Saturday, 10 May 2014

Book Review – Sita’s Curse by Sreemoyee Piu Kundu



In India, we barely talk about sex. And if we don’t talk about it that freely, writing about it remains many steps further down the road of progressive thought sans hypocrisy. So, when a woman writer creates erotica and uses Sita in its title, in this act itself is a battle won, and one in which we all should triumph. Perhaps, Sreemoyee Piu Kundu created ‘Sita’s Curse’ for this reason – seeking to stimulate a new discourse on female sexuality, in a land which treats ‘The Kamasutra’ like another’s child. Still. 

‘Sita’s Curse’ is the story of Meera Patel, a village girl married to Mohan, a man living with his mother and brother’s family in the dingy confines of ‘Saali Mumbai’. Meera’s childhood is about her bond with her brother, Kartik, and Meera’s adult life ‘a collision of callous cravings’ - her urgent need for love, respect, acceptance and sexual fulfilment. Trudging through a dying marriage and dead domesticity, she finds succor only in her flights of fantasy behind locked doors, finding calm ‘somewhere on the cusp between dreams and desires’. Until, as the cover says, ‘one cataclysmic day in Mumbai, when she finally breaks free …

Yes, there is a lot of sex in this book. But for me, the book went beyond erotica to claim its place in the shelf of feminist literature coming from India. 

Sex – how used

Erotica is all about vividness of expression. Where words replay scenes before the readers’ eyes – in order to titillate through the realism. It requires language that freely succumbs to the writer’s fancy, and a writer with an imagination sans social bounds. ‘Sita’s Curse’ is full of sex and love making – some unpleasant, but mostly pleasant. However, notice not just how visually sex has been described but how it has been used by Sreemoyee - to expose socio-religious hypocrisy and question the institution of marriage, by giving a feminist’s voice to Meera, the woman seeking ‘flying without the fear of falling’, a personal freedom. 

Hence, sexual act acquires myriad meanings. Meera, in her suffocating domesticity, is seen ‘pleasuring myself to feel a sense of inner calm.’ Watching Guruji beg for more makes her feel like a ‘Goddess … the power I seemed to demonstrate over a man thousands worshipped.’ She enjoys Mohan angst-ridden ‘taking my time to touch him…back…in the way I calculated’. Desire for calm or to feel free, for power and even revenge. All this, as she longs for someone to really see ‘this Meera … the person … this person I am now.’ Waiting to be acknowledged as a woman of desires. 

Making love, thus, becomes self-exploratory as well as a means to achieving an identity, as are the various relationships she enters in her life. 

Relationships – how developed

Meera journeys ahead in her quest for realization through the four main men in her life. With each she discovers or sheds a part of herself she could not otherwise. 

Kartik and Meera’s ‘love was rare’. Emotional, physical, unconventional. A dependence the twins acquired even though only one carried it on into the book, for apart from their mother the author herself knew it belonged to a ‘blue … no black no white’ world. Not in our society. It remains the most fulfilling relationship Meera ever had. Amarkant Maharaj, a man of God, helps Meera get in touch with her desires, her free will to break free but to become his salvation, his Sita. He opens up her mind to ‘unholy’ possibilities. Up until Meera finds a voice to ask him who he is to tell her ‘Who must I be?’ Learning to choose, en route her awakening, through Guruji.

And then Meera’s relationship with Mohan, her husband, ‘Strangers in every way confined to age old customs and the suffocation induced by small talk’ because we prepare girls for marriage but tell them nothing about love. The inadequate Mohan sees her as ‘so damn needy all the time’ as Meera struggles to live the lies marriages in India are often sustained on. Eventually attempts breaking free from getting her identity dissolved completely. Finally, confronting him for his bestiality for by then there was ‘so little left of us, to salvage or surrender’.

Surrender she does. To Yosuf. The stranger boy who tells her that to be loved is ‘scary shit … it means you want to be saved’ whereas ‘being desired is like drowning…you have to let go…of the life you had’.  A relationship of a few hours, but one which gives more perspective to her mind than any other. And a direction to his, for Yosuf’s life too, exactly like Meera’s ‘is a lie … and that is the only truth.’ Yosuf. Almost like a male version of Sita, not Ram, in a human body. 

