Namita Gokhale’s first novel, Paro: Dreams of Passion(1984) was described as blatantly bold and ‘soft porn’ for its use of erotic language and depiction of intense sex. While three decades later the reception is bound to be not so extreme, it is a significant precursor to Shobhaa De’s sexual satires and to urban sexual escapades in contemporary chic lit. Located in the spatiality of Bombay and Delhi, it critiques the social urbanity of these cities while focusing on the gender and class dynamics in dealing with issues of Indian womanhood and its subterranean sexual desires. Woman’s articulation of sexuality in Paro seems to find expression only through the ‘liberated’ Other, while questioning if the Other perceived as the epitome of beauty and sexuality is really independent and free.
What distinguishes Paro from other writings of its ilk is its fluid negotiation of sexuality in terms of coexistence of latent homoerotic and heterosexual desires. This comes across right at the outset in describing B.R. as nymphomaniac instead of the satyriasis; this conscious choice of word blurs the stringent boundaries of heteronormativity. Linguistic witchery and what Young et al(2013) describe as switching of codes points to an androgyny both linguistically and in use of imagery. It is significant that the normative spaces of a household and the bedroom of married couple are invested with these non-normative modes of sexuality, creating tense negotiations of sexuality vis-a vis space, language and imagery.
The narrator Priya begins writing the text as a diary givenher faculty for telling and recording the ‘truth’, a confessed non-participating voyeur. The middle class Priya obsessively follows the life of glamourous Paro, attracted by her vitality and vigour, ‘Her irreverence both frightened and excited me.’(Gokhale, 1984, p.32) Her diary entries are not about the autobiographical Self trapped in staid mundaneness but the adventures of the beautiful and audacious Other followed through her various affairs to her death. The transformation of genre from journal/diary to novel, from truth to fictionalization ties thematically with the dilemmas of being caught between reality and dreams. Her notions of romance and love are derived from her reading of Rebeca and Mills and Boon and from the figure of the glamourous boss B.R.who makes love to her against the backdrop of Marine Drive and music of ‘Rites of Spring’. Desire in women is informed by socialization process and as Walkerdine(1990) among others suggests that modern history makes romance rather than sex the key to sexuality. Sexuality is carefully contained and channelized through acceptable and normative ideas of romance and love, silencing any explicit or frank expression of it. The sewing machine, symbol of domesticity and family, ‘The Housewife’s Friend’ is symbolic of cloaking of desire while the boss B.R. rules over the opulent Pallas Athene office.
Fine(1992) in ‘Sexuality, Schooling, and Adolescent Females:The Missing Discourse of Desire’ writes about woman’s desires being regulated by patriarchy and heterosexuality.Discourse of desire evokes the dichotomies of good girl/bad girl, Madonna/whore that draws narrow sexual boundaries around women where men generally initiate and control sexual encounters and pleasure of women is not even discussed or acknowledged. The linking of sexuality with morality is used to rein in woman’s independence and agency; desire is controlled and manipulated to subordinate women and to instead extoll the virtues of docility and subservience. It appears as if the woman has internalized societal norms of sexuality but the closeted sexuality creates a split in the self. Sennett and Cobb (1973) call it a ‘divided self’, a division between what the woman ‘acts’ like and what she desires for, an alienation between the ‘performing’ self and the ‘real’ self, problematizing the very definitions of these terms. Priya tries to ‘perform’ the role of the good woman, the bhartiyanari and forgoes her sexual pleasure in this ‘act’, yet her ‘real’ self yearns to embrace the confident sexual agency of Paro. Priya’s mind, body and writing are sites of playing out this dilemma and her alter ego Paro is symbolic of the Other outside. No wonder she is obsessed about her and tries to articulate herself through this alternative and opposite Other right from the opening sentence itself, ‘I am writing about them because I saw myself in her’ (Gokhale, 1984, p.1). Her middle class sensibilities about demure and coy brides are shaken up with the unabashed attitude of Paro at her reception in silver sari and lipstick, a glass of gin in her mehndied hand and kissing her father-in-law on his forehead.
