In the modern Indian literature, a feminine body is rarely just a feminine body. When women move in the fictitious world of R.K Narayan, Ruskin Bond, Chetan Bhagat, Jumpa Lahiri, Aravind Adiga or TarunTejpal they are always more than characters rambling around a paraphernalia, justifying a narrative strategy or a theoretical need for narrative coherence. The present paper intends to analyse the body precisely from this perspective, having as reference a collection of erotic short stories published in India, in 2009, and entitled “The Electric Feather”. Throughout all the 13 short stories, when a feminine character reveals her body, in a rather shy and very often clumsy attempt of creating an erotic atmosphere, the reader intuitively discovers that nakedness is a statement, a metaphor or simply a craving need for freedom.
A reader with an exclusively European experience, not at all familiarized with India can perhaps never imagine how or up to which extend the removal of clothes can intricately be associated with the idea of freedom. Modern India, culturally torn apart by both Hindus and Muslim fundamentalisms, does not give too much space for women to explore or even openly express their needs, their desires, their necessity to step firmly inside the 21st century. Arguably enough, some might say that this desire itself is insufficiently fought for, insufficiently asserted, insufficiently assumed.
“Electric Feather” appears in an Indian social and cultural context which makes the book something more than just literature. The recent scandals of brutal gang rapes or honour killings, the arising of nationalism, violence and intolerance, the results of recent elections shook up the nowadays India, raising questions about the future development of the entire Indian society. In the introduction, the editor Ruchir Joshi provides us with a glimpse of this dark threatening curtain of fear, traditionalism and obscurantism which starts to fall upon the Subcontinent: “This project was conceived in the shadow of exiling of M.F Hussain on a ridiculously spurious ‘charge’ hatched by the Hindu fascists, and the beginning of the resurgence of the Taliban goons in Afghanistan; the volume comes out in the shadow of the assault by the Hindu Taliban on young women drinking in a pub in Mangalore. Hopefully, in its own small way, this book will join the resistance against those and other such depredations” (Joshi, 2009).
Ruchir Joshi gives us from the very beginning an idea of how difficult it was for him to convince writers to participate with texts to his collection of erotic stories. He confesses in introduction: “[three writers] did variations of spluttering into their beer, «Me, writing porn for you!?! No fucking way!» and promptly crossed their legs […]” (Joshi, 2009). Not without interest should the reader pay attention to the biographies of the writers signing texts for this collection. Out of 13 names, 5 are males. Out of 8 female writers, 4 are not currently living in India or are educated abroad. Tishani Doshi has a Welsh mother, being born in Canterbury, Abeer Hoque lives in the States, Sheba Karim currently stays in New York, Kamila Shamsie lives in London. Although all writers present in the book have a connection with the Subcontinent, just four of them assume the difficult task of writing from inside its borders. Consequently, my analysis will focus upon the following short stories: “Tourists”, by Paromita Vohra, “The Advocate”, by Sonia Jabbar, “The First Time”, by Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan and “The Quilt”, by Parvati Sharma.
The plot of the short story “Tourists” is rather a simple one, not at all original. The narrator, Paolomi, an emancipated woman in her thirties, accompanies her female friend Kiranon set of a Bollywood movie where the main movie star is Sartaj Khan, a classical prototype of a Bollywood actor: arrogant, infatuated and proud of his perfect body and his equally perfect six pack. Although the short story starts with the narrator and her friend sharing a chocolate, in a scene of explicit lesbian eroticism, soon this narrative path is quite oddly abandoned in favour of another one. Watching from a reasonable distance the erotic scene between the narrator and Kiran, the actor expresses his desire to have some of the chocolate the two girls are sharing. When it happens, suddenly the narrator and the gorgeous actor are getting teleported in time and space, in a Guest House they do not recognize and in a time and space which they eventually identify as being 1977, Nicobar and Andaman Islands. In spite of the fact that the Guest House seems to be expecting a guest and has a lot of peons around, no one seems able to notice the existence of the two time travellers, who indulge, of course, predictably, in their erotic games undisturbed and unnoticed. When the expected guest arrives, both realize that they are in the presence of nobody else than Indira Gandhi. After a series of unsuccessful attempts of going back in their own time, the two protagonists succeed when they share again a chocolate bar found in Indira Gandhi`s purse. The predictable end of the story finds both the narrator and Sartaj Khan, the actor, on the same set of the Bollywood movie their fabulous journey had begun.
What firstly puzzles the reader is a fracture inside the story. The lesbian scene, which at one point seems to be the core of the story, is abruptly abandoned. Why would someone describing so passionately a scene of eroticism would brutally abandon it by choosing to develop the plot in a totally different direction, introducing a mambo-jumbo element such as surreal teleportation? The message one gets from this narrative strategy is that the present time of the story, which is contemporary India, does not allow such type of manifestation of eroticism. To fulfil it, to get in touch with her own sexuality, Paolomi needs to go back in time. Only then does her body become free. Consequently, the strategy can be read in terms of a critique to Indian contemporaneity.
