In the title of her introduction to Blue: The Tranquebar Book of Erotic Stories From Sri Lanka, editor Ameena Hussein references the Isurumuniya Lovers, a 6th century stone carving portraying a woman sitting on the lap of a man, her hand raised in a gesture that could be read as one of refusal, demureness or even blessing. The couple is not locked in embrace, gazing at or holding one another in any recognizably participatory erotic act. Instead, their faces are turned forward – the observer gets a better view of them than they do each other. Although left unexplored in the introduction, their posture serves as a perfect presentation of the question, “What is erotica?” The eye of the beholder, the eye of each beholder, differs.
The twelve stories in this slim collection, the first English-language publication of its kind from Sri Lanka, won’t necessarily appeal to a diverse range of beholders, but together they achieve a narrative coherence that for an anthology comprised mostly of debut and pseudonymous authors is surprisingly successful.
The majority of these stories are lightweight, not enough to get the pulse really racing, but pleasant tidbits nonetheless. The book opens with Sam Perera’s “The Proposal”, which – while guilty of containing an unfortunate reference to a male organ being slurped “like a string of spaghetti” and the almost unforgivable howler, “as the tip of my iceberg touches her volcano” – is striking in its sheer urbaneness. Colombo could be any city at all, not necessarily the capital of a nation recovering from war with itself. This is a smart move for erotica, which often operates at the remove of fantasy, and the rest of the collection retains this convivial note. When we encounter “the war that’s waged in our heads as our bodies seek peace” in Natalie Soysa’s “Bi-Cycle” later on, it rings as a line not of sobering but of understated acknowledgment.
But the Sri Lanka of tourists? Twice, yes. Of the two stories set in hotels, the sexier one is “Room 1617” by Marti, one of no less than four lesbian-themed pieces in the book. By contrast, only Tariq Solomon’s “Bookworm” explores male homosexual desire. Some diversity in this regard would have been refreshing, more so because “Bookworm” (like Nazeeya Faarooq’s “No” and Sam Perera’s “Hot Date”) muddles the lines of consent somewhat. While transgression is undoubtedly titillating, nothing challenges stereotypes and social constraints quite like a sense of agency.
The book’s two most outstanding stories come from the editor and Shehan Karunatilaka of Chinaman fame. In Ameena Hussein’s “Undercover”, a married and robed Muslim woman finds her sexual frustrations assuaged by the anonymous hands of a man who sits beside her at the cinema. Day after day, she returns to be pleasured, and gradually learns how to take control of the fulfillment of her desires. Shehan Karunatilaka’s “Veysee” offers, through a protagonist who may be closer to the book’s core audience than any of the others (a horny, heterosexual male), a story that is complex in what it says about human need and human greed. While it has been suggested that literary erotica (as opposed to visual erotica) caters largely to female readers, there is something more earnestly convincingly about Karunatilaka’s story than the others that offers a contradictory position. Speckled through the book are other pieces memorable for the right reasons: for an author born in the 1940’s, Tariq Solomon’s “Bus Stop”, when it eventually gets down to the actual sex, has a frankness that laughs at our rebellions as compared to generations past, and Marini Fernando’s “The Lava Lamp” contains an elegant but not overwrought visual of mango leaves in silhouette in a space of lovemaking.
Blue is reprinted in India a year after its original Sri Lankan publication by Perera Hussein Publishing House. Its first edition had been supplemented by black and white photography in lieu of story dividers – a gratuity which was dropped in this market. Not having seen these images, it is difficult to venture as to whether this was a wise idea, but wiser still would have been the categorical omission of all five poems included in the collection. One is at a loss for words when trying to understand their presence in this book. A more perfect summary cannot be found anywhere other than in the poems themselves; to quote from the lines of Layla’s “Sex in the Hood”: “Poetry and originality? / Zilch! / What the fuck were you thinking?”
Hussein’s assertion that Blue is “a milestone in Sri Lankan writing in English” is not to be dismissed on the basis of whether or not these stories work on the level of arousal (which is ultimately an entirely subjective understanding). More interestingly, this collection was culled from only thirty-five submissions. If the dozen stories that made the cut from so small a pool are of this standard – and it must be noted that aside from Karunatilaka and Hussein herself, all of the writers in this book are new voices – then there is much to look forward to in the literature yet to come from the island.
An edited version appeared in today’s The Sunday Guardian.