Reading Love, Sex and Intimacy in South Asia

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Love, sex and intimacy is, well, complicated—especially when it comes to South Asia. But in the hands of some of the finest South Asian women writers, the subject unspools, revealing a world that offers so much to be learned. There is as much to be enjoyed in a good old romance as there is in taking it apart and seeing what it can tell us about society, culture, politics and the inner lives of the women and men who inhabit it.

This week, we feature books that explore this world. There is some delightful fiction, true stories, as well as a handful of rigorous and challenging non-fiction that can open our minds to the fantastic range and diversity of shapes that love can take—and also the questions they raise about politics and South Asian identity.

1. Love Songs for a Lost Continent Anita Felicelli (fiction)

Tamil American author Anita Felicelli’s short story collection Love Songs for a Lost Continent won the 2016 Mary Roberts Rinehart Award. From verdant Madagascar to the Northern Indian city of Jaipur, the tales take you across worlds: there is Sita, who murders her husband – a tiger – and a young girl Hema has an affair with her friend, Kathy’s older soccer coach, leading to a crumbling friendship. On Love Songs…Aditya Desai writes for the Aerogram: “Though it so often gets watered down into binaries — American versus India, Family Bonds versus Independence — we know deep down that the choices made are too complex to ever truly side with one or the other, and inevitably force some degree of deception.”

2. Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows by Balli Kaur Jaswal (fiction)

Balli Kaur Jaswal’s 2017 novel features a young creative writing teacher, whose class at the Sikh Community Association, located in Southall, consists of older women, widows who had difficulties with English. After encountering a copy of erotica, the women begin to tell stories about their own sexual lives and so come in the kitchen metaphors: aubergines, cucumbers, lady pockets. The Economist praised the book, stating it “…balances darkness and light, social commentary and ecstatic escapism: it is a well-gauged equilibrium that keeps the sex writing from feeling monotonous, and reinvigorates the subplots of honour killings and arranged marriages.”

3. Beautiful Thing: Inside the Secret World of Bombay’s Dance Bars by Sonia Faleiro (non-fiction)

As famous as Bollywood is for its item numbers, Mumbai, the maximum city was once famous for its dance bars. First published several years ago, it was named a Time Out Subcontinental Book of the Year and an Observer Book of the Year. Faleiro was a young reporter when she met Leela, a proudly independent, charismatic exotic dancer who introduces her to a world straight out of a gangster film: of fierce love, sex, and violence; police, prostitutes, pimps and of course, gangsters. There’s a lot that is difficult to stomach of this side of Mumbai, but as we can see, it is a world of defiant, hard-hitting empowerment. A gripping read.

4. The Right to Sex by Amia Srinivasan (non-fiction)

Lisa Taddeo, author of “Three Women,” said of University of Oxford Professor of Social and Political Theory Amia Srinivasan’s book: “Laser-cut writing and a stunning intellect. If only every writer made this much beautiful sense.” She brings sex out of private life and discusses it as a political phenomenon with range and clarity: deftly incising the blunt framing of consent and non-consent, discussing the impact of capitalism on the norms of sex and troubling events like the Elliot Rodgers case with not the heavy hand of a philosopher but the lightness of a writer and an astute critic. A searing feminist critique of sex in the 21st century, Amia Srinivasan will change the way women read the news and feminism will never be the same again.

5. Intimate Class Acts: Friendship and Desire in Indian and Pakistani Women’s Fiction Maryam Mirza (non-fiction)

The early crop of famous South Asian writers in English are loved and celebrated even decades after they’re first published: Arundhati Roy’s “The God of Small Things,” Kiran Desai’s “The Inheritance of Loss,” Kamila Shamsie’s “Salt and Saffron,” to name a few. They are terrific narratives and also rich portraits that tell stories of love and desire featuring worlds within their details: of class and caste, the nuances of South Asian friendship and desire, and more, which Maryam Mirza, now associate professor of South Asian Literature at Durham University, explores. If you have loved reading any of the titles covered in the book, this will be an eye-opening foray into understanding the reality of the countries they inhabit.

6. Love, InshAllah: The Secret Love Lives of American Muslim Women (non-fiction)

Islamic womanhood is too easily shrouded in stereotypes and mainstream narratives seldom engage with the reality that Muslim women all over the world do actively desire love. In this anthology of American Muslim voices, writers Nura Maznavi and Ayesha Mattu defy these stereotypes to share their search for love openly for the first time, venturing into singles’ events and online dating, to college flirtations and arranged marriages, all with a uniquely Muslim twist. An orthodox Muslim woman falls in love with another woman at a mosque. A young woman in her early twenties falls deeply in love with her husband, whom she met through an arranged marriage. A Bangladeshi-American woman is disowned by her family for marrying an African-American Muslim man. Through stories that are at once blood-racingly passionate and poignant, we see the bare vulnerability of women in search of love that lasts a lifetime.