On one of those nights when you usually look for something on TV to watch along with your dinner, I came across a news channel’s panel discussion – a rare well-moderated session on pornography. Certain members of a state government had been caught watching porn mid-assembly, and there were heated discussions across channels. There were only 2-3 people on this particular panel whose opinions were intelligent and nuanced, and one of them was Delhi-based vascular surgeon Dr. Ambarish Satwik. But I was more than intrigued when I heard he was also an author of pornographic fiction. Naturally, I had to check him out, and Google scrolled up the tantalisingly titled Perineum: Nether Parts of an Empire. I knew I had to get it.
Also, the guy is hot. Yeah, I’m shallow like that.
Apart from this Tehelka review, and an interview in The Hindu, nothing much of either Ambarish or the book is on the internet. Several online booksellers offer customer reviews at most, but nothing really detailed enough to give you an idea of where this book could sit on your bookshelf. Is it literary? Is it historical fiction? Is it light reading / popular fiction? None of those questions were answered for me when I decided to purchase it.
Also, book blurbs – overburdened and vague at best – label Satwik’s writing as “feverish fictions lit by Kafka, stage-managed by Manto” (by Mukul Kesavan). Another description inside says he concocts a “Borgesian fictional labyrinth” that just made me scoff in disbelief.
All of this is confusing. Manto was dark and humorous, experimental in theme, and broke tremendous ground in writing realistic, human characters. Satwik is writing medico-historical eroticised fact-fiction (a blurring exists that I will come to later) with several experimental styles. Kafka is… well, Kafka. I’ve never been able to describe Kafka apart from saying he is terrifying, and to think that Satwik’s first book is being elevated to such lofty levels is a bit off-putting. And untrue, because the stories by themselves are only lightly peppered with dark humour and just as lightly philosophical.
And then to top it all, to describe it as a fictional labyrinth in the style of Borges is over-ambitious; Borges blurs the line between the real and irreal/surreal, both of which are very different from blurring fact and fiction. In fact, Borges creates a parallel universe where his image is both absolutely true and absolutely false, a fabulation you believe, even as you don’t believe. That line between belief and disbelief is not suspended with Satwik’s writing – and I think he is being misrepresented in so many ways here. I don’t know if it was one of Penguin’s editors or one of their marketing geniuses who came up with these clever analogies, but it irritates me that Satwik could be dismissed purely on the basis that he doesn’t fit the criteria we are expected to evaluate him on, and its hardly his fault if he’s been presented that way.
So finally, what is the book? It’s a collecti0n of short stories set in British-ruled India almost entirely about our British overlords and their… perineal regions. Really. The focus on their ailments is almost urological, even as some of the narrative focuses on the events surrounding their lives. The writing itself is in a mix of wrung-out, densely worded first person or third person narratives, clinically documented medical jargon, and some minimalist highly-charged erotic scenes, which Satwik has great skill with. The stories are often short vignettes, but my problem (and my pleasure) is in the fact that there is no cultural school of writing in India that Satwik can fit under.
In fact, it’s a marvel that he was published by Penguin India at all and not some offbeat, indie publishing house. This may be a reason why he has hardly been heard of, outside of the shallow (I mean that in terms of a critical gaze, not just by virtue) Delhi literati circle, who seem to have embraced him with the, “Hey, Delhi dude has written an obscure literary-type book, let’s celebrate!” attitude. Am I being mean? I think it fits. If he’d been published by a smaller, more notorious publishing house, I get the feeling he’d have been much less famous and much more widely read and discussed. I can admit that I might be biased against the big publishers.
So anyway, looking at the actual writing, for a debut author Satwik exercises impressive control over his language. The majority of the stories focus on British characters, who populate colonial India as military servicemen, spouses of clerks or said military officers, and businessmen looking for opportunity. I mentioned above that Satwik is minimalist in style and his sentences and choice of image are beautifully compact.
Henry occupied himself with The Autobiography of a Flea. He is so taken up by the corruption of Bella that he wants me to be Bella in the worst possible manner. I have to lie on my face with my arms stretched forward and bear his many tinctured fictions. I am the understudy for Bella. Henry is like a child learning to write. His tongue, like an excited rabbit, moves from one corner of his mouth to the other when he is writing.
And I have come here, all the way, for this dissembler, this pornographer, and love him like a mellow fruit.
My mother’s a gynaecologist, and I happen to know Vaginismus is a condition that prevents women from having vaginal intercourse, a detail that adds layers to this seemingly simple tale. Satwik also understands the eroticism of words. His ability to evoke sensual images in difficult scenes is marvellous. My favourite erotic scene is from the same short story, and Honoria who is the oppressed, submissive wife of a British civil servant actually ‘services’ him when he awakes in bed.
Rose betimes in the morning to the smell of marigolds and to birdsong. The punkah-wallah boy was at his post, wide-eyed at our partial state of undress. We were alive in the morning light in the gauze muccherdani and with my morning breath I had to fellate him. My mouth was the short-winded strumpet.
There was no swallowing today. He gave me a pearl necklace instead. The beads of sperm turned liquid in a while and ran foul of my breasts.
Henry leaves me when he is done and I am whetted. Coitus brings no telos for me. And no equity.
Considering this is the appalling story of an oppressed, sexually starved and exploited wife, comes this startlingly erotic incident, which makes you feel slightly guilty yet, slightly aroused to read this.
At the end of the same short story comes a meditative aside on what exactly is pornography, which I presume sums up Satwik’s whole raison d’etre for this collection.
We are on the deck and Henry is busy writing.
