Between the sheets

According to the eloquent introduction by the editor Ruchir Joshi, several writers turned down the offer to contribute to this intriguing anthology. Perhaps they mistook erotica for pornography and feared the company they might end up in. But the company isn’t bad, although some of the contributors, such as Samit Basu, supply us with graphic details that I suspect many readers would live happily without: on the other hand Basu’s steaming story ‘The Wedding Night Or, Bachelor’s Boudoir’ is very funny and possibly written more for comic than sensual effect.

Rather than being a showcase for erotic masterpieces, this anthology is a creative experiment. It is an answer to the question: what would you get if you asked a number of the most interesting, up and coming literary personalities in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, plus the diaspora, for their best erotic stories? The result is instructive.

So what we have inside these purple covers is a highly unpredictable medium-hot masala with ingredients ranging from heterosexual to homosexual, there’s masturbation and Internet pornography and some quite asexual pieces of a more intellectual nature. Stories can be set anywhere in the world — from Nizamuddin East to Karachi and Paris to LA, from a cupboard to the backseat of an old Fiat.
Stylistically the content spans the realistic and perhaps even autobiographical as well as the wildly surreal, there are poetic musings and also light parody, and there’s even the odd essay annotated with weird footnotes.

‘Swimming Pool’ is a neat excerpt from Rana Dasgupta’s recent novel Solo; in the slightly melancholic ‘The Delicate Predicament of Eunice de Silva’, Tishani Doshi lets her protagonist use a mobile phone and text messaging to talk dirty in a ladies coupe; furthermore there’s a bleakly symbolical piece, ‘Missing Person Last Seen’ by poet Jeet Thayil, about a tomboyish ‘feminist power tart’ in New York City who sells 20 dollars worth of sex to a drug-addicted journalist in the aftermath of the 9/11-attacks, and at the end of the book we get to read ‘Arles’, a possibly inter-textual story from the editor himself.

The better reads are those stories written without post-modern gimmickry and arty attitudes, where the author simply uses the traditional short story format to explore the subject of eroticism from intriguing angles. To mention one very good example, ‘Heavenly Ornaments’ by Sheba Karim is a story in which a girl visiting her relatives finds a hardcover book with the same title in a bedroom dresser and starts reading about various causes of major impurity, a somewhat arcane subject which turns out to be curiously exciting.

Sonia Jabbar’s story ‘The Advocate’ is another such attention-grabbing piece. In his native place in UP, Sharmaji Advocate is a great man. His hair goes through a two-stage dyeing process which ensures a natural look; at night in his chambers he treats other sahibs of the small town to tandoori chicken and Aristocrat whisky, then regales them with stories of how he once travelled by bullock cart to Lucknow to gift a rose to a great singer.
Now and then Sharmaji also gets his flute played on by mistresses, prostitutes and even a six-foot hijra. But then one night, in a tragicomedy of errors, he gets more than he bargained for.

Not all of the ‘stories’ in this book would count as short stories (in the classical sense), which is worth mentioning in case the reader expects epiphanies. The predominant trend among the writers appears to be the ‘slice of life’ approach to fiction — that is, writing around the notion of eroticism from whichever point of view the writer has chosen to take, without necessarily any special idea holding the piece together. On the other hand, despite their apparent plotlessness, many pieces have strong images that might stay with the reader — such as the man in Rana Dasgupta’s excerpt who appears to ejaculate (only water though) through his ear, or a simple sentence like this (from Ruchir Joshi’s piece): “After she leaves, he makes another cup of tea and waits for the erection to go.”

It should also be mentioned that the introduction itself, titled ‘Repairing Brindavan’, is memorable and provides a lot of food for thought — so do study it meticulously and refer to it as a valuable guide as you enter the worlds within this anthology.
In conclusion, Electric Feather is neither high poetry nor low pornography, but something in between. Maybe that is what counts as erotica, a hitherto not extensively explored world in contemporary Indian fiction, which is why this collection is worth buying. And those looking for just titillation will get sufficient paisa vasool too.

But can you have this book in your bookshelf when your parents/children/colleagues visit your room? Yes, the cover and title is discreetly elegant. Are there any feathers in it? No, but it is quite hairy. What about the ‘electric’ part then? Well, you might need to change batteries in your torch frequently if you are reading it surreptitiously at night.

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