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South Asian Popular Culture
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WORKING NOTES
Sanjay Sircar
Published online: 18 Feb 2007.
To cite this article: Sanjay Sircar (2006) WORKING NOTES, South Asian Popular Culture, 4:1, 87-90,
DOI: 10.1080/14746680600555642
To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/14746680600555642
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Sanjay Sircar
WORKING NOTES
Mou-rani, a lost 1940s Bengali pornographic
street-text, and a context for it
In 1978, on a visit to Mr Arun Maitra, then of Lindfield, Sydney, Australia, my uncle-by-
affection (a family friend from the 1940s), I saw on his bookshelves four paper-covered
Bengali-language booklets with dark red or grey covers, all obviously fromthe same press.
As I recall, they were unillustrated quartos of approximately 50 pages, certainly no longer
than 70 pages, perhaps shorter. They were anonymous street-texts, with no publisher or
press listed; that is, they were the sort of thing that is bought from an itinerant hawker on
the footpath, brought out from materials secreted beneath more presentable magazines
and books on the steps of a shop, or at the very most, bought from a roadside stall (not a
proper bookshop) which carries second-hand or cheap material and offers likely customers
interesting materials in whispersfor India was and is still a publicly very puritanical
culture. Uncle Arun said that he had acquired the booklets at some time in the 1940s in
Calcutta. When I asked himfor copies of themin the mid-1990s, he said that he had thrown
them away in a clear-out. At the end of more than one of the four was an appended list of
similar booklets, including one which I remember for its linguistically hybrid rhyming title
Abha-r Labhar; Abha is a girls name, but lover is not a usual or fully acclimatised loan-
word in Bengali. I have never seen any other street texts of this sort.
Such materials as there are in most collections of erotica/curiosa in the worlds great
libraries are often largely those amassed by the wealthy elite (the Private Cupboard in the
British Library and LEnfer in the Bibliothe`que Nationale are among the best known of
these collections). When Karen Sherry (2004) tells of her search for objects at the
Winterthur Museum, Delaware, she comments on howcollecting practices and moral and
aesthetic biases affect the study of erotic materials. She speaks of the private case
tradition, of erudite gentlemen and expensive items in the early nineteenth-century, of
limited availability and the absence of historical documentation, of items without a
history, of low survival rates and persistent reticence about ownership, of materials
regarded as amusing, yet trivial curiosities from the past, not potential historical
documents, of one of the chief problems in researching erotica: namely, the absence of a
standardised classification system and taxonomy, and of the conundrum for the serious
researcher: if one does not know about the existence of pornographic artefacts, how does
one find them? There was also and probably still is extensive production of works for a less
wealthy market and one less likely to preserve them (see Lisa Sigels Governing Pleasures,
2002, which is very good on the conditions of production and distribution). However, we
know less about mass-market erotica as it was (a) often in a much more ephemeral form
than that fromhigh culture and (b) more likely to be thrown away or passed on until it fell
to pieces.
South Asian Popular Culture Vol. 4, No. 1, April 2006, pp. 87-90
ISSN 1474-6689 print/ISSN 14746697 online 2006 Taylor & Francis
http://www.tandf.co.uk/journals DOI: 10.1080/14746680600555642
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Probably because of the paucity of relevant collections and catalogues focussed on
such materials, there appears to be only a little work done on lower-level material of
Indic origin, though there is some, e.g. Charu Guptas interesting article, Dirty
Hindi, which discusses the internalisation of British imperial strictures against
indecent literature. When I asked a Bengali scholar in 1980 in Calcutta about such
street material, he said that it was sold in the Calcutta suburb Chitpur (near the
mosque), and that a Ph.D. student in History at the University of Calcutta at the time
was writing his thesis in history on longer works of nineteenth-century erotica, e.g. a
novel called Loves Saturday in Bengali (Sukh-er Shanibar), an item held by the Bangiya
Sahitya Parishad Library, Calcutta. The Asiatic Society in Calcutta also claims to hold
folk literature and erotic verses among its Bengali holdings. Though I have asked for
copies of urban street material (for they are not deposited with the National Library
of India), people in India are too busy to gather it for me. As far as I can tell, the India
Office and Oriental Collections at the British Library do not hold this sort of material.
