Short story

08.22.2011 ~ Slither review

Monday, August 22nd, 2011


This is going to be a really short post but wanted to review this book simply because it is a ‘hatke’ book on a topic which we Indians talk about only in a hush hush, conspiratorial way. This is a book of short stories that are erotic in nature with the undercurrent of carnality.

The author in her acknowledgement says that this book was the result of a challenge from her editor friend and goes on to candidly admits that the book was uncomfortable to write but at the same time also empowering and liberating.
Fair enough. So I started to read but some stories down I could figure why writing stories like this is a tough ask. Stories were great but after a point I struggled to finish the book, not because of the writing let me be clear, but the subject. There is only so much one can read about slithering bodies, sex et get the drift?
Maybe I am in minority where my reasons are concerned, but kudos to the author for taking up this challenge and doing full justice to it.
So if this genre interests you do pick up the book!





7.18.2011 ~ Jai Arjun Singh reviews Slither

Monday, July 18th, 2011

Jai Arjun Singh – I would have been happy for even a bad review from him. I have been reading his reviews for a long time, so it makes me very pleased that he even read Slither, let alone that he actually enjoyed some of it!

Link to his own blog Jabberwock (lots of gyre and gimble there!) 

and here’s the whole review:

Spirit and flesh: on Urmilla Deshpande’s carnal prose

[Did a version of this for the Sunday Guardian]
It’s often said that Indian authors aren’t good at writing about sex – that they get self-conscious, or struggle to find the balance between biological descriptiveness and subtle, feather-touch erotica. Actually, the existence of the international Bad Sex Award – which has been thrown at such notable writers as John Updike, Norman Mailer and Tom Wolfe – suggests that awkward sex writing is a universal phenomenon. (The sole Indian winner of the prize so far is Aniruddha Bahal’s Bunker 13, with its analogies involving Bugattis and Volkswagens: “She is topping up your engine oil for the cross-country coming up. Your RPM is hitting a new high.”) But I admit that my initial reaction on coming across Urmilla Deshpande’s Slither was to be impressed that an Indian writer has even attempted a collection of “carnal prose” (as the subtitle puts it).
Once I began reading the book, I was pleased to find that not only is much of the sex writing here quite good, but also that the stories show imagination and variety. Sexual passion, in its many forms, plays a central role throughout, but these are also searching narratives about other aspects of the human experience: loss, insecurity, nostalgia, generational and cultural gaps.
One of Deshpande’s strengths is that she can bring a strong – and unexpected – charge even to seemingly mundane incidents, such as a woman and her mother-in-law chatting with each other while being measured for blouses by an old, half-blind family tailor. Or the same mother-in-law matter-of-factly saying that her aged husband acquires a temporary libido once a year, “usually after a wedding, when he has seen all you girls and your raw-mango breasts, and imagined everything that is going on in the nuptial bed”.
Like many short-story collections, Slither has its hits and misses, but the high points are very strong. In one of the best pieces, “Isis”, a young writer becomes infatuated with a long-retired movie siren; as his loins are stirred by a woman old enough to be his grandmother (and by talk of the effect she used to have on men in her heyday), we are reminded that sexual desire is as much a matter of imagination as of naked flesh. At the same time, other stories provide counterpoints to Isis’s feral, age-defying sexuality. Suman, the protagonist of “Slight Return”, is barely forty but she has never really had a sexual life at all – even her visits to her (male) gynecologist, she reflects, were warmer and more fulfilling than her emotionless trysts with her husband. When she accidentally sees her 16-year-old daughter making love with a boyfriend, she thinks about her own life and the many taboos she grew up with. But she has also accumulated life experiences that allow her to be accepting of her daughter’s sexuality: having done social work with rape victims-turned-prostitutes, she knows about women who never even had a choice in these matters. I thought the contrast between Suman’s wisdom and her private sense of desolation and discomfort was very well expressed.
The stories that didn’t work for me are the ones – like the stream-of-consciousness narrative “dUI” – where the prose becomes overly turgid and self-indulgent. (“What purpose has coincidence? To dam two streams into a single flow, to stroke an eager cock, suck a succulent nipple, arch the long back of a long torso in the moment of the end of the scene?”) But it feels churlish to criticise a writer for taking risks or for reaching beyond the confines of straightforward narrative storytelling, and I admired at least the intent and ambition behind some of the more experimental pieces such as “Goblin Market”, which is a revisiting of Christina Rosetti’s controversial, symbolism-laden 19th century poem. (Writing this story appears to have been a form of catharsis for Deshpande, who says she was haunted by Rosetti’s work for years.)
I was also amused by Deshpande mentioning, in her acknowledgements, that much of this book was written in a decidedly unsexy setting – during a family Christmas in Canada. “I often found myself in a roomful of nieces and nephews and in-laws and sisters, typing carnal prose into my laptop while eating and drinking whatever was handed to me … tea or coffee, turkey-and-cranberry sauce, bhel, chicken curry.” It reminded me of the caricature of the phone-sex worker who is really a slovenly, middle-aged housewife in a low-rent apartment, going about her daily chores even as her husky voice inflames her callers’ imaginations. As they say, it’s mostly between the ears.

