ON SEX by Urmilla Deshpande

Urmilla Deshpande

Since the last blog was about marriage counselling, and since my last book was carnal prose, this blog could only be about one thing: cooking.

No, I’m joking, don’t touch that remote. It’s sex.

I often joke to my friends that Indians don’t do sex. And they counter with the billion plus population. But I really do want to re-iterate: Having children has not much to do with sex. Not of the kind I’m talking about anyway. Just like food: we eat for survival, but we also eat for pleasure. And, we have sex to procreate, but we also have sex for fun. Or to express our feelings for a partner. Or to feel good. Or to make someone else feel good.

I was asked, after Slither came out, why Indian writers, most writers, in fact, fail at sex writing. I hadn’t thought about it, and I’m not qualified to make that judgement. But I did say that the answer might lay not in our skills as writers, but as sexual beings. I want to use this forum to explore this idea, and I encourage readers to join in the discussion. Let’s keep this serious folks, and not get all silly about it. Indians have a tendency to get silly about all things sexual.

For example, I was recently asked about a kiss in some film – I’m told there’s a controversy about whether or not it should stay in the film. Not having seen a Bollywood film in years and years, I had no idea this was still an issue. Especially as the song videos that play in the one Indian restaurant in my small town look to me like pornography in full clothing. I mean they are doing it all. All but penetration, that is. I think I’d rather watch honest pornography. There is something inherently ugly about the non-sex in the Bollywood song and dance. It makes me cringe, in spite of the undeniable beauty of the stars.

Seriously, is sex a problem in India? I have not lived there in over a decade, so I don’t know anymore. But, here’s an anecdote from my former life: I had this boyfriend. I assumed he felt about me the way I felt about him. We were young, and not in love of course, but definitely attracted in the way the young are. But, he wouldn’t physically respond to me in any way. In fact tried very hard to keep our relationship in public places. I mean movie theatres and restaurants. I finally asked him point blank what the problem was. He said, ‘after marriage’. I was appalled, and stopped seeing him. I was accused of being sex-obsessed, and various other things too. You know, the usual. But from my point of view, what if I married him – or anyone – and then found out he had limbs where he should not, or that he smelled like old socks?

You tell me, don’t you test drive cars before you buy them? And more important, don’t you learn to drive, and get a license even before that?

I remember being interviewed by Society magazine. I was asked how I felt about living with my boyfriend (different one from old socks). I know now the question was about sex, and not about sharing the utility bill. The journalist wouldn’t ask directly, and I didn’t catch on. I really just didn’t. I assume today lots more people are living with people they have sex with, and marriage is not a prerequisite to sex anymore. But now, that we are having more sex (of the non-procreating variety), are we having it well? Creatively? Satisfactorily? Most important, are we getting experienced enough to write about it well?

That’s where I was going with this: how are we supposed to write about something we know nothing about? Something we are not allowed to know about? or at the very least have to pretend not to know about?

(Urmilla Deshpande is the writer of Slither: Carnal Prose, A Pack of Lies, Kashmir Blues and co-editor of Madhouse: True Stories of the Inmates of Hostel 4 (IIT-B))

14 thoughts on “ON SEX by Urmilla Deshpande

  1. How exactly does a graphic sex scene in a book, or for that matter, in a movie, further the plot line? What purpose does it serve other than to titillate? And if we want something for titillation purposes, well then, the multi-million dollar porn industry certainly doesn’t disappoint.

    I don’t think the point is embarrassment, really, or lack of knowledge. I think it has more to do with relevance.

    Why do we need to know how the nipples are licked and when the cum comes?

    So the characters in the book get it on. Great! Well done! Now let’s move on…

    At least, that’s how I see it…

    • That’s quite an odd response: you would have to ask, why are there graphic murder scenes in a book? why do we have to know when the garrote tightens, and when the final breath leaves the body? Why is anything written about? described? why would you single out sex for “let’s move on”? why not just have every story told in two or three lines, skip the gory, sexy, or any details? Man meets man. They fall in love. One gets killed in a hit-and-run. The other moves to Damascus. He becomes a painter and lemon farmer. He dies. Hows that?

  2. I just published my marathi novel. Its kind of thriller. It contains few sex scenes. Same awkward responses I heard from my relatives who read it. As it is over-detailing .You could write indirectly etc. Indians have forgotten Sex as Art for long times. They want to hide it. They want to talk about it in private as some Taboo thing. At least I can say this about majority of middle class. But same time, their underage girls do random sex with neighbors,relatives & hide it from their parents. In all, all do the dirty but no one wants to talk & admire beauty of it openly.

