If this is sex writing from the sub-continent, let’s stick to the Kama Sutra and Kumarasambhava.
The most erotic literature ever written — in my opinion — is the Song of Songs of Solomon, or Canticles, in the Old Testament. It may have been a tale about the soul finding satisfaction in the Lord, but anyone reading it will first be captivated by the love story between King Solomon and the Shulamite. The story is a gradual exploration of the love between the two individuals, culminating in the final climactic conclusion of the sex act. All nicely cloaked in exquisitely lyrical poetry, describing desire, longing, physicality and intimacy with beautiful imagery. Contrast that with Alchemy: The Tranquebar Book of Erotic Stories; it is like comparing Beluga caviar with pickled anchovies, like talking of earrings bought on a Mumbai local train in the same breath as a vintage Banarsi sari. So why read it?
Simply because it has been put together so carefully, with such straightforward and unpretentious vision. Editor Sheba Karim has chosen 13 stories that span a spectrum of sexual revelation from a gentle attraction to a more violent taking of pleasure. The problem, perhaps, is one that niggles when it comes to any collection of stories written by different authors. There is no consistency of quality, of plot, of style or indeed of subject, making it hard to judge or even set standards of expectation from the whole rather than per piece. It feels like the way a bewildered first-time cook would react when faced with a collation of leftovers in the fridge, none enough to make a meal in itself. So reading short stories leaves you wanting more of some and far less of something else, making for a highly unsatisfactory meal.
Perhaps the most appealing is the first tale, ‘Alchemy’. It tells of a “40-something divorced development consultant” in lust with his housemaid; a guileless young woman called Sumati, a farmer’s daughter. The man is not sure how to deal with the class divide, but ardently desires the maid, with whom he makes arbitrary conversation. Is he trying to draw her into allowing him his pleasures with her, or is he genuinely interested? The story slowly builds to a point where the consultant actually believes that he will sleep with his maid the next day. But it all goes wrong when she sees him with another woman...
And so it goes on. There is a mystifying recounting of an orgy between Mouth, Ass and various Madams that cloaks language that could very well be classified smutty in euphemisms and proper nouns. Homosexuality is explored too, as is a boy’s initiation into the world of sex. And there is also the forbidden, where a monk behind bars is given knowledge that is far beyond the reach of the holy texts that he would normally focus on. The tales travel across classes, countries and conventional barriers, some easy to comprehend, others more odd than meaningful and some plain dirty, repulsive.
Alchemy: The Tranquebar book of Erotic Stories II; Edited by Sheba Karim, Tranquebar, Rs.295.