the Bad Sex award on a routine basis), Ye Ancient Indian sex as diligently classified by the dry quills of the sages of the past, any erotic sting drawn by time, and oceans of bad Bhabhi Porn. Contemporary lust, and love, and all those many in-between shades, has been left in a dusty file marked "Not For Public Consumption", and as authors from Paromita Vohra to Samit Basu, Jeet Thayil to Sonia Jabbar, Ruchir himself to Abeer Hoque prove, what is in there is rich, and alive, and filled with a kind of crackling electricity. Of all the books that I commissioned or that came to me as gifts at Tranquebar, this is the one I'm most pleased to see in print. Read it, preferably in bed.

The BS Column: Should Google own the world's words?

(Published in the Business Standard, September 14, 2009. I ducked writing on Google Book Search for as long as I could--it's a complex issue, and if you're writing at this word length, you're not going to do more than reiterate the basic arguments--but finally had to put my two cents in. Oh well.)

Who owns literature? And would you be comfortable if the answer to that was: “Google”?

This is only a slight oversimplification, and it’s the key question in the ferocious debate raging currently over Google Book Search. In late 2004, Google kicked off the Google Print Library project. The search engine behemoth announced plans to partner with some of the world’s biggest libraries in order to digitize books.

Many of us saw this as a potentially good thing at the time, especially with regard to hard-to-find books, books that are out of copyright, or rare books that might not be easily accessible otherwise. A vast, worldwide, easily accessible electronic library is everyone’s Borgesian dream come true. But as early as 2005, fears surfaced that this might give Google too much power—and would the company be able to digitize books currently within copyright, or “orphan books” (books for which copyright is under dispute or hard to trace)?

By October 2008, Google had 20,000 partners in what was now known as the Google Book Search project—and had digitized over 7 million books. This sounds, again, like a good thing—the world’s largest library, the rescue and recovery of forgotten or lost books, perhaps even a shift in the power equation between authors. Instead of being biased, inevitably, towards books published in our current time and age (bookshops will carry far more recently published works than classic works), we gain access to the work of the human imagination down the centuries.

Here’s the catch. As the Google Books Search Settlement goes to court, one of the key issues at stake is whether Google will effectively own the world’s largest library. As author Cory Doctorow explains, thanks to an ill-judged class action settlement between the Authors Guild and Google Book Search, “Google is the only company in the world that will have a clean, legal way of offering all these books [including orphan books] in search results... The real risk is that Google could end up as the sole source of ultimate power in book discovery, distribution and sales. As the only legal place where all books can be searched, Google gets enormous market power: the structure of their search algorithm can make bestsellers or banish books to obscurity. The leverage they attain over publishing and authors through this settlement is incalculable.”

I like Google as a company. But do I trust them with this much power? Consider this, too: Google’s tools are fairly (if quietly) invasive. The reason why authors like Michael Chabon and Cory Doctorow are protesting this settlement before the hearing on October 7, and why several publishers have joined hands with them, is that Google Book Search has a dark side to it. Google’s system can monitor not just what books you buy, but what you search for, what you read, down to how much time you spend on a particular page. This may seem paranoid, but to give one company this much power when their databases also include tools on the lines of Google Maps and Gmail is insane.

That’s an awful lot of information that could be compiled in a way that is deeply invasive of your privacy. Imagine, for instance, that for excellent reasons, the courts might want the right to monitor the reading and online search habits of released paedophiles on probation. Google has that information. Should it assist the courts, especially if x paedophile’s probation officer suspects that he may be about to commit another crime? Now imagine a slightly different scenario, where you’ve fallen foul of say, an IT official in India, and he decides to ask Google for your reading records, discovers a lot of searches for erotica, and had you prosecuted under anti-porn laws.

These are simplistic examples, but there is a chilling effect to giving one company this much access and control over your personal information. And there’s a very human factor to be considered here: most people object to invasions of their privacy—but they object a lot less when that invasion is discreet and almost imperceptible. If Google Book Search was to come into our homes every week and demand to see our reading lists, as well as install security cameras to monitor exactly what we read, we would protest. But this is an online, invisible invasion. There aren’t going to be that many protests.

Google argues that the project is intrinsically good, and points to their reasonably strong track record at respecting the privacy of individuals—except in China. But I’m not comfortable with the idea, as a reader, of giving one company that much control over my life—and no, Google’s Privacy Policy isn’t enough of a reason to trust them. Add the invasion of privacy issues to the massively large database of literature that would now be in Google’s hands, and you have a big problem. The world may still need and use a digitized library. But there are very good reasons not to hand over the keys to that library to one company. Even if it is Google.
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