Perched elegantly on an exotic throw pillow in her seaside Bombay apartment, the Arabian Sea breeze gently ruffling her long black hair, Shobhaa De looks like one of the seductresses of her many novels: women who buy and sell their way through a world of extraordinary luxury and moral decay; women who sleep their way to the top; women who always win. That is, until you zoom in on her teenage daughters gabbing on the phone and, in a nearby room, blasting Bryan Adams out of the family computer. De loves putting this dichotomy of her life on display; it’s her best defense against the thirty years of bad press she’s endured for talking dirty and exposing the nasty side of India’s rich and gorgeous. “I have a perfectly, boringly normal life,” she laughs. “That disappoints some people.”
Shobhaa De, perhaps better known here as the Maharani of Muck or the Princess of Porn, is India’s most commercially successful English-language author. It’s a crazy claim for a 56-year-old middle-class Indian woman–one who describes herself as a “traditional” mother to six children–to be able to make. But sex sells, even in one of the world’s most socially conservative countries. Bucking all convention, for years De has dared to write lusty, shocking sex scenes, and from a female point of view. In a country where women rarely bare more than two inches of leg and hardly ever file for divorce, she writes about women who, like herself, flee marriages because they are bored. De is author of more than a dozen titles, all of which start with the letter “s” (Sultry Days, Starry Nights, Strange Obsession–you get the point) and all of which depict a level of privilege that most of India’s more than 1 billion impoverished masses cannot even imagine.
The India De knows and writes about is also a far cry from the India pictured by most writers, that of abject urban poverty or quaint village life. “My books put an unflinching gaze on upper-middle-class India,” she says. “It wasn’t done before, mainly because we didn’t have writers out of that class.” Although her readership represents but a tiny fraction of India’s population–only about 2 percent of India reads English–De’s books are consistently bestsellers, which means they sell between 20,000 and 30,000 copies. Those sales figures sound meager, but they make her Penguin India’s star, and the publisher can’t get enough of her. This year Penguin is repackaging her entire oeuvre in a sleeker format to position her better in the mass market. De’s editor, Karthika Menon, is especially enthusiastic about her second novel, Starry Nights, which she calls “near classic in its freshness and vitality.”
It is difficult to reconcile a weighty adjective like “classic” with a sloppy work like Starry Nights. Still, the book was groundbreaking when it was published over a decade ago. Starry Nights provided the first long-form, unflattering portrait of Bollywood, showing a world that “chews up and spits out women, especially,” as De puts it. The Hindi film industry, far more than Hollywood, has been reluctant to expose its dirty underbelly, because it relies heavily on family-oriented films and the pristine image of virgin stars. De has made it one of her life’s missions to blow a hole in those perceptions.
Starry Nights is probably De’s lustiest book, featuring an Erica Jong-inspired sex scene between a faded starlet and a bearded stranger in the toilet of an airplane. Even beyond that, the book is a feminist work of sorts. The starlet is used and abused throughout, but in the final pages of the book, she and her sister and her young daughter decide to take over her father’s film studio. The trio walks off into the sunset with self-respect and “an income to match”–a favorite phrase of De’s. She says financial independence is the most important value she tries to instill in her daughters, although she admits–in classic De style–that she couldn’t live the life she is accustomed to without her millionaire second husband’s earnings.
Nevertheless, De believes that her books (along with the columns she currently writes for the Times of India, the country’s largest-circulation English-language newspaper) send a strong message to middle-class Indian women, who often face dowry harassment and abuse when they move into their husband’s family home, despite the fast-changing social mores that economic reform has brought to India. “My books try to find ways that women can survive and cope in a world that’s cruel to them,” she insists. “But I tell stories in an entertaining format. I am not doing a Germaine Greer or Betty Friedan. It’s not just get up and fight for your rights, it is more sly and subversive.” It’s true that De does often depict women as the winners, but any social message is ultimately confused by her books’ relentless commercial drive.
The character Anjali in Socialite Evenings sums up De’s brand of feminism when she says: “Men feel terribly threatened by self-sufficient women. They prefer girls like me–dependent dolls–You should try it–see how much more you can get out of him that way.” In De’s 1997 self-help book for Indian women, Surviving Men: The Smart Woman’s Guide to Staying on Top, she gives similar advice. She tells her readers to “thrive on stealth and secrecy” in a marriage; in order to “train a man to any level of competence,” she suggests women use “a) food, b) sex, c) food and sex.”
The idea that De’s books are liberating for women makes most Indian feminists see red. “Please tell me she dare not call herself a feminist,” seethes Ritu Dewan, head of the Center of Gender Economics at Bombay University. “Her women characters come out on top through sex or manipulation. It’s just soft porn.” Many educated women echo Dewan’s disavowal of De. Roshan Shehani, who used to teach college-level popular-culture courses, says De only writes about the petty concerns of the elite. “There is this notion that Shobhaa is breaking barriers for women, but we try to counter that, because what she does is so limited.”
Shobhaa De has a well-rehearsed rebuttal to the criticism that she writes only for the elite: “I don’t have to go live in a slum to prove that my heart bleeds for anybody. There’s no point in me writing for the poor because they are illiterate.” De is well aware that, in addition to being the most popular English-language writer in India, she may be the most hated as well. She once boasted that she had received a record number of bad reviews–165–for one book. But she now says that writing forthrightly about sex, as she did in Starry Nights, was a childish rebellion against the strict protocol for women’s behavior in India. “The bad press was just something that acted like a prod to see how far I could take it, and I really didn’t give a damn.”
These days, however, De apparently does give a damn about her reputation, and that’s probably why the sex has all but disappeared from her more recent writing. Her latest book, Speedpost, is a compilation of rather sappy letters to her children. Shobhaa De is often compared to Jackie Collins, but she’s more like Madonna–a master at reinventing herself as a brand, and constantly using her sex appeal, money and connections as marketing tools. Though she says she hates the idea that her looks sell her books, she also tosses out lines like, “I don’t believe you have to deny your strengths as a woman in order to be someone with a mind of your own.”
Even De’s harshest critics have to admit that she remains a compelling icon for women in today’s fast-globalizing India. “Writing about somebody dropping a sari and having an orgasm doesn’t mean you’re striking big notes for women,” says film critic Shubra Gupta. “But she is India’s first and only glamorous female brand name, and that means something.”