Monday, February 13, 2017

“His lines are laced with libido” – on Tanveer Bookwala’s erotic collection Wet

[Did this review for Scroll]

The explicit sex scene is one of literature’s great levelers – the place where the inexperienced hack who can barely string together a grammatical sentence might stand on an equal footing with the acclaimed, much-awarded author. Looking for unintentionally funny porn? You can browse the scores of “bestsellers” written by randy teens to impress their friends, and published by low-investment-no-editing houses such as Srishti; but you can just as easily look at the entries that get shortlisted for the Bad Sex in Fiction Award, many of them by heavyweights such as Haruki Murakami, Tom Wolfe and Philip Roth (to say nothing of Tony Blair).

In the first type of book, you’ll find delirious, trying-too-hard sentences like “The friction between a virgin vagina and virile vigor (sic) produced such fire on bed (sic) that it could easily put two flint stones to shame” (from Novoneel Chakraborty’s That Kiss in the Rain… Love is the Weather of Life) or displays of juvenile wonderment (“He pulled off her bra to discover that her lofty [sic] boobs did indeed meet the idea he had of them” – Tuhin Sinha’s That Thing Called Love). In the other type, equally ludicrous things might be done in a more literary-seeming way: consider “He kissed the slight, rose-coloured trench that remained from her knicker elastic, running around her belly like the equator line circling the world” (Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North). Or “I came suddenly, a jolt that emptied my head like a spoon scraping the inside of a soft-boiled egg” (from Jonathan Littell’s epic The Kindly Ones). Or, for spiritually inclined readers, “She took my head in both hands and guided it downward, between her fragrant thighs. 'Yoni puja – pray, pray at my portal' ” (Paul Theroux’s A Dead Hand).

Which is to say that any writer, regardless of pedigree and experience, whether fumbling and self-conscious or smug and overconfident, can easily go wrong with the sex scene. (It is also possible on occasion that a well-written sex scene provokes discomfort leading the reader to perceive the writing itself as poor, but I won’t get into that discussion here.) Writing erotica is never easy, it always comes with the risk that you’ll become a laughing stock. And this is why I was willing to overlook some of the more cringe-inducing passages in Tanveer Bookwala’s collection Wet.

It does take some overlooking, though.

The first of the seven stories, “The Clinic”, begins with the narrator watching his wife moan in ecstasy as another man performs oral sex on her. The scene builds in intensity, there is much slithering and throbbing and bucking and dribbling and twitching and plunging, things seem to be going well generally, and the woman, we are assured, is having a grand old time. But then comes this odd little description: “Rocky sucked hungrily on her lips, nipping them, refusing to let go, much like a stubborn dog refusing to part with his meat. The sexual tug-of the dog and the very wet bone, the thrill of fresh meat, Sheila’s legs open, splayed…”

At the end of the passage, Sheila duly “shuddered and came like a deluge”. Later in the book, when another woman being thus serviced “gushes like a waterfall”, I had visions of the author carrying along a snorkeling mask on his own carnal adventures – but sticking with Sheila for now, all I could think was: did she have an orgasm because someone was chewing, dog-like, on her “wet bone”? Sounds like the perfect woman for a lazy, unimaginative man… or for a threesome involving Hannibal Lecter and Rin Tin Tin.

At this point, only two pages into the book, the epigraph “To every woman I have ever known and those I am yet to meet” felt less like an enticing promise and more like a threat. In the fashion of the over-smart reviewer who gets off on trashing everything, I had this sentence scribbled out in my notepad: “If this is what the author thinks will rock the world of women he is yet to meet, female readers may consider filing a restraining order.”

Reading on, though, I found myself willing to give Wet a chance. This is not to say that the banalities, clichés and ill-conceived metaphors disappear, they don’t. Many sentences are overcooked, clumsy (“The steam from the tea made the dust of their love dance”) or plain wrong (“the desire to see Ria’s breasts were clearly worth the big bucks”), and some of the writing is like a parody of those annual Bad Sex Award excerpts. “Sharma’s cock was flicking like a firefly trapped in a jar,” we learn, “His mouth was dry. His erection, erect. (Sic) He looked at his mother-in-law in a bid to kill it.” You’ll find similarly amusing things on pretty much any page. “The Scandinavian, made-to-order shower gel made love to her loofah.” “It was a blasphemous cauldron of smell and taste.” “Abdul tore through her expensive silk shirt, shredding it; the sounds of the seams coming apart echoing around the kitchen like the original sin.”