Which gets me to the politics of the body.

Meera - the body, the feminism 

Meera’s mother tells her how our bodies are ‘our only source of power. You must always stay this way … supple, strong, sensuous.’ Of female sexuality, and its incipient power. Of wanting more as time goes by. Desiring. Indeed, Meera’s body remains her ‘greatest ally’, a means to waking up her consciousness. I was reminded of Luce Irigaray’s thoughts when I read this conversation between Meera and her mother. I quote from ‘Speculum of the Other Woman’:

At times forces (like Meera) rise up and threaten to lay waste the community. Refusing to be that unconscious ground that nourishes nature, womanhood would then demand the right to pleasure, to jouissance … thus betraying her universal destiny. What is more, she would pervert the propriety of the State by making fun of the adult male subjecting him to derision …
And
Woman is neither open nor closed. She is indefinite, in-finite…this incompleteness in her form, her morphology, allows her continually to become something else … No metaphor completes her…perhaps this is what is meant by her insatiable thirst for satisfaction. No one single thing … can complete the development of a woman’s desire.

You will realize reflections of these thoughts in the woman that is Meera – who asks Mohan – ‘What is the difference between being a wife, a whore, and a woman, Mohan? What … what if being a woman is just enough? Just, just once?

A body seeking pleasure beyond set boundaries only to fulfil her own desires. Quite unlike the Sita we know from our mythology, isn’t it? 

So then, what explains the title of the book?

Why ‘Sita’s Curse’?

The Prologue says ‘Ram! Ram!’ It sees Meera pleasuring herself, even as the outside world frantically knocks at her door to impinge on her space. Meera stays, ‘rewarded by the rites of passage … folding her legs like Goddess Lakshmi’. Thus begins Sreemoyee’s brazen juxtaposition of God and ungodly, even in her naming of characters, actually. 

Meera is always made to play the role of Sita in school. She sits decked up and Sreemoyee uses words like ‘piercing, fake, dull, weighed and crowding’ describing her state of mind in that state of over-dress. A heroine in a story that is not even her own. Lost among all the social din. Lost exactly like the real point behind mythological Sita’s ‘agnipareeksha’. A point the author makes Meera raise at a religious gathering, much later – ‘What if Sita hadn’t been kidnapped … what if Lord Ram and she went on to live a simple life … maybe in a city like ours, dwelling … like most of us do. Would the Ramayana still be this relevant … would it stand for anything, anything at all?’ 

The question is ignored, but the reader realizes that through Meera we are being made to re-look at Sita ‘Not the Goddess. The woman. The wife. If she were trapped in a stale, lifeless marriage… tarnished because she was wanted by someone else. For a temptation that wasn’t even hers.

Questions abound. 

Is Meera then symbolic of Sita? And is her treatment by the author at the end of the book a submission, an acceptance of this ‘curse’ on women like Meera? Do we see the end as a defeat, or a way to preserve a Meera in a society not yet ripe for women like her?

Is this then an Indian version of George Eliot’s novel ‘Mill on the Floss’, written so many years back? Do the stories converge? The story of Maggie and her ‘unwomanly boldness and unbridled passions’. Of her extreme love for her brother, Tom. The story of women torn by emotional conflicts. The story of societies that refuse to grow up, of edicts they use to prepare, marry off, judge human worth. Of Stephens and Yosuf’s and loves which threaten the calm waters set by religion. And of final deluges – of floods and waters and torrential rains. Of a sudden washing away of dreams and desires even though ‘in their death they were not divided’. Questions that came to my mind, and may to yours too.   

