Stories of bizarre sexual encounters that provide curiosity value, but not literary value.
Mitzi Szereto, British author of erotic literature, has argued for removing the word ‘erotica’ to describe writings that have explicit sexual content. Other writers in the genre have also questioned why such writing should be considered separate and outside of general literary writing. It is an interesting question, and one that set me thinking when I was asked to review this book. While there is no question about the need for erotic writing to be given its due place as a legitimate literary genre, it is equally clear why it should exist in a separate slot of its own. Its very focus on a single sphere of human experience, which is its raison d’etre, negates its quest to be counted as part of general literature. Nothing proves it better than the book under review here.
There is little doubt that here is a talented writer. Whoever Aranyani is, man or woman (I will refer to her as a woman to simplify things), she displays a control over prose that perversely made me repeatedly restive while reading the book. It took a while for this irritation to take shape into the conscious and clear wish that what I was missing was a ‘fuller’ story, one that would explore a range of human experience and not be limited to the physical alone.
It is an unfair wish — nowhere does Aranyani pretend that she is writing anything other than a book of erotic short stories. But equally the very incompleteness of the reading experience answers the question about why it will always be placed outside the pale of literary fiction. A murder mystery writer can make her protagonists indulge in any amount of sexual experimentation while still taking the story to its inexorable conclusion of a murder solved. An erotic story merely exists as a little bubble of pure physical experience.
The logical query, then, is about the yardstick on which such a book is to be judged. Do you say that, since such-and-such a book fulfils its defined role of relating a human sexual relationship in a manner that seeks to arouse the reader, it is a successful book? Or do you apply other parameters to it? Do you set standards of plot and characterisation? Do you ask that the telling of the tale allow you to willingly suspend disbelief?
I would reply with an emphatic yes. The phenomenal success of Fifty Shades of Grey has much to answer for the sudden interest in erotica. Now cloaked by the legitimacy of ringing cash registers and psycho-babble about women’s empowerment, erotica (especially by women authors) is the publishing world’s new pink. In the resultant scramble, the standards are set too low. In India especially, where liberated and intelligent fiction on sexuality is long overdue, it would be a pity if we welcomed every candid writer as our own Anaïs Nin.
A Pleasant Kind of Heavy has a gushing endorsement on the back cover by Khushwant Singh, who calls it more erotic than the Kama Sutra. The very inaccuracy of the endorsement is riling. If more people would actually read the Kama Sutra and not just gawk at the illustrations, they would know that the book does not even try to be erotic fiction. It is a very prosaic social treatise that tells young men of Vatsyayana’s times how to woo and win a woman — there is as much description of the clothes to wear and gifts to bear as there is about the postures of pleasure.
Pleasant… does not need to be a second Kama Sutra; all it needs to be is honest to the story. Let’s take ‘A Touch of the Sun’, one of the stories that takes the time to build up a setting. There’s Fedya, the Russian seeker in Mysore, and there’s Geetanjali next door who sculpts in the nude. There are descriptions of the incense in Fedya’s room and of pushcarts selling spinach. Yet, the story leaves you untouched because, when it comes to the non-sexual part of the writing, it does not care to rise above stereotypes. Yoga, mudras, sexual tankha, zari cushions, phallus sculptures — by the time you reach the end, you have been battered numb by relentless metaphor.
‘Stolen’, which explores the attraction between an affluent housewife and her maid, does not work at various levels. First is the forcing of banal everyday situations into weird sexual contortions. Granted this is erotica, but describing a papaya half with phrases such as ‘sticky embrace’ and ‘wet centre’, or talking about ‘massaging’ a lemon is just plain irksome. Second is the story premise itself — it was a losing struggle for me to imagine a harried housewife expecting lunch guests finding anything attractive in a sweaty cook or worrying about anything besides the consistency of the kofta gravy.
Which brings us to suspension of disbelief; it is extremely far-fetched to graft an erotic angle into the experience of waxing — messy, unpleasant and painful as it is. By claiming that the neglected Rasika in ‘Tamil Summer’ finds solace here might be cutting-edge S&M but it just annoyed the heck out of me. Yes, erotica often deals with the taboo, but I would like it to be remotely plausible as well.
If this genre is to come of age in India, it’s important to give more than a passing nod to plot and characterisation. A series of slightly bizarre sexual encounters has good curiosity value but does not make for literature.