Namita Gokhale’s Priya sets Nisha Susan wondering why fiction has so few 70-year-olds with green, strap-on dildos
IN 1984, when Namita Gokhale wrote Paro: Dreams of Passion, she was 27. Her equally youthful heroine Priya lived vicariously through the excesses of Paro, a woman the Victorians would have called an adventuress. Paro revisited reveals itself as something of a genre bender. It’s too cynical to be chick-lit and too familiar to be literary and too smart to be forgotten. Paro herself, though beautiful and ambitious, is too fat to fit neatly into that ’80s sex-and-shoulder pads subgenre most familiar to us through Judith Krantz or Shobhaa Dé. Paro is a bit of an odd bird.
Twenty-four years later, Gokhale has returned to Paro’s hunting grounds. In the sequel Priya: In Incredible Indyaa, Paro is dead and the narrative has shifted to Priya living in Lutyens’ Delhi as the wife of a minister. The prose is indifferent but you may want to read it anyway for Priya’s batty, vague, frequently funny voice. You may want to read it also because Priya is a rare occurrence in fiction — an older woman with a libido who is not seen through the MILF or cougar lens. Early in the novel, Priya has a quick romp with her former lover BR in a hotel room and later even quicker ones with her husband. With the former, it is enthusiastic and a bit ditsy like a Goldie Hawn movie. With the latter, she is detached but fond.
Would Jilly Cooper approve? The 74-year-old British best-selling author’s racy 2010 novel Jump features a grandmother, who apart from her age is indistinguishable from any other Cooper heroine — impetuous, red-hot and perpetually crushing on someone unavailable. Cooper said afterwards that for the first time she had found writing the sex scenes difficult: “I just think I was a bit tired and it’s quite difficult to write sex scenes when you’re tired.” Unlike in Cooper’s taut, firm world, Gokhale’s protagonist acknowledges her ageing body but without the fearful hatred (or worse cute-ification) of young novelists describing old people having sex.
Writing fiction is largely about putting yourself in the minds of people who you are not. But the intersection of age and sex seems to give novelists heebie-jeebies about mortality. There be dragons. (Bigger dragons than the schoolboyish Bad Sex award, which has now corralled Anglophone writers into either never writing a sex scene and certainly never, ever using a metaphor when writing about sex.)
Philip Roth certainly has been getting his share of the hate of the gerontophobic recently. In May, publisher Carmen Callil objected to Roth receiving the Man Booker International award saying his writing made her feel, “as though he’s sitting on your face and you can’t breathe”. Callil’s description (the kind of clinical description the Bad Sex award judges must approve of if she had been talking about sex) got a lot of ‘poor, old feminist’ sniggers. It also recharged all those who disapprove of 78-year-old Roth’s protagonists — increasingly older men with active sex lives (and minds, people!) The critiques sound less like David Lodge’s endearing position (‘Literature is mostly about having sex and not much about having children. Life is the other way round’) and more of the atavistic ‘dirty old man’ variety.
One critic said condescendingly that Roth’s early novels had verve. Sure, Brenda dove into the pool, swam, climbed out and flicked her wet swimsuit back into place. A snap that resounded around the world. The daring of Goodbye Columbus was as imagined by a young, shy man. When you are in your 70s and you can conceive a scene (as in The Humbling) with an old man, a tipsy young woman and a green strap-on dildo, does that automatically make you the subject of comedy? Doesn’t it make you a writer who can (ahem) swing for the fences? Priya would think so. But then, she is an odd bird. Fiction could do with some more.
Nisha Susan is an Assistant Editor with Tehelka.