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Why Su-prose? "Su" in Sanskrit is a prefix for "good". This is a place where we will discuss and analyze prose (with a South Asian Connection) - that which is good, awesome, excellent, and maybe rant about prose that could be better.

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Thursday, March 29, 2007

Romance and Sex in Indian American Fiction

Modern Indian American fiction has started to sizzle with explicit sex scenes, not to mention the variety of hues interspersed within these graphic descriptions. Most Indian American writers often hesitate to describe sex scenes overtly, partly because it is taboo in Indian culture, and partly for fear of what their parents and relatives would say. However, modern literary writers like Salman Rushdie have consistently been different and radical about blurring the lines and using sex to better their narratives. While some believe that sex helps tell a story better, some believe that the same story can be told effectively, without using the vivid sex scenes. Lately more and more young writers have started using sex as an important part of their storyline, and some also use it as an integral part of their plot.
“Nandini Hariharan’s mouth was, in reality, playing with the painters fly and the tumescent, torrid baton behind it while her curious hands were snaking into Libya Dass’s navel, stroking flesh where it ached to be tickled. Of course neither adult in question imagined, even in their wildest dreams, at the time, that a fourteen year old might be in possession of talents that left them breathless and clammy, and they chose, instead, to believe that it was the fantastic discovery of absinthe that had reduced their loins to liquid and that the child lying between them was merely a lotus over the pond of their lust.” – The Last Song of Dusk, by Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi.
Indian American writers are going beyond the realm of writing about sex between a husband and wife, in the traditional sense, into more contentious territory. With writers like Abha Dawesar and Sidharth Dhanvant Shangvi writing about gay and lesbian sex, sex with multiple partners, underage sex, and what not, Indian American fiction is breaking ground and marching bravely into unchartered terrain.
The question arises, has sex in Indian American fiction come of age?
“Somewhat. I still think that in so many ways, sex is treated as illicit in the literature and not at all a part of a normal thinking, feeling person’s life,” says Michelle Reale an avid reader of South Asian fiction and a Circulation Supervisor at the Arcadia University Library in Glenside, PA
The idea is to represent Indian Americans in their many walks of life, their queer and straight behavior, their way of life as it is. The fact remains that Indian Americans are as versatile in their sexual prowess as they are in any other sphere.
“Ready or not, here we come.... I think that as the population grows, the young reader will need their fiction to reflect their culture... I think it started with the "freed woman" type of stories to mixed race relationships and now there is so much open to explore. I think that films have also touched on gay/lesbian and other "modern" issues so that it is more accessible. Even more so, we have many Indians represented now on television without the stereotypes enforced (think of Bug on Crossing Jordan or Mohinder on Heroes as a start). I think as Indians born and raised in North America, we are "Americans" and therefore it is always great to see that reflected back to us... we need to see an Indian shopaholic, an Indian Bond, etc...” adds 32 year old Dimple Mahatani Chaubey, who lives in Montreal, Canada and is herself a creative writer and an avid reader of Indian American Fiction.
A review of Abha Dawesar’s second book Babyji, which is considered to be an Indian interpretation of Lolita, in Ego Magazine reads thus–
“Baby-ji is a novel about the adventures of Anamika, a sprightly 16-year old Indian girl, as she explores her sexuality. It is surprising at many levels for a South Asian author, not least of which is the candid treatment of one of its main themes: same-sex love. Anamika has affairs with three women - her doting servant Rani, her vulnerable classmate Sheila and the exotic divorcee who first starts Anamika on this journey. The sex scenes are unrestrained and might be shocking to an audience not used to seeing it in South Asian novels. In particular, Anamika's sexual aggression and promiscuity seem to cross the line between teenage experimentation and a disturbing lack of perception about what is right and wrong. But these conflicting tensions, confusing ethics, and rebellious giddiness are explored with the flair and sense of adventure typical of a young teenage life. Dawesar inhabits the voice of Anamika with ease as Anamika maneuvers herself through the world of schoolmates, homework, servants and aunties.”
In Babyji, Anamika, the 16-year old Lolita like protagonist has multiple affairs simultaneously, with her young maid servant, a middle aged woman, a class mate among others. Without the use of sex, Dawesar would not have been able to tell the story coherently.
“If she really didn’t want me to she could scream or move away or kick me. “You’re beautiful,” I said as I slid my hand between her thighs where her bloomers should have been. He closed her eyes again, but this time I couldn’t tell if she was enjoying it or not. I pushed with my finger. I wasn’t slow the way I had been with India and Rani. I was afraid if I was too gentle she would use it to move away. I used all the force I could muster.
She let out a howl, “Stop it hurts.”
