Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay, author of the critically-acclaimed Bangla novel Sankhini (2006) is not a big fan of Bollywood tropes. Especially the one where intimacy between actors is depicted by panning the camera away from them, and focussing on a couple of flowers. “That’s not intimacy, that’s not sex,” she insists.
Bandopadhyay, often referred to as the “Elena Ferrante of India”, is one of the few Indian women authors in erotica who writes in a regional language, in this case the language being Bengali.
“Honestly speaking, I didn’t plan on writing erotica. My first novel Sankhini is an 800-page 375,000-word tome. And no, it’s not only about sex. When I was writing it, I wanted the story to be vivid, colourful, lively and detailed. So I treated the intimate scenes the same way,” Bandopadhyay says thoughtfully. “However, my editors, as well as the readers at the time, were very impressed by the intimate scenes that I described vividly. Sex does wonders for selling books,” she says with a laugh.
Many of Bandopadhyay’s Bengali novels have been translated into English and other languages, and have been published by some of the top publishing houses in the country. But while Bandyopadhyay had few women contemporaries at the time also writing damn good sex scenes in their own mother tongues and choosing linguistic loyalty over the commercially much more successful English writing, the smut scene today across languages is shaking up.
Traditionally, the erotica genre follows familiar tropes: traditionally good-looking protagonists, an eccentric but kind hero, a clueless but beautiful heroine, and a forbidden romance. But most stories written by male authors treat women characters like “flesh vases for dick flowers” as described by comedian Hannah Gadsby in her critically-acclaimed 2018 comedy performance Nanette.
Amrita Narayanan, the author of A Pleasant Kind of Heavy and Other Erotic Stories and editor of The Parrots Of Desire: 3,000 Years of Indian Erotica, says in an interview to The Indian Express, “When a man writes about a woman’s body, he generally clubs it under two binaries — either the dangers of the female body are highlighted, making it an unsafe site — or it is represented as something that can be violated or appropriated for mass consumption.”
But when a woman chooses to write erotica, it makes the invisible (women) bodies visible and locates private sexuality in a public space, says Narayanan. “Being the sole voice of her sexuality, it provides her with the agency to negotiate a space to articulate her desires and mull over the act long after it is over. It allows her to use words she wants to use to describe her body parts, her desires and ultimately the act itself without falling back on borrowed adjectives and verbs.”
The Female Gaze
Sayali Kedar, a Pune-based author who used to write for popular television shows like Crime Patrol, saw a great void when she was exploring writing erotica in Marathi. “The quintessential male gaze is everywhere. Every scene, character and dialogue I came across was about the female body viewed as an object of pleasure for the male,” she tells VICE. “Simply put, all books in this genre were created to make men horny. I wanted to do something better — I wanted to write for everyone who identifies as a woman.”
One of Kedar’s pet peeves is that men who write erotica tend to focus on the act, chasing the closure, but never on the intimacy. Women, on the other hand, says Kedar, give equal importance to emotions and feelings involved in sex.
Kedar has written Marathi books like Desperate Husband, Two Timing and Chitrakatha for Storytel, a popular audiobook and e-book streaming service.
With easy access to data and the tech boom in India, portals like Storytel and big brand names like Audible Suno have seen a dedicated fanbase who prefer to listen to books discreetly. Cheap mobile internet and smartphones have basically placed previously sensitive material like the erotica genre right in women's hands. This access to phones and data has been a gamechanger for India at large, but especially for the 200 million women in the country who’re illiterate, it also means they can now finally access information, build networks, and participate in spaces they were once absent from. Consuming smut in discreet ways has also been helped by the advent of smart speakers, streaming-books-on-demand (SBOD) services and podcasts.
Sai Tambe, a publisher at Storytel, claims that erotica in regional languages, especially in Hindi, Marathi and Bengali, has been garnering a lot of interest in the users. For example, Kedar has been one of the best-selling authors on the platform, across languages and genres since 2020. The ease of using a mobile phone to listen to a story on the go while maintaining a level of privacy are key to attracting readers and listeners to platforms like Storytel, Pratilipi and Audible, among others.
Tambe says that she noticed a clear lack of erotica in regional languages, especially Marathi, when she was researching the subject as a publisher. “Apart from the railway station variety, one could hardly find any good reading material in this genre. That’s when we decided to support writers, especially women, who write erotica,” she says.
There’s also something about writing in one’s own language for one’s own people. For example, Bandyopadhyay says that when she writes in Bengali she feels closer to her characters. Even though she speaks flawless English, she shyly says that she can only do justice to her story when she writes in Bengali. “When one writes in one’s mother tongue, the story just flows so beautifully. I’d not have been able to do justice to my protagonists otherwise,” she says.
However, writing about sex and the human anatomy in a regional language can be challenging. And the reason for that, says Kedar, is pop culture.
“When I want to describe a scene about two people kissing, I instantly think of the English word ‘kiss’ in my head. But if I were to translate it into Marathi and use the word chumban, it would just sound crass and weird,” she explains. Desire can be deeply complex to explain and decipher, with nuances and subtleties making it so. Language, with its semantics and syntax, is quite the same.
Bandyopadhyay also faces the same issue as Kedar. “If the character I’m writing about is a well-educated person, I intentionally use English words to describe lust or sex or passion. But if my character is uneducated, or comes from a rural background, like in my novel Ghat, then I use a descriptive style to explain the meaning and feelings, rather than use English words. This is a very tricky part, because I don’t want my characters to sound ashleel (vulgar). That’s why I use allegories and metaphors to explain the feelings of my character in Bengali as faithfully as I can.”
English pop cultural references have not only seeped into the Indian regional lexicon, but have also started to affect the locations where these stories are set.
Kedar gives the example of the cheesy Hollywood trope where a rich and bored housewife lusts after the younger, hotter pool boy. But this is a scenario, insists Kedar, that will not resonate in India at all.
“I’ve read many eroticas and seen numerous movies where people are shown having sex with package delivery persons and hooking up in public bathrooms. Public display of affection is a very touchy subject in India, and it would never sit well with my readers if my characters are shown doing this. So romantic sexcapades are limited to hotels, homes and moon-lit beaches in my stories,” she says. “Because in reality, we’d never dream of having sex in secluded places for the fear of being robbed or getting arrested by the police!”
Handling the Trolls
Women authors who write erotica in India face a certain amount of backlash and resistance, as do women erotica writers everywhere.
Handling social media presence and maintaining your workplace avatar is a tough job in itself. That’s why popular Tamil erotica writer who goes by the pseudonym Aranyani has always maintained two distinct identities. The author who wrote A Pleasant Kind of Heavy is yet to break her social media silence.
Kedar says, “When I started promoting my work on social media, I encountered lots of trolls — and surprisingly enough, most of them were people from my industry or acquaintances.” She recalls an unsettling interaction she had with a former colleague, who used to be an assistant director on a TV show she had worked on. “This younger guy slid into my DMs on Instagram and started telling me that I was wasting my time with ‘such things’. He told me that since I am a married Marathi mulgi (girl), I should not focus my energy on these things and instead focus on cooking and housekeeping!”
Kedar added that she was pretty distrubed by the behaviour or another male colleague, whom she looked up to as a role model. “This gentleman started asking me again and again whether my sex life was like that of my characters. He kept asking me about which character I resemble the most. It was all pretty shocking and uncomfortable.”
She says this was one of the reasons why she moved to a community-based platform Parva, where she could have more control over who has access to her content.
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