Nevertheless, we may derive useful glimpses of social history and attitudes fromurban
street texts. Of three of Uncle Aruns four pamphlets I have no recollection, apart from
the fact that they were pedestrian in the extreme. However, the one pamphlet out of the
four which I do remember well even after 30 years, exemplifies what I mean about points
of interest in its stark contrast of vulgar text and canon-quotation. It was a dark red covered
pamphlet, whose title might have alluded to the name of its heroine, Madhu- or Mou-rani
(Honey Queen). The West might still hold fast to an image of the Kama Sutra and similar
high-canon manuals which constitute an exotic and timeless vision of Oriental sexuality,
which this text undercuts with its claim to and aura of a certain social realism.
The narrative starts in the library of a middle-class Calcutta house, in the afternoon,
at siesta time. The young mistress discovers her husbands dark-skinned, virile young
servant asleep on the floor, with his genitals showing under a scanty gamchha (thin
towel), scanty because of the scarcity of cloth, because these are the days of rationed
cloth (hence the text dates from the days of World War II or just after). She gazes in
pleasure at him, and wakes him up, saying, Thus to walk about showing that around!
Fie! He is shy. He addresses her as Elder Sister-in-Law (following respectful custom).
She asks to see his and offers to show him hers in return (almost in these very words).
She seduces him. In her eagerness, Mou is thus a twentieth-century vulgar urban form of
the Sanskritic abhisarika nayika, the trysting heroine, one of the ten types of female
literary heroines. Overcome with passion, the abhisarika goes to secretly meet her lover
at a rendezvous, caring nothing for the danger of discovery or those along the way,
desiring her lover to respond to her with similar intensity, carrying such aphrodisiacs as
betel leaf, wine, flowers, sweets, and perfumed objects. In the booklet the words used,
which I was unfamiliar with, were thantano bar
.
a, sexual-intercourse rod [?], for penis,
and thantano, a vulgar word for the act of sexual intercourse, a male-related word, but I
think slightly less vulgar (or commonly used) than the female-related equivalent verb
chondano, from chond for the female genitalia, perhaps cognate with English cunt.
In Part II, there is a narratorial reference to Mous husband as an absent-minded
scholar or similar, unable to satisfy her: shades of Lady Chatterleys Lover, or just general
convention? There is then a flashback to the heroines seduction at about 13 by her
maternal uncle, thus awakening her hunger for sexual intercourse early.
Part III returns to the present, after a gap in narrative time, and presents another
lovemaking scene with the servant. This time, the male next-door neighbour eavesdrops
88 SOUTH ASI AN POPULAR CULTURE
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and spies on them through the window of the lane beside the house. The pair sees him,
and Mou says, What are you standing there looking at? Come in and join us!; andthis
is why I remember this booklet and think it worth recordingthere is now an amazing
mixture of levels of writing styles via quotation. For whether or not the neighbour joins
in the lovemaking and renders it a triage-orgy, authorial invention obviously flags, for
the neighbour steps aside and first quotes a few lines from the Bengali erotic classic
Vidya-Sundar, a narrative poem. Then, the last three or more pages entirely forget the
lovers, and are filled up with a long section of the chaste-languaged non-titillating
(albeit explicit) erotic verse of the classic. There was nothing after the final lines of the
quotation, except Finis. Even as padding-out, would any equivalent low-level Western
street-text use any of the Western erotic high classics in this way? I think not.
I should emphasise that this street text and its kin did not exist in a self-contained
subculture, but were part of a circulation of other local and international material at
various levels of literarity, as the following memories might indicate.
