Of fearless feminism


I have been struggling to ooze out words. Words that best describe some dominant as well as dormant thoughts that have settled on my mind over the past couple of months. Thoughts that link my personal, political and professional experiences. As a feminist, I have always found it difficult to separate my personal from my political, which I believe, gives me the greatest satisfaction: the ability to link what seems personal to the larger politics of life and society. And to link what seems a political issue with deepest and most intense personal experiences.

My feminism and the way it has grown in me (and it continues to spread its wings) has impacted the way I look at life and its (in)sanity. But the brunt I have borne and continue to bear on account of the fact that I am a feminist (and have no qualms about it) is incomparable to any of my other political or non political identities. People have unfriended and blocked me on social media (I have reciprocated in similar way on some occasions), some have created my image to be that of the “rebel without a cause”, some have questioned this particular ism and its irrelevance in, what they see as, a post-feminist world, some more have avoided eye contact and being in touch with me out of fear of yet another “rant” by me on women and their rights. On the other side of the spectrum are those who have engaged in constructive criticism, made me rethink my feminist politics, challenged my assumptions about rights and privileges that individuals are entitled to (regardless of their gender), some have friended and followed me owing to my political leanings and inclinations, while few have simply nodded along and built solidarity on common grounds.

My own desire to study and specialize in subjects had some link or the other to feminism and feminist politics. It’s hard to put a pin point on when exactly did my body and soul opened up to the liberating idea of feminism. But from whatever I do recall, I think it began with my first period. An unforgettable event in my life that confirmed my worst fear: that men and women, indeed, are different. That this monthly bleeding is something that only bodies with vaginas get to experience. Why so? How so? Is that really so? These are some of the questions I mulled over later which helped articulate my experiences better. The desire to question status quo. The curiosity of never stopping to wonder why. The itch to unpack the equality presented and the inequalities hidden. The eye to recognize the marginalized. The knack of identifying what privileges exist and what rights we still need to fight for to rightfully claim as ours.

I continue to engage in feminist activism. Though my work. Through my observations. Through my writings. Through my readings. Through my very existence. But I often pause and reflect on how exhausting it sometimes gets to defend my feminist politics to an ignorant and skeptical audience. An unaware audience wanting to know more is different from an ignorant audience wanting to belittle every little ounce of your efforts. I have fatigued myself trying to explain to folks what feminism is not. Debunking the myths. Eliminating the stereotypes. Making a sincere effort to clean its unnecessarily tarred image in popular media, belief and opinion.

Things are certainly changing on all fronts and one mustn’t give up hope. For all the right and/or wrong reasons, being a feminist and being a supporter of “women’s empowerment” has become ‘cool’. While it saddens me to see the overuse and misuse of such critical words without first making an attempt to understand and place them in their contextual realities, it does give me hope to see that people find it easier to adopt and accept the F-word. I do simultaneously hope that they also read a little and make an attempt to dig deeper into the history of the feminist movement that varies across the globe.

My feminism and its continued understanding has been the cushion to rest on particularly difficult and tiring days. When I lose hope or feel demotivated, I seek comfort in its arms. I write. About myself. My experiences. My friends and family and the kind of discrimination we all practice knowingly and unknowingly in our everyday lives. I read. About feminist struggles and battles that were fought and continue to exist to weed out the oldest forms of oppression our society has ever known: patriarchy. I observe. Things, people, objects and individuals that remind me to never let go of my consciousness. As a woman. As a citizen. And as an individual worthy of equal rights, dignity and respect.

Orgasmic blush

Photography by Aimee NG

Shopping for groceries
with someone you love
Smelling the froth of
freshly brewed café au lait
Watching a couple embracing
in the misty fog
Reading the lines of a book
that was recommended by a lover
Rereading your lover’s old
letter and poems
Being kissed by the sun on a
particularly cold morning
Discovering a crumpled note in an old, discarded,
unwashed pair of jeans
Striking off a pending task
from your to-do list
Burning the mouth while eating
coz it just tastes so darn good!
Catching up on a conversation with an old friend
just from where we last left
Recalling the lyrics of an old song that had
gotten lost in the memory lanes
Seeing your mother smile
as you make a fresh, new cooking mistake
Looking at your reflection on the mirror
as you apply cherry red lipstick

Photography by Aimee NG

Photography by Aimee NG

Of hunting and devouring erotica


When I was working on finalizing my dissertation topic during my Masters, I was quite apprehensive about what I would choose. I knew that the topic I was about to choose would eventually be something that I would be voluntarily giving two years of my life to. It had to be exciting, interesting, and maybe even controversial to keep me glued and engaged. Sex was an obvious answer that fulfilled all these criteria. And since I had graduated specializing in literature in English, erotic literature emerged as an option I was more than happy to pursue.

