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Tasting forbidden fruit

Rrishi Raote  |  New Delhi 

Documentary filmmaker and novelist Ruchir Joshi has assembled perhaps the first collection of erotic fiction in Indian English. He tells Rrishi Raote what motivated him.

Caught between “the inexorable bulldozers of mostly male-driven hard porn” and “people setting fire to the forest from inside” (that is, Hindu Talibanisation), our inner Brindavan, writes Ruchir Joshi, is being subjected to a “double rape”. Brindavan, of course, is the forest on the Yamuna riverbank where Krishna romanced Radha and the gopis.

For this book, partly in defiance and partly for pleasure, Joshi, a writer and documentary filmmaker, has put together a collection of new erotic writings in English by subcontinental authors. Some are familiar names here (Samit Basu, Rana Dasgupta, Kamila Shamsie, Jeet Thayil), others not so well known. The 13 stories occupy the whole spectrum from the graphic to the sensual, by way of the faintly dangerous. One (Abeer Hoque’s) even manages to be outright funny. It’s a mixed lot, in terms of quality no less than content.

Ruchir Joshi spoke to Business Standard over the phone.

What, to you, is the difference between erotica and pornography?
I’ve been asked this question each time, and each time I try to give a different answer. Pornography is something you taste and it’s got one taste. Erotica has got layers of taste — each time you read it you get something new out of it. I would even say it was art.

Did it take some explaining on your part before the authors you chose for this collection grasped what you were looking for?
No. I chose the authors because they were people who didn’t need to be told the difference [between erotica and pornography].

How did you pick your authors?

I knew them, met them, some came recommended. It wasn’t like I went out looking for South Asian representation — it was serendipity. We asked a wide variety of people. To well-known writers, we said we will use whatever you send in. We asked newer writers to send in their stuff on speculation. We found a couple of people as we were locking the book — Niven Govinden and Parvati Sharma.

How hands-on did you have to be as editor?
[I had to decide] if a story fits, doesn’t fit, what sequence does it go in, does it go with the book... You interact with whatever’s on the table. I didn’t have to be too hands-on in changing the stories.

Which are some memorable works of erotica that you have read?
I loved the classic Anaïs Nin stuff. Then there’s chunks, there’s not a whole work of erotica — passages in Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Milan Kundera, Angela Carter, passages that are infused with eros. Nights at the Circus by Angela Carter, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting and even The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Kundera — the sex is again organically linked with the story.

Your introduction is titled “Repairing Brindavan”. What is it you would like to repair?
Despite the idea of India being a very repressed society, people have deep memories of erotic freedom, erotic exchange, and it’s completely connected to various texts — Geet Govind, Laila Majnu... There are many currents of erotic literature that we carry within us. They have been buried by Victorian prudishness and crass commercialism — nipples under a wet shirt, thigh with a jhatka. They are alive in people’s minds and memories, it’s that part of the psyche that I’m interested in awakening.

You use a nice phrase, “erotics of discovery”, to describe the bond between writer and reader, comparing them to lovers. Could you say some more about that?
I think if you look at what is erotica — something that excites you and the other person when he sees that in you... There is an imaginary reader for every writer. The writer is trying to seduce and entrance. The reader is aware that, although he or she [the writer] doesn’t know who I am, he or she is trying to entrap me. It is similar to the game of sexual and erotic seduction — there is a sense of surprise, pleasure and danger.

How does the “erotics of discovery” work in the context of your work as a documentary maker, where there isn’t one writer and one reader?
When you make a documentary, you’re looking again at an imaginary audience. [Although documentaries are mostly watched on DVD at home] When I’m making films I’m thinking of people watching the film together, in a darkened auditorium, in a group. So then that is my addressee and I have to catch your attention, move you, excite you, make you laugh. I try to make audiovisual essays. I also do takeoffs — meditations and diversions. It’s not all talking heads.

Clearly there’s room for more erotic writing in English in India. Do you have any plans for further volumes like this one?
I’m not sure I want to be slotted as Mr Erotica. I’m working on my second novel, and a couple of non-fiction things.

Tell us about your upcoming novel.
It is set in Calcutta in the Second World War and hopefully it will be done soon. That’s all I can say about it now.

Do you think that having worked on this collection, and written a story for it, will influence your own work in any way?
Next time I write an erotic scene or passage in my book I will have processed all these other ways of writing about lovemaking and desire.

Edited by: Ruchir Joshi
Publisher: Tranquebar
pages: xii + 204
Price: Rs 395

First Published: Sat, September 26 2009. 00:10 IST