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India

Indian erotic fiction, and openness towards sex, boosted by digital tech and stories where the underdog takes control

Short, unconventional stories of erotica published on digital platforms and apps are driving new interest in the genre in India, adding to a growing conversation about sexual freedom taking place in the country

PUBLISHED : Friday, 13 April, 2018, 10:16am
UPDATED : Friday, 13 April, 2018, 4:42pm

A young groom, Bharat, nervously awaits his wedding night. He has met his new wife, Shreya, petite with large, lovely eyes and a pouting mouth, only a few times, and only ever in their parental homes. They held hands and even had one small kiss, but nothing more. Tonight, he will properly make her his wife. 

This is the premise of First Night, one of 12 erotic tales included in a series called “Forbidden Desires”, written by a Delhi-based writer under the pseudonym Nikita. The series is published by India’s forward-thinking publishing house Juggernaut via its app. 

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Trisha Bora, the editor who handles Juggernaut’s romance list, says erotica is one of their hottest genres, accounting for 30 per cent of Juggernaut’s sales. Along with the popular Nikita series, office-based romances such as Swipe Right For Boss, which is part of journalist Sanjana Chowhan’s “Office Quickies” series, and the stories in the “Khushbu” series, which includes titles such as My Friend’s Hot Mom and Tried and Twisted, are Juggernaut’s top erotica sellers.

The stories are short and very affordable, costing as little as 30 rupees (50 US cents). But more than this, Bora believes that the format – digital stories that can be read on the privacy of a phone – are a big part of the series’ success. 

“Mobile publishing has provided the best platform for erotic stories,” she says. “India is still pretty conservative about sex and it’s still a challenge selling erotic fiction in physical stores because people aren’t comfortable being seen buying or carrying around an erotic book. The phone, on the other hand, provides privacy, and so the mobile format works for the genre. Moreover, we publish our stories at night – the perfect time to wind down with some erotica.”

But not all erotica in India is published and read digitally. While Bora puts this down, in part, to the worldwide phenomenon of 50 Shades of Grey, she explains that a new market for, and acceptance of, erotica is opening up in the sexually conservative country. 

For example, respected publishers Aleph Book published the hardback anthology Parrots of Desire: 3,000 Years of Indian Erotica, edited by Amrita Narayanan, towards the end of last year. The Pleasure Principle – The Amaryllis Book of Erotic Stories, meanwhile, edited by G. Sampath, came out in paperback in 2016.

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Rosalyn D’Mello

Harper Collins India published art writer Rosalyn D’Mello’s A Handbook for My Lover in paperback in February. D’Mello eschews the label “erotica” for her book, giving it a more nuanced, literary description: “an episode of longing, and a treatise on desire”. The book charts six years in the life of an unconventional affair between a young writer and her much older lover, who she will never marry or have a live-in relationship with.

“Because it was autobiographical, my primary audience was really myself,” D’Mello says. But after the book was released, she saw it found “resonance with a vast and varied readership, from young men and women to their much older counterparts; from both genders and across the spectrum of sexuality.” 

The book was reviewed in India’s major newspapers, but D’Mello believes it found its audience mainly through the “whisper network” of word of mouth. 

The biggest challenge for her readers, D’Mello says, is that the book isn’t fiction. “The bit that has everyone perplexed is that it’s blatantly autobiographical and I made no attempt to disguise it as fiction. I think that is its greatest strength and also what endears it to its readers,” she says.

“It isn’t easy to ‘come out’ as a single woman talking about her present and former lovers, her masturbation habits, her experience with menstruation, and the very interior process of being a writer and choosing to live an unconventional life as a result,” she adds.

The unconventional is a big draw when it comes to erotic writing. While First Night – in which a handsome young man and a pretty young woman in a well-suited arranged marriage have their first sexual encounter – was the bestselling story in the Nikita series, many of the other titillating tales subvert social norms in India. 

There are many battles that we are fighting today in India, and of course conservatism is one of them
Pia Heikkila aka Nikita

In one story, a middle-aged married man fantasises about a young chowkidar (watchman), while in another, things get steamy between a young engineer who fixes the computer of an older, married woman in one of Delhi’s wealthy neighbourhoods. 

“I wanted to inject a little bit of social commentary in each story and give the underdog an opportunity to take charge sexually – for example an older woman and a young man, a girl uncertain of her figure, or a woman who secretly likes women,” says Pia Heikkila, the pen behind the perversions in the Nikita series. 

“It’s the lower caste, less-important person in Indian society who gets the upper hand, who gets to give the command in the bedroom or is sexually more powerful. The roles are reversed.”

Heikkila is a Finnish journalist and writer living in Delhi. Her previous books include Operation Lipstick, a raunchy chick-lit romp that follows war correspondent Anna through Afghanistan, and Koodinimi Kajaali, written in Finnish and set in Pakistan. Operation Lipstick was published by Random House India and was briefly a bestseller.

“Subverting power structures, dominance and submission, role-playing, and breaking taboos are some of the ways in which erotic fantasy can take flight,” Bora says. “A reader usually knows what he or she is looking for.” 

A nation of confident sexual subversives in touch with what they want and how to get it is probably not the image most foreigners have of India. But sexual expression has always been part of Indian culture, from the erotic sections of the Karma Sutra to the sensual carvings on the temples at Khajuraho in Central India. 

“India is complex, and Indian literature dates back centuries – and when Western countries perceive India as conservative and backward, it reveals their own ignorance and self-indulgence,” D’Mello says. “There are many battles that we are fighting today in India, and of course conservatism is one of them, but it is layered, and our realities are very complex.”

Bora describes the situation as “a long, bumpy road from sexual freedom to conservatism, with Victorian morality hammering in the final nail in the coffin”. 

But the arts – whether high brow or more popular – have always been there, pushing boundaries, and they are doing so now more than ever. 

“Just look at Bollywood, which has long dealt with many taboo subjects, such as gays, transsexuals or inter-caste and interfaith marriages,” Heikkila says. “India is not conservative when it comes to erotica – your writing is accepted as long as you don’t write in a derogatory manner.” 

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India has once again started to talk openly about sex. There is more erotic literature available now than a decade ago, and more journals dedicated to the subject. But Bora believes the conversation has only just started.

“There’s a lot of work to be done, and thinking that needs to be undone, to bring sex out of the dark,” she says. “But every conversation about the subject is one step in the right direction.”