9/30/2010 ~ Writing this…

Thursday, September 30th, 2010

Working on another brutal deadline, and I upped the stakes for myself by taking on the editing for “Madhouse: True Stories of the Inmates of Hostel 4”. This was a wonderful project, and I am very glad I did it. But boy has that got me in the weeds… Still, I will be on target, and deliver my next book by the end of the year.

Some thoughts on writing it:

Why is it hard to write erotica? For sure, it’s hard. A friend asked me, joking, if I am “scared by my own ghost story.” The answer is, it takes so much concentration, such focus on the physical-mental-emotional state of the characters in each story that I forget myself. So no, I am not scared by my own ghost story. Or, to be clear, I am not turned on by my own erotic story. For me, writing sex and sexuality is very much a mind exercise, more than any other kind of writing I have done thus far.

It is very hard to stay where I want to. I don’t want the focus of any of my stories to be on sex or sexuality in an overt way – it has to be part of the story, of the people in the story. And sometimes the characters don’t play along. They do what they want, and sometimes they don’t want to be sexual. Maybe I should not have committed to write to such a narrow spec. But I have, and it’s interesting, to say the least.

This is the first post about writing, I may do more. It is interesting to pay attention to the process this time, something I haven’t done before…

The first thing I did was name the kind of writing I intend for this book. So after I finished my first story, I did just that: I named the book. It helps me to keep this in mind, it keeps me where I want to be.

It will be called

Slither: Carnal Prose by Urmilla Deshpande

Yes, Carnal Prose. My own genre. I am delighted by my own brilliance. I hope it doesn’t end with the title.

Erratic Engineering

Friday, May 7th, 2010

As I work on editing and think about the shape and layout and progression of the IIT Hostel4 book, I am amazed at the audaciousness of these boys’ lives (they were all boys, H4 is a men’s hostel, and I say ‘boys’ and not ‘men’ because they were between 16 and 22, and my experience with a 19 year old son tell me ‘boys’ is appropriate). Some of those boys are now men, and some of them tell stories wonderfully, and a lot of them have stories to tell. This is, to me, a kind of collection of legends and folktales and myths and memories that together gives a picture of hostel life in the early eighties, of course, but also a glimpse into the psyche of that age group – a highly intelligent group of them. I have fathers (two) and a husband and many old and now many new friends who were IITians. I have always wondered – do they have to be a certain way to go into that institution, or did they come out that way after being there? I was hoping for answers while reading these stories, but there seem to be none so far.

While doing this book, I am painfully aware of another looming deadline – I made a commitment to my editor that I would write a collection of short stories by the end of August. Not just short stories, a collection of erotic short fiction. It started as a joke, and I took it as a challenge. But I was also curious about my writing. Could I write to spec and still be me as a writer? and could I break out and “go all the way” in my writing? I’m two stories down, about seven to go. To me these stories seem more bizarre than erotic… but, we’ll see. And I am certain that living day in and day out in a hostel full of seething teenage hormones (I’m sure no one will disagree with me here) – which is what I do when I read and edit the H4 stories – is hindering me badly in my quest for the perfect erotic story. There’s nothing erotic about engineering students… or is there?