Not without interest is the description of the Guest House the two get teleported to. “[…] oil paintings – of Mahatma Gandhi, Pandit Nehru and a village scene with Satyam Shivam buxom belles” (Vohra, 2009). It seems odd enough that the narrator, Paolomi and the actor indulge in a full exposure of their bodies surrounded by pictures of India’s founding fathers. Again, the suggestion seems to be the incongruence of what India was meant to be and what it really is. While in the present time of the story Paolomi is rather shy and reserved, she discovers her sexuality when teleported in a space when, from the walls the whole sexual game is witnessed by India`s founding fathers.
Moreover, between the lines, in a rather childish dialogue (dialogue being, in fact, a disturbing flaw of the story), one might find an intriguing definition of the body itself. While engaged in an erotic game, half-naked, Paolomi says to her lover: “Your body is made up of some sort of special material that’s created from lots of people wanting you and you knowing that” (Vohra, 2009).In other words, the body is what the society and the cultural taboos or habits allow it to be. The usage of our own bodies is far from being a matter decided by us, the physical owners. Such an intimate relation like which developed between ourselves and our bodies is always culturally regulated through education, moral norms or the level of tolerance and acceptance from the society we live in.
Written with much more maturity, “The Advocate”, by Sonia Jabbar has such a carefully developed plot that it remains unpredictable until the very end. The narrator is a young man who tells the story of the advocate P.K Sharma, 43 years of age, to whom he was an apprentice once. When presented to the renowned advocate, the narrator, young at that time, looks up to P.K Sharma, considering him a role model, both professionally and ethically. Soon, the young apprentice discovers the advocate has a lot a mistresses and indulges in sexual experiences, although he is happily married to a nice, decent middle-age woman. Being dragged into drinking, the young apprentice finally comes to terms with his boss behaviour. One day, in P.K Sharma`s office comes a very attractive Muslim woman, Laila Bano, wearing a traditional burka, her whole body covered, and with whom the advocate irremediably falls in love. The advocate asks his apprentice to drive him and the Muslim woman around the premises; during the drive, on the back seat of the car, P.K Sharma and Laila Bano, still covered in her burka, consume their passionate physical love. Tired and needing some rest, the advocate insists on his apprentice losing his virginity in the company of Laila Bano. The young man, after a disturbing sexual experience, during which the woman insists on keeping the lights turned off, falls asleep and wakes up in time to witness the following scene which is, at the same time, the final scene of the short story. P.K Sharma realizes the amazing Muslim woman whom he fell for is no other than his own wife. The advocate loses his temper, but not because he finds himself sharing his wife with the young apprentice. What makes him angry is that his wife, a Brahmin, had slept with a boy much under her cast.
What offers us an interesting perspective here is that the writer is a woman but she tells the story in the first person singular, in the voice of a male narrator. The advocate has a distinct opinion regarding women bodies. They are there for consumption; they need to be replaced when they do not satisfy the consumer anymore. Ergo, a woman`s body is nothing more than a vessel. P.K Sharma`s paradigm is, in his own views, so obvious than it does not need any further proof, being accepted, he believes, by women themselves. Talking about his wife, he states: “Don`t get me wrong, I love and respect her. I have put food on the table and my seed in her womb. This is another matter, not for her to interfere with. Can you eat the same thing for breakfast every day? No, you can`t. No matter how much you love those precious parathas of yours, if someone served you an omelette for a change, you`d grab it and wolf it down. Your Bhabi [the wife] knows that and never questions me” (Jabbar, 2009).
Apparently, playing a minor role in the whole narrative development, P.K Sharma`s wife, who, to be desired again to her husband, needs to pretend to be a Muslim woman (Laila Bano) covered in burka, is, no doubt, a key-character. As a wife, she appears for the young apprentice “[…] like a kind lady, quiet and efficient […]. Her home was always tidy, her cooking delicious […] she didn’t seem the type who would ever nag her husband” (Jabbar, 2009). What captivates the reader is the total transformation she suffers when appearing as an alias, an alter ego, as an object of sexual desire. P.K Sharma does not recognize his wife and madly falls in love with her. Let us start from the description of the first meeting between the advocate and the avatar of his own wife, Laila Bano. P.K Sharma recalls the meeting as follows: “[…] the lady was shrouded in a black burka, but she had the most exquisite fair hands. Her fingernails were long and stained with henna and every finger was bejewelled. When she spoke her voice was barely audible, a low husky tone. And what she couldn`t convey with words she did with her hands” (Jabbar, 2009). The advocate`s wife succeeds in re-becoming sexually desirable not by revealing, but, on the contrary, by covering her body. Pretending to be someone else, she transforms while having sex to such extent that even she becomes unrecognizable to herself. Her body becomes free only after she creates the illusion of becoming someone else. And precisely this idea is the link between the first short story I have previously discussed and “The Advocate”, by Sonia Jabbar. A woman’s body becomes free only when it eludes, through various stratagems, the reality.
