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Indian sex writers are too embarrassed to write well. Unlike good sex, they lack passion

In 'Why Don't You Write Something I Might Read?', Suresh Menon says Indian sex writing evokes either laughter or pity.

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Whenever the discussion veers around to the inability of Indian novelists to write convincingly and unselfconsciously about sex, there is much tsk-tsking. Someone invariably points out that this is a comedown for a people who gave the world the Kamasutra. But have you read the Kamasutra? It is neither erotic nor pornographic, but a set of clinical instructions of the kind that might be seen in an instructions manual that accompanies a juice-maker (‘Take A and push it into B, turn counterclockwise and switch on the apparatus.’).

Where the human body is concerned, there are only so many ways you can take A and move it towards B; everything else is window dressing. And some of the greatest writers in the world have given us some of the most pathetic window dressings imaginable.

When sex is written badly, one of two or both reactions is guaranteed. Laughter or pity. I have always found the ‘butting of the haunches’ passage in D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover hilarious. Lawrence expects us to read this with a straight face: ‘The butting of his haunches seemed ridiculous to her and the sort of anxiety of his penis, come to its little evacuating crisis seemed farcical. Yes, this was love, this ridiculous bouncing of the buttocks & wilting of the poor insignificant, moist little penis’. If he were to write that today—when there is a Bad Sex Award which celebrates ‘poorly written, redundant or crude passages of a sexual nature’—he might have won a Lifetime Achievement Award. As it is, Melvyn Bragg, Tom Wolfe, Norman Mailer, Sebastian Faulks have already won the Bad Sex award while Márquez, Rushdie, Updike, Roth have been on the short list. The award, established by UK’s Literary Review, might be literature’s least coveted, but it must help sales in the same way a really terrible movie draws crowds—people are always curious to know just how badly one can do these things.

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Manil Suri, who has won the award, is a Mumbai-born professor of mathematics in Maryland, USA. A few years ago, he was a delightful dinner companion of mine who spoke about his two fields with a rare intelligence. It may have been the mathematics that influenced the climactic passage in The City of Devi that won the award: ‘Surely supernovas explode that instant, somewhere, in some galaxy. The hut vanishes, and with it the sea and the sands—only Karun’s body, locked with mine, remains. We streak like superheroes past suns and solar systems, we dive through shoals of quarks and atomic nuclei. In celebration of our breakthrough fourth star, statisticians the world over rejoice.’

While picking up his award, Suri’s publisher said, ‘Take The City of Devi home to bed with you tonight and discover sex scenes that the Times Literary Supplement praised as “unfettered, quirky, beautiful, tragic and wildly experimental”, written by an author who, according to the Wall Street Journal, “captures the insecurity, the curiosity and even the comedy of those vulnerable moments”.’

While bad sex writing is easily recognised (and is more common), nobody has satisfactorily defined what good sex writing is. In her book The Joy of Writing Sex, the novelist Elizabeth Benedict begins with four ‘organizing principles’ that serve as her guide: A good sex scene is not always about good sex, but is about good writing. It should always connect with the larger concerns of the work. The needs, histories and impulses of the characters should drive the scene. And, the relationship the characters have to one another should exert more influence on the writing than any anatomical details.

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One would imagine that bad sex writing is the prerogative of novelists, but some years ago, the former British Prime Minister Tony Blair was nominated for a passage in his autobiography!

Here’s his purple passage about the night spent with his wife Cherie following the news of the Labour leader John Smith’s sudden death. ‘That night she cradled me in her arms and
soothed me; told me what I needed to be told; strengthened me. On that night of 12 May 1994, I needed that love Cherie gave me, selfishly. I devoured it to give me strength. I was an animal following my instinct.’

When Norman Mailer won posthumously (showing that where the award was concerned, you can hide but you cannot run) for his final novel, what swayed the judges was his description of the male organ as a ‘coil of excrement’. It must have been a tough year, for Mailer had to beat this from Ali Smith: ‘We were blades, were a knife that could cut through myth, were two knives thrown by a magician … we were the tail of a fish, were the reek of a cat, were the beak of a bird, were the feather that mastered gravity …’

Sex as a shopping list!

Sex scenes in most Indian novels are either perfunctory (the author is not particularly keen, he or she has been forced by the publisher to include a scene or two and gives the impression they hope the whole thing gets over quickly) or overwritten.

Here’s an example of the latter, from Tarun Tejpal’s The Alchemy of Desire: ‘At times like these we were the work of surrealist masters. Any body part could be joined to any body part. And it would result in a masterpiece. Toe and tongue. Nipple and penis. Finger and the bud. Armpit and mouth. Nose and clitoris. Clavicle and gluteus maximus. Mons veneris and phallus indica. The Last Tango of Labia Minora. Circa 1987. Vasant Kunj. By Salvador Dali. Fraughtsmen: Fizznme.’

Embarrassment—the overriding emotion of the Indian writer—is often disguised by the use of clinical terms. The explicit, the overstated, the unsubtle are the natural tools of the bad sex writer. For writing on sex to be gripping, it must suggest rather than draw pictures, for the human imagination is powerful, and feels cheated when it is brought down to earth.

So what did the man who did win a Lifetime Achievement award in bad sex writing—John Updike—think?

‘Writing my sex scenes physically excites me, as it should,’ he once said. Perhaps there is a lesson for Indian writers there. It is not enough to know the Latin names of body parts. Like good sex, good sex writing must involve passion too.

Excerpted with permission from Why Don’t You Write Something I Might Read- Reading, Writing and Arrhythmia by Suresh Menon by Context, an imprint of Westland Publications.

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