I pulled back and said, “I just fucked you.” There was blood on my finger. – Babyji by Abha Dawesar
In fact sex is one of the main themes of this book, as it is in her first book “Miniplanner” and her third book “That Summer in Paris” “That Summer in Paris,” Dawesar’s revels in its descriptions of incest, multiple partner sex and other vivid sex scenes. “Dawesar's keen, witty third novel opens on an author feeling defensive about the dirty bits of his oeuvre-not sorry they're dirty, but sorry they're not better received: "Even the French repeatedly poked fun at Prem's passage on drinking a lactating woman's milk." Prem Rustum, a Nobel Prize-winning Indian amalgam of Henry Roth (Prem slept with and wrote about his sister, Meher) and Salman Rushdie, is 75, and he's ready to try again at both love and the writing of it.” says Publishers Weekly. “Dawesar (Babyji) shows off her own superior dirty-bit skills in plenty of sex scenes and daydreams.”
When a young writer like Abha Dawesar writes explicitly about sex in its various forms it is because she believes that, “In the past 10-15 years, Indian society has changed so much, especially urban India. It has changed economically, and the individual has grown so much more important. Women are more independent, have more choices about marriage, careers, and their lives in general. There is a sexual revolution of sorts brewing in the country. This (her third book) book addresses the generation facing the changes,” says Dawesar in an interview with India Currents magazine.
Shanghvi is another writer who does not mince words during the sex scenes in his debut novel, The Last Song of Dusk. A very prolific writer with a gift for the written word, he spices up his book with sex scenes galore.
His first novel, "The Last Song of Dusk" has been published in 10 languages and won literary prizes in Italy and England. “A lush, wildly imaginative fairy tale, "LSD," as it's dubbed in the Indian press, blazes with erotica, floats on magical-realist flights and unravels a fever of images that read as if they were coaxed through dreams or hallucinogens,” says an article in the San Francisco Chronicle.
“For the next two months, every night, no sooner had everyone gone to bed than Edward would knock on Raghubir’s door. He would open it, pull his young lover in, strip him naked, fling his white body on the antique four-poster bed, and then take him with the craze of his ample lust. Each night his stallions legs shuddered as he rammed Edward again and again, such gentle violence, such refined debauchery, until all of Edward melted like the frost on the grass and he felt he was everywhere; a liquid of flesh spreading over the bedsheets, over the Indian’s sweating body, over the floor.” – The Last Song of Dusk, by Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi.
“As I read LSD thoughts of Isabel Allende’s ‘The House of Spirits’ hovered over the pages but at some point I was able to move past that and flow with the musical lyricism of his poetic language. I longed to have known the magical Bombay that he painted on the pages of his book, and I was fascinated with the house. The words that stayed in my mind as I read it and even after I completed it were ‘lush’ and ‘fertile’. He is a wonderful storyteller and I loved the languid sensual pace of the narration,” says Sita Bhaskar the author of “Shielding Her Modesty” a collection of cross-cultural stories.
Are Indian American readers ready for gay/lesbian sex, multiple partner sex and such in Indian American fiction?
They certainly seem as ready as ever. There is a growing market for Indian American writers who do not shy away from narratives that call for explicit sex in all it’s many forms. As with any controversial subject there are those that are for and those that are against, but the fact is that fiction grows and changes along with the experience of the generation and population that it is addressing.
Shobhan Bantwal, whose debut novel “The Dowry Bride” is slated for release by Kensington Books in September 2007 says, “I believe they have been ready since the second generation of Indian-Americans who were born and raised in the U.S. started to read adult fiction. They have grown up with fewer hang-ups about sexual orientation and promiscuity and therefore accept sexuality in all forms as a part of living. Concurrently, their parents, the first generation Indian-Americans, have gradually begun to adapt to mainstream American culture as well, and as a consequence begun to shed their puritanical outlook and view such topics with less censure. They are now more accepting of literature that includes sex—at least the heterosexual kind. But they still seem to have some issues with gay and lesbian themes.”
Reale has a very down to earth perspective, “Well, these things occur in the lives’ of Indian-American’s don’t they? Let me say this: I think that all readers who love the South Asian genre of writing are ready for a more realistic portrayal of all segments of Indian-Americans and the lives’ they lead---their inner, personal lives’. What do they sound like within their own families? Are their marriages unhappy? Do they have a way out? Have we had our fill of mango, spices and arranged marriage? Or do we still want more of the same? I was reading an interview with the Scottish author Janice Galloway who said that she and other Scottish writers have been desperately trying to get away from the genre of Scottish writing that is all the “heather,heather,heather.” I think, too, with Indian-American writing, there may be that temptation to write what is marketable, to write what is “exotic.” Indian writers rail against “pandering to the west” but they are the ones, in fact, who are writing the fiction.”