  3. You are right, and it’s sad: But you know, I think its it’s getting better. My book, or yours, would not have been published by a mainstream and respected house not so long ago. And people would have read it secretly. Look where we are now, talking about sex writing openly and clearly. A good direction maybe? hopefully?

  4. And then you have the United States, where I live. Plenty of details about everything sexual, and still a prudish attitude dominates public morality. The self-righteous condemn video games and blockbuster films for their focus on flesh or violence while real-life corporate villains and far-from-virtual soldiers perpetrate the most grotesque atrocities imaginable, leaving money and blood draining from this country’s veins. But all some people can do is praise capitalism and manifest destiny. We are living here, as a nation, in one giant economic and military snuff film, but news of a politician exposing himself online assumes the dimensions of a political crisis. Your words whistle like a flowering rose in the wind lying in wait for the balloons of childish hypocrisy to burst as they brush up against its wholesome, erect spines! We need more of your kind of frankness–everywhere.

    • Ray, I can imagine how you feel… because I have the same feeling of horror watching what’s going on here (in the US). The few have convinced the many that everything they do is good for them, that they have a good chance of being the next millionaire. Military porn works the other side, all your 300s and Hurt Lockers, and together, we are sold a really huge lie… politicians exposing themselves are a great device to distract the easily distracted population, and – there you have it! Just like you said! America! A huge blowup job. I love the country I live in, but it makes me sick too. Hey, maybe there’s hope. If there’s at least two of us still thinking, maybe there’s hope.

  5. My views…… one in a Billion……

    Talking about dancing in the hindi movies….. I wonder what will one equate with the dancing in a movie titled “Dirty Dancing”….. it is an american movie……

    And why only India…… there are several other countries where sex is not an open Topic in general

    Most Indian authors living abroad ideas themes canvas are on India…… Why?

    Is it necessary to talk about sex openly?

    Views differ ………..

  6. “Dirty Dancing” is a movie where the main theme is dancing – it is not a substitute for sex, it’s dancing. As opposed to Hindi movies, where the dancing replaces sex. Pretty obvious.

    Why only India – because I chose to talk about what I know about. I could talk about Saudi Arabia, but not with the personal experiences I have had.

    Writers write what they know and what they imagine. And what they feel they want to write about. My writing is certainly not all about India. It’s also about painters in New York city, war vets in Canada and sisters in medieval England. But ultimately, a writer creates a world of their own – it’s not “India”, it’s fiction, no matter how close to reality it may be. Readers have a hard time understanding this.

    Anything that you keep secret and taboo can be used as a weapon. Secrecy breeds fear, and knowledge and openness is always the right way. It is necessary for equality in human society to talk about everything openly, not just sex.

    Your differing views are what makes it possible for men to oppress their daughters and wives, to make sex something that can be controlled, to make female virginity a false marker of morality, to make people afraid and unhappy.

    Think about that.

    If sex were as open and normal as any other component of human existence, such as hunger, we wouldn’t have the kind of exploitation and disease that we do. Views like yours make the dark and ugly morality of our societies possible. In India, and the world.

  7. I dont agree that sexuality is not discussed in literature in India, some good work has been done by Khuswant Singh and many more. What however needs highlighting is the connotations of what it means in different cultural context so what is expressed is different sensibility of the same thing. With all your limitations that you’ve mentioned a deeper understanding cannot be reached without a study changing attitudes, values and permissibility in modern Indian society.

    • Amnah, thanks for joining in!

      Actually, I’m cannot possibly judge the state of all sex writing in India – in fact I said so, even to the journalist who asked me, “why does sex writing in India fail?” * – she assumed that it does, and I certainly don’t. My mother (Gauri Deshpande) wrote in Marathi, just to give you one example – and never shied away from sexuality or sexual situations in her writing. Writing is done in so many languages, that it’s impossible for anyone to know, what the “state of sex writing in India” is!

      I just feel that we need to take the power over our sexuality away from others who can and do use it to impose moral and social rules upon us, and “fail” us when we don’t follow them… Look at the comment before yours, where the writer asks, “is it necessary to talk about sex openly.” I’m not saying we should discuss what we do or how – I’m saying treating it as a taboo, and a sin with social exceptions is nothing but a power structure. Connecting sexuality to morality is ridiculous. And even in saying this, I am neither first nor loudest.

      Literature and reality reflect and change each other. You’re right, but even just thinking and talking means we are changing. And “we” are society.