Friday, January 29th, 2010


The cathedral is thrust six hundred feet out of the ground as though in an instant by forces of the earth, but it was built painstakingly stone over stone, century after century. It seems as a young mountain peak, angry and defiant, piercing the sky darkly even on bright summer days though it is neither angry nor young, but insolent and anchored. The hawk was invisible on the brittle silhouette of a Northern spire. He looked down at the people floating in and out and around his home on a stream of time. He had lived there long, he knew the change of the seasons by the smell of the river and the coming and leaving of the small animals and birds he lived on. His memory was a continuum. He knew what his mother had known, what his brothers and sister had known, what his children would know. That the city grew long icicles in the long winter, that parakeets flew over the river in the summer, that dogs barked on barges that floated down to the sea, that people cried in their aeries at night, that mice came out into the cobbled streets to look for sustenance, and so he would not be hungry.

The sun rose warm and torpid that day, took its time to traverse the sky. The girl came everyday with the woman, she sat on a bench under the trees, she ate, she sometimes went inside the cathedral, and then they left, walking fast toward the bridge. He could see her all the way to the great train station where frantic pigeons lived, and then, every day, she left his line of sight, and he did not know if he would ever see her again, but he did, that day. The girl was not like the others. She moved her hands, like wings, her fingers like the tips of his own wings. She turned her head, like he did, she looked at everything. When crowds of children ran screaming right  behind her, she did not turn to look. She did not flinch when the sirens burst into the air. He cried out to her, in short notes and long, keening straight down to her. She

looked up. There was someone or something there, she felt it. She had felt it since they had first started to come to this place.  When she was a baby, her mother would push her there in a stroller. She remembered it. When she was gone, her grandfather would walk with her, his hand around hers. And when he was gone too, and she was old enough, now she brought the old aunt here, to feel the presence of time. Time was more than now, in this place. More than before and after and today and tomorrow. It was nothing unnatural or supernatural, that she felt. Just a presence, an acknowledgement of her presence other than all the eyes of all the people who did not watch her, or even see her. She was outside their world. She had always known that, since she was born, she had known that. I am mud, she felt, part of the mud, sludge, lies of the earth, and she looked up at the shiny hawks that flew above her sometimes alighting to swoop up some creature of the world so he would be shiny and grow wings in us all. Maybe, she sometimes felt, it was the hawks watching her. There was always a hawk. If she looked carefully, if she felt for him, she felt him, and then she knew where to look so she could see him.  She could feel them. She always had. She felt them calling to her. Maybe, she thought, they were looking for another of their own, maybe she was just in the way, and received a message not intended for her, and maybe she just received it in her loneliness, because everyone else was so busy with what they did with each other. She saw him, almost lost in the uneven edges of the spire.  If he hadn’t moved in readiness to fly she would not have seen him. His shape separated from the darkness and took off into the light summer sky, growing larger not smaller, as he coasted down and settled on the bare branches of the tree right in front of her. He looked right at her with his cat eyes, turning this way and that and

he opened his wings slightly to balance on the branch he had known was too weak to support his weight, but he wanted to look at her. She looked back at him, and he could see her clear eyes, a winter sky, she saw things far away, and things very small, and she could see him, and he could see her, so he ruffled his wings again, just to preen, just to show her the bars on his tail, the unbroken curve of his beak, he turned his head this way and that giving her both sides of his fine head, his tawny eyes. Then he took off from the tree, straight up to his northern spire, wings in full span, tips spread out, he knew she was watching him, he was keening as he rose,  knew she didn’t actually hear him, but that she did

