Open dialogue in Indian society about sex and sexuality is in itself surrounded by a giant smokescreen of prejudice, cultural shackles and religion-fuelled hypocrisy. What happens behind closed doors must stay behind closed doors, and the repression of sexual experiences is a commonly occurring societal phenomenon. In the context of this constant moral policing through social conditioning, politically-motivated arm-twisting, as well as legal policing (see: porn ban earlier this year, among others), the dialogue on sexuality itself is too controversial and repressed. And so, the commentary on female sexuality is even more so.
Woman in Indian society expressing their sexual desires have, time and again, faced repression. Films are censored, moralities are questioned, indecency and obscenity are invoked loudly, and sexual freedom is eventually curtailed. Still, in the face of all this attempted silencing, we find authors striving to push the boundaries of conversation and bring female sexuality to the table to be discussed, appreciated and even experienced.
Lust, longing, desire, exploration -- all these themes are taken on by these daring writers, who do it all through the policing they face. Iconic Urdu author Ismat Chughtai’s short story Lihaaf was published and read despite being levied with charges of obscenity, while the author of A Pleasant Kind of Heavy and Other Short Stories used an alias out of fear of social unacceptability, but not without getting her writings out in the open. In these commentaries, sexuality is expressed while simultaneously revealing historical contexts, cultural traditions, and the need to break free from social shackles that restrict openness and exploration.
So, as we salute the attempts of these writers, we’ve compiled a list of 9 pieces of Indian literature that explore female sexuality and eroticism. Scroll on for a new and bold reading list that men and women across the country would benefit from reading.
I. ‘A Handbook For My Lover’ by Rosalyn D’Mello
A Handbook For My Lover is an interesting piece of erotic literature, mostly because it is a non-fiction, first-person memoir. The Delhi-based freelance writer and author, Rosalyn D’Mello describes her love affair with a photographer (who is 30 years older than her) and the turbulent relationship they shared.
“I don’t believe my writing is about sex. It’s about desire and the articulation of desire,” she explains in an interview. Her subtlety is a particularly charming characteristic through this novel as she uses various tools to portray touch, lustfulness and yearning.
This story has a magnetic quality as she rarely explicitly describes the actual love-making, but instead, focuses on sexuality and the fiery connection that can and does exist between two people. As she elaborates upon her own experiences, what shines through is the social context of her relationship, which tackles tackling taboo subjects such as masturbation and menstruation. Moreover, she touches upon the illicit lens through which her choices were viewed, in the rigid frame of acceptability in India’s modern society. What makes this story particularly gripping however, is D’Mello’s brutal honesty while telling her own story. As she explains, “I think the display of vulnerability is essential for a writer. It is deeply humanising.”
II. ‘A Pleasant Kind of Heavy and Other Erotic Stories’ by Aranyani
Through nine evocatively written short stories, Aranyani, (pseudonym, we will assume this author is a woman henceforth) a clinical psychologist and author lets her imagination run wild as she unravels the layers of female sexuality and explores the infinite possibilities of desire. Running across a range of ages, classes, and layers of repression, each story represents a different tale of sexual experience in the modern context. The title story giving this compilation its name features a pregnant woman’s sexual re-awakening as she discovers new desires and succumbs to her cravings.
Standing up against the commodification of sex, and the social conditioning surrounding it, her voice is a strong and unwavering one. Strong female characters walk in and out of Aranyani’s writing as she employs a clear and special insight to comment on women’s sexuality, which includes homoerotic desires. While some of her plots might be long-winding and even bizarre at points, each encounter she describes represents a journey of lust and desire, and Aranyani joins the much-needed dialogue on unhindered and unrepressed sexual expression from artists in the country. Explaining her choice of dissimulating her identity under an alias, she says in an interview, “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.”
That is exactly why we need her writing in our society so much!
III. Gender, Sex and the City: Urdu Rekhti Poetry 1780-1870 by Ruth Vanita
Academic, activist, and author Ruth Vanita’s book, Gender, Sex, and the City: Urdu Rekhti Poetry 1780-1870 is a beautiful commentary on Urdu poetry in 18th-19th century Lucknow, which was the centre of the flourishing Indo-Persian culture of the time. Using this fluid poetry as a mirror, she depicts the lives and loves of women -- both cross-sex and same sex, and pre-colonial attitudes. Composed in women’s and men’s voices, this non-mystical poetry reveals a hidden modernity, exploring a unique parallel that Vanita draws. Male poets endorse courtesans for their skills and intelligence, while courtesans return the favour by singing and dancing to their poems. As she elaborates in an interview, “Insha, Rangin and Jur’at, the Urdu poets I write about and translate in my latest book, write with wonderful lyricism and eroticism about male-male, male-female and female-female sexual relationships, in particular the last.”