Ifs and buts

No book is perfect. ‘Sita’s Curse’ has its shortcomings too, even if few and far between. Instances where Meera’s desires border on desperate, considering the dire situation surrounding her. The sudden disappearance of Chotu from the story. A western dance school in their Byculla lane. Guruji’s televised interview coming at a point to spoil the enigmatic character that had been built. Yosuf’s online avatar so unlike his real person. And the series of coincidences in a big city like Mumbai which, though goosebumpy and significant to the culmination of the plot, remain too much of coincidences. 

The final word

Sita’s Curse’ must be read. Savoured, actually. It is a most powerful piece of fiction which merges into the reality of life so seamlessly, so sadly. The closets are full to the brim with sex whispers flowing with desire and they all need to be turned into loud voices – men’s or women’s – occupying the public domain sans discomfort. Going beyond erotica into a world where the female voice needs to be heard outside the bedroom, because there is a story behind every desire. As also a dream, ‘of love and loss, kisses and kites…dream of erotica and erections, of rivers and rescues…dream of silence and surrender, of marriage and masturbation, dream of butterflies and breasts, of pleasure and pain..’ in every woman. Where even nature colludes, expressed through Sreemoyee’s recurrent imagery – the harsh sun or full moon nights, the teasing rain or catastrophic deluges – to write the language of desire.




52 comments:

  1. I've just started the book, you whetted my appetite for it

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    1. Good to know.
      I think you'll like it, Ritu ma'am.

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  2. I will be buying it soon. Then we will have one book that both of us have read. The next book club meeting will be fun. :)

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    1. I am so looking forward to it, Unknown. Is this a blind date or something, this book club meeting? :D

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  3. And that Unknown comment came from Amit.

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    1. I could have guessed it's you when you said this is one book we both are reading. Good to know, Amit. I'm looking forward to you reading this review after you've read the book too.

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  4. That is such a detailed and in-depth review here, Sakshi, You have certainly invested your time and effort with this one! I'm intrigued. Will grab a copy soon :)

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    1. Well, yes, I did work a little hard. It was just asking to be reviewed this way, Bhavya. Yes, I recommend it whole-heartedly so do grab a copy. :)

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  5. I agree with Amit. Our next Book Club meeting will be very interesting! In more ways than one.

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  6. Sounds very interesting

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  7. I told you it was on my list and now, after your review, a must buy. I am reading another book 'My Story' by Kamala Das. It is so brutally honest about sex, love and her life that you are swayed by it. Will be very interesting to read Sita's curse after this one.

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    1. Oh yes, her autobiography. I have read that. I think it will indeed be interesting to read the two back-to-back. We can exchange our thoughts once you are done with both. Would love to do that, Jas.
      Thanks for stopping by!

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  8. It's been after ages that I've read such a honest review, flowing from the heart as you decode Sita's Curse, from the condition of women's perspective. As you rightly pointed out, there is a need for us to look beyond sex and erotica to get a glance in someone's heart and soul. Brutally honest review, Sakshi and u prompting me to grab a copy and looks like an intellectually honest read and brain storming. Your review somehow reminds me of Lady's Chatterley Lover. Absolutely like it when you insert quotes to highlight the plight of lesser celebrated women in our culture.
    Thumbs up:)

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    1. Thanks a lot, Vishal. I'm sure you'll like the book!

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  9. What Sreemoyee did with the book, you did it with your review..excellent job!!

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    1. My God! That is a lovely thing to hear. Thank you! :)

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  10. This seems like a one of a kind book. Rare in India. And from what I could gather from your review and the blurb, a well written book. This is going on my Must Read List !

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    1. Good to know, Ruch. You will like it!

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  11. Wow i must pick up this book!

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  12. first time visiting your blog :)
    wonderful reflection post,

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  13. Your review makes me want to buy the book, right away! :)

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    1. My review does recommend it, so yes, give in to the temptation! ;)

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  14. hmmmm you know not sure about hte book I would just buy it just reading the review.. for sure ..

    Bikram

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  15. WOW! Your review has surely piqued my interest. I am a bit uncomfortable reading about sex and avoided reading the book but your rational critique has inspired me to go beyond my comfort zone, look behind the cover and hopefully enjoy the book as much as you did.

