The Shobhaa Dé Redux

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Does the mother of Indian erotica still have the power to titillate? Poorva Rajaram reads fervently

Photo: Corbis

I WAS born in 1988, the year Shobhaa Dé wrote her first novel, Socialite Evenings. Back then, literary critics — especially ones for whom reviewing was a bipolar bloodsport — panned her novels as porn. Geeta Doctor even accused them of “masturbating the nation”.

Today, I wondered, when Internet and mobile phone porn can easily masturbate the nation and dispel any mysterious fog surrounding sex, what could Shobhaa Dé possibly tell us about sex? Even Bollywood and sex seem to have graduated from enemies to frenemies. So I played cultural catch-up and launched myself into the Shobhaa Dé back catalogue. I wasn’t disappointed.

Here, Aparna is having sex in the water on a Goa beach. “It was like nothing — nothing — she had ever experienced. A liquid ferriswheel or a roller-coaster trip in the depths of an ocean. Prem increased his own rhythm and used his hands to clasp her waist and synchronise their bodies.” Unfortunately, Prem sounds like a Prem — a fantastical and rather unreal lover. The ocean should have been a scenic seascape, instead of spawning waterthemed metaphors. Sex writing works well for writers with a depleted arsenal of adjectives, and as a result the stylistics of Dé’s sex writing are often uneven.

Dé isn’t very good at extracting tactility from language (never the gift of Indian writing in English), but, at least she uses the word ‘f**k’ a lot. Sexy sex writing usually demands that an author discard every florid word she knows and use slang. And acknowledge imperfections. To her credit, Dé is brutally honest about sex when it doesn’t work. “They’d slipped into duty f**king without having f**ked in the first place.”

One thing, though, continued to puzzle me. This wasn’t porn. Firstly, there wasn’t a happy character. Anywhere. Secondly, her novels were filled with commentary on clothes, saris (chiffon versus silk), jewellery, tailors, kurtas. No porn writer can afford such indulgences — the clothes really have to come off.

Porn was indeed a ludicrous mischaracterisation. If anything, the interior density and torment of her characters gives us a relent-lessly morbid universe where people always end up failing each other (failure, needless to say, is not a plot option in porn).

So it is even more jarring that Dé’s sex can be fluffy. At times, she has the romance novelist’s tendency to conflate sex — beginning, middle and end — with ecstasy. Her satirist’s eye, usually in overdrive when pinning down characters — their scope and motives — is sadly missing from the sex scenes.

“I believe it’s the done thing in Delhi society to sleep with your brother-in-law.”

EM Forster in Aspects of a Novel proposes flat and round characters — flat ones stay one-dimensional or dull and round ones, like Becky Sharpe, fluctuate or grow. Porn has flat characters; erotica, oval ones and Shobhaa Dé, round ones.

Perhaps a little too round. One protagonist narrates of her mother, “If she draped her sari carelessly, I’d get a glimpse of her pubes and feel inexplicably afraid.” Dé is not about to present us with characters who have vapid sex — sex is psychologically tethered to their past.

Compare Dé’s Freudian missile of a sentence with an average breathy and staged Internet porn movie. Granted, the Internet has videos and pictures of sex in your shade of fetish. Granted, they might even please you. And granted that since porn will not cure repression, you can always continue to hunt for juicy pockets of real titillation with a seer’s optimism. But, undeviating commentary on psycho-sexual make-up is another matter altogether.

A more distant take on sex — the kind Bollywood now regularly churns out — like the recent Ragini MMS, has ample mise- enscène. Not to mention, exploitative motives, rapacious men, shady voyeurs and nubile women. However, its technologically and supernaturally preoccupied storyline basically forgot to include or analyse sex.

These days, it would seem, nothing is more shocking or fresh than psychoanalytic believability. And people who jerk off and then want to think about what it all means. What is the point of this hyper-sexualised age, when our pop cultural oversex comes without an accompanying hermeneutics?

This is where I toss aside the webcams and movies, and lunge for books and conversations. Even a Shobhaa Dé.

“Nobody is a cockslave.”
Is it sordid? You bet. The emotional lives of Dé’s characters aren’t grand. In fact, her characters are far more likely to feel throbbing pettiness — to stew in jealousy, annoyance or disgust. Emotions that never made it to Aristotle’s Poetics. This might be what led one reviewer to call her books “classless”. But, it’s a nice change from sentimentality.

Far from being subversive fiction, though, many of Dé’s novels fall under a women’s writing staple: the marriage plot. Something which, to me, explains their popularity. These plots tackle ‘courtship rituals’ and follow women being hustled into (or firmly planted in) married life and bourgeois gentility. Victorian heroines who escaped the inevitability of marriage usually died grim deaths in the process (think Maggie Tulliver). And their lives didn’t seem to have much sex (unless you count the excitable symbolism of moors).

If the number of Indian Jane Austen remakes are anything to go by, our middle class shares some of the preoccupations of 19th century England. Perhaps, this is where Shobhaa Dé’s biggest offering lies — she makes all the tacit Victoriana explicit. She has drenched the marriage plot in sex — its emotional undertow, its power disparities and its eye-opening potential. “Death, infidelity, incest, rape, lies” (as one helpful blurb put it) abound.

And sex really is everywhere. In the final scene of Second Thoughts, Maya, who has just had sex for the first time with a delectable college boy, Nikhil, and whose frigid husband Rangan has just told her that he will share their conjugal bed with his mother, is distraught and unable to cook soup. “I looked at the spilled liquid — thick, white, chalky, mucous- like… like baby’s puke or coagulated snot, or something I had seen before somewhere, not so long ago.”

Porn or no porn, I was in shock.

jpoorva@gmail.com

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