Kitaab interview with Sreemoyee Piu Kundu: The Beheaded Writer–A Nation That Forgot How Writers Can Change The World
By Rheea Mukherjee
About the Author
Sreemoyee Piu Kundu made her literary debut with Faraway Music, (Hachette) in 2013. Sreemoyee’s next book, Sita’s Curse (Hachette)– an erotic fiction, launched in May 2014 was a national best-seller, widely covered in Vogue, Times of India, Indian Express, Open Magazine, Femina, Mail Today, Mid-day and Hindustan Times, amongst other leading publications. The ten-city launch drew huge audiences and was widely covered with Sreemoyee earning the epithet, ‘Erotica Queen,’ by DNA. Sreemoyee’s third novel You’ve Got The Wrong Girl (Hachette breaks new ground as a woman writer foraying into the realm of lad lit in India, made famous internationally by writers like Nick Hornby and Matt Dunn. The book is out this August. Sreemoyee has just completed her fourth novel Cut! that’s being adapted into a play by renowned theatre director Abhilash Pillai of the National School of Drama, New Delhi, a Sanskriti Award recipient. Written like a play in ten acts, Cut! pays a moving tribute to the parallel worlds of stage and screen as seen through the chequered life and times of thespian Amitabh Kulashreshtra. Fashion, films, books, art, culture, travel, food, spirituality and people is what defines Sreemoyee. She is also a columnist on sexuality and gender issues. You can follow her Daily O blog Below The Belt on http://www.dailyo.in/user/124/sreemoyeekundu. Sreemoyee resides in New Delhi.
Unrestrained, honest, and utterly compelling; Sreemoyee Piu Kundu discusses the role of writers, the culture of rape and the soulless publishing trends in a nation twisted by irony, patriarchy, and herd mentality.
It has always been writers who have had the scope and heart to change perceptions, expand the horizons of the mind, and question our limiting routines. As my discussion with Sreemoyee progresses, my heart sinks as I calculate the near future. We’re plunging into a world of mass marketing, hashtagging trending topics, and flouting flaky ideals. We’re racing to gather template reactions and superficial knowledge on too many topics. Where is the platform to appreciate thinking? When will we make time to contemplate our own hypocrisies and find our ability to make micro changes?
In this mesmerising interview that umbrellas and merges multiple cultural paradigms, Sreemoyee unabashedly gets to the heart of the matter, and isn’t afraid to bring her opinions up close and personal. Our collective potential for intellectual and spiritual growth might just depend on considering some of the very potent points she brings out during the course of this interview.
RM: As a novelist, your characters bluntly measure the parameters of gender and the intricate societal weaves women are entangled by. What I find compelling is that you take the onus open yourself to discuss these issues outside of your novels. Your Facebook prose-posts deal with pressing issues in the country that revolve around gender, sex, desire, tradition, and class. You unabashedly share your own life and its vulnerabilities with the public to facilitate a change in thinking.
I interpret that as a responsibility you take on as a writer.
SPK: I think that as writers, what we sometimes tend to forget in all this mad rat race to be seen and heard and stay afloat in the literary rut, is that we are essentially thinkers – we have a special gift. The power of acute observation. The ability to express, emotionally, and at the same time, rationally, our reaction to society, law, politics, sexuality, and culture, in general. The power to communicate and give our readers a wholesome perspective on life and living–that is free, fierce and full.
Writers today I feel are increasingly becoming insular and go gaga only when their next book is due to be released, indulging in shameless self-promotion (since most publishers do little or nothing to market an upcoming author) or when their mug appears in papers/glossy lifestyle magazines (even if it’s a tiny snippet, somewhere) or when they land a big ticket to a popular lit fest, or happen to share a table with a bunch of firang agents or better-known writers or a commissioning editor from an international publishing house. It’s vital to be noticed these days, to immediately declare your itinerary brimming over with a latent self-loathing – to show just how well-networked you are. How many Likes your status update manages to get. How many followers you attract on social media.
