Erotica out of South Asia, or South Asian erotica? The two are certainly different categories: and one of the nice things about Electric Feather is that it coquettishly skirts the labeling. Its stories are both culturally contextual and culturally irrelevant – and that is as good erotica should be: a dance between fantasy and the familiar.
Fittingly, then, the collection opens with that staple of the Indian erotic imagination – the wedding night. But it isn’t newlyweds securing their “official penetration permit” who romp through Samit Basu’s story – in fact, we hardly meet them at all. Most of the stories remain quite close to home in that regard – for instance, Sonia Jabbar’s “The Advocate” deals with communal tensions and the allure of the other, but in perhaps to political a way to incite pleasure. Sheba Karim’s “Heavenly Ornaments” is powerful; while it deals with the typical setting of women within a patriarchal home, it is subversive – and the subversive always carries the potential to excite.
The theme of the familiar and the fantastic continues in Electric Feather’s best story, Paromita Vohra’s deliciously delivered “Tourists”. Here, the perfectly ordinary Paolomi and a Bollywood star find themselves transported and time-warped to a lush holiday destination in 1977, where they fall into a sweet and steamy liaison. Vohra clearly writes for the female reader, with a deeply knowing sensuality – instantly recognizable and very rewarding.
Joshi’s own “Arles” is also straightforwardly hot, with surprisingly lyrical turns: “She moves his hand away from his penis, holding it herself now and moving the point of its arch – under the jaw, then on to her long neck, and then touching it to her earlobe, unseeing, as if putting on an earring without a mirror”. Deconstructionism and desire meet in Parvati Sharma’s “The Quilt”, a cute and clever nod to the written word as sex toy: the women make love while discussing Ismat Chugtai.
Niven Govinden’s “The Cat” and Rana Dasgupta’s “Swimming Pool” are both edgy pieces, and bold editorial choices. Govinden’s story of lovers in Amsterdam has violence, a hint of bestiality, and more; Dasgupta’s novel excerpt carries similar strains of contemporary hipness. They are inclusions which give the anthology a well-rounded feel: an admission that sex is never just about bodies and arousal, that it is complicated, cerebral, perverse and pervasive.
Jeet Thayil’s “Missing Person Last Seen” might be regarded as sexy in the way that New York City, where the story is set, is regarded as sexy, in its aesthetic sensibility, but the angst of its characters is anything but. Kamila Shamsie’s “Love’s Sunset” plays with poetic metaphor quite beautifully – but ultimately sticks to too cloyingly predictable a romantic storyline to stir the senses. Abeer Hoque’s “Confessions”, the collection’s only essay, disappointed only because a voice this forthcoming and engaging could write terrific erotica, but for some reason settled instead for a brief sketch. In a post-blogosphere world, the mere insinuation of autobiography alone shouldn’t be enough to titillate.
It’s interesting then that two authors whose previous works have been noted for their sensuality and/or sexuality, Tishani Doshi and Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan, both surprise us with new terrain: non-confessional stories about inexperience. In Madhavan’s story, a 27-year old man loses his virginity, courtesy of a colleague. In Doshi’s, a matronly woman in her first relationship pleasures herself on a train, text messaging her married lover through the night.
Electric Feather has its ups and downs, but this is also its strength: it is a nice mix of the hardcore and the highbrow. The erotic is an intensely subjective thing, and there seems to be enough here to tickle most (but not all) fancies. But above all, there is aplenty here for the reader keen on some good, light literature from the subcontinent.
An edited version appeared in today’s The New Sunday Express.