In a clearly homoerotic zone, Priya fantasizes about the irreverent Paro while masturbating, as she climaxes she aspires for the seductress charm of Paro and the social mobility that she is symbolic of. She strives to transcend the notions of womanhood and middle class existence that she is caught in, and Paro’s life ‘seduces’ her to think of the Other both in terms of being an alluring temptress and leading a luxurious life of beauty and grace. The dualities between Priya’s mundane existence and her dreams are repeatedly emphasized, be it through the wedding gifts of the domesticating sewing machine and the suggestively romantic cut glass vase, or the sophisticated sexiness of B.R. and her conjugally dissatisfying husband. She obsessively and compulsively follows the life of Paro and B.R. and confesses that through her writing she was ‘trying to lay their[B.R. and Paro] ghosts, banish their tyrannical mythologies; it is both a therapeutic experience, an old fashioned catharsis, an enema.I shall vomit out my malice and envy and adoration’. (p.25) The mixed and complex emotions that Paro evokes in Priya are emblematic of the her conflicting ideas about femininity and sexuality, of the dilemma of playing a dutiful housewife with sex associated with closed door silences and of being unable to acknowledge one’s sexual life with directness. Paro creates awe, admiration and jealousy in Priya regarding her unabashed and overt sexuality.
In Priya’s private mythology B.R. and Paro are irrevocably conjoined in an androgynous image, despite their divorce, as the Greek god and goddess of sexuality respectively, a pantheon that she is able to evoke only in fantasies and tries to exorcise through her writing. In a highly charged self-erotic language and scene, she describes her fantasies of appropriating the sexuality of the Other, ‘sometimes I became Paro, and sometimes I was myself. Sometimes I was B.R. devouring Paro, and B.R. tenderly loving Priya, and then I became Suresh who was ravishing Paro, and then Paro with Suresh in slavish possession, and intermittently Suresh copulating with Priya who was actually Paro.’ (p.60) The vivid and explicit fantasies break the monoliths of gendered identity, the ‘enactment’ breaks the neat categorizations of real/projected self, desire/reality and heterosexuality/homosexuality to explore fluid identities of gender and sexuality. The fluid pansexuality is visible in the amalgam of Paro, Priya and B.R. at the time of sexual intimacy, malleable identities intertwine in the orgasmic outpouring. Suresh joins her in this homo/hetero erotic zone and takes her on with urgency; both seem capable to giving in an unbridled rein to their sexuality only when they break the moulds of being husband and wife caught in domesticity, and act and re-enact being the man and the whore. Significantly the boundaries of normative sexual behavior are questioned and stretched in the normative space of the nuptial bed.The controlled sexuality of the ‘good woman’ breaks the acceptable codes and the fluid negotiations of Priya’s sexual self are articulated through the trope of enactment. Sexual pleasure seems a possibility and reality for Priya only in imaginative role play, else it seems burdened with conflicting and non-reconciliatory ideas of good wife and woman with sexual needs. After the highly intense encounter described above Priya writes, ‘It was as if the basically voyeuristic nature of my life had been laid bare. I was possessed.’(p.60) The voyeuristic Priya has a strong fixation for the sexually uninhibited Paro; the exhibitionist and the voyeur are a conjoined pair, each feeding and depending on the other for existence and sustenance. While Priya feels compelled to act in conformity of social and cultural inscriptions of womanhood, her sexual yearnings find expression by donning the persona of the more sexually liberated woman. She looks at Paro as ‘the free woman, symbol and prototype of emancipation and individuality.’(p.48) But is Paro really ‘free’?
For Paro, the beautiful woman, the body is not the site of freedom but of subordination. Sandra Lee Bartky in Femininity and Domination (1990) writes that women’s bodily self-discipline and sado-masochistic sexual fantasies are manifestation of internalized oppression and affects the perception of the self. Through obsessive dieting, exercising, beauty regimes and alluring clothes, women ‘discipline’ their bodies. While the voyeur Priya admires the always beautifully turned out Paro, Paro confesses ‘It’s part of being a Beautiful Woman. It’s a full time occupation.’ (Gokhale, 1984, p.62) It no doubt has an elaborate regimen, investing a lot of time and money in maintaining physical attractiveness. As she begins to age and put on weight, Paro tries various things like salads and yoga to maintain her figure as the body is integral to her self-image. The middle aged Paro moonily adores Mishra and admits ‘He is so ugly, so repulsive, that he makes me feel beautiful.’(p.84)
Naomi Wulf in The Beauty Myth (1992) argues that images of beauty perpetuated through woman’s magazines and advertisements are detrimental to women. She elaborates that the concept of ‘beauty’ is a weapon used to make women feel inferior about themselves; after all, no one can live up to the ideal, which is defined as thinness, pertness, and youthfulness taken to extremes, effectively an unattainable image. However the quest keeps the women submissive to the consumer culture, making bodies the site of subordination and deprivation. The continuous assessment of the self with these images deflects attention away from inner emotions and sensations to expression of the self solely in terms of the body. The corporeal anxiety is acute as pleasure is derived from visible appearance; emotional graphs of exhilaration and depression become tied to the body image. While few years back social columns of Onlooker and Eve’s Weekly celebrated Paro as the glamourous socialite, the lowlier papers now lampoon her desperate attempts to hang on to youth and beauty, ridiculing her emotional surrender to Mishra. The controlling media eye is a male gaze that is stimulated by female youthful beauty but erases older woman from popular media/culture and ridicules one who does not follow this normative code. The woman’s selfhood and happiness are linked to appreciative masculine gaze; this makes the resentation of a ‘beautiful’ self a burden, and an alienating act between real and performing selves that Priya from the detached vantage point of voyeur does not completely understand.
