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Book Review: Blue: The Tranquebar Book of Erotic Stories From Sri Lanka edited by Ameena Hussein

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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.

The Venus Flytrap: Porcelain, Lately

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I’ve been buying blue.

Not the blues – not music or depression, both of which I have in abundance. I’ve been buying blue in a very specific way – for weeks now, every item of clothing I’ve purchased has been in that colour. I’ve been buying blue clothing as though, well, it was going out of style.

To be precise, the theme is, overwhelmingly, blue with white. Everywhere I turn to empty my wallet as though that would detox my heartsickness, I am drawn to the lacing of those two colours. The cornflower blue sundress cut in a decades-old style that flatters women cut soft like me, the deep-necked casual top in a particularly vivacious Prussian shade, the long-sleeved blouse reminiscent of a kebaya – all of them sieved through with white in floral, psychedelic and paisley prints. Then there’s the tube dress bought off the street on a Sunday I suddenly found myself in Pondy, the lingerie, the saree I chose for my birthday with its electric cobalt so unusual I almost couldn’t find a blouse (but I did, of course).

Sapphire spiked with snowflakes. The sea and its foam. A certain man’s eyes the moment they find yours. Pick your imagery, I don’t care – I may be a poet but I am as much a bird known for my plumage as I am for my song. I buy it as though the colours are in season, like fruit or fads, or umbrellas in the monsoon – though the truth is I am working to the demands of an internal meteorology alone. I buy it as though there will be enough somedays to wear it all.

Why am I doing this? Dressing as if to declare I am porcelain, lately.

I met someone who reads auras. Mine was pinkish on the day we met, but I generally seem to carry a grey one, according to him, which is all the things you might think it might mean. “Wear bright shades,” the aura-reader advised, not having yet been properly acquainted with my infamously kindergartener sense of colour. “It will make a difference.”

I know this to not be true. I wore purple to my grandmother’s funeral, because she had liked that saree. My nails are never anything but red. I have a weakness for yellow ochre and fuchsia. If there is a colour I have not worn, it isn’t visible to the human eye. But it’s like painting a papier-mâché globe; all that’s inside is a burst balloon.

And this is what makes me wonder if, somewhere, it is the ocean after all that I keep trying to recapture. I know now that there are people who will manipulate the grief of someone in mourning. I learnt this the only way one can learn things like this. Six weeks after the funeral to which I wore purple, I took my grief to the sea the way almost everyone does – in their own ways, their own seas, allegorical and actual – hoping to be washed clean of it, and got caught instead in a undercurrent that slammed me back ashore: stripped, seaclogged, vomiting salt.

Not everything is a metaphor. But some things reveal a pattern, fractal though it may be. If I seek to wear the sea, it is only because the coast has disappeared.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my column in the Zeitgeist supplement. Previous columns can be found here.