Transition 10.4 (2001) 114-131
A Bang and a Whimper
A conversation with Hanif Kureishi
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I hail from the Land of the Rising Libido. Or so they say. While young people in America are reading The Great Gatsby or The Catcher in the Rye, their Indian counterparts are reputedly consuming the Kama Sutra: open our family albums and all you see are pictures of aerobic couples coupling, rampant, on a field of paisley. E. M. Forster, who enjoyed many a homosexual dalliance with his servants while engaged as a secretary to one of the lesser Indian princelings of the 1920s, played homage to the stereotype when he asked his diary, "What relation beyond carnality could one establish with such people?"
In my youth, I must confess, carnality was hard to come by. I grew up in a backward town called Patna, where our lives were swallowed up by our sprawling families and the rituals of our Hindu society. We lived in a large house, my uncle's family and mine in one set of rooms while a widowed aunt and her son's family shared the others. There was an older cousin, on my mother's side, who lived with us, too. She was of what was considered a marriageable age. Whenever she visited her friends' houses for weddings or festive pujas, I would pick up my bicycle and ride behind her rickshaw as her escort. It was the same with the sisters of other boys. I seldom met girls who were not my relatives.
My rebellions were painted on a tiny canvas: every Sunday at 11 a.m. I went to see old Hollywood films at the Veena Cinema Hall on Fraser Road. It was the only time they showed Western films--everything else was strictly Bollywood, so there'd be wet saris, of course, but no kissing and certainly no sex--and I scrutinized the movies of the young Steve McQueen for rare hints of female flesh. (If I recall correctly, I also scrutinized Bridge over the River Kwai, to no avail.) My adolescence was a pressure cooker of repression and sublimation.
If recent trends in Indian literature are anything to go by, I was not alone. In The Romantics, the debut novel from [End Page 114] [Begin Page 116] the celebrated Indian writer Pankaj Mishra, the "disorder of the physical act" is positively overwhelming. "It is hard for me to describe the physical aspect of what happened next. It was made memorable only by my incompetence in everything that followed upon Catherine's first disencumbering kiss: the first nervous explorations, the fumbling with buttons and hooks, the awkward impasses and shameful lonely climaxes." Amit Chaudhuri's Afternoon Raga has the same excruciating sexual self-consciousness:
Our blinded gropings were more exploratory than passionate, for both of us were inexperienced, and a little afraid of what was supposed to happen at the end of this act. These were the only moments when we were tolerant of each other's disabilities and shortcomings. Just above the bed there was a skylight that let a glow into the room, so that we could see each other's outlines, and the reassuring shapes of certain objects.
Ah, certain objects. It seems fair to say that no writer in India today would pen a sentence like the following, plucked at [End Page 116] random from the writings of Hanif Kureishi: "Rapt, he held his breath while Deedee picked up a deodorant bottle and inserted the top into her cunt." I still remember my first encounter with Kureishi in the pages of Granta magazine one feverish afternoon a dozen years ago. I had left India a year before, but just barely. "With Your Tongue Down My Throat" told the story of Nina and her half-sister Nadia, who had come to London from Pakistan. Here was Nina introducing her mother on the second page of the story:
Soon after this teenage game mother and lover go...