While I knew that it is contemporary erotica that I wanted to focus on, the reason for stressing on writing that was recent was to test how much I could relate to the contextual realities. It is only after I finalized my area of research that I began hunting for writings around sex, preferably fictional writings, in English language emerging from South Asian countries. Of course, it was much more difficult than I had imagined. This wasn’t romance or tragedy or even tragicomedy. This was erotica coming from a land that looked at sex as a tabooed, sinful and hushed subject. Of course, this is also the land that gave us the ‘Kama Sutra’ and the Khajuraho temples. It is this hypocrisy in allowing some and dismissing other manifestations of the erotic that I sought to address through my research. And my first hurdle began in looking for the texts.

A visit to the bookstore resulted in judgmental looks, sniffed remarks and, eventually, ‘Fifty Shades…’. Some bookstores proudly offered me newer translations and versions of ‘Kama Sutra’ again, while some others simply refused to entertain my preposterous demand. A simple Google search came to my rescue. I discovered Tranquebar Press whose four volumes of erotica had emerged in recent years*. Each of these anthologies consisted of fictional pieces penned by writers from South Asia. I was relieved as well as surprised at its easy presence and access on the web but complete ignorance among bookstores (I am talking about two years ago, maybe things have changed now). I ordered all four volumes online and I was more than happy to devour them for the (ostensible) purpose of conducting research. While the genre of erotica is burdened by several challenges — not being seen as ‘literary’ enough, charged of being cheap, trashy and pornographic (the thin line between what gets constructed as erotic and acceptable, and, pornographic and dismissive remains a crucial question to explore), accused of objectifying its characters, especially women—the books that I read as part of my thesis writing were both brave exceptions and happy clichés.

erotic_062812100825

While conducting my research, I divided these stories on the basis of themes. But the one theme and aspect that I had a keen eye for was that of sexual fantasies and the kinds of sexual fantasies that these fictional worlds not only allowed but also gratified in a justified manner. Interestingly enough, ‘Blue’, The Tranquebar Book of Erotic Stories from Sri Lanka, which doesn’t claim to be heterosexual (and neither is), has scope for sexual experimentation and fantasies only in those stories that move out of hetero normativity. Marti’s ‘Room 1716’ is the story that describes lesbian fantasies of the protagonist, while also incorporating the use of a vibrator (a sex toy) to enhance the sexual experience—a privilege otherwise not given to other heterosexual couples in this anthology. Again, it is in ‘Me and Ms J’, a story about lesbian desire, where the protagonist fantasies a sexual relationship with her teacher. Sexual fidelity takes a hike in Shehan Karunatilaka’s Veysee which is a story about a married man who seeks sexual pleasure with a sex worker. There isn’t much light thrown as to why he seeks sex outside marriage but the story does present a view of Sri Lankan society and its perception around sex. The country is represented as one where sex is available ‘freely’ only if you possess good looks, good money and power. Of course, sexual fantasies are not limited to the realm of the man. In ‘Undercover’, Ameena Hussein narrates the story of a married woman trapped in a physically and mentally unsatisfying marriage. This story brings in the element of sex as an avenue of escape when coupled with exploring sexual desire outside marriage.

In ‘Blue’, sexual fantasy is linked to either homosexuality or tasting the forbidden (in the case of ‘Undercover’ and ‘Veysee’). ‘Close, Too Close’ (The Tranquebar Book of Queer Erotica), on the other hand, gives immense space to fantasies. Perhaps in keeping with the stereotypes associated with the queer world being bold, daring and experimental (the flip-side being unnatural, shameful and confused), ‘Close, Too Close’ has employed and given space for several sexual fantasies, including using a vibrator, dreaming of intercourse with a minor boy (inter-generational sex), queer games, conference sex and threesomes. Perhaps, unconventionality and varied fantasies go well with the definition of what it means to be ‘queer’ – weird. People play queer games (‘All in the game’), a middle-aged gay man –fantasises about having sex with an underage Kashmiri boy (‘Dreams and Desires in Srinagar’), two women engage in conference sex (‘Conference Sex’), a gay man and a straight feminist (as she calls herself) engage in a threesome with a seemingly heterosexual guy (‘Screwing with Excess’).

In ‘Alchemy’, The Tranquebar Book of Erotic Stories II, ‘Mouth’ by M. Svairini explores the many sexual fantasies, including those that may be categorized as queer, set in the context of sexual role play and orgy. Stylistically, the story stands out in its use of several literary tools like analogy and personification. Participants involved in the orgy are all named after specific erogenous zones like the mouth, the cunt, the cock and the ass. The choice of the body part is extremely interesting and perhaps even deliberate in being both accurate and ambiguous at the same time.