Cosmopolitan sensibilities are explored through this playful and erotic poetry, which, with time, gets labelled as obscene, giving readers a window into the erotic and social complexities of the time. The themes that Vanita explores range from sexual exploration to repression of the same, and as she touches upon same sex endeavours, her narrative reveals a historical account of a time in India’s ever-changing relationship with sexuality. Vanita, who co-founded Manushi--a journal about women’s rights and democratic reforms in 1978, writes evocatively about women’s issues, and the tussle of sexual expression in India. Exploring gender identities and sexuality, she co-authored ‘Same-Sex Love in India’ with Saleem Kidwai, which posed as just one of her many meaningful commentaries.
IV. ‘Lihaaf’ (The Quilt) by Ismat Chugtai
As one of Urdu literature’s most eminent writers known for her bold spirit and fierce feminist ideology, Ismat Chugtai explored the conflicts of a modern Indian society. Her short story Lihaaf is narrated from the perspective of a young girl, Begum Jaan growing up in Colonial India. As the Hindu-Muslim rivalry spurring in the 1940s set the backdrop for this short story, the protagonist finds herself amidst a political unrest during her coming-of-age. Begum Jaan is married into a rich Muslim household in Aligarh, and her sexuality is stirred as she begins to find pleasure in her housemaid, Rabbu’s touch. In fluid Urdu, Chugtai narrates the burning shackles of modern India and a young girl’s homosexuality emerging in this very context.
When Lihaaf was published in 1942 in the Urdu literary journal, Adab-i-Latif, Chugtai’s daring exploration of feminine sexuality and homosexuality was levied with charges of obscenity, and she was even summoned by the Lahore court for the same. Despite criticism, this iconic Urdu author’s stories and narratives from the 20th century still ring relevant today as her dialogue on India’s modern society is a beautiful rendition of history, culture, tradition and sexual realities. Most of her works, from the controversial short story Lihaaf to the compilation, My Friend, My Enemy: Essays, Reminiscences, Portraits, were translated into English by Tahira Naqvi, a senior Urdu language lecturer at New York University to show the world, Chugtai’s stirring commentary on sexuality and modernity within a historical framework.
V. ‘Panty’ by Sangeeta Bandhyopadhyay
Bengali writer, Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay’s collection of two novellas Panty and Hypnosis marked an important step for Bengali literature, as these bold, raw and honest writings introduced a whole new world of hardcore sexuality. The unnamed protagonist of Panty finds a discarded, silky garment adorned with leopard-skin print and sensuality, inside the wardrobe of an empty Kolkata apartment that she checks into. When the story reveals that she is living in her lover’s home, who is unwilling to accept their relationship publicly, she puts on the panty in an act of desperation and finds herself possessed by the wild sexuality and psyche of its previous owner.
Ridden with curious occurrences and open sexual expression, this novella released in 2006 caused a stir due to its candid commentary on female sexuality. Bandyopadhyay’s bold and realistic style was seen as striking, and even shocking, in the context of modern Indian and Bengali sensibilities. Translated from Bengali to English by Arunava Sinha, this pair of novellas represents a raw voice that is audacious and sex positive, by an author who is clearly unafraid to think about let alone make public the inner desires that awaken as much in women as they do in men.
VI. ‘Play With Me’ by Ananth Padmanabhan
Set in a fast-paced, rushing and bustling Indian metropolitan city, Padmanabhan’s Play With Me creates a backdrop that is relatable for any urban Indian, and through the rhythm of the story each metro-citizen will see pieces of their own lives emerge through his words. As his ink represents a certain universality, this erotic novel features Sid and Cara as protagonists involved in a simple and lustful love affair. Depicting the modern, digital-age-obsessed world, this book is filled with racy language and erotic commentary on life and love, while still remaining subtle and refined.
As the CEO of HarperCollins India, Padmanabhan’s knowledge of the world of literature helped him make his book relatable to his audience. As a male erotica author, his commentary is particularly interesting, “Because it’s a man writing the story, my women had to be strong, independent. The relationships had to be real and respectful. The sex had to be enjoyable.” This CEO and author weaves bisexuality, threesomes, seduction and the tussle between love and pleasure into his narrative, making Play With Me a beautifully crafted piece of erotica.
