In this Sunday’s Books page are Kalpish Ratna’s review of The End of Illness, Freny Maneckshaw on The Householder, Karishma Attari on Wish You Were Here and in a earth-shatteringly radical move, a straight person reviews Close, Too Close: The Tranquebar Book of Queer Erotica.
That straight person being me. Voila, the review.
Rowan Pelling, who turned a society newsletter into the popular Erotic Review, was once asked the question that is among the most-repeated in literature: how does one distinguish pornography from erotica? This was her take on the subject: “Porn mags are produced to be thrown away. They are as ephemeral as the ejaculations of the men who read them. Erotica is made to be kept, treasured and referred to, time and time again.”
No matter which literary tradition you consider, the practice of writing about sexual pleasure explicitly can be traced back to faraway historical periods. Regardless of how blurry our understanding of Greece in seventh century BC, India in 200BC or Japan in the twelfth century may be, thanks to literature like Sappho’s lyrics, Kama Sutra and artwork like Japanese shunga, those interested can learn about sexual pleasure from those eras in graphic detail. The fact that these documents have survived, whether in fragments or intact, shows the veracity of Pelling’s definition. These are works that were indeed treasured and preserved. They couldn’t have survived otherwise.
But erotica need not be erotic. There are many who would find the famous wood cut print by the 19th-century Japanese artist Hokusai, showing a woman being pleasured by octopuses, disturbing rather than arousing. In the late 1990s, critic Nilanjana Roy was asked to read an anthology of Indian erotica and her conclusion was that it was “the least erotic book I have had the honour of reading.” In an effort to elevate it from smut to literature, erotica is often intellectualised, which is perhaps the most effective buzzkill. Ironically, this usually done to grant erotica legitimacy.
The challenge of keeping the genre titillating but intelligent is one that Tranquebar seems to have taken upon itself. Since 2009, it has brought outElectric Feather (edited by Ruchir Joshi), Slither: Carnal Prose (by UrmillaDeshpande), Blue: The Tranquebar Book Of Erotic Stories From Sri Lanka (edited by Ameena Hussein) and now Close, Too Close: The Tranquebar Book of Queer Erotica. Of these, Close, Too Close has perhaps the least overtly sensual of covers. Carry it with you on the train, read it in office or at the dining table, and no one would guess the racy content or its inclinations. There’s a mischievous quality to the illusion offered by the innocuous cover, but it’s also a reminder of our tendency to be tight-lipped about sexuality in general and alternative sexuality in particular.
Close, Too Close attempts to bring queer erotica to the mainstream Indian reading public. The stories aim to be satisfyingly raw, suitably exotic and literary. Few manage this complicated cocktail. Most of them falter at a basic, storytelling level. For instance, keeping track of whose limb is where (and doing what) proves to be a perplexing exercise in many stories. Phrases like “she incrementally geared down” aren’t the stuff of anyone’s fantasies and in “The Half Day”, the recipe for rajma is more tempting than the sex. Too many read like shrill confessionals or drunken boasts. Also, it’s inadvisable to read all of Close, Too Close at one go. Even LGBT sex can get monotonous.
The best stories in Close, Too Close are those that linger upon the idea of attraction and the tentative space we inhabit when we discover desire. “Soliloquy” and “Perfume” shows protagonists dealing with sexual longing in different ways. “All in the Game” is a deliciously playful tale.Without making a production of it, they explore the baggage that comes with being queer in India. The most refreshing aspect of Close, Too Close is that the stories feel like they’re tethered to our everyday reality. The settings — the bus, the shikara, the rented flat — are tantalisingly familiar. Its most fantastical aspect is the easy acceptance of queer people and desires. The volume also has two illustrated pieces, by Anirban Ghosh and Nilofer; both of which are smartly-drawn, pleasant to look at and far from titillating.
Considering our society’s problematic and confused relationship with homosexuality, the fact that Close, Too Close has been brought out by a mainstream publisher and is widely available makes it significant. In his foreword to the volume, journalist Vikram Doctor writes that this volume presents “an equal acceptance of different realities where queer and straight worlds meet.” The encounter isn’t always the most erotically charged, but it’s about time it happened.