Desire Decoded

During my childhood days in Pune, I would frequent a bookstore called Punjab Bookstore. Upon entering it, I would see a room with a shelf full of books by Bertrand Russell. Further inside, there was a shelf lined with books covered with brown paper, bearing titles such as The Sultan's Dream and Confessions of a Russian Princess. I stuck to Bertrand Russell, never touching the brown-papered books," said writer Farrukh Dhondy at the Little Theatre, NCPA, Mumbai, on Saturday, as part of a panel discussion on erotic fiction. Accompanying him on stage were author Kiran Nagarkar and Dr Faramerz Dabhoiwala, a senior fellow in history at Exeter College, Oxford, and a fellow of the Royal Historical Society. With the soaring popularity of books such as EL James' Fifty Shades of Grey and the Crossfire series by Sylvia Day, this panel discussion was perhaps needed to throw more light on erotic fiction as it is today.

Having penned the book The Origins of Sex: A History of the First Sexual Revolution, Dabhoiwala added a historical perspective to the meaning of erotic, distinguishing it from the obscene. "While the latter is designed explicitly to arouse, anything can become erotic as it is a matter of perception. For instance, a particular lighting can be erotic. In fact, in 17th century English literature, ships were used as metaphors for sexual intercourse," he pointed out.

What is, however, important in erotic fiction is the timing. "Lolita, which deals with a middle-aged professor's obsession with a 12-year-old, would probably not have been considered a classic, but as paedophilia, had it been published in recent times," remarked Dhondy.

In mainstream Indian literature, eroticism has been an important part of the story but not so much the story itself. Nagarkar, for one, emphasised that he doesn't write to titillate. "I have never included sex for the sake of it. Even in God's Little Soldier, I removed all the sex in the subsequent drafts as I felt that it was unnecessary. Of course, I made up for it in The Extras, where I even have a bride who is a nymphomaniac."

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