Priya, the voyeur-diarist obsessively follows and chronicle Paro’s life, yet somewhere she is unmoved by her fall in fortune. The fertility of Priya’s body and mind are both linked to Paro, she conceived the night when both in her subconscious and Suresh’s she was Paro, and Paro’s totemic gift brings on her miscarriage. Paro is the object of her gaze as she compulsively writes about her, and writes as if possessed, writing in sleep, over tea and even over the commode. ‘Even amidst the deepest possible flow of emotions I could never abandon the unmoved voyeur within me, the wary spectator in the crowd, never participating, only watching’(Gokhale, 1984, p. 121). When Paro discovers her diary, she flings at her physically and emotionally in rage: ‘you little spy, you bloody lesbo, you don’t even have the guts to live your own bloody life, always creeping about me and Bubu…’(p.123). The voyeur derives pleasure from looking at the exhibitionist, a reversal of activity-passivity. By appropriating the Other as image, the voyeur makes it an object of pleasure while remaining uninvolved in the other’s intimacy. Priya, the narrator brings under her scanner Paro’s appetite for life and sex through her relationships, tracing her life from glamour to decadence to death. The voyeur in her is fascinated, excited and even fantasies about Paro but is curiously detached.
Priya’s pleasure in observing and recording the life of Paro can be read in relation to Laura Mulvey’s(1975) essay, ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’. Mulvey’s work brings together theories of psychoanalysis and feminism and argues that films create a space for female sexual bjectification through the combination of the patriarchal order of society, and ‘looking’ in itself as a pleasurable act of voyeurism. Cinema’s pleasure of looking, scopophilia is primarily the pleasure of the male gaze. Priya, the woman voyeur-narrator seems to appropriate the male gaze in recording the adventurous and dramatic life of Paro. Priya in her role as voyeur(and appropriation of male gaze in fascinated obsession with the exhibitionist female body of Paro), her compulsive following of actions of the ‘beautiful woman’ and in her sexual fantasies about Paro/B.R. is overturning the notions of romance and passion that are buried under the baggage of compliant cultural and moral codes of womanhood. This articulation uses the trope of enactment, of expressing her subterranean sexual desiresby performing the Other i.e. fantasizing about the overtly‘liberated’ Paro. These expressions question the normative and acceptable codes of female sexuality suggesting a more fluid pansexuality in articulation of desire where the notion of the Other is not a simplistic and unidimensional dichotomous of the silenced desires of the Self but argues for a complex and nuanced understanding of female sexuality.
Bartky, Sandra Lee. (1990). Femininity and domination:Studies in the phenomenology of oppression. New York: Routledge.
Fine, Michelle. (1992). Sexuality, schooling, and adolescent females: The missing discourse of desire. In Michelle Fine (Ed.) Disruptive voices: The possibilities of feminist research. (pp. 31-59). Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
Gokahle, Namita. (1984). Paro: Dreams of passion. New Delhi: Penguin.
Mulvey, Laura. (1975). Visual and narrative cinema. Screen.16(3) Autumn 1975, pp.6-18.
Sennett, Richard and Joanthan Cobb. (1973). The hidden injuries of class. New York: Vintage.
Walkerdine, Valerie. (1990). The schoolgirl fictions. London: Verso.
Wolf, Naomi. (1992). The beauty myth: How images of beauty are used against women. New York: Anchor Books.
Young, V.A., Barrett, R., Young-Rivera, Y. and Lovejoy, K.M. (2013). Other people’s English: Code meshing, code switching, and African American Literacy. New York: Teachers College Press.
RachnaSethi is Assistant Professor in Department of English, Rajdhani College, University of Delhi. She has been working in areas of women’s studies, urban studies and oral cultures