Traversing the world of female desire

Desire, especially female desire, has consequences. Even the Bible has foretold it. But, that isn’t going to stop writer Anita Nair from narrating tales of women who want to live life on their terms

Ashlin Mathew

Desire, especially female desire, has consequences. After all, even the Bible has foretold that. But, that doesn’t stop writer Anita Nair from narrating tales of women who want to live life according to their desires and wants. They want to do so without approvals or reproaches. But, it is never that easy.

For Nair, it is almost a return to her theme of women and their identities, which was the running thread in her 2001 novel Ladies Coupe. Now, after 17 years, not much has changed and women are still seeking identities and hoping to maintain their identities intact. Some of her protagonists emerge victorious and the stories of some are left to us ponder about.

Here, the author engages in a conversation with Ashlin Mathew

Your latest book Eating Wasps has looked at female desire and in most cases the desires that are acted upon are almost forbidden. What drew you to the subject and the title?

As a writer, I have never flinched from writing about anything that is considered grim or difficult. And if it is contrary to societal norms, then I find it that much more inspiring. So it was with female desire. Giving into desire for a woman is a huge step especially when in our world, that a woman may feel desire cannot even be considered as an option.

As for the title, Eating Wasps is a metaphor referring to dealing with almost insurmountable challenges. How the title came about has a story attached. I was working in an open verandah overlooking the wilderness we euphemistically call a garden in my cottage in Kerala. A wasp settled on a corner of the table I was at. I have been stung by wasps several times so I didn’t dare move until it left. But the wasp continued to hover and I had no option but to sit there and slowly an idea for the title began evolving in my head. I do think the wasp presented the title to me.

One of the stories is of a young girl who gets sexually assaulted, but unlike the other stories, you have kept it open-ended… we never get to know what has happened to that girl after her traumatic experience…

There are three ways how Megha’s life could pan out: she heals and survives but will forever bear the trauma within her that will shape her life and colour her choices; or she never recovers. I know a young woman who was routinely molested as a young child with permanent damage as she is schizophrenic now. Since the story is in the here and now, there was no real way to conclude it. I would like to think the reader will shape how Megha turns out to be.

As much as the book is about female desire, it is also about the men who desire these women, but not as an equal. They want to control what women can do with their bodies. Is there a reason you wanted to showcase this aspect of patriarchy?

I wanted to write about how women have to deal with not just their own desire but the consequences of male desire. How both women and men desire differently is also part of
the book.

Koman, Shyam and Radha have entered this novel from another one, Mistress, and adultery is one of the themes in this book too. Why have you chosen to look at adultery again? It sometimes feels like you are going back to older themes…

It’s not just in Mistress, adultery appears in a few of my other books too. The dynamics of an adulterous relationship — its fragility and yet at the same time, the damn-the-world intensity; the highs and lows; the secrecy and element of risk; the remorse and guilt; the disappointment and anger; the heart break and anguish — all of that creates a fecund territory for a writer to plumb.

“If our conversation with God cannot include respect for fellow beings and empathy, then that conversation with God would be pointless,” says author Anita Nair

A bone of a woman, Sreelakshmi, is shown as a voyeur; a collector and teller of tales of the women around. Do you think much has changed between Sreelakshmi’s time and Urvashi’s or Najma’s?

I don’t think so. Women are still measured and judged with a different yard stick and so they have to bear the brunt of the patriarchal yard stick.

#MeToo stories are raking up a storm in India and most of them are consequences of male desire. Are women now hoping to change the narrative or do you think after the storm lulls, it will go back to what it was?

It is a beginning to help change and shape the narrative in the sense that men will be more watchful about how they treat women. However the #MeToo needs to extend to beyond the hothouse world of social media where predators are outed and shamed. That is what would make a true impact.

Even the Sabarimala issue is about the consequence of a woman’s body. But, related to how the male idol Ayyappan might desire her. The consequence of action is again on the woman, not the man. How do you think the narrative can be changed, especially because it should be about the female believer’s conversation with God? Why should a priest stand in between God and her?

I have always believed that if you are a believer in divinity, there is no need for a medium between a person and God. That also makes me believe that there is no need for a place of worship. If you believe [which I do], then you can have that conversation with God from your home or on a train or while eating an ice cream.

However, if one wants to have the conversation with God in a temple or a church or mosque or any place of worship, I do believe one needs to follow the prescribed act of worship of the place. Which, for instance, is covering your head in a gurudwara or going through the ritual cleansing before doing the namaz or carrying the irumudi on the head when going into Sabarimala. These are rituals that are meant to lead us into a state of relinquishing our worldly ties [for the period] to make that conversation with divinity untouched by ego, desires and failings. It is also respecting the belief of the other people who are going through the rituals with great faith. If our conversation with God cannot include respect for fellow beings and empathy, then that conversation with God would be pointless.

That said, I don’t believe that any place of worship should be closed to women of any age.

Do you think art, in this case writing, is of no consequence and is simply a filler of time? What do you see is the role of a writer in this world?

Writing like any art can have an immense consequence only if it can trigger change. But that would be a polemic. What art can make us do is reflect while turning our gaze into alternate ways of thinking. That is the role of the writer too — To creep into the reader’s mind and pave the way for change. However the writer’s responsibility is a greater one. Ever since humans began using the written word, there is a certain heft attached to it unlike the other arts. Which is why even though we worship with music, dance or sculpture or painting, it is the reading of the scriptures we turn to for advice. The writer has to lift that baggage on her shoulders. Of being the light bearer if not the light.

Does desire always have to have a consequence?

Not just desire, everything has a consequence. That is just physics and nature coming into play. And that is the foundation of Newton’s third law: For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.

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Published: 9 Dec 2018, 6:10 AM