In ‘Electric Feather’, The Tranquebar Book of Erotic Stories, Sheba Karim’s ‘Heavenly Ornaments’ explores the shame and dangers associated with being public or open about one’s sexuality or sexual desires. This shame gets doubled if it is that of a woman and more so if that of a single, deserted or divorced woman. Concepts of purity and impurity are highlighted. Another story that was striking was ‘The First Time’ by Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan’s that traces the coming of age of its protagonist, Aditya, a twenty-seven-year-old advertising executive, who goes through a journey of sexual discovery. It narrates the journey of its protagonist from his dorm days, when he accidentally enters a room of two boys helping each other masturbate. Disturbing as it may have been to him, Aditya longed to replicate what he just saw as the pleasure that he observed in the two boys seemed genuine and true. However, later, he understands, through watching porn, that masturbation was not the only way of attaining sexual ecstasy. The story is not only significant in foregrounding sex education and sexual education; it also highlights the importance of one’s peers in shaping (almost permanently) one’s attitude towards sex.

It is interesting to note, here, how something deemed as private and intimate is actually shaped in one of the most public and open fashions – in peer group discussions, by hearing about it from friends and acquaintances and by observation in popular culture and social media. This is exactly why this genre gains importance. Erotic literature serves a culturally and socially significant role not necessarily in opening up sexual possibilities for its readers but by giving that required space for the reader to embrace and be comfortable with his/her sexual desires – something that is otherwise openly denied in accordance with social dictums. Erotica may or may not question normative ideas about sex and sexual experimentation. However, in its very act of talking about sex in the most direct and detailed manner in a deeply prudish and hypocritical world, it plays a transgressive role.

*The anthologies I studied were as follows:

  • Joshi, Ruchir ed. Electric Feather: The Tranquebar Book of Erotic Stories. New Delhi: Tranquebar Press, 2009.
  • Hussain, Ameena ed. Blue: The Tranquebar Book of Erotic Stories from Sri Lanka. New Delhi: Tranquebar Press 2011.
  • Karim, Sheba ed. Alchemy: The Tranquebar Book of Erotic Stories II. New Delhi: Tranquebar Press 2012.
  • Meenu and Shruti ed. Close, Too Close: The Tranquebar Book of Queer Erotica. New Delhi: Tranquebar Press 2012.

All these texts have published erotic stories in the form of prose, poetry and graphic art. The contributors are from India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

This post was originally published on TARSHI‘s E-magazine ‘In PlainSpeak’ here.

What I Don’t Want


I don’t want gifts on specific occasions that you mark on your calendar. No birthdays, anniversaries, couple days, valentine’s day, lover’s day, women’s days. I don’t want you to be subscribing to the cliché.

I don’t want you telling me my that my cleavage is showing. Or that I need to show some cleavage. Or that my legs are unwaxed. Or that my lipstick colour is too “out there”. I don’t want you to be telling me what suits my body and what doesn’t. Sure, I want your opinion. Sure, your views matter to me. But I don’t want you to be my moral police. I don’t want unasked and destructive criticism.

I don’t want you to be writing poetry about my perfect eyes, my perfect lips, my perfect breasts, my perfect waist. My body isn’t perfect. Neither am I. And nor are you. I don’t want a perfect life with you. It doesn’t exist. And I don’t want to be chasing something that does not exist.

There will be times when I wouldn’t want to drink with you. I don’t want to dance a dance with you. I don’t want to dine with you. I don’t want to go to a club wearing “appropriate clothes”. There might be days when I wouldn’t want to be accompanying you anywhere. And that ought to be okay. I don’t want you to be clinging on to me every single time. I have a life. With you. And without you, too.

I don’t want to spend sleepless nights apart wondering what the hell did I do wrong. I don’t want to reach that stage of our relationship where I spend every night making a list of things that could have happened differently if only.…
I don’t want to think about the “If only…” scenario. I don’t want unfinished sentences. I don’t want those three dots at the end of an unwanted thought.

I don’t want to spend mornings craving for a fuck. And blaming my PMS for my unpredictable cravings. I don’t want to blame my vagina or my uterus for my mood swings.

I don’t want to stare at the ceiling and count the cracks on the wall while you are busy working.

I don’t want to hear your rants about life being unsatisfactory, especially when you claim I am a significant part of it.

I don’t want you to be thinking I have too many wants. And if you do, I don’t want to care that you think so.

I don’t want to justify why I wrote this.

