This week has books that explore. A Pleasant Kind of Heavy and Other Erotic Stories by Aranyani looks at how the body engages the mind in its pursuit of fulfillment through sex. The Kingdom at the Centre of the World: Journeys into Bhutan by Omair Ahmad takes us through an almost fabled (and intriguingly modern) kingdom nestled in the Himalayas.
If serious erotica is your cup of tea, then this could be your kind of book. However, if prurience is what you are looking for, this could also be your book. Frankly, when it comes to sex, there is no telling how individuals reprise the experiences of others for themselves, whether it is through imitation (a kind of flattery) or fantasy. In India, I suspect it is the latter (prurience) which would rule, given that very few of us can enter even into discussions of sexual behavior and preferences without anger, embarrassment, the coloured laugh or downright hypocrisy getting in the way.
Which is a pity, because this is a good book with good writing and adult treatment about the power of sex, cravings, secret desires and fantasies in our lives.
Women with men, women with women, men with men, transgender sexual encounters, Indians doing it with each other abroad, on a transatlantic jetliner, with foreigners in the steamy south, in Paris - the author gives you a virtual smorgasbord of sex in various permutations, combinations and situations. But while sex is the central theme, the nugget is always an exploration – of alienation, delighted recognition, dawning self knowledge (always the best kind), confirmation and affirmation.
If only one looks, it’s there everywhere. Three women in a kitchen watch unashamedly for opportunities both for sex and one-upmanship among each other and their young mistress, the melancholy young man at the Jasmine Beauty Parlour in a Central Indian town who answers some of the aching need in a young wife though he would prefer his own boyfriend and she the good earth! Food and nurturing transcend their finite concepts in another story bursting with the fecundity of a pregnant woman, who enters through them into an intense realization of herself, her lover and their unborn child as one organic whole.
Young men, women and transgenders visit Broken Bridge, perhaps as a metaphor for their own lives, or because it gives them a chance to move into a milieu where judgment is suspended and belonging is all. And there is a really funny (as in hilarious) story of the courier franchise owner’s wife, forced at first to repress her feelings, but when they finally burst forth, the effect is enviable because it is so all-encompassingly healing!
Are we ready for such frank explorations of sex when the newspapers are so full of ready evidence of a frighteningly repressed society bursting out in savagely brutal rapes and murders? Perhaps not, which is why this book (and others(like Minal Hajratwalla’s collection of stories titled Pink, which explores the lesbian experience in India), will remain rare events. Aranyani itself is a nom de plume for the author, an indication of a wary expectation of consequences?
Yet this is a rich book, masterfully written, bursting with stylish language and its usage, replete with artful metaphor and simile, a little goldmine of insight and information that brings in its wake an awareness of the huge confidence of the South Asian literary voice, in a genre that has been largely plain covers available with the indefatigable sellers of porn on the streets.
You could say that this is a kind of coming of age.
A pleasant kind of heavy and other erotic stories by Aranyani
Published by Aleph Price Rs 295
Secrets of Shangri La
So, what do you really know about Bhutan? That it is still inaccessible for most Indians because it is expensive to travel and stay there, even for a short vacation. That it has this wonderful concept of valuing Gross National Happiness over Gross National Product. That’s its own monarchy has been guiding the tiny country into a modern democracy that has only made the people cling harder to him! That he and his young queen are possibly the most personable royal couple on earth, William and Kate of Britain included.
Omair Ahmad revisits the popular notions of Bhutan and then takes the great leap into a proper exploration of history and culture and position in the modern world. An award winning author in his own right, he came to his subject on the back of intrigue, set off by what he had heard about the country. It was idyllic, cut off from the ills of modern society, in perfect harmony with nature. For instance, its hydroelectric projects did no environmental damage, it seemed to have no bad relations with any country, encouraged controlled tourism and seemed serenely content with its own existence. So he dug deeper – and came up with this book.
Read it and you will have not so much a changed view as an expanded one of a country that struggles with enough modern-day problems in a way that will instill respect in anyone who values control – whether in economic policy, politics, diplomacy or the individual. Bhutan sometimes walks a tightrope, but with so much grace that one tends to take its lessons to heart. And it tries to explain the country through connections hitherto unemphasised, but which could have repercussions on its position as an intersection of political, cultural and religious cross-currents.
This is a wonderful addition to any library, not least because it is a perfect mix of political history and travel writing, as the blurb declares. It teaches and enlightens the reader about the kind of people who are now running the country. For example, the Queen Mother was the first Bhutanese to study at Oxford.
Way back in 1967, she had drafted a young man called Michael Aris, also from Oxford, to teach her daughters. Aris spent six years in the little kingdom, and it was where he met and got engaged to none other than Aung San Suu Kyi. One wonders, did Bhutan teach him the stoicism that he would require later to let his wife make the most painful decision of their married life – not to travel to visit him even when he was dying of cancer because she was afraid that the military regime in Myanmar would never let her back in?
So when it came to her son, the Queen Mother opted for the West, but in Bhutan, and so was set up possibly the finest school in the whole of South Asia.
Similarly, when it came to dealing with the refugee problem (and Bhutan has this, in spadfeds!) the situation called for firmness tempered with compassion.
When it came to capitalism, control was the key. And diplomatic relations have evidently been practiced through the sieve of world opinion – a kingdom so cherished because it reflects the better, if not the best, in all of us. Easy to over-run but impossible to contemplate!
That’s what keeps Bhutan safe for now, as its gigantic neighbours rumble at each other across liquid borders. Will it last? Who knows.
All the more reason to enjoy it while we can!
The Kingdom at the Centre of the World: Journeys into Bhutan by Omair Ahmad
Published by Aleph Price Rs 495