When she walked on stage at a recently concluded literature festival in Mumbai, all eyes turned to look at the author who was making her first public appearance. Standing tall in a bright pink polka-dotted saree, curly hair grazing her lean shoulders and a customary nose pin, Aranyani cut a picture of grace and confidence. Her collection of short stories, A Pleasant Kind Of Heavy And Other Erotic Stories, published earlier this year, was very well-received for its brazenness and was even hailed as a new wave of erotic writing in India, with Khushwant Singh calling her stories ‘more erotic than the Kamasutra’.
At the session, which delved into erotic literature in India, Aranyani began by stating that sex makes us uncomfortable. “As humans, I think it makes us uncomfortable to talk about the erotic so it’s natural to push it off to the side or talk about it in language that sanitises it. The erotic is uncomfortable because it pushes our boundaries, makes us confront who we are and what we desire at a level that can be alarming,” asserts the clinical psychologist, in an email interview later.
In a country where the idea of a woman’s sexuality is a repressed one, and where having desires is supposed to be the domain of men, her novel broke several stereotypes. The women in Aranyani’s short stories belonged to backgrounds as diverse as maid servants to students studying abroad to housewives and pregnant women, all with one thing in common. They were not submissive, unafraid to fulfill their fantasies and were in complete control of their desires; prompting curiosity about their generation — whether the stories were all fantasy or inspired by real life.
“I think it was a fair combination of the two: documentation, first person narratives, stories from people I know as well as my own imagination tied together to paint the nine portraits of the book that bring in different aspects of Indian women’s sexuality, spanning early adolescence, marriage and pregnancy, urban and less-urban backgrounds.”
Considering that any conversation revolving around sex in India is still treated in a manner best described as cloak-and-dagger, it was not surprising when Aranyani chose to go with a literary double. “I carried the pen name out of a wish for protection from the judgement from family and professionals who might be upset and critical about the explicit sexual content,” says the author.
Her decision, therefore, to come forth in public was an unexpected one. She explains that it was akin to having a maternal feeling, but for her book. “I like to make the analogy of a mother who gives her child up for adoption out of some kind of shame, that her family and colleagues will judge her. Then, when she sees her child walking alone in the world, she is taken over by maternal feeling and wants to embrace her child publicly regardless of the consequences.”
But how did her loved ones react to her revealing her identity? “Let’s say that everybody went a little further with the initial stand that they took: those who have been enthusiastic and supportive all along have been even more so and the naysayers are even more upset, hurt and angry than ever before, ” she states.
Some stories in A Pleasant Kind Of Heavy... overtly explore homosexuality, which prompts her to bring in the recent decision to criminalise the same. “It’s not just women’s sexuality that is repressed and the decision on IPC 377 shows that. I’m glad that several of my stories treat lesbian/gay encounters.”
The author maintains that she is against the increasing commodification of sex when she says, “I’m not too keen on watching objects, male and female, having sex. My interest is not solely in physical orgasm, which is the goal of pornography. I’m interested in all kinds of longings that get realised through sex and I try to provoke questions about what is really happening in the act of sex.”
Where years of indoctrination and social conditioning may prohibit women to act on their desire for sex, Aranyani ended her session at the literary festival by stating that she hoped the book would help women explore their own sexuality. “Becoming more comfortable with sex is a gradual process and at the heart of it is accepting ourselves and ideas about ourselves that are in exile.
It’s always a work in progress but the good news is that it can be pretty interesting to meet yourself... in bed.”