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The tales of two women – brunch feature

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After sending off an introductory email to author and columnist Shobhaa De, the positive “doing it now” flashing in my mailbox is almost cathartic.

The agenda is to bring together two strong women, novelist and columnist Shobhaa De and author, thought leader, and now HT Brunch columnist Tahira Kashyap Khurrana to talk about their latest lockdown releases – one a piece of erotic literature, Srilaaji: Diary of a Marwari Dowager by Shobhaa and the other a witty bible of commandments of leading the life for women by a woman, The 12 Commandments of Being a Woman by Tahira.

While Srilaaji is the story of a heartbroken girl from a wealthy Marwari family in Kolkata, who moves to Mumbai after marriage and discovers womanhood, her sexual desires and curiosities, The 12 Commandments is a witty, humorous and fiercely candid account of Tahira’s personal and professional journey. 

Shobhaa’s S factor

Being introduced to the romantic novels of Barbara Cartland by my school librarian at a time when, forget dating apps, the Internet was unheard of, I wondered if I could ever lay my hands on erotic literature by an Indian author. So when many moons ago, I read Shobhaa De’s Socialite Evenings, peppered as it was with cultural feminism, I wondered that with touchscreen access to dating apps and erotic video content, would erotic fiction still excite millennials?

“Dating apps are pretty soul deadening, impersonal and a little desperate. But that’s the world today with lonely millennials in search of love and sex,” says Shobhaa. “There is a huge difference between erotica and porn. Erotic fiction inspires! It pushes the imagination. There is mystery and sensuality. Who can resist such a combo? But the challenging part is to get the balance in place… the erotic elements cannot be superimposed arbitrarily. They have to be integral to the story telling.”

“Dating apps are pretty soul deadening, impersonal and a little desperate” —Shobhaa De

So Srilaaji, the central character of her latest novel, comes from the Marwari community of Calcutta with good reason. “She could only, but only belong to this specific community, which I find very multi-layered, dynamic and clannish. A feisty woman from such a background has it tougher to claim her own spot and identity. She has to claw her way out of traditions going back generations. It isn’t easy. Srilaaji’s self-belief makes her a winner!” explains Shobhaa.  

As for herself, her favourite erotic lit writer is Anaïs Nin. “Nobody has done it better! There is beauty and grace and truth in all her novels. Then there is the ultimate master – Nabokov,” she says.  

Staying relevant

Over the years, Shobhaa has always been in touch with her “inner teenager” and finds the world of young readers fascinating to decode and even more thrilling to access. So she did not see the need to tweak her style of writing to make the book appealing to her young readers.

“The appeal crosses generations – at the end of the day, readers respond to a powerful story, regardless of age. If the central character is strongly etched, you can be sure readers will connect to him or her. Srilaaji is such a character. I enjoyed creating her, and speaking in her voice,” says Shobhaa.

Shobhaa De’s latest outing is a piece of erotic fiction

That brings me to my other question of whether the readership of this genre of fiction tilts more towards women.

“There is no gender bias. After all, it takes two to make love. Men have as vivid a fantasy world as women. They ‘learn’ so much when they read about a woman’s sexuality, especially if it is expressed and explored by a woman,” says Shobhaa.

She took under a year to complete the book. “The lockdown period of stillness and self-imposed isolation provided the impetus to keep writing furiously,” she says. 

To A T!

A similar frenzy fuelled Tahira to finish her fourth novel, The 12 Commandments of Being a Woman, she tells me from Chandigarh.

“This book was supposed to take some time but the home quarantine speeded up the process and I wrapped it in three or four months. I’m very clear where I’m headed and what I’m writing, so it’s just about getting into the discipline of writing everyday!” she says.

“I’ve been brutally honest in this book…I’ve even written about my sex life!” —Tahira Kashyap Khurrana

Once Tahira gets into the writing mode, “it’s like a frenzy”. Why? Because she writes for five-six hours without a break. “I used to wake up early, before the house started buzzing, and find my corner and put in my hours. By the time everybody surfaced, I’d have done major part of my writing. And one silly thing I do is I don’t bathe till I’ve finished my writing. I become a sort of a couch potato when it comes to my creative zone and…,” says Tahira as the call drops and she reconnects laughing. “Perhaps this is a sign I should zip up!”

That’s the kind of unexpected humour her new book features. “I’ve been brutally honest in this book. There are still times when I feel, ‘Oh! I shouldn’t have written this’. But because it was part of the flow, I wanted to go ahead with it and it’s definitely going to raise a lot of brows and entertain a lot of people, because it’s a take on my personal and professional life, which makes it special and makes me worry about it too. There are details of my sex life too!” she says, breaking into laughter.

Tahira Kashyap Khurrana’s new book The 12 Commandments of being a Woman is a witty bible of leading a life as a woman by a woman

Tahira Kashyap Khurrana’s new book The 12 Commandments of being a Woman is a witty bible of leading a life as a woman by a woman

Personal stuff

Tahira likes reading Murakami and Elif Shafak. Although her own style of writing is witty and entails a lot of feminism, she likes reading about mysticism, magical realism. “Even if it’s feminism with a hint of spirituality or mysticism, I get really attracted to such a genre,” she adds.

The last time I spoke to Tahira was just before her launch as the new HT Brunch columnist, so I wonder what response she’s been getting so far.

“It is really nice! People are being receptive and finding my answers good and quirky. So, I get few messages here and there and it’s nice to be associated with HT Brunch,” she says. “I love writing; any medium will do. I always find expression in writing and I feel I have a witty, humourous voice as I try to make sense of a situation.”

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From HT Brunch, October 25, 2020

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