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    1. Thanks for reading my review, BellyBytes. I sure hope if you pick up the book thanks to my feedback, you enjoy it too. :)

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  16. Sakshi, ordering my copy today, can't wait to read this very interesting story after reading your fantastic review. Lady, write your book soon...love your writing.

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    1. Order. I think this is up for our book club discussion next time? Looking forward to it.

      My book? Hm. :) I'm almost scared to turn this distant dream into an idea in my head even. I wonder what will make me ready. If anything will, at all. Ever. :) But thank you, Sulekha. Someone like yourself saying it does make me feel happy.

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  17. It is always a delight to know that an Indian Author has dared to write something different.. and for that reason alone I would want to read the book.. your detailed review makes it a must read now :)

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  18. is this book available as ebook format??

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    1. It is available on Flipkart. That may have a eBook too. Thanks for reading, Annapurna! :)

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    2. Hi Annapurna, the e-book is out on June 4, will share the link for sure.

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  19. Dear Sakshi, to be very honest this is one of the finest written reviews I have ever read. I liked your categories (if I can call them) - Sex-how used, Meera-the body, the relationships and the final word. Your post can be used as a template for book-reviews. Awesome.

    Further, your writing evokes an admiration for the book. With due respect to the author, I am not taking her beauty but just wanted to imply I am going to read it soon.

    Many regards, Shaifali

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    1. Wow!
      Thank you, Shaifali. I read your feedback 3 times and felt good 6 times over. :D
      I organise all my reviews along a frame that I decide upon. Makes reading as well as understanding my point of view easier. Plus, since they are usually too long/detailed for popular taste, this helps in skimming through when time is short.
      Do read it. It is a one-of-its-kind attempt to de-objectify a woman by portraying her as one following her bodily desires, despite the social milieu. Quite unlike the stereotypical objectification we see in the media or though mindsets.
      You made my day!
      Lots of love, Sakshi.

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    2. Sakshi....& you made my day with the review style :)

      I live in US, checked if the book was available on Amazon or as a Kindle book. Unfortunately Amazon doesn't have it. But I am buying it this July when I am in India. You write very nicely, I am glad to be visiting your space. Have a good day.

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    3. Thanks, dear Shaifali. Let me know your blog link, in case you too write. I'd love to follow you too. :)

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    4. Hi Shaifali, the e-book is out on June 4, will surely share the link. Thanks for your interest in India's first feminist erotica. More power to us:)

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  20. Hello Sakshi, I loved your detailed review about the book.. you managed to notice points which I have missed in my review http://www.finixpost.com/book-review-sitas-curse/ but then there are points which you did skip your lens..
    1. Where's the story? though it's an erotica.. it is still a story.. story of Mrs. Meera Patel.. almost every part of her life was left undone.. things came in and went out suddenly.. how the end was sketched.. how people just vanished and reappeared.. like sudden disappearance of Chhotu .. though it's how the story was framed but as an avid reader that you are.. I am sure you know the story could have been narrated in a far better way..
    2. The 'erotica' part: the fact that Kundu decided to take up a subject like this in her book doesn't make the book good just like that. Is it really possible? As a fair reviewer.. I want you to answer this question.. As a book reviewer.. would you find it just to call a book 'good and must read' just because people in your country don't usually write on subjects like those?
    Prologue.. yes.. first 100 pages.. yep .. I agree the book was good and I myself was thinking that this book is going to be a great one but we both read it till the end.. didn't we?
    And whoever has read this book would know how monotonous the story becomes and how it goes in no direction..
    The plot wasn't well designed. Things were deliberately kept like that to add a 'surprise factor' but did that work?

    Truthfully speaking, I visited your blog for the first time and having read this review, I am utterly disappointed. In fact, all the reviews I have been reading about this book, everyone claims this book to be a good one coz 'she decided to write on this subject'
    Maybe this would be good for people new to this genre but what about the other set of people? Doesn't this review become biased in that case? Do you think its fair?

