“Electric Feather” is a collection of erotic short stories by various writers and edited by Ruchir Joshi. It sets out to correct “a dearth of good erotic writing” (in English) in the Indian sub-continent. It is a commendable and courageous effort, given the excessive prudery of people in this part of the world in recent times. I would not term it an unequivocal success though.
In his introduction to the book the editor reveals having solicited stories from several authors and quotes an unnamed author:
If it wasn't to be porn, surely a passage about sex and desire had to be an organic part of a larger narrative about something else? In setting out this model wasn't I, in fact, inviting sex writing for the sake of sex writing, i.e. that highly undesirable substance called 'bad sex writing'?
As the editor admits, this is a very good question - it is also the one that I had in mind while taking up this book. (To be sure, a variant of this question applies to other genres as well, science or fantasy fiction being prime examples, where most of the writing I have read forgets about telling an engaging story and concentrates instead on the science or the fantastic elements respectively.) After putting forth various arguments, the editor concludes “[...] the only way to properly answer the challenge was by producing a book that would hold a serious reader”. Fair enough.
What has emerged is an eclectic mixture to be sure, but unfortunately has stories that vary quite widely in quality. It is as though no editorial discretion was exercised, the publisher being simply happy to have received submissions. The stories by Samit Basu and Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan surely lie on the “pornography” side of the line dividing it from “erotica”. On the other hand are poignant stories by Sheba Karim and Sonia Jabbar. Parvati Sharma pays a tribute to Ismat Chughtai's path-breaking short story “The Quilt” in a story of the same name, though it's not much of a story and the sex therein is completely pointless. There are also some real head-scratchers thrown in for good measure.
Indian erotica has had a tough time in being taken seriously, often inviting active prosecution by self-appointed custodians of our moral values, especially when it was written by women. This book is therefore a bold attempt and that perhaps explains the positive reviews it has gathered in mainstream media. (I sincerely hope it is not due to the chummy coterie one sees in the literature and art communities everywhere, especially in India where they are much smaller.) One needs to take these reviews with more than the usual grain of salt in this case.
I liked the cover of the book that depicts what happens to most books on erotica and that is somewhat recursive. The title is a cunning linguistic metaphor taken from one of the stories. The book is worth a dekko, but don't get your hopes too high.