      A memory – not related to all this: my mother’s first journalism job was with Kushwant Singh, when he was the editor of the Illustrated Weekly. When I was seven, he taught me to eat with chopsticks… 🙂

      * You can read the text of the interview at my website:

  8. While in cinema nudity is confused with sex, in literature just an incident involving sex is considered erotica, and both in turn may be perceived as guilty pleasures. But beyond the realms of literature or cinema, a bunch of double standards are often associated with sex, and this doesn’t pertain to India alone. Well, ofcourse in India, it is nearly impossible to talk about sex without veiling it with humor (otherwise being chastised), but in many other “progressive countries” there are two sets of rules. For instance, when a man beds a significantly large number of women, he may merrily flaunts his casanova image, but when he meets his mirror image in the form of a woman, suddenly she is a slut?

    Apart from from being an avticity of protocol or pleasure, sex plays a pivotal role in the age-old dynamics of gender superiority and therefore perhaps, blatant discussions/practice of the ‘S’ word is avoided citing varying degrees of morality.

  9. I am reading your book Slither, liking it so far, hence searched for you on net… I had read many authors writing about sex, but all male, so I never had a female point of view, apart from the discussions on online chat.

    I feel sex education in India is absolutely 0. I know of many ladies who did not even know what was to happen when they got married, leave aside being happy with it. And why only women, there are men who do not know it at all, other than just the obvious thing.
    I also feel rise in crime related to sex is the effect of ignorance for education. Till date people feel everything happens on its own.
    I remember having read “11 minutes”, where Paulo says, “everyone tells now it happened… but what exactly happened, no one cares to tell.”

  10. It is such a pleasure to read your blog and the responses as well. I am not used to writing even a letter, so please ignore my ignorance about writing.

    I completely agree with the fact that Indian culture looks at anything sexual as taboo and community is so afraid of this taboo that they will take it to any extent to control any normal human nature. Lying to kids about the birds and the bees… to keeping the two genders separate at a sleep over like animals, men here and women there. In my opinion, All this could be corrected by the right education but that will never happen because when a community can’t even discuss anything related to sexuality, how will they correct it by educating themselves and others and their children. Its much easier for the community to control it and suppress it and that is exactly what they do which in my opinion is very sad.

    I know quite a few Indian couples who don’t even discuss their own personal sex life even after being in relationship/marriage for years. I must agree with Ramneek so much that I wouldn’t even be surprised if 50% of the women in India even knows what an orgasm is and ever felt it (specially from their husbands). Even in today’s day, men doesn’t care about women satisfaction and oral sex is being looked at as a dirty deed.

    I was born and brought up in India till I was 17 and this suppressed sexuality taboo made such an impact on my life that I look for things to learn and read anything and everything in related to sex and sexuality. And that is how I came across your blog and I am so glad that I did…

  11. I am a little late on this, Urmilla, but I could not pass by without posting a comment.

    First of all, in response to your assertion that the reason why Indian writers (or writers in general) ‘fail at sex writing’ is because they are not ‘sexual beings’. I do not think that a person’s skill at writing a sex scene has got anything to do with how sexual a being he is. If I write a knowledgeable story about skiing, it doesn’t make me a good skier. If I write a particularly evocative story about, say, dancing, it does not make me a good dancer. I could write a perfectly believable story about a chef without ever having made anything edible. And so on.

    In response to your second point, that writers shy away from writing about sex because they’re somehow trying to repress it: many writers believe, as the first person who commented on this post said (whose response you called ‘odd’), that sex scenes are not really necessary in a book. If the sex forwards the plot or gives insight into character, then I am all for it. But if it is there just for titillation, then I’d rather not have it because it distracts. As the person said, it is not a question of knowledge or experience or embarrassment. It’s a question of relevance. Some writers believe sex is not relevant to the story they’re telling. Equally some believe it is. To each his own.

    Now on to the other points you’ve made in your responses to comments, you say the more open we are with everything, the better it is. Shall we, then, dispense with the clothes we’re wearing? Why do we have to cover ourselves when we all know what’s underneath? Why is nudity a taboo? Shall we all make our sex lives public, since there is nothing to hide and nothing to be ashamed of? Shall we stop passing our excreta in private and step out into the wide open spaces so that everyone can see us? After all, in your words, “anything that is kept secret and taboo can breed fear” and therefore can be used as a weapon.

    The answer, of course, is that there are some things in human societies that are marked ‘private’. And sex is one of them. By all means feel free to talk of sex as openly as you wish, but treat people who don’t share your enthusiasm with respect – respect that I have found lacking both in your post and in your responses.

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