But what do you stand for, as a writer? Who are you as a person? What are your political and social beliefs? How do you treat people? Respond to daily news? What is the color of the debate you engage in in your living room, in bed, after dark, in the mall, with your children, when you stand naked, alone?
As a woman writer in contemporary India, I live and breathe the world we live in, and I refuse to be limited to “a” novel that comes out every couple of years. My emotional epicenter is the subjects that I scribble on daily, be it on Facebook, or in my weekly column on Daily O–India Today’s opinion website. I’ll soon start writing for Yahoo & iDiva.com, too. This is all of me–I am an amalgamation of what passes through my head and heart–I am extremely passionate about gender dialogues and discourses on sexuality and the politics of desire–subjects that are largely considered taboo in India.
I source my core knowledge more from my travels, my everyday brushes with people who walk in and out of my life, cinema, a walk in the park, magazines, newspapers, books, dogs, autowallahs, house-helps, marketplaces, letters, lovers–they liberate me. I have always abhorred the purely academic approach to gender sensitization, per se–my writings are soaked with the complexities and injustices of middle class working India. And honestly, over time, I have found a sizeable following, though I won’t categorise the consumers of my work as fans, as I think that distances me from them. I am no role-model. No saint. No preacher.
We think that as writers we can change the world, when the truth is that every day we are changed. We bend rules, we bleed, we struggle, we fight for our dignity. We travel in metros. We have to push forward in a crowded bus. We bear the heat, and walk home in the rains. We pack tiffin for our kids. We run on the treadmill and hide our ugly stretch marks. We listen to our parents lecture us on not being out late. We marry men our families chose. We download porn. We aspire. We fail. We carry our cuts. This country. This ancient civilization–temples, tall buildings, marriage bureaus, MBA classes, bindis, boats, masturbation, mother-in-laws…
As a writer, I am an observer of life, and also a critic. Although the word “responsibility” carries with it the possibility of what I do being turned into drudgery or having a monetary angle to it–I confess it is pretty much the only way I know how to live.
I write everyday because it is the language through which I measure the truth. The lens through I feel I can make a difference. It is the reason why I am not attached to, or intimidated by the publishing industry. No one can teach me how to think, and how to feel…
My words are powerful, at times poignant. Sometimes, I tell someone else’s story. Other times, I express my emotions, unabashedly. It’s the way I can remain relevant and rooted. Connect with a bunch of people, just like me. It’s how I think we shall evolve. Together. Pieces of a larger thing…
My writer status is not restricted to a byline and a picture on the back cover of a book.
I am limitless. My books can’t box me.
My words free me.
What’s really missing in the gender paradigm? Is it a simple case of patriarchy? What are the gaps, the bursts of everyday nuance that also contribute to a larger puzzle?
I think the word gender itself is mysterious, and mysterious is often confused with sexuality, when in reality they are two very diverse entities and ideologies. India in my view is a country that is largely in denial of its sexual character and identity. There is this veil of sexual prudishness and a tendency to equate desire with being and feeling dirty. We are a state in transition where our sexual direction is concerned. I mean, on one hand we are inheritors of this voluptuous and volatile sexual past that is an indelible part of our religious and socio-cultural fabric. Be it the temple art of Khajuraho, Vatsayana’s sexual treatise Kamasutra or the practice of polygamy and polyandry – there was an air of sexual explicitness that was somewhere lost thanks to the rigid scriptural order of the later Vedic age, when men stood as mouth-pieces of the Gods, and a woman’s role was clearly confined to marriage, home, motherhood. Playing second fiddle. Further strengthened in the Mughal era, and legalised by the British, Indian women suddenly started disappearing as people. Becoming puppets in the patriarchal order. Meant to be mute, at all times. A sexually progressive woman was immediately categorised as being of ill character. A slut. A home wrecker, naturally selfish. The steady sexual stereotyping of our sex is something that has been happening over generations now, and has been validated not just by the opposite sex–fathers, brothers, husbands, father-in-laws, but by institutions like the Government, village and Khap Panchayats, marriage, motherhood. Today, this misogyny is in our DNA–sexual violence of women now flows in our stream. Something that popular culture–TV shows, Bollywood and item songs simply strengthen. This is where I also feel the battle of traditional feminism has mistaken its cause–our enemy are not just men. But, also women. Society, as a whole. The same voices who tell us to cover our cleavage, that we can’t enter a temple when we are menstruating, that says we have to pour milk over a shivalingam to be blessed with an ideal husband, that our wombs must reproduce, to justify that they exist–the same voices that tell us not to work after marriage, to always be below the man during sex, to breastfeed babies and not wear sleeveless in front of strangers. The same chains. The same dogmas. The same enemies.
