Keats’s letters to Fanny Brawne taught me most of what I know about love.
Sexuality was quite another matter.
Yesterday I witnessed a man ogling at the behind of a girl half his age draped in three quarters. As they passed on the crossing of the lane, he turned back to stare, undeterred by my cold glare. I found myself wondering why Bengali men are so repressed.
There is no reason to be. I grew up reading contemporary Bangla fiction of the 70s and 80s. As a child I read whatever I could lay hands on, turning out recycled newspaper packets, carefully tearing along the dried glue. The novels of Sunil Gangopadhyay, Sanjib Chattopadhyay, Buddhadeb Guha and Samaresh Basu for grownups were my staple diet, grabbed as greedily as their children’s writing. They abounded in unapologetic sexual hunger.
At the time I was also reading Enid Blyton at school, pretty Dettol sanitized literature by comparison.
Physical desire, unclothed in sentimental shit, no nonsense body politics was what I most recall of those stories. This was a blatant generation of brash authors who didn’t shy away from the erotic seed of man-woman love. Every autumn, a thick volume of Pujo edition Desh, Bengal’s illustrious literary periodical, brought in several adult crises to the door of my consciousness. Most of the titles have been forgotten, I’ve rarely had the time or patience to re-read them.
The storylines still linger somewhere in the cobwebby cranial closet.
One was Sunil Gangopadhyay’s semi-autobiographical tryst with an American girl in New York. There, for the first time, far before the semi- urban brown sahibs of today, I learnt of a concept called dating. I remember long hours of languorous love making and khichuri with mushrooms cooked on a pan.
Another was about three men and a woman who’d taken shelter from a storm in a high altitude trekkers’ hut. The men draw lots about who would get to sleep with her.
I don’t recall the clearly defined plot of any of Buddhadeb Guha’s stories except he used the most accurate terms to describe the female anatomy. Incidentally, his is the best love story I was to read in Bangla another two decades later, the epistolary Shobinoye Nibedon. Long before Vagina Monologues came into fashion, he had done imagination to death and some.
Sanjib Chattopadhyay wrote this wicked piece about a girl and her mother both trying to seduce the same man.
Samesh Basu had got himself banned multiple times, the genteel Bengali sensibilities not adult enough for his forays into subaltern lingo or lifestyle. I remember one of his creations, a slum dwelling goon who went about forcing himself onto local women, in explicit coital phrases. ‘Vulgar’ was a horrified fossilized culture’s reaction to his creative license.
Way before I flipped through actual porn, contemporary Bangla prose made me body conscious. Here I solicit perturbed contradictions from literary pundits and literature lovers, equating such fine authors simplistically with pornographic, but I’m merely honestly relating my childhood impressions.
In fact, Sunil Gangopadhyay made a stronger counterpoint with an outstanding dialogue he penned once – again, abashedly, I’ve forgotten the novel’s name – about how there was more to life than the casual friction of southern parts. Hear! Hear! My kiddish brain thumped the invisible table.
I wonder what makes my generation or my older generation so lust starved, then. Why is a teenager’s fully clothed bottom the stuff of second looks? What about a comely neighbour has a man so discomfited? Why pinching a tit or ass on the road needs to be the casual outlet for masculine hormones?
What also surprises me, where are the women? Why were the existent Bangla women I read, Ashapurna Debi, Leela Majumdar, Sukhalata Rao, only authoring domestic tapestries or children’s fare? Why were these writers not storming the erotic battlements? Did they not know body discoveries and elations? Did they feel uncomfortable with the glees of original sin? Shame?
Is that the motive which steered them cautiously from all mention of it?
Was an entire generation of my gender, starkly erudite, sensitive, observant, brilliant creators, hiding acute personal gaucheness? Their stellar corpus of writing, barren of one word of sensuality, stripped carefully of any touch upon the vulva breast oestrogen, giving to all Bengali female readership – well, all save this one disorderly insubordinate, yours truely – a broad hint to look at sex as a marital obligation, no more.
A man’s initiative and his exclusive pleasure?
Were they, as individuals, not familiar with unruly longing, consummated or otherwise, outside the sanctioned nuptial bed? Was gawking eye-attractive physique an alien bliss they never felt?
Why was one generation of power brains so devoid of the body?
What miss, on both counts.