So, here’s the obligatory warning: while this book (obviously) isn’t for a squeamish or prim reader, it isn’t for fans of sharp or economical prose either. However, there are interesting things going on here at the idea level. Bookwala’s writing may seem forced in places, but there is nothing inauthentic about the dark sensibility of the stories. A sense of danger runs through them: they are about the many effects of sexual desire, how it can cross over into game-playing and fetishism, how the yearning to submit fully to an impulse can coexist with a deep fear of submission. And there is plenty of matter-of-factly subversive content, as in a passage where a young boy masturbates near the temple where his father is a priest; as he experiences his first orgasm, an ethereal white light flashes before his eyes and he imagines the woman whose photo he is looking at screaming God’s name.

Apart from being attentive to the desirous woman seeking out new sexual identities (in itself a risky thing for a writer to do in our current cultural climate), Bookwala probes the morally ambiguous aspects of sex. In one story, a horny sexologist can’t believe his luck when a voluptuous young woman walks into his office out of the rain, wet but shyly willing to get “wetter”. In another, a man becomes so addicted to porn, and to virtual sex with the images on his computer screen, that he barely registers his flesh-and-blood wife. In a tale that involves S&M and an uneasy bridging of the class divide, a wealthy writer(!!) bullies her meek husband around but finds a new life of the flesh with her servant. A phone-sex encounter turns into something with incestuous overtones.

Interestingly, the one story that involves a more-or-less conventional sexual relationship – “The 3 a.m. Show”, about two young lovers setting out to lose their virginity on Valentine’s Day – may be the strangest of the lot, since it takes a surreal turn midway: I won’t give away details, but suffice it to say that the lovers become the stars of a baroque, decadent nighttime performance. At its best – again, not so much in the actual writing but in the concept and structure – this piece about voyeurism suggests what Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death” could look like if written in an age of projection rooms and hidden cameras. It gets my vote for one of the two most intriguing stories in the collection.

The other one is “Tipping the Velvet”, in which a bereaved woman named Gita finds herself gliding, unexpectedly but very enjoyably, into a first lesbian encounter… but that isn’t the most mysterious thing that will happen to her over the course of the night. In both these stories, there is some formal experimentation, including crosscutting (in one passage, Gita, while in the throes of passion, has visions of cemeteries and coffins) – they move back and forth across the line that separates reality from fantasy, private lives from public ones, “normalcy” from “deviant” behaviour.

If this reads like a schizophrenic review, I plead guilty. But that’s the nature of the book: even if you overlook the flaws in the writing, Wet can annoy and intrigue you at the same time. The author profile in the beginning says that Bookwala’s lines “are delicately laced with libido”. Not really: there is little that’s delicate or subtle about this collection. It is bold, brash, in your face, tiresomely florid at times … yet a case can be made that this approach is well-suited to the telling of stories about obsession verging on insanity. 

[An earlier post on Urmilla Deshpande's "carnal prose" collection Slither is here]


  1. Would recommend Mastram for his damn funny sex writing in Hindi. It seems it's tough to write consistently well on sex. I read John Updike's Couples and felt it was really well written on sex and otherwise. Another writer in recent times who wrote about sex and what goes around it really well was Daniyal Muennudin.

  2. Another writer in recent times who wrote about sex and what goes around it really well was Daniyal Muennudin.

    Pessimist Fool: "...and what goes around it" is a relevant phrase in this context, and it also ties into the supposed difference between erotica and pornography (the latter being the grinding, graphic description of the act itself - with an emphasis on intercourse - while the former being more about the whole sensory experience, including the before and after, and things that don't usually get categorised as "sex".)

  3. Yeah. Pre and post the sex act description is very important. I'm reading Madame Bovary and although haven't reached the part of Madame's affairs but the writing even when Charles Bovary is getting attracted to her before they marry (and obviously have sex) is so terrific. Wonder why I never read Flaubert.