VII. ‘Sita’s Curse: The Language of Desire’ by Sreemoyee Piu Kundu
The journey of protagonist Meera Patel’s self-discovery through life, lust, longing and sex is beautifully narrated in journalist and author, Sreemoyee Piu Kundu’s best-selling novel. Themes of female empowerment through honest sexual expression as well as the strength of open physicality are featured here. This lower-middle class housewife dwelling in Mumbai’s congested suburbs, who was married off to a stranger at 17, represents small-town India. As the story unfolds, Meera breaks through the clutches of tradition to experience freedom and revel in her desires.
One instance of erotic imagery from her book is as follows:
‘Taking a deep breath, Meera positioned herself carefully against the cushion, pushing harder against it… faster, faster… feeling her insides give way like boats washed away at high tide.’ This is Kundu merely using sex as a tool of expression to bring out the themes that her book explores.
“My book is not an Indian version of Fifty shades of Grey. It is not intended to titillate. Feminist erotica is about strong women having dialogues with themselves, discovering who they truly are,’ she says.
VIII. ‘The Devil Take Love’ by Sudhir Kakar
With a blend of sexuality, ancient India and poetry, psychoanalyst and author Sudhir Kakar’s The Devil Take Love is a deeply erotic piece of literature. This fictionalised account traces the journey of iconic Sanskrit poet of the 7th century, Bhartrihari, and the conflict between sexual awakening and intellect that he struggle with. As Kakar elaborates in an interview, “The relevance of Bhartrihari is that he represents the perennial Indian struggle between flesh and spirit. It has been a struggle for India in the last 1,100 years. A balance of eroticism and spirituality is needed in India.” With deliberate pauses for reflection, this novel marries the ideas of politics, history, and linguistics with lust, love, and poetry.
With bold overtures, Kakar delves into eroticism head on and addresses the carnal lust of an individual, while laying the groundwork for a deeper context in history and culture. This is an excerpt of poetry that he uses in his book: ‘your breasts are like the globes on elephant foreheads — a splendorous receptacle for pearls.’
Defining passion as the driving force behind any individual, he uncovers the spirituality of ancient India, while narrating the act of love-making like a fluid and poetic dance. His choice to use Bhartrihari as a subject was a personal one, as he explains, “My dad was a civil servant and I remember he recited a verse of Bhartrihari once when he came back from office disenchanted. He told me that Bhartrihari is the only poet with a modern sensibility. Fifty years must have passed, however, it stuck to me and I started reading his works.” Kakar’s experiments with eroticism go beyond this narrative, as he has more than 20 titles to his name, including Exploring Indian Sexuality, and Tales of Love, Sex and Danger.
IX. ‘Upanibesh’ by Dr. Sarojini Sahoo
As Dr. Sahoo believes, anyone’s sense of art or sexuality can be traced to a close link with their ethnic or geographical identity, and it’s this tightly-woven relationship of culture and individualism that she strives to represent. The idea of sexuality and sexual expression are so entwined with philosophical, judicial and legislative notions of a place, that they feed off each other, and their evolution is grossly influenced by external forces. ‘Upanibesh’ (The Colony) is an Indian novel by Dr. Sarojini Sahoo, a distinguished bilingual feminist and author with a PhD. in Oriya literature, that explores female sexuality through a bold and daring narrative. Using the symbol of Shiva Linga to represent a woman’s sexual desire, this story traces protagonist Medha’s journey of sexual exploration. Medha, a bohemian, believes that monogamy is synonymous with monotony, and yearns to break away from the shackles of commitment. But as societal pressures push her to marry forest officer, Bhaskar, she finds herself confined by the chains of India’s cultural traditions and the norms they dictate. Music becomes her source of new-world discovery as she breaks away from her exile, leading to a rebirth of sexuality in her life. As such, love, sexual reawakening, defeat, musical explorations and the impotency rendered through India’s social chains are the various themes that Dr. Sahoo walks us through in this novel.
The subject of burgeoning sexuality in India being seen as a threat to traditional patriarchy and the restrictions women face is covered extensively by Dr. Sahoo’s fluid novels and short stories. In an attempt to glorify the power of sexuality, her novel, ‘Gambhiri Ghara’ (The Dark Abode) follows the journey of Kuki, a Hindu married woman who tries to rehabilitate Safique, a Muslim Pakistani artist on the verge of becoming a sexual maniac. As the story unfolds, lust, love and spirituality take centre- stage. Dr. Sahoo’s bold writing discusses lesbian sex, rape, abortion, infertility, failed marriage, menopause and more. As she says in an interview, “it is risky for a woman writer to deal with these themes in an Eastern country, and for that I face much criticism. But, still I believe someone has to bear this risk to accurately portray women’s feelings - the intricate mental agony and complexity which a man can never feel - and these must be discussed through our fiction.”
You can learn more about Sarojini Sahoo and her stories here.
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