Sex in the Indian Novel

  • Richard Cronin


‘I may as well say straight off that many of these adventures were sexual.’ This is the narrator of Ruth Jhabvala’s story ‘An Experience of India’1 beginning her account of her travels through the country ‘in third class railway carriages and in those old lumbering buses that go from one small dusty town to another’, but she might as well be speaking on behalf of almost any of the Europeans who have written about India in the past 60 years. It all started innocently enough with a strap breaking on Adela Quested’s binocular case. Miss Quested decides in the end that she only imagined that Dr Aziz assaulted her, but what happened to Daphne Manners in the Bibighar Gardens was real enough. She made love with Hari Kumar, and then she was raped by five or six Indians, ‘Black shapes in white cotton clothing; stinking ragged clothing.’ It is a theme that Ruth Jhabvala has made her own. From Esmond in India until Heat and Dust and beyond she has written novels and stories that return almost obsessively to the theme of a sexual encounter between an Indian and a European. This is odd, and it seems even odder if we recall that in Indian novelists’ writing in the same period the possibility of inter-racial sex has aroused very little interest. Even those Indian writers whose main concern is to explore India’s relations with the West have usually resisted the temptation to represent those relations so literally.2


Sexual Encounter Indian Language Sexual Disgust Black Shape Sexual Transforma 
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Notes and References

  1. 1.
    In Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, How I Became a Holy Mother and Other Stories (Penguin, 1981).Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    In the work of R.K. Narayan I can think of only one example of an inter-racial sexual relationship. In The Vendor of Sweets Jagan’s son Mali returns from America with a Korean girlfriend. Jagan sees the two sitting together in the back seat of a car, their legs pressed together. He averts his eyes. So does Narayan. He has no interest in their relationship beyond a general sense of its unseemliness. Anita Desai is a friend of Ruth Jhabvala’s, and has clearly been influenced by her, but this, Ruth Jhabvala’s central theme, rarely catches her attention. Nayantara Sahgal is at least as interested in the relationship between the East and the West as any of the European novelists that I discuss. In Rich Like Us, Rosie, a rather unconvincingly imagined Cockney, becomes the second wife of Ram, an Indian businessman. But Nayantara Sahgal is uninterested in their sexual relationship. Her most recent novel, Plans for Departure, concerns the experience of a young Danish girl, Anna Hansen, in the months she spends in a small Indian hill station. For the European reader the most remarkable aspect of her experience of India is that she remains throughout this time entirely chaste.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Edward Said, Orientalism, (Penguin, 1985), p. 203. Said is quoting Nietzsche.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    In fact, and significantly, only half-Indian.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    J.R. Ackerley, Hindoo Holiday An Indian Journal (Penguin, 1983), p. 273.Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    Forster’s convention survives. In Andrew Harvey’s One Last Mirror (Jonathan Cape, 1985), which is set in Ceylon, the English protagonist is a homosexual. Christopher Isherwood seems to think that the convention is firmly enough established to be played with. A Meeting by the River (Methuen, 1967), concerns an encounter in Bengal between two English brothers, one a film producer, the other about to become a Hindu monk. It is the film producer who has had an affair with an American called Peter. But the point is that his claims to take a sympathetic interest in his brother’s religious beliefs and to be deeply in love with Peter are equally fraudulent. When his plane takes off from Calcutta, he retreats at once from Indian spirituality to Hollywood wheeler-dealing, and from Peter to the safe heterosexuality of his marriage.Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    The least expected exponent of this craft is Forster’s Superintendent McBryde who is at one point reported by Mrs Callendar to be patrolling the bazaars of Chandrapore ‘disguised as a Holy Man’.Google Scholar
  8. 8.
    In Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, A Stronger Climate (Granada, 1983).Google Scholar
  9. 9.
    In Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, How I Became a Holy Mother and Other Stories (Penguin, 1981).Google Scholar
  10. 10.
    There are, of course, even in Ruth Jhabvala’s novels, exceptions to this rule; notably the marriage between Judy and Bai in A Backward Place (Penguin, 1980), and the relationship between the narrator and Inder Lal in Heat and Dust (Futura, 1976).Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Richard Cronin 1989

Authors and Affiliations

  • Richard Cronin
    • 1
  1. 1.University of GlasgowUK

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