'The novel is unabashedly erotic'
In her latest title that launches today, Shobhaa De paints a portrait of a Marwari woman who challenges societal norms at every step of the way.
"The world is a savage place for women who break rules," Shobhaa Dé tells us in an email interview. And Srilaaji, the protagonist and title of her latest novel, does exactly that. But the book was never supposed to be about Srilaaji at all. In fact, the author's proposal to publisher Simon & Schuster India was a non-fiction title, until this fictional Marwari woman "smoothly hijacked" the project. Today, the novel will be launched virtually with actor Neena Gupta in conversation with Dé.
Srilaaji's story begins as a curious child at her family's palatial home in Calcutta, which also marks the start of her sexual curiosities. And although the character came to Dé as if a wand had been swished and flicked, structuring the narrative was another story. "I literally had a few minutes to think of a storyline before the publishers arrived at my home with a contract for a totally different book. I had to come up with something worthwhile to discuss. Lightning struck, and saved me the embarrassment of stammering and stuttering during the meeting. I thought of the phases first — virgin, wife, widow, and the cities fell into place subsequently — which was really fortunate," she says.
Themes in the novel such as sexuality and love, are often compartmentalised. But there are no labels attached to who Srilaaji is or what she does — no mention of terms like an open marriage, for instance. But how much of this thinking does Dé see in Indian society today? Indian society is terrified of such women, she asserts, adding, "The novel is unabashedly erotic, like its protagonist. Srilaaji is unfettered and entirely free of humbug conventions and rules. She is her own person, left to her own devices since girlhood. Her sense of what is approved by society at large, is defined by her small, protected world — a lonely one, with nobody to provide a moral compass, as it were. She lives by her own code of ethics and relies on instinct."
Dé also shares how our own hypocrisy and judgemental ways are exposed by women like Srilaaji, who, in the book, likens herself to being free like a parrot on a neem tree, and her lovers to a thali served in an Udipi restaurant. "She is unapologetic and unashamed about her sexual needs, longings and desires. Unflattering labels created for women like her by society, family and community, mean nothing to her," shares the writer.
A "lone warrior", Dé calls her, Srilaaji's determination breaks the confines of household tradition. With this narrative intertwined with a Marwari setting, we ask Dé about getting under the skin of the community, and she maintains that the protagonist does not represent every Marwari woman.
Dé says that in many ways, she admires the robustness of the Marwaris and feels a sense of deep empathy for the women from the community, who are often raised in ways she finds very restrictive and repressed, in matters of marriage. "They may be highly educated, financially independent, but when it comes to choosing a husband — well, that's a whole different ball game. There is no real choice. But as a community, it has several strengths and I appreciate those greatly. Marwaris are ambitious and adventurous as business people, and aggressive, too — which is why they are wildly successful. Every community in India has its own quirks and weaknesses."
Marriage and life leads Srilaaji to new destinations [Delhi, Mumbai and Goa, included], fantasies, and entrepreneurial stints. The variety of geographical settings explored in the story stems from Dé's love for travel and the sheer keenness to pay attention to food, attire and accents. The novel, she says, is as much about the character of these places as Srilaaji's life in them, and "how she adapts, changes and conquers each." And it looks like Dé's encounter with this protagonist will last a while before she moves on to another project. Why do we say this? Ask her what she's working on next and she'll tell you she's enjoying Diwali with Srilaaji.
On Today, 6 pm log on to Crossword Bookstores' Facebook Page (to tune into the launch)
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