Review: Close, Too Close

Close, Too Close: The Tranquebar Book of Queer Erotica

Edited by Meenu and Shruti

Tranquebar Rs. 395 pp 216

While India’s Supreme Court contemplates whether or not to uphold the landmark 2009 Delhi High Court judgement decriminalising homosexuality, the public domain gets queerer by the day. The latest is the Tranquebar book of Queer Erotica, edited by Meenu and Shruti, comprising queer erotic stories and illustrations.

In his foreword, Vikram Doctor explains that this anthology is different from other queer writings in that the “genre has been dominated by a few narratives, such as that of coming out and of the violence, loss and shame this often brings.” This collection, on the other hand, extricates itself from angst-ridden narratives by displacing violence in favour of ‘attraction’. The transition from narratives of pain to narratives of pleasure signals a larger historical shift. From a preoccupation with violence, victimology and sexual wrongs to the more affirmative plane of sexual rights, the queer movement has staked its claim on pleasure and desire, creating the possibility for a book such as this.

The introduction observes that “it is through desire that many people first know of their sexuality”. Those whose sexualities fall through the cracks of normativity are condemned to shame and silence. The collection presents a vibrant, wildly diverse world of desires where no rules are sacred except that of consent. The quality of writing is uneven — some of the stories should never have escaped the author’s desk — but a sizable number makes for enjoyable reading. One of my personal favourites is ‘Dreams and Desires in Srinagar’ by Michael Malik G where fantasy and desire collide over the ambivalent folds of eroticism and friendship. I also enjoyed the gradually unravelling ‘Upstairs, Downstairs’ by Nikhil Yadav which functions both as erotic fiction as well as a compelling urban chronicle. Devdutt Pattanaik’s ‘The Marriage of Somavat and Sumedha’ is a mythic fable likely to remind readers of Naya Gharvas, Vijay Dan Dheta’s path-breaking story of lesbian marriage and the queerly-intuitive animals (like Bhadravati the lesbian cow) from the stories of Suniti Namjoshi. ‘I Hate Wet Tissues’ by Satya maps the sexual adventures of a Transman. Clearly, there is no space that the imagination has not eroticised queerly. Doctor cautions readers “expecting a raunchy read” that while the stories are explicit, “they largely avoid the prurient spirit of pure porn”.

Unfortunately, the distinction between porn (explicit, obscene, indecent and unacceptable) and erotica (subtle, suggestive, artistic and acceptable) is not one over which there can ever be consensus. What distinguishes porn and erotica is interpretable and subjective. There is much wisdom and acuity in the saying, “What I like is erotica and what you like is porn!”

In an erudite historical mapping of this debate, art historian Lynda Nead highlights the social legitimising function of erotic art (‘the gold of high culture’) and pornography (‘the base matter’). Cultural consumption — arbitrated through judgements about good and bad taste — serves to ensure social superiority and legitimate social distinctions. Erotica has always enjoyed more respectability than porn but the lines that separate the two have been a matter of endless debate. Despite Doctor's cautionary note, this volume too will not be spared the debate.

The introduction begins by asking: “When we pick up a book of erotica, what magic does it hold for us?” The nature of erotic desire is such that the same rules will rarely apply. What is desirable for one could well be tedious, even repulsive to another. But herein lies the worth of erotica. By demonstrating that sexual imagination is animated by endless possibilities, erotica helps us understand ‘difference’ as diversity, not perversity. To this end, this book is for queers and non-queers alike.

Shohini Ghosh is professor at the AJK Mass Communication Research Centre, Jamia Millia Islamia


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