Ananth wrote his first erotic short story sometime in 2011 in the unlikeliest of places – Saravana Bhavan, over a south Indian coffee. It was about two men who walk into a New York strip club where the narrator recognises one of the dancers as the daughter of his father’s best friend.
Subsequently, Ananth went on to write ten more short stories. But even so, he would’ve never imagined that he’d write a full-fledged erotic novel one day – the recently published Play With Me.
Man of letters: Ananth is already planning a sequel to his first novel, Play With Me.
How the novel happened is also a story Ananth can dine out on for years. At a routine meeting at Penguin, where he works as a senior vice-president, he was suddenly asked by publisher Chiki Sarkar if he would like to write an erotic novel. Ananth was taken aback, but immediately seized on the idea.
It’s an open secret that most voracious readers and people who love books are potential writers. Ananth was no different. He’s been reading books since he was a child. "My parents always shoved a book into my hands," he recalls. "And since my dad’s younger brother had a lending library in Chennai when I was growing up, I was constantly reading."
So when Chiki asked him if he’d like to write this particular book, he had no reservations about taking on the challenge. There is an element of self-consciousness with most first-time writers, and this is probably compounded if you’re attempting to write an erotic novel.
How do you draw the line between erotica and soft porn? How nervous are you that your family and friends may be a trifle embarrassed by your book? How do you write the sex scenes – the toughest part, even for experienced authors? (There’s a reason why there is Bad Sex Award given to authors every year and it’s been ‘won’ by some of the best-known names in the business, including Tom Wolfe and Manil Suri.)
Just let go
We are sitting in one of Delhi’s charming French cafés on a twilit evening, as Ananth attempts to answer these questions. “I think you have to just let go,” he says. “That’s what I did. I am also a photographer, so I could see a lot of things in my head, as visuals. I wrote with my own sensibility. But I knew that if readers – particularly women – felt disgusted after a sex scene, I’d be screwed.”
As for the embarrassment factor, Ananth says some readers did tell him they’d kept the book away from their children. And a few friends said they had some queries for him, but when he asked them to mail the questions, they went quiet.
Play With Me is about a cool, young ad photographer, Sid, and his relationships with two women in his life – the staggeringly gorgeous Cara (as many reviewers remarked – “a male fantasy” if there ever was one) and the warm, sensible Natasha. There is plenty of uninhibited sex – on the office couch, a rain-drenched terrace, a sandy beach in Goa. There’s also a threesome at some point.
“I meant to push the bar on titillation,” admits Ananth. “But it’s not soft porn.” He emphasises that it was “very important” for him to get the women characters right. As he says, “My women are strong, independent. Sid likes women, he treats them well. He’s not an alpha guy.”
But interestingly, Ananth stays away from the stereotype of women wanting love and men wanting sex. “Love is a limiting word,” he says. “In my book, the characters barely say ‘love’ to each other. It’s a world where you can have pleasure without sex. Cara has sex with Sid, but she’s not possessive. In fact, Sid is the one who is tormented – when they meet after a long time, she has no qualms about having sex with him. That bothers him.”
The erotic ripple
Play With Me is selling well. A few other Indian erotic novels have also come out recently. Ananth believes it was the success of EL James’ Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy, published in 2011-12, that proved the tipping point for erotica to go mainstream internationally (“what JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series did for fantasy”). And naturally the ripples have been felt here as well, though they have yet to create a full-fledged wave.
“I think Indian writing in English has got caught in this ‘look, we can write’ thing,” says Ananth. “We want to intellectualise everything and scoff at anything else. Play With Me is a simple story of four or five people. It does say a few things though. We’re all capable of loving more than one person. Sex can be for pleasure. It doesn’t have to be unusual [read deviant] to be extraordinary.”
It’s clear that Ananth enjoyed writing this book. So much so that, despite his busy, full-time job, he’s all set to do a sequel. He’s storyboarding it right now, but he’s already decided on the name: Think of Me.
In conservative India, it’s always a good idea to push the envelope. But when someone decides to tear it up, it’s even better.
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From HT Brunch, November 9
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