There was a turn-of-the-twentieth-century handwritten Bengali manuscript quarto
book found in the papers of my fathers eldest maternal uncle, Mr Saroj Kumar Misra,
which his daughter Mrs Rani Millikens, who could not read the language, gave to me,
and which still exists in storage in Canberra. I took this from Bombay to Calcutta, and in
1972 my former Bengali-language tutor, I now realise in retrospect (from a memory of
his facial expression at the time), patently recognised it for what it was, but did not tell
me. He did say (using the English words) that the mood of the writing was extremely
passionate. Moreover, he did borrow the item and show it around to his friends, as he
told me when he returned it (they must have chuckled mightily at my innocent inability
to recognise it for what it was). The tutor first remarked that When thy great-
grandmother [who I thought was the author, for it was given to me along with her
commonplace book] was writing, at the same time, so was Rabindranath [Tagore]! After
he returned it, he said that no, it could not have been my great-grandmothers
composition, absolutely notbut he did not elaborate. It was only in the late 1970s that
I realised that this narrative poem in five-line stanzas over about 30 pages describes
marital lovemaking in the voice of a newly-married woman talking to a confidante who
asks her to recount it. In 1986, an ex-collegemate and friend, a scholar in Bengali
literature, teaching at Jadavpur University, Calcutta, said that he could not believe any
actual woman could write such material. He spoke from (essentialist?) cultural
assumptions about female modesty regarding sexual matters, a modesty he took to be
greater in women than men. Hence his thoughts were along the lines of No woman
could be so unwomanly as to talk so directly and in such detail about sexual
intercourse. He also said that this text was in very good, chaste, non-vulgar language,
and followed the standard pattern of erotic writing in Bengali: foreplay, then lovemaking
first in (what he called in English) the standard position, then in reverse position (with
the woman dominant). When this item comes out of storage, I intend to translate it.
I also remember a clandestinely circulated set of 6 modern Indian woodcuts/steel
engravings of lovemaking at school, La Martinere College for Boys, Calcutta (1968),
depicting a couple on a moonlit night, passed around by a rich uncultured vulgar
Marwari (trader-community) boy surnamed Goenka (I do not remember his first
name), and flicked before my eyes in order to shock me. There was also an interesting
case, reported in a Saturday/Sunday Blitz, a Bombay newspaper, in 1966 or 1967, on
primary school vernacular language textbooks illustrated with woodcuts of lovemaking
WORKI NG NOTES 89
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couples and female nudes. (Some illustrations were reproduced in the newspaper; I
remember thinking at the time, If they are so shocking, how is it that the newspaper is
reproducing them for general circulation?) The illustrations went with such lines as
She walked through the rice paddies, jiggling her breasts, which were, at the very
least, unusual in readers for infants. (When the archives of Blitz are microfilmed, this
report could lead scholars to the actual materials, if they are still extant.)
As to foreign material, in c. 1979 I was told in a letter from Calcutta to Australia of a
mutual friend from a very old, cultured family finding nineteenth-century postcards
from Paris which a great-uncle must have locked away in a drawer, where they remained
for the best part of a century. These, I was told, were passed on to someone who now
denies all knowledge of them, as does the writer of the original letter. There were many
Hindi translations with extremely lurid covers in paperbacks of Memsahib Chatterley ka
Prem (19661969) sold on the Esplanade, at right angles to Chowringhee, the main street
of Calcutta. In addition, there was one hybrid English language booklet with
illustrations patently cribbed from foreign magazines in black and white, interspersed
with that of a fat old Indian prostitute, on life in an Indian brothel, in which the
prostitutes were depicted at their sewing machines during the day, with the use of the (to
me unusual) phrase pleasant feeling like butter used for pleasurable lassitude after sleep
and during love-making. I saw this in the possession of a cousin in 1972 in Calcutta.
Let us hope that collections of such street material in the various Indian languages,
including English, are made and catalogued, so that analysis as well as description
ultimately becomes possible.
Acknowledgements
My thanks are due to Mr Arun Maitra for permission to use his name in this note (4
October 2005), and to the late Mrs Rani Millikens for giving me (in 1971) the
handwritten erotic narrative poem which had belonged to her father Mr Saroj Kumar
Misra, and telling me to work with whatever she had given me. I am greatly indebted
to Dr Lesley Hall of the Wellcome Library for help with this article.
References
Gupta, Charu. Dirty Hindi Literature: Contests around Obscenity in Late Colonial
North India. www.sarai.net/language/popularculture/essays/dirty_hindi.pdf
(accessed 4 November 2005).
Sherry, Karen A. Winterthur XXX: Searching for Early American Erotica. Common-Place:
Tales from the Vault 4.3. www.common-place.org/vol-04/no-03/tales/ (accessed
12 May 2004).
Sigel, Liza Z. Governing Pleasures: Pornography and Social Change in England, 18151914.
New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2002.
Sanjay Sircar [email: ssircarI@yahoo.com.au]
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