India as a country is squeamish about sexuality, not sex. Otherwise you wouldn’t have ministers watching porn in Parliament, cases of marital rape that go largely unreported, revered Gurujis sexually exploiting young, married women in the guise of granting them the power to bear a child, sleazy semi-pornographic item songs and a top-rated porn-star like Sunny Leone as one of the highest paid actresses. We beep out bad words like cunt and fuck, we ban Savita Bhabhi, an online cartoon character, we kill young lovers belonging to warring castes and communities, we don’t let our children ever see us kiss, or watch an adult movie, we tell our daughters boys are dangerous, and scare them the same way we do when we spot specks of blood in their panties. We treat sex as a transmittable disease. We ban lovers from kissing. We call homosexuality an unnatural crime. We burn brides and indulge in rampant child sex trafficking. We go on pilgrimages to Vaishno Devi, we fast before Dusshera, we celebrate the cult of the Mother Goddess, and then treat our own daughters, sisters and wives as negotiable entities. A section of us wear short dresses and go to work, daily. We are yummy mummies and writers and bloggers–while the rest languish in a self-imposed exile. Suffering in silence.
Our gender battle is a dark, desolate, dangerous place. Of secrets and sins. Our real war is with who we will be seen as India’s Daughter? Mother India? Savita Bhabhi? Meera? Sita? Parvati? (Aruna) Shanbaug? Sunny (Leone)…
RM: What’s your take on women authors in the country? Pigeonholed by genre? Marketing overload? Are writers becoming brand stars instead of wordsmiths? And is there a gender-based way to dealing with it in the publishing industry?
SPK: Firstly, I’d like to say that every industry has deep-seated gender biases, because most Indian men and organizations are threatened by strong, outspoken, sexually liberated, and qualified women contenders. However, our competitors are not only men in business suits, but also the mothers cooking back home, the wife who has become obese after delivering kids, the sister you forced to get married. Every Indian woman who dares to be different must fight her own shadow, first. Explain constantly why she is the way she is. I am sure the publishing industry is no different.
And while there are many women editors–what is critical is are they really ready to push the envelope–stories, plots, characters, new talent. A new way of approaching the truth.
I think this is where Indian publishing fails miserably–it acquires a hell of a lot of books, but fails to break any glass ceiling. Most of our critically acclaimed writers, both male and female, chose foreign shores, foreign agents, foreign universities, foreign writing degrees, foreign editors.
Here, the focus is on mass marketability. A writer who brings in the big bucks. Who is ready to shelve out a hell of a lot on promoting themselves – good-looking, well-connected, earns good press.
It’s why I personally haven’t really found a strong cerebral connect with any contemporary woman writer of literary fiction. Even where commercial fiction is concerned–first it was chick-lit, then mummy-lit, then young adult, then cook books, then historical fiction, then murder mysteries, then fitness guides…
Publishing in India is formulae driven, the way Bollywood was till a few years ago. Actually, Indian publishing reminds me of our current television industry. TRPs like the writing trends. A banal herd instinct. If there is one best-seller in a particular genre, you will see a dozens of the same, by diverse publishing houses. This is exactly what happened in the case of chick-lit, after a few initial smart ones that were penned by indigenous writers, all we got was sameness, the monotonous coming of age saga, the dilemma to find a Mr. Right, the usual office romances, weight loss dilemmas. Serious literary pursuits are rare in India where we encourage mediocrity in the arts–so long as it sells.
