This South-Asian Anthology of Queer Erotica Offers More than Sex

Close, Too Close: The Tranquebar Book of Queer Erotica is an anthology of fourteen queer erotic tales from all walks of life, across South-Asian cities and countries. It includes stories by Devdutt Pattanaik (who writes extensively on mythology in modern times), Abeer Hoque (a Nigerian-born Bangladeshi-American writer and photographer), D’Lo (a queer Tamil Sri Lankan-American political theatre artist), and Nilofer (an artist, cartoonist, and graphic designer) among others.

The anthology is Foreword-ed by Vikram Doctor who is significantly involved with the group Gay Bombay. Doctor compares the anthology to South-Asian erotica and porn which often takes stimulation from American pulp erotica and has been too ‘depressingly sleazy’ to allow for any real appreciation. This anthology, for Doctor, is the opposite of pulp erotica; it deals not only with the overtly sexual but also with the subtleties of suggestion. Most importantly, it presents the different realities where queer and straight worlds meet.

Sex, diversified

To a lay reader or a browsing buyer, this anthology may not be the most obvious pick. The editors of the anthology, Meenu and Shruti, however, make a convincing case for the book in the Introduction. They define the appeal of erotica as lying in the ability to capture sexual imagination, for it is through desire that one first knows one’s sexuality. ‘Queerness’, they further write, knocks down the assumption that sexual expression is only valid if contained within heterosexual norms and it foregrounds sexual and gender diversity.

The stories in the anthology, true to its aims, explore the less visible and the diverse zones of queer sexual encounters in South-Asia. The stories ‘Pity that Blush’ and ‘Upstairs, Downstairs’ introduce the reader to the many-faced city of Delhi, ‘Dreams and Desire in Srinagar’ relocates the reader on a houseboat in Kashmir, ‘Perfume’ takes them to the north edge of Vishakhapatnam, ‘Give Her a Shot’ hints at the queer scene in Mumbai and Goa, and the story ‘I Hate Wet Tissues’ connects Lahore, Pakistan, to Delhi, India.

Sexual encounters among the characters also take many forms. Sometimes sex has a business-like quality about it, sometimes it is ritualistic, and often it is experimentative. Interestingly, the story ‘The Half Day’ compares sex to cooking a sumptuous helping of Rajma-chawal and provides a recipe at the end to prepare them ‘the Punjabi way’. Sexual acts occur among characters who lay claim to diverse and fluid sexualities. In ‘Screwing with Excess’, for example, the narrator says,

That’s right, we were not having sex; you see, I was straight and he was gay. Well, not strictly, just at the edges of those boundaries, always threatening to spill over, but balancing rather breathtakingly.

The comment highlights the constructed nature of the many boxes aimed at defining our identities and prescribing fixed and non-negotiable roles, including sexual preferences and behaviour.

Walking in the city

As already mentioned, the characters in these stories are strewn across many cities; they negotiate public spaces and lay claim to the worlds that they inhabit. In doing this, they challenge the comfortable and indulgent ‘homo-oblivion’ of people. In ‘Upstairs, Downstairs’, the protagonist remarks,

All along the shadowlands of the city’s railway lines, parks and public toilets, a penumbral existence was beginning to wiggle its way out… seeking recognition for a common ache… Everything popping out joyously in this pasture of the fearful, empty, twilight spaces of the city.

In “Walking in the City”, the French scholar Michel de Certeau writes that walking, or simply moving, is an important form of experiencing the city; the bodies of walkers and movers follow the thicks and thins of an ‘urban text’ that they write. The networks of these moving, intersecting writings, according to Certeau, “compose a manifold story… shaped out of fragments of trajectories and alterations of spaces…” In a similar vein, Ipsita Chanda, in “Selfing the City: the Myth of Calcutta and the Culture of Everyday Life”, writes that the experience of the city becomes “a project of self-construction simultaneous with the “selfing” of physical and mental city-spaces that they [people] inhabit.”

The characters in the anthology are involved in these processes of writing or rewriting the ‘urban text’ from a marginalized point of view through their stories and ‘selfing’ the city-spaces from which they have been previously excluded.

Pain and pleasure

These acts of rewriting and ‘selfing’ the city are not easy, they involve experiences of acute pain and crisis. The stories ‘Soliloquy’ and ‘I Hate Wet Tissues’ deal with the experience of gender dysphoria, that is, the feeling that one’s gender identity is the opposite of or different from the gender identity assigned to oneself at birth based on one’s genital organs.

The transgender protagonist of ‘Soliloquy’ follows a meticulous dress and make-up routine; the story beautifully describes the act of dressing-up from the bare essentials to the draping of a sari. The routine is to counter the assigned gender identity; the protagonist describes the experience of living as a man as torturous. However, the transformation does not rid the protagonist of pain, they recognize that the world is not lenient and will not easily accept them for who they are. In ‘I Hate Wet Tissues’, the narrator talks of the pain of not being in one’s ‘nude body’, when the ‘nude body’ is not of one’s desire.

Pain, in the stories, is effectively countered by pleasure. In ‘Perfume’, pleasure leads to healing. The protagonist says of their sexual partner,

She kissed me like band-aids. And only after that kind of kissing healed every wound, did we kiss differently.

Pleasure, in Devdutt Pattanaik’s ‘The Marriage of Somavat and Sumedha’ is mythologized and naturalized; the whole of nature takes part in the union of the two lovers,

The sounds of lovemaking emerging from the cave excited the trees in the forest. Branches entangled with each other, while vine tendrils gripped the trunks more firmly. The forest-goddess let her thighs part to make room for the rivulets of passion sent down by the sky-gods.

To conclude, the stories in Close, Too Close explore the ‘frantic democracy’ (to borrow a phrase from Herman Melville) of queer sexual encounters in South-Asia to at once challenge the dominant narrative of gender and sexual pleasure and celebrate sexual diversity. Nilofer’s comic-strip ‘Shadowboxer’ that depicts self-pleasure is perhaps the cherry on top of a pleasurable read (puns intended). 

Close, Too Close: The Tranquebar Book of Queer Erotica, edited by Meenu and Shruti, published by Tranquebar Press. 

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