“The First Time”, by Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan, is a story of a 27 years old young man, Aditya Sarkar, losing his virginity to a co-worker, Disha. What intrigues the reader here is, of course, not the story itself, not at all imaginative, full of narratological clichés, but the way the woman body is described. We have a meaningful parallelism between two different erotic scenes. Firstly, the narrator describes the lust of some school kids when seeing their good looking Geography teacher. Obviously, her body, being covered, invites the viewers to engage in a game of imagination. Each of them tries to put together images they do not see based on what they catch a glimpse of. “They eye-fucked her when she turned to write something on the blackboard and raised her arms, when the cut of her waist between blouse and the lower half of her sari was pronounced, and each boy imagined himself […] her lover” (Madhavan, 2009). Years go by and the narrator, a grown-up though still a virgin, finds himself all of a sudden with a naked woman (his co-worker) in his bed. The entire tone of the description changes. The desire disappears and the body is being seen as a functional machine, as a presence, as an object whose instruction manual mentions one objective usage: to help the narrator lose his virginity. Even more, the woman perceives herself as a body and only a body. “[She] was now stretched across his bed. Nacked. He didn`t know how she got there […] she didn`t really seem to be listening to what he was saying”. The sex scene which follows is, stylistically, as mechanical as the rest of the description. A cascade of gestures technically correct, but lacking any kind of affection or emotional involvement. The adjectives are almost absent and the text itself turns into porn. Aditya Sarkar permanently compares the image of a woman’s body as he imagined watching porn with what he sees. Now, the challenging question is how does Aditya Sarkar, as a school kid, instinctually a sense of eroticism which is completely lost in adulthood?! How can he be erotically imaginative in school and erotically not there as a 27 years old virgin?! Culturally, this transformation cannot elude the formal education our character is subjected to. Coming to Delhi for college, he embraces a cultural pattern, a way of seeing the body of a woman as a functional one. The instinctive sexual desires is replaced, culturally conditioned by the mechanics of eroticism. The end of the story is a veritable climax of this whole non-involvement attitude of the male character. After losing his virginity, after all a moment equally important for a man no matter which culture he evolves in, Adytia Sarkar kisses the girl on the “top of her head” and watches her leaving his apartment quietly.
“The Quilt”, by Parvati Sharma is an example of metaliterature. Two lesbians discuss the famous short story entitled “The Quilt”. Written by Ismat Chugtai, who was accused of blasphemy and dragged in court in 1944 for describing in her text scenes of homoeroticism, the text is a symbol of freedom of speech. Just by invoking the name of a well-known controversial Indian short story, Parvati Sharma makes a statement. The short story, though poorly written, is a parabola. The two feminine characters make love under the blanket and whenever the blanket is removed or about to be removed one of them makes the symbolic gesture of covering their bodies, although the setting of the story is a very private, quiet, intimate one. The dialogues are quite lame and the erotic scenes reveal too much, describe too much and offer too many visual, explicit clues for being erotic. But precisely in this far from a shy setting, this obsession of covering the bodies otherwise fully described is an indication of an almost political statement. “The Quilt” talks about a society which contaminates even the most secluded, private spaces with its taboos and prejudices.
Now, intuitively I dare guess the question of the reader hearing this type of text analysis. How orthodox, how professional can it be to interpret literature so… ideologically?! The European literary criticism owes so much to Harold Bloom, after all, who teaches us how wrong it is to look at a text through the glasses of ideology. I would start by saying that, unknowingly, Bloom himself, institutes a type of ideology. He rejects Feminism, Marxism and so on as literary tools but, precisely by doing this, he creates a new space for a new ideology, his new ideology, the ideology of Aesthetics. Our analysis works on the premise, which functions inside the field of imagology, that literature will always be, even when it denies it, a social phenomenon. This is why, when a woman body moves inside a fictional reality, it moves at the same time in the writer` mental paradigm which is, no doubt, culturally conditioned by a system of education, by a political, economic or social system. “No man is an island” and no character can float in a vacuum, even when we call it an aesthetic vacuum.
- Jabbar, Sonia (2009), “The Advocate”, “Electric Feather”, New Delhi, Tranquebar, pp. 79-101.
- Joshi, Ruchir (2009), “Repairing Brindavan. An Introduction”, “Electric Feather”, New Delhi, Tranquebar, pp. VII-XII.
- Madhavan, Meenakshi Reddy (2009), “The First Time”, “Electric Feather”, New Delhi, Tranquebar, pp. 158-171.
- Sharma, Parvati (2009), “The Quilt”, “Electric Feather”, New Delhi, Tranquebar, pp. 172-179.
- Vohra, Palomita (2009), “Tourists”, “Electric Feather”, New Delhi, Tranquebar, pp. 23-54.
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