I had almost four pitches from different publishers for Sita’s Curse, before I signed up with Hachette. One leading international publishing house, had its commissioning editor pen the following lines to me–”The sex sells. But don’t make her a Savitha bhabhi prototype. Make her more aspirational. Short skirt? Urban? Not in her 30’s?”
Also, my fourth book, Cut! is written like a play and is part prose-part poetry and is in English, French and Marathi as it traces the tumultuous life and times of an ageing Marathi stalwart Amitabh Kulashreshta.
I had yet another commissioning writer from the number one publishing house here say this to me recently, ‘Sreemoyee, Sita’s Curse was a best-seller and we want to go with erotica. Can you make Cut! an erotic fiction again. We need it to sell as much. You know the rest…’
This demand for sameness has led to a dulling of our creativity. A writer in Mumbai who primarily dabbles in chick-lit advised me before my book launch that I should lose weight and wear saris less. “You look too serious. Your books will be perceived as boring. Publishers want saleable people…”
RM: Speaking of branded stars and over-the-top marketing, what do you think about the literary fest trend? Do you think its possible to create more meaningful fests where writers come together and truly interact with new writers and readers? Or has it become one big book promotion party?
SPK: Having been a senior journalist for as close to 14 years, I have done my rounds of literary festivals that I somehow never found was of any use to upcoming new talent. Literary festivals need names to pull crowds, because let’s face it–how many youngsters even read a decent book any more? So there are two types of literary circuses–the bigger festivals like JLF (Jaipur Literature Festival) where the lesser known writers are royally ignored, and it’s now a fertile meeting ground for all sorts of off-social media networking, a place of fancy dinners and expensive, free wines, where publishers pay through their noses and so it’s mostly a writer like Bhagat or Amish or their commercially viable equivalent or the gora heavyweights on their list. Lit fests honestly do nothing to facilitate the sales of books. So apart from the publicity and paid holiday, what does a newbie gain? Networking-wise, a good idea. A good background for selfies. And rub shoulders with authors whose names you have only read and have difficulty pronouncing at times. A chance to exchange cards with editors who will soon forget your name, and agents who will promise the works, and ultimately tell you they charge for even reading the manuscript, the bigger lit fests are to me just a lot of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
Also, I think lit fests; even as well oiled as JLF, lack integrity. For instance, the organisers of Jaipur Literature Festival a few years back invited Salman Rushdie and then backed out, not even supporting writers who read from Rushdie’s works. So, they are seeking publicity and the moment they sense a threat, a religio-sensitive one, or a gender-sensitive one like Tarun Tejpal and the Times Literary Carnival, in Mumbai, they conveniently and regretfully drop the invitations. If literature festivals are about celebrating writers, then why do they chicken out in celebrating freedom? Why play safe?
As for the smaller ones, that every book club and district seems to be boasting – who’s even curating these events? It’s about inviting the authors you know on your friend list. Those you can be relaxed about because they won’t demand business class and 5-star lodging, for them, and their “companions”.
Are lit fests about readers any more?
Or are they becoming as empty as Fashion Weeks–one for every season? Is any effort being made to showcase regional literature, dying oral traditions, discover unknown, and yet firebrand writers? Why does every lit fest have a reading by Gulzar? A Bollywood star doing a guest appearance, almost? Why does literature need star power? Socialites who can’t spell their names straight? A rock concert in the evening? A drunken after party where senior regional writers are treated like shoddy second class citizens? Why don’t we have sessions on sexual violence, homosexuality, polarization of desire and erotica? Why do the same literary citizens get invited, again and again?
Yes, literary fests are refreshing and informative and bridge between a consumer and a writer. But, I feel increasingly they have become a show of muscle power and money laundering. I would rather have a literary festival in a garden. By the beach. Encourage the written word. Have well thought out sessions with speakers who bring something to the table, and are not just camera friendly. The idea is to foster a sense of community.
