Basic Instinct

By Jaya Singh, based on the Jaipur Literature Festival 

“Knock, Knock”
“Who’s there?”

Literature, and how writers possess the ability to create something meaningful, to sew into sentences and weave together proses and paragraphs by the romantics, the dystopian, the godly and even by the forbidden. It is what holds history in its various folds, keeping intact the memory of one and the fiction of another. It cracks through the creases of time to continue to live in the future.

Jaipur Literature Festival stands to celebrate this and so much more. In the simplest of terms, it’s a journey of ideation and bringing about the nature of the people involved in creating so much of literary history for us. One of my favourite talks from the festival centred itself around the idea of the politics involved in creating erotic fiction. Politics, yes, because it serves as the very nuclei for the psycho-social structure that an author maintains in its head while writing about something as particular as sex and not just in literary terms but it is also the reason for all that we do in our lives, the power to negotiate and weigh options following on rational and irrational biases is governed by the very politics that we create while continuing to breathe in a society.

Writing erotica has been revolutionised since its inception from Kamasutra. Writers involved in the panel discussion, Basic Instinct, presented under the 7 deadly sins did not shy away while discussing about the social taboo – sex. They called it a ‘political issue’.  Deepti Kapoor wrote an unbiased account of a woman’s journey into exploring her sexuality from the lanes of Nizamuddin where the central character of her novel looked for solace into the arms of a man untouched, to the way she started the novel while talking about the Aghoris in Benaras, perhaps touching upon the idea of the metaphysical that exists among us. She said, coming from a country where even talking about it out into public seems like an outrageously bold step, writing about it made her feel like she was committing a ‘political act’. Nevertheless, what changed after her book called, a bad character, is that a lot of women developed the nerve to come up to her and talk about issues that had only lingered low in their lives.

The reason why Sarah Waters became so keen on writing erotica is because being a lesbian, she felt that it wasn’t easy to relate with the images presented by the other authors in their novels as they talked about perfect bodies and the right gestures and they always fell prey to subjecting women as objects and not people, objects that were written about in order to satisfy those who sought pleasure while undermining an entire stream of the story which should have centred around the woman’s needs and perception. She felt that sex isn’t about perfection, it is supposed to be messy and disastrous, emotional and nothing more than the fact that it’s just two people making love to each other.

The most beautiful part about the festival is that it gives space to interact with the authors which we had only grown up reading, wishing to know more about them. Talking to them about how they created a certain character in the book, what influenced it and how they go about the practice of writing seems like a boon. I met some people who write a page every day, just because they feel that breaking away from the habit would take them back to base one which is something I can relate to. Sometimes, I don’t write for days and the entire process of even trying to write seems extremely tiresome, but the idea that there exist people to inspire me is what takes me back each time. Believing in feminism, I could relate with Deepti Kapoor and Sarah Waters’ arguments around why they believed writing about erotica from the point of view of a woman can be so important.

On the contrary, Nicholson Baker offered arguments on the idea of how being naked in pornographic videos is so much more different than writing about it in novels as it deals with many more emotions, while maintaining an underlining tone of sensitivity as opposed to the fact that videos can never justify such beauty the way words can. In Victorian novels, the authors believed that even talking about a glance, a kiss on one’s hands or the fact that the term ‘little death’ denoted an orgasm, was treated as obscene by the people and if a woman was found responsible for writing about such things, she was punished by the society unabashedly, tainted for the remainder of her life.

The most interesting insights were presented by Hanif Kureishi, who after having spent his life both in the east and the west, found himself on the pedestal as he had the means to fairly compare how the two sides of the world dealt with the idea of writing erotic fiction, noting how outrageous an act it used to be to write about two men kissing in public, while the shift has now been marked with the idea that a real taboo-buster in this time and era would rather be writing a novel on a happily married couple. Kureishi went ahead to talk about Islamic fundamentalism and pointed out that one of the things radical Islam thinks about all the time is pleasure and yet it continues to deny the same, using extreme fascism while we continue to live in an era of anti-pleasure fascism. He said that, “in the present context – the love of sensuality, love of desire, our sexual love for one another seems to have become a political act.”

It became possible to question the existing because literature holds within the ability to express, and it is because of this that it becomes essential to question governments which tell us where and who we can love. Jaipur Literature Festival offers this very platform to more than 200 writers and entertainers from all over the world ever year, to bring forth such arguments to an extremely well-versed audience.

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