This anthology of queer erotica puts the sex back in same-sex relationships, moving beyond mere sloganeering to celebrate the physical, says Gautam Bhan
THE WRITTEN word has found queerness, queer politics and sexuality in recent years. Yet desire — “it is through desire that many people first know of their sexuality,” argue the editors — has remained, at least in part, hidden. Rights, politics and violence have found voice but the corporeality and stickiness of sex, bodies and desire have often been held at arm’s length. Perhaps the world wasn’t ready, perhaps we weren’t. In that sense, this anthology is fearless, important and welcome. It knows what it wants and goes for it.
Writing on sex is difficult. Writing erotica even more so. In many ways, a majority of the stories in this anthology do remarkably well. They retain the physicality of sex, with an unselfconscious frankness but rarely lose sight of the fact that the erotic is not just about sex but about what desire does to us in its presence and absence, its denial and its fulfillment. These stories trace the things that our desires dare us to know, admit and perhaps even enjoy about ourselves, they are often both titillating and insightful.
The revelations are equal parts pleasure and pain. Joyous romps sit beside desire’s twisted roots in one’s own body. As one of the contributors, Satya, writes: “I remember what it was for me. When you are not your nude body. When your nude body is not your desire. And when the impossibility of desire, to inhabit, and act through this body, can lead you to a bottle of sleeping pills.” Desire reveals us to ourselves, even if in fragments. Jewel who, at the moment the boy he desires finally submits to him, finds himself “torn between hating the boy for his submission and wanting nothing less”.
The novelty of reading erotica set in a world at least some Indians will find familiar — the book’s reach is undeniably elite, written in and for English-speaking India — rather than imaginary Western-scapes still crackles with freshness. You should sober up before you leave, Mannat tells her one-night stand and hands her rajma. Manpreet replies: “Do you have any dahi?” A few paragraphs ago, the same exchange had involved liquids of a very different kind. Longing drips between and through Bata chappals, Lodhi Estate madams, Delhi neighbourhoods and party circuits in the basement of a woman named Binoo Yadav, rickshaws, metros, government hospitals, city flats, houseboats and local trains. It’s hard not to smile at the shock of recognition.
Other stories deftly capture time, making it thick with the uncertainty of encounter. In the changing rooms of a public pool, it isn’t until the bathing suit finally falls that our narrator is able to say: “Both of us were naked, obvious that now we are together in this.” In story after story, words chase each other across the page waiting possibility to harden into certainty. “Till that final second,” writes the narrator in Nikhil Yadav’s story, “there was a little voice in my head uncertain of where I was and what I was doing there.”
Refreshingly, the same-sex or same-gender nature of attraction is treated with nonchalance, reflecting a maturity in new queer writing and the ability of contemporary queer writers to not just bear witness and “break silence” but write from within same-sex desire about all forms of desire. The queerness of this work instead lies, most profoundly, in the ability of some of its stories to open up the body itself. To open up its sheer physicality, the certainty of how it is meant to be formed and lived. Utterly naturalised understandings of breasts, genitals, bulges, curves, and abilities are quietly, simply set aside in the stories. “Her breasts were pressed up against my flat chest, and though my newly-grafted nipples were de-sensitised, my whole chest was on fire,” writes D’Lo. “We hug. His arms enclose my torso fully, but he keeps his chest to himself. The palm of my hand knows the binder he is wearing under those layers of clothing,” writes Satya. Bodies become malleable, changeable, uncertain, unmoored. All bets are off.
The disappointment in the book is the surprisingly insubstantial introduction. An anthology must be tied together. A more substantial introduction talking about what these stories together unearth about desire, sex, queerness, identity and our own selves would have helped make this anthology more than just the sum of its albeit rather good parts.
Bhan is series editor, sexualities, at Yoda Press