RM: You don’t shy away from debate. Recently our critique about Salman Khan’s bailout had you literally attacked by trolls who called you unspeakable, derogatory terms and even threatened you with rape. A woman who speaks her mind by, god forbid, critiquing a superstar hero gets her fertility, intelligence and physical appearance slaughtered. How can rape be a form of critique?
SPK: Just last week, as a reaction to a Facebook status update on Salman Khan that was falsely shared online as an open letter and subsequently went viral, fans of the star threatened me numerous times — on my FB timeline as well as Twitter handle. No one was spared. My parents. My family. My books. My breasts. My hair. My weight. The words “rape” and “ra**i” were hurled at me in much the same way, casually, condescendingly, crassly.
“WTF, kick her ass and strip her naked.”
“Ur born after ur mom got f*****d by a slum dog, you mother f*****r.”
“Will rape you bitch. You need Bhai’s d**k in your ass to teach you a lesson.”
These were just a few of the messages.
Initially, I sat up blocking these trolls, deleting these crude comments, cleaning up my timeline, the way I would imagine a Hindi film heroine awkwardly covering her bosom, when the villain yanks off her dupatta, laughing.
I nursed a helpless anger. I was advised to immediately deactivate my Twitter handle as the paid trolls would intensify. A former journalist friend in Mumbai who covered Bollywood, urgently called me the next day, saying the actor’s men may land up at my doorstep.
“You live in Delhi – it’s the rape capital.”
“Get a lawyer.”
“Call the cops.”
“Carry a hockey stick in your car please.”
Less than 48 hours later, I couldn’t log on to Facebook. It was like my worst fears coming true. As I tried logging in, I was asked to verify my identity, by producing a government of India validated documentation that I was indeed Sreemoyee Piu Kundu!
It didn’t matter that I was the one being attacked. What did was a faceless fanatical mob “reporting” my account to Facebook officials on grounds of nudity, claiming mine was a fake account.
I had to prove the charges.
Write emails to the head of Facebook India, with the help of some well-meaning readers and friends. The majority of whom were still asking why I am so vocal. Why not use the medium to just post movie reviews, participate in contests, play Candy Crush, flaunt selfies, quote great thinkers, post holiday albums?
Even as I won the battle against FB, I was never told why my account had been deactivated.
For the first time, in a strange way, I wondered if this is what an actual rape victim is made to go through.
Is this how women who have been sexually violated are made to feel when asked not to talk about it? Is silence therefore more convenient? Safer?
I contemplated deleting my FB account.
Staying away, for a while. Not because I was scared that I might be hounded again. But because I was keen to know what my chances of fighting back were in this vicious, sexist battle that was now raging.
Are women softer targets? Is their mass humiliation a cheap, vulgar entertainment, just the way a heroine gyrates before a villain, or is forced to kiss the bad guy in college, or the way Sunny Leone heaves suggestively in a skimpily-clad item number? Is there something voyeuristic about violence against women that makes it a ritual in this land of the Mother Goddess? Over the past week, as I dealt with this public outrage, what shocked me the most was how openly misogynistic we were as a people. The way women – friends and acquaintances on my friend list – left no stone unturned in telling me how I deserved the abuses.
To me, they at times sounded like Nirbhaya’s rapist who in Leslee Udwin’s documentary India’s Daughter had nonchalantly declared that women who roam the streets after dark, with a boyfriend, wearing skimpy clothes, deserve to be mutilated.
To be dead.
Does the word rape now denote punishment? A corrective measure. A tool to control women. Their bodies. To scare them into painful submission. To teach them a bloodied lesson that the rest of us will never forget. Rape, a power device, much more than a moral and social perversion. What do these naarimorchas, feminism debates on television, women’s empowerment panels, Women’s Day awards amount to then?
Is sexual violence now an intrinsic part of our DNA?
Is this how we will silence a woman? A writer? A thinker?