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The love and sex of Modern Indian Erotica

In a patriarchal society, how do we reclaim the power of desire?


Tracing three thousand years of Indian Erotica, Amrita Narayanan gives us a comprehensive insight into the historical presence of sex in our society in her book ‘Parrots of Desire’. It surprises us that a society that has witnessed a variety of forms of erotica still remains orthodox, strictly heterosexual, and patriarchial even in the modern age. When we talk about erotica, it is impossible to not talk about desire because the roots of erotic literature lie in the expression and affirmation of one’s desire. 


In the introduction to ‘Parrots of Desire’, Amrita Narayanan ruminates on two approaches to erotica in South Asia. One is the literary approach of ‘romantics’ who see erotica as life-affirming and an integral element that balances an individual's life. It is this approach that modern erotica writers adopt. However, because South Asian society is deeply patriarchal and allows space for expressing desire and sexuality, the ‘romantics’ have had to adopt different forms of aesthetics to write about pleasure.


On the other hand, the traditional view is similar to the pleasure principle that Sigmund Freud talks about in his psychoanalytic studies. It says that the pleasure principle must be kept in check and should not overpower the working principle of life. This is similar to the traditional approach, which sees the erotic as a threat and interference in life and an evil that must be suppressed. For centuries, the right to pleasure and desire has only been exercised by dominant groups. The conventional understanding falls within a strictly monogamous heterosexual marriage that works on patriarchial principles. In such a framework, only male desire is acknowledged and the agency of control in a sexual relationship vests in the husband. Female sexuality and desire are suppressed to the extent that it becomes a taboo subject in South Asian households. This is one of the reasons there is a scarcity of erotica written by women and for women.

 

 Amrita Narayanan, author of ‘The Parrots of Desire: 3,000 Years of Indian Erotica’


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Tracing the history of erotic literature in ancient India, Amrita Narayanan starts the timeline of erotica from 200 BCE, which saw an upsurge in the expression of erotica through different literary forms. The medieval period saw the birth of works such as the Kama Sutra and writers such as Kalidasa, Bhartihari, and Tamil Sangam Poets. Another example is Bhakti Poets, whose poetry forms an intersection between erotic love and divine love. Over different periods, erotica has found its expression through different mediums. The medium can be divine, human, natural, or even supernatural. It has also been expressed through different art forms such as sculptures, photographs, films, and paintings. Different literary movements promoted a liberal outlook towards desire and its expression; a few were Urdu literature writers. 

 

The Progressive Writers’ Movement of 1935 gave us writers like Ismat Chugtai and Saadat Hasan Manto, whose stories are famous for representing desire. Ismat Chugtai’s story ‘Lihaaf’ shot to fame as Chugtai became the first woman to be brought to court to have written a story about sex between two women. Manto was also attacked for writing about sex workers and making his stories adjacent to what we would call pornography. 


Although, there is a distinction between how we understand pornography and erotica.

 

Erotica is seen as the superior, more civilised, humane, and complex form of representation of human desires. In erotica, it is not only the body that is the locus of desire, but all other factors influencing the mind and body, the context, and the intricacies of a sexual encounter are also explored. The distinction between erotica and pornography mainly questions consent, ethics, and agency. Who is telling the story, with whom does the agency of narration reside and who is the subject? 


An ethical dilemma arises in the distinction between erotica and pornography. So much so that the editors of the ‘Encyclopedia of Erotic Literature’ went about winnowing the works immersed in the conflict between erotica and pornography. About the two terms, they say, “The distinction between the erotic and the pornographic depends on arguments and stereotypes that are fundamentally subjective and that are psychological, ethical, feminist, or aesthetic in nature.” 


Balli Kaur Jaswal’s ‘Erotic Stories of Punjabi Widows’ is a brilliant response to the question of agency and who writes erotica. We have seen erotica dominated by heterosexual men who become representatives for others. The representation of desire can only be true when the authorial power is in the hands of those whose experiences are close to the subjects. Erotica, exclusively written by men, creates a conversative space that lacks representation and becomes hackneyed and stereotypical. Such a canon ends in a widely approved popular imagination of erotica that harms individual expression and subjectivities.

 

 Balli Kaur Jaswal, author of ‘Erotic Stories For Punjabi Widows’


In the Indian tradition of erotica, there is a huge lacuna of writings by women and queer communities. Jaswal gives this erotic agency and the right to represent a section of society that has been on the fringes for hundreds of years: widows. In her work, the widows write erotic stories and express their feelings, desire, and sexual memoirs. They claim their desires and defy the notions of abnegations and purity they are inflicted and pressured with. When they find the safe space to write and claim these stories, they can undo the dehumanisation they have been subjected to for years.

 

Nikki, seeking a job, stumbles upon a position where she has to teach a bunch of Punjabi widows how to teach creative writing. Later, it dawns upon her that many don’t even know how to write. But, they are keen on telling stories and Sheena, who is also a widow and knows how to write, helps them by writing their stories down. Gradually, the widows have fascinating erotic tales to offer and affirm that their lives are not devoid of gossip about desires and imagining fantasies.

 

Jaswal has intricately structured this frame narrative, as through the genre of a novel, she provides the context of where erotic stories come from. The question of agency and who is scripting erotic stories mark the thin line between pornography and erotica. By introducing Punjabi widows who are writing these stories, the power to control, direct and redirect is solely vested within the feminine circle of Punjabi widows. Since widowhood is associated with the abnegation of all worldly pleasures and desires, these narratives create a space for an alternate and much-needed perspective.


Modern writers are thus claiming the erotic canon, and stories of the subaltern groups are finally finding their voices. The hegemonic power relations of society prevent individual subjectivities and micronarratives from exercising their own agency. 


Desire is political, and modern Indian erotica is starting to make a space where aesthetics and agency can co-exist. 


South Asian Today is an independent media company committed to amplifying South Asian writers and artists. If you like our work, please become a member or buy us a coffee here. Your support enables us to keep our journalism open for all and publish South Asian writers. Please support us by becoming a member and helping us remain free of a paywall. It starts at just $5/month.

About the author

Arifa Banu is a recent Master's graduate in English Literature from Jawaharlal Nehru University. She is a freelance writer, editor, and translator and has written several research papers on post-colonialism, feminism, and Indian Literature. Instagram | @arifa_banu_


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