Tag Archives: stories

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.

A Story In Flycatcher: A Journal of Native Imagination

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I think every story that finds its way into the world has at least four arrivals. Its arrival in the author’s mind/heart/vision. Its arrival on the page or screen, in completed form. Its arrival — and this can take a long time, as it did for this story — in a publication. And then its arrival in the mind/heart/vision of the reader. “Nine Postcards From The Pondicherry Border” took a long time to find its home in the world, but I am glad that it is with the wonderful new Flycatcher: A Journal of Native Imagination.

Book Review: Apradhini: Women Without Men by Shivani (trans. Ira Pande)

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In the alluringly subheaded Apradhini: Women Without Men, the late Hindi writer Shivani turns a spare and elegant eye towards the lives of women on the fringes of their societies: prisoners and mendicants, domestic helpers and viragos, those whose existences are rarely registered as anything other than pitiable ciphers or outright contradictions. Shivani, however, seeks them in more liminal spaces, quite successfully avoiding the tropes that usually jaundice narratives of subalternity. She seeks them, most of all, in the liminal space of conversation: of what one woman will say to another when no one else is around.

It’s necessary to mention upfront an issue that does the book a disservice, however. We understand, if only from a brief note somewhere on the back cover, that this collection of sixteen sketches is a mix of non-fiction and fiction. One surmises upon reading that the book’s final section, of three pieces, contains the short stories, if only because of a detectable nuance in tone. But no indication is given otherwise as to which category any given piece falls into. This is a glaring oversight, doing justice to neither the author who compiled or created these stories nor the women whose lives they are. To deny credit to the former for works of the imagination is less grave, however, than to deny the latter the basic dignity of being read as a person and not a character.

This begs the question of whether one must approach the reading of what is presented as fact and what is presented as fiction differently. The succinct answer is yes – good literature will illumine the world no matter which medium it appears in, but to pass off the imagined as the experienced is an act of questionable integrity. The decision of Shivani’s estate, translator (her daughter Ira Pande) or publisher to make no distinction between works of fiction and non-fiction is a pity, casting unnecessary confusion over a book of tremendous strength and sensitivity.

The women we meet in these pages, these eponymous women without men, would have suffered at the hands at a writer concerned with sensationalism or self-interest. They could very easily have been rendered one-dimensionally as superficial objects of pop or pulp, driven by their sexuality and selfishness. But Shivani etches them so delicately that even the most lurid of their stories is full of empathy and nuance. We meet several of them behind bars, most often for murders. A few, like alms-seeking travellers Alakh Mai and Rajula, live without address. “There is no jail on earth that can shackle a free spirit and no spirit so free that its feet cannot be bound in chains we cannot see,” writes the author, and this line underscores the spirit of the collection on the whole. Unsentimental yet compassionate and peppered with enjoyable, slightly humourous moments without becoming tasteless, Apradhini’s most victorious effect is that it assigns such importance to the vagaries of fate – how arbitrary it is, in the final reckoning, that one is only someone who reads about such lives, and not a person whose life such is.

And not, for instance, the deeply sensual Muggi, who left a trail of fourteen conned husbands behind her before falling in love with the fifteenth and who eats terracotta to assuage her sadness. Or Janaki, who helps her brother-in-law murder her husband as he sleeps in the same room with their children. Or Alakh Mai, a child-bride who pushed a buffalo, her husband and his mother over a ravine before turning to the spiritual life, the only option available to her. Or Deshpat, who enjoyed the power of being a gangster moll till the love of one piece of gold ruined her life. In these lightly-etched but strikingly powerful vignettes, we feel intimately connected to their lives, and appreciative of their agency – not, as would have been the case with a more emotionally manipulative author, feeling badly for or towards them.

There are, however, a few pieces that miss the mark. The first is “Ama”. a recollection of the author’s own mother; in this instance, the subject seems to cut too close to the bone and thus comes across as slightly too maudlin. But the more notable failure is that of the three pieces that consist of the book’s final section and are most likely to be fiction, two – “Shibi” and “Dhuan” – are both about high class courtesans who fall from grace. This line of storytelling carries far too many shades of regressive, parochial cautionary tales on female immorality – a big disappointment in an otherwise obviously feminist collection.

Thankfully, the book closes on a less judgmental and far happier note: “Tope”. Ironically, one of the book’s most notable figures is hardly a woman without men – the flamboyant and excitable Christina Victoria Thomas rabble-rouses right from “the historic time when she really spewed fire and brimstone” all the way into old age. Fiction or non-fiction, heroine or harridan, we could always do with more women like her.

An edited version appeared in today’s Hindustan Times.

A Story In Curbside Splendor

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As threatened, here is “Dashboard Confessional”, a short story about auto drivers, published in the very appropriately named Curbside Splendor.

I also recently had a micro-story published in One Forty Fiction, which you can read here.

And finally (for now), “Cassandra’s Ghazal”, a poem which was published earlier this year in Clementine, was picked by VerseDaily as their weekly feature.