Sushil Nachnani, grew up in India and has lived in San Francisco for the last fourteen years. Having studied relationships involving Indian women with varying degrees of intimacy, he says, “I suspect a fair number of Indian American readers have had all kinds of sex, so you would think that they would be ready for it in fiction! Seriously though, I think two things have to feed each other for acceptance on a larger scale of gay/lesbian and multiple partner sex. The first thing is that it has to become more accepted in Indian American society and two, the writing of gay/lesbian sex has to mature where the story is not just about the kind of sex. These two phenomena are feeding each other and it won't be long before this is not a question of interest anymore.”
Sonia Singh is the author of “Goddess for Hire” and “Bollywood Confidential”. She believes that Indian American readers are more than ready, “I have Indian-American friends who are gay. They would love to see their particular experiences and lifestyle addressed in Indian-American fiction in a positive tolerant way. Shows like Queer as Folk are critically acclaimed. There was an orgy scene in The Da Vinci Code--the most popular book on the planet. We're all more than ready to see it in Indian-American fiction as well. I don't think it would be a big deal. Now our parents... that's another matter.”
Socially Acceptable Writing…
Writing about Sex is not socially acceptable in many South Asian cultures. The first question that would come to mind would be “What would my parents say?” Even those who write erotica or sex scenes in their fiction, try to keep their parents prying eyes away from it.
Although she dedicated Miniplanner to her parents, Dawesar was quite clear that she did not want them to read the book. She says in an interview with Rediff, "I love my parents. This my first book. I dedicated the book to them, but that doesn't mean I wanted them to read it." Even though her book was not released in India at the time, her parents managed to obtain a copy through friends in America, "I was aghast," Dawesar says. "And so I called them up and said please don't read it, but my mother said she was definitely going to read it. So I said fine, but please don't let anyone else at home read it." Her father who was 50 pages into the book told her that it was quite remarkable, "So I was kind of shell-shocked," says Dawesar.
Kavita Daswani is an author who writes under the Chick-Lit genre. She says, “I've never used explicit sex in my novels, and doubt I ever will. It's an interesting thing, because oftentimes as I write, in the back of my head I have this mechanism going "My parents are going to read this". I think I'm just really conscious of what those close to me think of my work. I want it to be funny and touching and insightful, but it never seems to have been necessary - in my view anyway – to include any graphic sex.
A New Trend…
More and more Indian American authors are getting published each year and more or them are trying to change the landscape with their writing. Writing about Sex or including colorful explicit sex in Indian American writing is becoming as common as it is becoming widespread. Is this a new trend in Indian American Fiction? Are we going to see more of this?
“As that culture grows increasingly permissive and liberal, I think we'll be seeing a lot more of it. I would imagine that in many ways, it mirrors what's been happening with Bollywood films over the years; 30 years ago, everything was chaste and wholesome, but these days, anything goes. And ultimately, nobody is going to be forced to read a book with lots of sex in it!” says Daswani. “I would imagine that segments of the reading population would be ready for that kind of thing. The fact is, those kinds of relationships are real and not uncommon, so I wouldn't see why readers would object to seeing them written about.”
“I think the only thing important to a story or plot is a good story or plot. An explicit sex scene must serve the story or what's the point? Everything needs to be motivated. Conflict without motivation, sex scenes without motivation, character angst without motivation...don't add anything. I'm not saying a well-written sex scene isn't juicy and fun to read but if it doesn't serve the story the reader is likely to just read the scene and put the book down,” says Singh.
The fact remains that as the newer generations of Indian Americans are exposed to the western way of life and the unabashed referral to sex and intimacy, they are getting primed for the onslaught of erotica and sex in Indian American Fiction that is yet to arrive. There are no rights and wrongs about this.
Nachnani has read Abha Dawesar's 'Babyji', “I heard her speak at a conference at a session that was tacking the subject - "Sex and South Asian Fiction." There were a number of young writers there who had all written about sex in their books. And they seemed to agree that writing about sex seemed the natural thing to do when they first started writing but as they wrote their second and third novels, it seemed to play a smaller role in their writing. I think that's a fair statement of Indian American fiction. We need the first fifty, hundred books to get sex out of the closet in Indian society in general, but after that I think sex need not be such a central theme.”
Bottom line, readers are looking for excellent writing, a superior story, a grand plot and book that they want to enjoy reading. Reale says it succinctly, “South Asian writing parts the veil on a world that many of us may never get to see, firsthand. It is atmospheric, evocative, intelligent and often has a spiritual element. It often challenges preconceived notions. It links the human family by experience.”
There will be controversy however and there are going to be those that react strongly against this. But there is also going to be a huge following for this kind of writing, and why not, India is after all the land of the Kama Sutra!

This article written by Visi Tilak appeared in the magazine "The Indian American"