Female sexual desire and pleasure have been uncomfortable territories for writers, artists, activists and scholars. Instead, the tendency has been to focus on violence when it comes to sexuality, in urgent response to high levels of sexual violence against women in India. Although this frame of violence has been central to the women’s movement in India and has driven significant social change, it has overwhelmed any conversation on pleasurable sexuality.
This collection of twenty essays by Brinda Bose, written over the last twenty years or so, calls out moments that rupture this tendency and draws us into the task of engaging with sexuality through the lens of pleasure and the right to desire.
Even though the entry point is often literature and cinema, the essays (in different forms, from the long academic essay to short opinion pieces and a notable photo essay) go beyond these fields. Several identify watershed moments in the history of ‘conflagrations’ around sexuality and rights in India, such as the controversy around a Bollywood song ‘Choli ke Peeche’ in 1994 that polarized feminists into those who saw the song as vulgar, and those who felt it was an expression of female sexuality, or the furore around Deepa Mehta’s film Fire in 1998 that made visible Indian lesbian identities.
Divided into three sections—Explorations, Speculations and Adventures—the weight of the book is carried by the ten essays in Explorations. These are much of Bose’s older essays exploring the construction of the desiring female subject, tensions between tradition and modernity as represented in Satyajit Ray’s cinema, transgressions and punishment in Arundhati Roy’s novel, and conflict between the West and the East in Mira Nair’s and Gurinder Chaddha’s films on the Indian diaspora. These essays establish literature and cinema as interventions themselves, which have enabled conversation on anxieties around female sexuality that have come with modernity and urbanization. Bose says, ‘the representation in cinema of our cities—as well as that of our ambiguous, multiplicitous, sexualities—may be read as markers of many tumultuous changes in our social and political fabric’ (p. 63).
The author locates pleasurable sexuality within these different tensions. Pleasure becomes a wider notion through this lens of film and literature—a picnic on the beach, sisterhood, freedom to dream, going to work, and gazing out into the world through binoculars—doing the watching instead of being watched. These articulations are important in defining women’s experiences and imaginations of pleasure, desire, and autonomy.
In fact, defining the field and its actors appears to have been an unintended outcome of the last two decades of controversies. Symbols of ‘sexiness’ (the kiss, Bollywood double-meaning songs, the ‘choli’, the towel dropping scene in Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s film Sawariya) have arisen out of what censors believe need regulation. Different actors intervening in the discourse—the religious right, the state, Censorship Boards, feminist activists—have become apparent.
Some essays in this section look at the broader landscape of identity and sexuality, including the different ideological positions on sex work, and the emergence of politicized queer, transgender and hijra identities over the years.
It is when we come to the other two sections, ‘Speculations’ and ‘Adventures’, that current issues come alive. With shorter essays responding to recent controversies (the Abused Goddesses internet campaign, Day of Rage social media campaign protesting Section 377, the Kiss of Love protests), and with a clear activist voice, these urge the reader to take a stand. One poignant essay examines censorship in its different avatars—by the state and religious groups (such as the fatwa and ban on Bangladeshi author Taslima Nasreen’s books), extending to self-censorship that women in South Asia practice almost unknowingly because of internalized cultural repression.
Essays in these sections are more inward looking, self-reflexive and give the reader a glimpse into academic life, and the unseen efforts by scholars and activists to queer campuses and departments. The book does an excellent job of capturing how sexuality (fundamentally imbibed as something corrupting and dangerous) challenges imbibed values and shakes us out of comfort zones. Anecdotes reveal the everyday battles teachers like Bose must fight—even with progressive peers—to create space for students to be exposed to ideas and debates around sexuality.
In an important piece, Bose critiques Left scholars’ comparison of the Hokkolorob protests in West Bengal and the Kiss of Love protests in Kochi, in which the former is positioned as more ‘serious’ than the other, the latter not revolutionary enough and ‘frivolous’ (even vulgar) in its choice of public kissing as a tool of protest. Instead, we are reminded to note the expanding creative forms of protest, the ‘youthful protesters everywhere, who are showing us, everyday, new ways of being political’ (p. 285).
The limitation of such collections of essays is that they run the risk of being repetitive, especially when similar arguments show up in different articles for various publications around the same time. A sharper curation of the essays may have avoided this. However, the collection in its entirety is a reminder that feminist scholars like Bose and others referenced in the book have been judicious chroniclers of contemporary histories. India is so changed since 1990, yet remains bereft of acute documentation of its transformation post-globalization. This book contributes to filling this gap.
But it also reveals many other gaps: how the discourse is not intersectional enough, and that much more thinking is required on sexualities and disability; caste, class and embodiment; body politics; the role of the internet and social media; self-image, fashion, and self-representation, especially in the digital age; and a more robust understanding of sexuality of women at work, in the workplace, as well as work that requires elements of sexuality.
Not always an easy read (the academic essays in particular) but still rewarding, this book is a reminder that we need to go ‘off-road’ from developmental frameworks, legal battles and moral anxieties for a more profound and deeper engagement with sexuality and pleasure based on praxis, and what it really means to peoples’ lives. An example of this is the way Bose attempts to reframe the struggle to decriminalize homosexuality not as an issue of constitutionality, but as a right to desire.
Bose’s cover—chappals nuzzling one another, left on the sea shore—evokes the tactility of sexualities and forces us to remember what it feels like to walk barefoot on a lonely beach, warm wet sand between the toes, the foam of waves. One could say, the book offers some of that experience and is a call to action—to think from a visceral, messy, felt experience than the ‘logic of rights, power and punishment’. Bose is asking us to ‘turn’ to daring humanities, through the door of sexuality often bypassed by Indian feminism. The essays in this collection create a framework, some sort of scaffolding, from which to attempt this ‘turn’.
Manjima Bhattacharjya is a sociologist and writer based in Mumbai. She is the author of Mannequin: Working Women in India’s Glamour Industry (Zubaan, 2018).