Explicit references to sex as an art form went through four distinct periods of India's history: ancient, Islamic, British and post-Independent. Our forefathers understood sex as the most potent emotion in life and gave it the importance it deserved in their writings, paintings and sculpture. You can find examples in John Brough's translations of Poems from the Sanskrit, as well as in illustrated editions of the Kama Sutra. It was a time when sculptors were decorating walls of temples in Khajuraho and Konarak, depicting lusty men and beautifully rounded young women copulating with gay abandon. Censorship by the state or society did not exist.
Things changed with the invasion of Muslims in northern India. Islamic puritanism took over. Though they gave India many of its beautiful buildings, and in due course of time evolved Urdu as the lingua franca, depictions of sex in writing, painting or sculpture became taboo.
The British introduced their own brand of morality based on Victorian prudery of what could be put in print and what deserved to be censored. William Makepeace Thackeray, Flora Annie Steel and the greatest of British India's writers and poets, Rudyard Kipling, though they weaved in their tales many incidents of romantic liaisons, licit and illicit, abstained from bringing them to their inevitable consummation in bedrooms. It was not considered propah.
It was during British times that some Indians took to writing in English—Raja Rao, R.K. Narayan and Mulk Raj Anand. Raja Rao could be witty till he assumed the role of a guru imparting ancient wisdom to his disciples. Narayan stuck faithfully to his Malgudi tales shorn of sexual escapades to become the icon of Tamil Nadu. Only Anand ventured into writing about sex, but limited it to dialogues between uncouth rustics who would not talk without using expletives like behen chod (sister violator) and sala. Indeed, without the use of such abuse words, reproducing their dialogue would become meaningless.
Our government and judiciary did not share the writer's wish to write as he/she wanted. The Supreme Court upheld the ban on D.H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover. The government banned Aubrey Menen's Rama Retold, Agehananda Bharati's The Ochre Robe and later Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses. It is risky to have sexual innuendos in works remotely concerned with religion. The government responds to demands of pseudo-religious busybodies with alacrity.
I made my own little contribution to sexual writing in fiction. Starting tentatively with Train to Pakistan, I went on to writing Delhi—a novel based on the narrator's affair with a hijra-hermaphrodite. My short stories became more explicit. My last novel, Company of Women, is a series of sexual encounters with a variety of women. That effort earned me the sobriquet domod—dirty old man of Delhi.
The process of liberation from humbug about the use of sexual vocabulary was slow. At first writers resorted to asterisks like f*** instead of "sexual intercourse" or "made love"; c*** or d*** instead of male organ or penis; c*** for female private parts etc. Finally all that was put away into the garbage bin and fuck, cock, dick, cunt took their rightful place. Conservatives were shocked, but eventually let the words pass.
Shobha De played a meaningful role in popularising the role of illicit sex in Bombay's middle and upper classes. A succession of her novels made the bestseller lists and she came to be crowned as "the queen of Indian porn".
Evidently, she did not relish the title. She turned to superstition and added an extra 'a' to her name and tried to reinvent herself in the image of a conservative shrimatiji preaching marital fidelity, and a loving mother of a brood of offspring—hers (from her first husband), his (her husband's from his first wife), and theirs. Her book of sermons, Spouses, also did well but the book that followed, Superstar India, went largely unnoticed.
Salman Rushdie played a stellar role in liberating Indian writing from traditional straitjackets. His first novel, Midnight's Children, which won him a Booker, broke new ground in style and content of writing. So did most of his subsequent works except the last, The Enchantress of Florence, which depicts dollops of sex which get drowned under torrents of verbosity. More convincing was Arundhati Roy's Booker-winning God of Small Things, which has a few really salacious descriptions of amatory intercourse. For good sex writing, turn the pages of Amitav Ghosh's latest novel, Sea of Poppies. It has many sexual encounters written in his inimitable style.
In this context three novels I regard as milestones are Shashi Tharoor's The Great Indian Novel, based on the Draupadi episode in the Mahabharata, which is regarded as a sacred epic by most Hindus. Tharoor exploited her marrying five brothers to depict fantasies of the variety of sexual experiences she might enjoy and her frustration as the brothers could not agree on who would have the pleasure of deflowering her. When I read it first, I was certain that it would be banned. Somehow, neither fundoos nor babus got to read it till after it had won worldwide acclaim. The second was Richard Crasta's The Revised Kama Sutra. It is about liaisons between Catholic priests and nuns under vows of celibacy. The Catholic Church had nothing to say about it. The third was Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan's You Are Here. It is about sex between adolescents of the present generation of city-dwellers. You find all of this summarised in Tarun Tejpal's raunchy Alchemy of Desire, which combines black humour, use of earthy language, violence and good writing.
We have yet to understand the primal role sex plays in human affairs. I quote a few lines from Richard Crasta's latest collection of articles, What We All Need: "Now this friend of mine is recently in trouble, he said of a woman he knew and cared for and protected, a woman who worked in his academic department but who was a confused mass of bother to everyone around (men and women). 'What she needs is a good fuck....' Now that, apparently, is not a mere statement of fact or opinion such as 'she needs new glasses' or 'what she needs is a vacation', but is, indeed, in the pissy, prissy American academic world of PC righteousness (or the new puritanism of American campuses), a capital crime."
I go along with Crasta. Imagine what would happen to the sadhvis who spout hate against Muslims if they had joyful sex with lusty Mussalman studs. Or male fundoos if they had fulfilling sex with females of communities they fulminate against with such animus. Sex is the most potent prophylactic against generations of hatred.