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    1. Hi Manpreet, what an informed comment. Made me happy. :) I will be reading your review too, but in the mean time, here is my side of the story:
      1. It is indeed a story, simple as it may be. Not every sequence of events need be spectacular. My life story isn't, but it still is my story. So, by putting Meera amidst the commonplace, oft over-looked milieu, does not mean it is not a story or needs to be a thrilling, super interesting one. I think the focus was not on the events but on the relationships. As for strange coincidences in the plot in a big city like Mumbai as well as CHotu's disappearance, I have mentioned those in the 'ifs' too. I do not think the story could have been narrated any better. The ending can satisfy-dissatisfy depending on how readers prefer. I liked the way language was used (as I amply convey above) and why I liked the book. As a reader, often, the story takes a back seat for me.
      2. I say above the book went beyond erotica for me and I looked at it with a feminist angle. If you had read the 1700 words above well, you will see how I make it amply clear with textual references as to why I liked the book. Not just because it had sex. You assume there, Manpreet. I do think this is unfair too. :)
      If the story became 'monotonous' to you as a reader doesn't mean it did to me too and that I am lying here. The plot was too full to the brim with coincidences. As I gather, you look for a strong story/plot in the books you review, and I don't. What I do look for, and found worthy of appreciation, is given above. Fair enough?

      I am sorry that you are so disappointed, even though I do not understand why you imply that I am over-selling the book when I am only being as honest about this piece of Literature as perhaps you have been in your review? Also, and I repeat, I do not say the book is worth reading because of the subject. It is how she uses the subject that made it worthy for me.

      I cannot understand 'bias' and 'fair' in the way you use it. I stand by my review. Don’t underestimate the intelligence of readers of reviews, people with free will who can make informed choices without me telling them what to like and what not to. This is as honest and as unbiased as reviews get on my blog. I am sorry you are 'displeased', but pleasing someone was never the aim in the first place. Yes, being true to my thoughts was.
      Thanks a lot, Manpreet.

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  21. Sakshi, thanks for your vote of confidence. And for standing by your review. I as a writer like to think everyone is entitled to their opinion and rightly so. Also, a blog is an independent space, as is a book/film/work of art, and frankly that is the best part about creativity:) As for Manpreet finding loopholes, well, each to their own. Books are after all individualistic experiences and each reader feels its worth according to their own view point that is to be respected. As for the sexual angle, I think in a country where we have seen the flowering of Chugtai and Kalidasa, really anyone coming after will only be a mere follower:) Also, personally, I think we should stop bawling about sex and erotica in India, be it in books/films, after all we are the birthplace of this culture. Happy reading everyone and thanks for seeing Meera in the eye.

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    1. You can see I enjoy my independence of thought - out here and in my head too. Especially for opinions which I gathered from 'self-study' rather than popular vote on social media. I stick by it then, with hoops to steel.
      I like what you say about Chugtai and Kalidasa. But I also believe Literature is always becoming. The Lihafs are falling. With time. And as a reader I am very happy to see how that is happening. Slow, but there. :)
      Thanks for dropping by and leaving your comment, Sreemoyee.
      Wish you lots of success for your book!

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  22. can i have the link to the ebook??

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    1. Here you go:
      http://www.amazon.in/Sitas-Curse-Sreemoyee-Piu-Kundu/dp/935009780X/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1401937856&sr=1-1&keywords=sita%27s+curse

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  23. Ohh!! What a story. To be honest I had goosebumps all the way till the end. Such a rare story of our country. Thank you for recommending this book. Looking forward for another wonderful review by you..

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    1. Glad you enjoyed it as much as I did. We belong to the same school, it seems! :)
      Reviews are always getting written. Stay around. :D

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  24. Reading, in my opinion has received a major blow in terms of interest lately. People or amateur writers for that matter are always like, have got urgent writing task? don't know what to do with it? great literature only comes out of a steady reader, i think. I read this book and found it greatly engaging. A well rounded review.

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  25. Sreemoyee congrats for the book, though I lately came to know about Sita's Curse.Your Review is really good. Congratulation over the L'OREAL WOMEN OF WORTH.

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