‘I take pride in being a sensualist’
Q. Sita’s Curse opens with a masturbation scene. Meera Patel relieves herself while her angry husband bangs on the closed door. While describing the scene you have written she folded up her legs like Goddess Lakshmi seated on a half-open lotus. No fear of the Religious Right getting all worked up?
As I writer, my job is to write the story I believe in. Worrying about whether an opening scene or a line or a particular character will ruffle some right-wing feathers is frankly not in my nature, nor is it integral to a creative person’s integrity. Also, we’ve been conditioned to be scared – of being branded, banished, judged, criticized and eventually rejected – family, friends, publisher, peers, Right Wing, radicals, conservatives, communists… the list is endless, as is the eventual fight. Sita’s Curse being just the beginning, in my mind – of where I want the many Meeras of our country to be. Someday. One day.
Free from their desires. Freed by their desires. When we can write about marital rape with the same rousing sentiment as we scream hoarse about rape in the heart of a burgeoning national capital. When a housewife being paraded to a family Guruji, on the false pretext of religion can actually protest. Before the next Asaram Bapu scandal.
When a married woman can say just like a single woman that she enjoys masturbating or watches porn. That she nurses a secret life. Enjoying being watched back, without it escalating into yet another feminist rhetoric. Sita’s Curse is not only about a married Gujarati housewife’s sexual destiny – it is a start. Of a sameness. Of a sanity. Of a sexual secularism. A world, sans halves.
Q. After a fairly safe debut with Faraway Music, one would have expected you to stick to plain, old goodhearted romances. But you chose to write an erotica instead. Why?
Actually Sita’s Curse was the third book I penned after FM, my second being a racy lad lit, out next from Hachette, a modern day reinterpretation of Shakuntalam, as retold by Dushyant. You’ve Got The Wrong Girl. Sita’s Curse I started writing as a short story about a Gujarati housewife, I saw daily, on my way to work at the Times of India office in VT from Mahim where I lived a few years ago. Sometimes hanging clothes on a flimsy plastic wire, feeding green chillies to a tota in a cheap wrought iron cage or running her hands over her full breasts, the Meera of my imagination turned into a daily obsession - a slow fire, as I began conjecturing about her daily life. Imagining her every moment.
The way she felt trapped, soulless, sad, sabotaged by the simple irony of her own life. Till the floods of July 26th, 2005 of which I too was a victim, taking three days to reach home, battling a serious viral infection I contracted, being hospitalized...later I resumed work. She was no more. Sita’s Curse is my tribute to that memory. To a life unsung. A woman with the most melancholic eyes - the color of rain. This is her story. I am but a vessel. A medium. A transit point.
Q. Those who know you personally would say there was much of you in the first book. Piya Choudhury is Sreemoyee Piu Kundu. How much is this book rooted in personal history, if at all?
As I said, Meera is drawn from my personal memory. And honestly, while parallels were drawn about my first female protagonist Piya and me, I feel Meera is drawn from my own flesh and blood. I gave birth to Meera. I bear her cuts.
Q. Being an erotica many readers will savor the sex in it. But you have addressed important issues here as well. Long-standing social biases like considering a woman impure during her periods. Did the feminist in you pop up every time your penned down a sex scene?
The biggest challenge for me as a writer was to constantly keep reminding myself of the real Meera in whose memory I penned this novel. And so, in writing the sexually graphic scenes, my attempt was to make it as real and as normal as possible for a woman of her social strata and experience – belonging to a small town, an everyday housewife, a woman who bears no children, in a soulless marriage.
Also, as women our battles are all the same. I have myself seen and heard stories of women not being allowed to offer prayers or enter a kitchen/temple when they are menstruating, my own life changing after I made the transition from girlhood to womanhood at twelve. So, more than feminism, I think the erotic elements of the novel are rooted in a deep everyday Indian realism.
Q. Another rarely discussed social reality, incest, is discussed early on in the book. Meera and Kartik, inseparable twins, grow up loving, caring, and feeling each other up. Do you think this may make Indian readers a tad uncomfortable?
