Sreemoyee Piu Kundu + India’s “Fifty Shades of Grey”
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because in a country undergoing a massive sexual revolution, this sexy best-seller is standing out.
It began with a haunting.
In 2005, journalist-turned-best-selling-
“It was the first time I was part of a human tragedy. I was stranded for two days and fell very sick. I lost colleagues in the floods, and it took me three weeks to get back to work. When you’re part of something like the floods in Mumbai, it changes you forever,” says 36-year-old Shree, as she prefers to be called.
The story needed me to write about sex shamelessly and without hiding behind metaphors.
It was the last time she’d see the person who inspired her best-selling erotica novel, Sita’s Curse: The Language of Desire, almost a decade later. “She was a woman I used to see every day on my way to work. My taxi would cross the chawl she lived in and I’d watch her, hanging out clothes on the clothesline, drying her hair, talking on her mobile phone or feeding chilies to her pet parrot. She had a haunting, sad kind of beauty that stood out from her depressing, squalid surroundings. I never saw her again after the floods. And I had to tell a story that I imagined was hers.”
One might imagine that the melancholic scene would inspire a slow, musing, ornate novel. Instead, Shree wrote a book that many are calling India’s 50 Shades of Grey. Since it hit shelves in April, Shree’s grown weary of the comparison. “Sita’s Curse is most certainly not meant to titillate,” she says with a sigh. “The story needed me to write about sex shamelessly and without hiding behind metaphors.”
Shree’s book comes as India, a nation with a historical fear of discussing sex, has begun to acknowledge its scars. The December 2012 gang-rape and murder of a 23-year-old medical school student put the country’s sexual dysfunction under the global and domestic microscope. At home, there’s clearly an appetite for erotica: The book crossed the 10,000 best-seller mark a long time ago and is in its third print run.
Sex itself is a kind of protagonist in Sita’s Curse. The novel follows Meera Patel — the woman Shree imagined during the flood — a middle-class Gujarati housewife, a woman too beautiful for her own good. Meera finds herself married to an indifferent and often cruel husband. Taught that a woman’s lot is to marry and breed, Meera shakes free of that drudgery and seeks out lover after lover to quench her unmet physical needs.
The title is meaningful: The goddess Sita, wife of Lord Rama, is in some ways Hinduism’s Eve. She was kidnapped by the demon Ravana and eventually freed, but the ordeal put her honor at stake. To prove her virtue, Sita had to step into fire. That agni pariksha, or trial by fire, is the curse that binds Sita to Meera — who, unsubtly, plays Sita in every school production as a child. It’s hard to miss Shree’s symbolism — the prologue itself begins with Meera’s mother-in-law screaming “Ram! Ram!” on one side of the door while Meera, uncaring, pleasures herself on the other side.
My father, in fact, was the first person to read the manuscript of Sita’s Curse.
Theatrics and melodrama are essential to Shree’s stylistic lexicon. Nearly all of Meera’s encounters with men are, subtly or overtly, sexual in nature — from her twin brother to her dance teacher, the stranger who saves her from drowning, her brother-in-law, a stranger on the Internet, a dancer in her building, a religious guru.
Still, it’s hard to overstate how rare a book like this is. Erotic literature hasn’t been much of a genre in India, says Arcopol Chaudhuri, associate editor at HarperCollins India. “There will be sex in a book, but it will be sold as a romance. … Not too many writers have made sex the hero of their stories.”
Born into a “sprawling ancestral home” in Kolkata, an epicenter of India’s literary scene, Shree believes she was lucky to be exposed to what she calls the “aesthetically evolved world.” Her poetess grandmother’s influence is evident in her lyrical musings: “I spent my childhood staring into fierce winter suns and limp Jamini Roy portraits, scribbling poetry in long, winding balconies. It was a childhood that was secure and sacred, and filled with music, art, culture and literature.”
She is not today married. The daughter of a teacher mother and corporate manager father, she took liberal values for granted. “My father, in fact, was the first person to read the manuscript of Sita’s Curse. He is a very progressive, broad-minded person, and he really liked what I’d written. His validation was important to me.”
An author’s first book is almost always cathartic.
But close to her family though she is, it was childhood loneliness that brought Shree to books. “As an only child, it sometimes got lonely, so words became my friend. Writing became my primary form of expression. … I read voraciously … Enid Blyton, Nancy Drew, Gerald Durrell, Jim Corbett, Vikram Seth, Amitav Ghosh and later, even Bengali novelists like Sunil Gangopadhyay, Moti Nandi and Samaresh Majumdar. I read these writers and I wanted to be a writer too.
“Growing up derailed that plan for a few decades, but now I’m back on track.”
An alumna of Loreto House and Jadavpur University in Kolkata, Shree had a 12-year-long flourishing career in journalism, working for the Times of India and India Today, among others, followed by an almost three-year-long stint as a media strategist.
“Three years ago, one fine day, after returning from a really indulgent solo holiday in Australia after quitting my PR job, I decided I just had to do it now,” she says. In 2012, just a year after that eureka moment, Hachette India released Shree’s debut novel, Faraway Music. It’s a semi-autobiographical story of Kolkata-born Piya Choudhury, a single young woman who moves to Mumbai to become a journalist and ends up falling in love with her editor. “An author’s first book is almost always cathartic,” says Shree.
Sreemoyee has finished two more books — You’ve Got the Wrong Girl! and Cut! — and will soon start writing her fifth, Rahula, a political tragedy. She insists on being prolific, an attribute that India’s booming publishing industry is sure to favor: “I want to release only one book a year, but I actually write really fast. And when I write, I spend 18 to 20 hours a day with my story. That’s the only way I know to write.”