The pornographer, I feel, is the second self. His reason for being is to afford a certain kind of pleasure. But it is the alter idem, and others like him, who can recognise it and partake of it. There is the hubris of religion in it and that sort of thing is more than I can divine. But I do give myself to it. I am Henry’s little sacrificial animal.
The mention of the Autobiography of a Flea and equating Bella with Honoria (the narrator) is a deliberate nod to the erotic text. As you can probably guess, Vaginismus is my favourite short of the collection for lots of reasons, not the least of which is that it really brings together all the aesthetics and the narratives of the book.
Some of the other interesting shorts are one involving Robert Clive’s circumcision, a lovemaking scene with Jinnah, a report on Bahadur Shah Zafar getting an enema, suppuration of Henry Baker’s scrotum (suggesting that Delhi’s architectural layout might mimic the male perineal layout?!) and my second favourite story, when Veer Savarkar fell in love in the midst of a plague.
Sayee was a Pune girl and brought with her all the trappings of a Punekar.
There was the love-lock — as beautiful as it was shocking. She was young and weak. Probably with a past. Her face seemed mortgaged to it, her eyes disclaimed any knowledge of it. She looked like a woman who would die young, with the glare of beauty in her eyes and unborn children in her ovaries.
And what follows is some tight dialogue between them on the nature of Savarkar’s philosophy. Brilliant writing.
The real question with this collection is – what is it bringing to Indian writing? Is it worth reading simply because it is experimental? Do all the scrotal-testicular diseases serve any bigger purpose? Why is Satwik writing from the point of view of the British instead of the Indian? Susan Sontag has written extensively on using illness as metaphor, and these lines in particular are illuminating:
Considering illness as a punishment is the oldest idea of what causes illness, and an idea opposed by all attention to the ill that deserves the noble name of medicine. Hippocrates, who wrote several treatises on epidemics, specifically ruled out “the wrath of God” as a cause of bubonic plague. But the illnesses interpreted in antiquity as punishments, like the plague in Oedipus, were not thought to be shameful, as leprosy and subsequently syphilis were to be. Diseases, insofar as they acquired meaning, were collective calamities, and judgments on a community. Only injuries and disabilities, not diseases, were thought of as individually merited. For an analogy in the literature of antiquity to the modern sense of a shaming, isolating disease, one would have to turn to Philoctetes and his stinking wound.
The most feared diseases, those that are not simply fatal but transform the body into something alienating, like leprosy and syphilis and cholera and (in the imagination of many) cancer, are the ones that seem particularly susceptible to promotion to “plague.”
… Part of the centuries-old conception of Europe as a privileged cultural entity is that it is a place which is colonized by lethal diseases coming from elsewhere. Europe is assumed to be by rights free of disease. (And Europeans have been astoundingly callous about the far more devastating extent to which they – as invaders, as colonists – have introduced their lethal diseases to the exotic, “primitive” world: think of the ravages of smallpox, influenza, and cholera on the aboriginal populations of the Americas and Australia.) The tenacity of the connection of exotic origin with dreaded disease is one reason why cholera, of which there were four great outbreaks in Europe in the nineteenth century, each with a lower death toll than the preceding one, has continued to be more memorable than smallpox, whose ravages increased as the century went on (half a million died in the European smallpox pandemic of the early 1870s) but which could not be construed as, plague-like, a disease with a non-European origin.
This clarity – particularly that of Europeans as invaders bringing their disease to the subcontinent – is a heavily underpinned theme in Satwik’s short stories. But what is more illuminating is the recognition that diseases alienate the body, making your own body parts foreign to the patient. And it is this image that is most memorable from this collection, of the humiliating, shameful perineal afflictions alienating an already alien presence in India, of the invader becoming the invaded.
In another sense, Satwik is also upending the interminably over-hyped theories of postcolonialism and the subaltern, that push for more narratives from the colonised subject. Instead, what he gives us is an attempt to see the coloniser as a vulnerable object, as a victim of his own circumstances. There is also the big question now of what significance the south Asian subject has here. The Indians in this collection are not the victims even if they are a bit uni-dimensional, because the issue in this collection is entirely that of colonial India, and not the Indian.
One last comment I want to make is that of the fact/fiction divide. All the characters in these stories, from Herbert Baker to Veer Savarkar to Jinnah, are obviously based on real people, but the events that surround their lives are equally factual. The purpose in this seems to be to test our acceptance of the sequence of events as truth, and our comfort with the idea that there may be many truths about colonial India. This propels this work to that vague, exciting collection called postmodernist fiction. It also raises the possibility of just writing colonial-era fiction instead of dubbing things pre- or postcolonial and attaching specific meanings to it.
Satwik says it best in that Hindu interview:
Perineum allegorises the fate of colonial projects. Perennial gratification has a temporal but acute association with the act of colonising. ‘The East Offering Her Riches to Britannia’ is too tempered a description; it needs the metaphor of pathology and the perineum…
…It’s probably because the authorial voice is non-aligned and patently non-subaltern. Secondly, quite purposefully, the gender dyad of the female observed object and the male viewing subject has been played out and then reversed to establish neutrality. Even the most abject portions of the most violent story in the collection ‘The Beresfords’ are neutral. The medical gaze is never scopophilic.
One tiny note I’d like to make is on Satwik’s supposedly high-flung language that some reviewers seem to be scoffing at. I don’t know what their problem is; I love finding a new word and realising it opens up a new level of understanding of the text. As Satwik says, “…one realises the formal aesthetic of the medical jargon and its preciseness. It has this great epigrammatical quality.”
I also come from a family of doctors, so it was easy for me not to be intimidated. But don’t be dissuaded by Satwik’s intellectual gymnastics. This is a book that sparkles with this author’s intellect, and I can only hope Satwik is working on something spectacular next.