Incest is common in India, as it is elsewhere, in large joint families, for instance. But I am against branding feelings and boxing experiences into socially acceptable/non-acceptable labels and norms. So the relationship between Meera and Kartik is one that is elusive at one level and yet touches upon a very deep chord. Also, from the standpoint of the book, Meera and Kartik grow up in a small town, with hardly any window to the life and lights of a big city.
In this insular life, sans much entertainment or luxuries, they are each others’ constant companions and soul-mates and it is a natural progression that from swimming naked in the village river as kids to sleeping on the same bed as scrawny teenagers, they begin viewing each other’s changing bodies and minds with a strange curiosity bordering between a platonic man-woman chemistry to the first dint of pleasure between two sexes, segregated and separated by social conditioning and conservatism.
Q. Meera’s husband Mohan suffers from premature ejaculation. There is also inference to a certain godman her mother-in-law parades her to. Her first dance teacher scars her. Are all men in Sita’s Curse black? Surely, not all Indian men are so hopeless?
Again, the book is not intended to start a woman vs. man debate. Who is stronger, fairer... who suffers more and why. Who always pays a price? The men you have quoted are not the only men in the novel, and as is true of anyone, each character carries strong shades of grey. Even Mohan’s character to me is a mystery – the dynamics and sexual politics of a marriage where from the first night the husband is intimidated by the sheer physicality and sexuality of his own wife.
As for Guru Amarkant Maharaj – he is a prototype of the deep and complex relationship between sex and religion that is primordial to our Indian culture. Case in point. The epic Mahabharata. The dance teacher who shuns Meera is again typical of a weak man – and he could be anything, even a German or a man of French origin.
Also, a character that you have skipped is Yosuf Ismail who sets Meera free. So this book is not just about the men in Meera’s life, but the life in her men. Each person teaching her something, even those that tainted her. Without them, Meera’s journey – both inwards and outwards would be incomplete.
Q. Sita’s Curse has masturbation, incest, lesbian love, BDSM. Yet, I have to say it does not read vulgar. How difficult is it as a writer to tackle sex in a way that the book doesn’t become another Mastram handout?
Erotica is an artform which is why it’s constant cross reference to porn is an indication of how little we as modern day readers are actually exposed to erotic writing. Before I started writing SC, I delved deep into our indigenous roots of erotica – be it Kalidasa or Jayadeva’s Geeta Govinda or the 6th century Tamil poet Andal. From Kamala Das to Ismat Chugtai. My inspiration being the innate sensuality and heightened sense of mysticism that is very much pervasive to our consciousness. I hope readers will also soak in the erotic elements of SC. Relishing it as it should be, without being squeamish or stand-offish. Being an erotic writer has led to me letting go of many of my innermost inhibitions and I hope readers also can do the same. Also, today I take pride in being a sensualist and I think it’s hugely liberating. So I was always pretty sure of the clear line between Meera and Mastram.
Q. Is it embarrassing to have your parents and family elders read an erotica you have written? Or friends saying you might get branded as a porn writer?
Yes and no. I have already received mails calling me a ‘whore with a disease,’ just the way I have been reached out to by many housewives and women from small towns and in urban settings, those I do not know at all, sharing with me stories of their sexual suppression, aching to find a way out. To want to stand up for their basic physical need. To speak their minds. So when I weigh the pros and cons, I know the scales are tipped in favor of Meera. Already.
Q. What next? A political thriller is in the offing I hear.
Right now am consumed in the promotions of SC that is a super lead from Hachette and their first erotica offering in their Indian publishing list. But yes I am hoping to start Rahula when the dust settles and I go back to my desk. As no one, but a mass of energy.
Rahula is a political tragedy that is inspired by the son of Buddha and will be set
against a contemporary Indian political and social milieu. But like all my other books, the story is of a man’s struggle. To be bigger than his father. To win over a shadow.
And his final flight.