What I Want

Of turning 26 and being unmarried


In a few hours, I will turn 26. Anything extraordinary about it? Not really. But I am not just a 26-year-old woman. I am a single, 26-year-old woman. I am also educationally qualified, happily employed, doing work that makes me happy and satisfied, in a happy relationship with my friends and family, financially independent, ostensibly in control of my life, content with whatever I have achieved so far. Anything wrong in this picture? But, of course. I am single. Unmarried. Uncared for. Unattended. Unbelievably stupid to be shying away from the pure bliss of marital life.

This post isn’t a rant against marriage. Or one against people who are married or choose to get married. This post is a reflection on how much societal pricking of one’s unmarried status exists even as you achieve greater heights of success and satisfaction. Got a promotion? Well, career can wait, marriage won’t. Got an increment? That’s fine but no one marries a woman who earns more than the man. You finished your PhD? Finally. You better get married; who marries an overly qualified bride? You are attending your best friend’s wedding? Wow. What a hypocrite! You are dating someone? Hmmm. When do we get to hear the wedding bells? You broke up? Oh dear, he was the never the right person for you. Shall we venture into letsgetmarried.com now?

Cartoon by Surendra. Picture courtesy The Hindu

Cartoon by Surendra. Picture courtesy The Hindu

No matter what you do, what you achieve, what you derive pleasure out of, no marriage certificate means no happiness. That’s what our society would have us believe. Of course this pressure to get married and “settled” operates differently for men and women. But it’s present nevertheless and manifests itself in myriad ways. The way marriage, its centrality and its grave importance is presented, one is never allowed to enjoy any other achievement without any guilt. Every time I have paused to reflect on something praiseworthy in my life, I have also been forced to embrace the stark reality of my spinsterhood.

I have been, interestingly, involved in the curation and execution of a soon-to-be launched campaign against early and forced marriage that will be run by the girls at Feminist Approach to Technology (FAT), an organization where I work, learn and unlearn from. FAT has been working on teaching young girls from disadvantaged families photography and filmmaking so they can use their technical skills to run and anchor a campaign of their own, using the film that they direct and produce. These girls’ realities are very different than mine: they are daughters of domestic workers, construction workers, who wake at 4 in the morning and struggle to get educated in schools and colleges. I, on the other hand, am an upper caste, middle class, literate and educated woman of the 21st century. However, what binds us together is the same society whose products we all are. The same pressure. A different manifestation. That I feel the same pressure that a 19-year-old girl from an urban poor settlement faces is testimony to the fact how penetrative the matrimonial market has become.

Perhaps, I would also like to see myself married someday. Someone I truely care about and have chosen to spend the rest of my life with. Maybe in a less pressurizing and more prideful way. But I am very much against coercion. If I am 19 and wish to get married, I have every right to do so. Just like being 26 and not wanting to get married. It might to obvious to state this but let’s reiterate the fact that no one can tell if we’re ready to get married. Except our selves. Let’s respect choice. Let’s bless a couple who wants to be together despite or in spite of their backgrounds. Let’s celebrate individuals who are happy to be ticking the ‘Single/Unmarried’ box on official forms. Let’s break boundaries. Let’s be revolutionary. Let us honour the one thing we have always denied people. Choice. Freedom. Agency. The simple right to be ourselves. :-)

What I Want


I want to spend the day weaving words with you. I don’t care if they are gigantic words like “procrastinate” or tiny ones like “too”. I don’t care if they are long sentences or empty and incomplete phrases. We must weave words together. Words sprayed randomly across pages in different colours and moods. 

I want to hear the gossip at your workplace. I have bored you enough with my work stories; I now desire to hear yours. Who is pregnant? Who is dating whom? Who is likely to get a promotion? When is the next appraisal? I want to hear about it all.

I want to eat a dish cooked by you. I want to witness how you prepare to make it. I want to see you in a bright coloured apron and see you grin at me as you wipe tears from your eyes while chopping onions. I want to see you work doubly hard on garnishing the dish that you make. And I want to see the eagerness in your eyes as I take the first bite.

I want our house to be never lacking of fresh fruits and vegetables. I want to see you bargain at the grocery store as you pick and choose items for our kitchen.

I want to have never-ending discussions around topics that irk you and me. I want to engage in a debate where we lay bare our politics and grapple with it. 

I want to argue with you on mundane and everyday things: which earring to wear, which jacket to buy, which book to donate, which book to keep, which biscuit to buy, what kind of milk to purchase everyday, which song to hum and whose turn is it to clean the toilet today.

I want to sing a song we both like under a hot shower. 

I want to write an ode to the white hair on your chin beard. And read it out to you in bed.

I want to hear you moan more often. Louder. Longer. Sharper. And I want to be the cause for the moans.

I want to be hugged and held in bed every single night that we spend together. Until we naturally drift apart.

I want to kiss you till eternity. And never find a reason to stop.

Inspired from this post.

Read What I Don’t Want