feel  him. The old woman was tired and wanted to leave, so they walked to their train. There were vendors crowding the square almost to their doorstep by the time they got home. When they had left, very early in the morning, people were just driving up, some unpacking and laying out their white asparagus and silver mackerel. Now they crowded every foot of the market square, and women in scarves covering their hair and ears walked behind dark men with dark eyebrows and mustaches, stopping to maul tomatoes and to taste pastes of chickpeas and garlic and aubergines and almonds, critical and careful and aggressive and very busy. They all moved their mouths, and lips, incessantly, as people did. As she once had, only she did not remember it, not as an act anyway, just a distant shadow, the imprint of a wet leaf on the concrete, long blown away. She bought a huge slice of apple cake from a woman who had known her mother, to eat as she looked out of her window at the cathedral. She knew her aunt was telling her not to, but she didn’t look at her. They bought a piece of pork, to put in the soup, and then walked up the stairs. The aunt opened her door and went in, not bothering to say goodbye, or thank you, or anything at all. She had never expected it, and was surprised at herself for noticing the lack of acknowledgement. She went two more flights up to her own rooms , in the attic, with dormer windows and slightly sloped ceilings, and a view of the only thing she wanted to see.

She had no tv or radio, just her father’s books, and the paintings on the walls, and the windows, and the remains of a life she had had with a man once, before he tired of her silence and left. His warm robe she used in the winter, his razor in the summer, when she would wear a cool dress, and lay in the grass by the river, watching the parakeets and the barges for hours until it was near dark. She wondered, as she ate her cake, if the hawk could see her in the window. She wondered, if she walked all the way home instead of taking the train, if he would follow her, and sit on her window sill, or share his fresh killed mouse with her. She brushed her teeth and lay in her bed, and even from there, she could see the distant spire, and she imagined she could see him, soaring in the still blue summer sky, making the stars come and go as he covered them with his wings. The image was still in her eyes as she slipped quietly from conscious into sweeter realms, from the city streets in daylight to the night sky, and the smell of grass and leaves and the touch of wings on her face.

It was still dark. She looked up at the spires she had looked at every day of her short, silent life. She stood there a while, and then saw him, her hawk. He sat on the lowest part of the scaffolding, swinging slightly in the mild breeze. He turned his head and opened his beak, and she felt a vibration. She felt him calling to her. She closed her eyes so she could see nothing, only feel, and see what he was showing her. She felt his wings, she felt the air through them, she saw what he saw, as he rose, higher and higher and higher, past the gargoyles and the saints and the flying buttresses, past the low clouds till there was no dimension to anything anymore. And below her the church, just a small green cross, laying on the face of the earth.

Down on the ground, she felt her feet, and she leaned against the dark abraded stone. The scaffolding was right beside her, and she held the cold metal to support herself. She was dizzy, a little dazed, as if she had really flown too high too fast. And she soon recovered, but there he was again, the hawk, calling to her. She saw him, again on the scaffolding she was holding. They were connected by the metal, and she could feel him so clearly as if he was inside her head. She took off her shoes and her socks and put her bag beside them too, and with the firm grip of her hands and feet, she began to climb up to him. She saw his golden eyes come closer, he did not move, just sat there, unafraid, as she climbed. And when she was close enough to touch him, when she could see the shafts of his feathers, he lifted off his perch and sank a little before opening his wings wide, so the pale pearl sky shone through them, and went a little higher. She followed him. And so they climbed, together, to the point where she could go no further, and she stood on the narrow wood laid there for someone who would stand there and clean the stone of its darkness, inch by inch, always seeing only the stone before their eyes, never the whole church, all at once.

He was there, at her shoulder, this hawk of hers. And they both stepped into the air together, the girl and her hawk. He called to her, and she answered him, as she trusted the air beneath her feet,

he called to her as he went down, short winged and fast after her,  and he stopped his drop and floated, but she did not recover her span, she did not come up with him.

He called to her, and she answered. Once.

He called to her again, but she said no more.

They all heard him. The man in his bed alone stopped in mid stroke, yearning for his woman, he called too, for her, across the river, in another bed with another man, he called to her, he could not but momentarily end his eternal longing, beating it into temporary submission, an injured creature biting the dust. The woman heard him, and she called to him, the lonely scream of a prisoner in a room, a heavy old iron bed, velvet drapes, her wedding ring on the table beside her, she called to him across the river. And the baker heard him, as he pounded his dough, and called too, for the sun to rise, for the morning to take him out of the heat of the ovens and away from the sweat of the labor. And the little boy heard him, as he tumbled in the grass, upside down in the early morning grass, and he looked, upside down at the sky, and he saw the hawk, red tailed in the rising sun, and he laughed, and all was right with the world.