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 …’
‘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.’
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.