Jungleeji's Advice for the Love Lorn

As an MA candidate ten years ago, I despaired at finding texts that spoke to my personal experience. Much of the assigned reading in my program was irrelevant to me. Some of it had to do with the personal ignorance of professors. Some of it had to do with simple lack of availability. Since then the situation has changed dramatically. Nothing quite matches the special feeling of knowing that my book is being used as a university text, both here and in England. I have addressed several classes where Junglee Girl has been part of the syllabus. Discussions are nothing if not lively. Students who have been assigned the book give vent to their queries in a rather more forceful way than the reserved audiences at bookstores.

A recent visit to the University of California in Berkeley brought me face to face with a classroom full of South Asian students, and the first question was: "Why sex? Why write about sex?" There I was a year after the release of my book, having given 50 readings on three continents, and it suddenly hit me how many times and in how many different ways this particular question has been directed at me by Indians over the past twelve months. Apparently one of the students in this class had previously stated- as a speculation on my motivation for exploring sexual issues- that I must have had a disturbed childhood! In actuality, like a lot of upper middle class Indian women I know, I had an idyllic childhood in India until puberty, when the ax fell.

The 'ax' was essentially a veil: a net of evasiveness, misinformation, unexpected criticism and ubiquitous invisible enemies. Suddenly I was at risk, and I needed to remain constantly on guard against attracting unsavory attention. Like so many sheltered Indian children, I had never experienced any real danger. I wasn't certain of the form this new threat would take, but my behavior outside the home was constantly under scrutiny. I was directed to walk demurely, to dress to cover my skin, to maintain a gaze that engaged no one, i.e. to turn "lady like" in the male public domain. For the first time, I came to resent having a female body.

Until then, females were lovely, warm, cuddly beings. I went to an all girls' school in India, was raised by female relatives and female servants, had two sisters and many cousin "sisters." I always had one female best friend I was very attached to, with whom I exchanged treasured library books, strolled arm-in-arm within the school compound, and at whose house I slept over on weekends. Somehow this female majority of my young life could do nothing to protect me from the anonymously-positioned males outside the hallowed circle. R A few years later my family moved to this country. We moved to a wealthy white suburb of Chicago to be close to our immigration sponsor.

I was 14 and completely "psyched," as they say, about entering American culture. For many years in Bombay, I had corresponded with American and Canadian pen friends, had read American books, seen films, worn jeans, adopted the slang and even visited the U.S. two years before the move. I felt quite prepared for the change. Within minutes of stepping into my new suburban high school, I was overcome with tension. I had to wait outside my counselor's office until he was free to see me. It seemed like an eternity of waiting in the hallway, watching the American kids passing by. I felt like I'd been dumped in an Arctic zone. I didn't understand exactly what vibrations I was picking up, but I had a sinking feeling that friendship as I had known it up to that point had come to an end. I retreated into a shell from which I didn't fully emerge until I entered college.

What became abundantly clear during my years in high school was that I would never duplicate the effortless intimacy of friendship with an Indian girl. In American high school, my female peers wore an air of semi-hostility toward each other, constantly competing for boys. The 14 and 15 year old girls in my high school had already turned hard, already scared by intimacy but well rehearsed in the mimicry of desire. They fussed constantly over the attractiveness of their bodies, unaware of how the fear of rejection led them to blank out their faces. I grew up on faces: identical school uniforms in India relieved any pressure on the bodies of my schoolmates. I was used to big, dark, curious Indian eyes, capable of the most intense animation and the subtlest expression. My American peers had eyes that revealed little about their cliquish, lemming-like motivations, utterly insecure for all their claims on individuality and freedom. I could not imagine that they had experienced the delicious intimacy I had once known. I could not trust them with honoring my being.

My first real friendship in the U.S. was with a boy. His family moved in across from ours and we discovered we were taking the same classes. We could talk for hours. He was an immigrant outsider like myself. We had both been accustomed to long-lasting same-sex friendships. We missed our old friends desperately, and commiserated about the severance wrought by migration. We shared photos and letters of our long lost companions. Several months later when sexual feeling entered into the relationship, it came as a shock to both of us, but being friends first, we handled our physical intimacy cautiously, graciously, with respect. With intimacy back in my life, I felt human again. The fact that there were overt sexual aspects to the intimacy wasn't as important as the freedom to touch and be touched again.

By the time I entered college, I was back in line with the self that had left India four years previously. My next relationship with a best friend was also sexual, also with a man. Given my Indian upbringing, this was all very new. But given my Indian upbringing, this was also all very familiar. I had a new angle on an old experience, or a well-mapped route for a new experience. I knew how to get close. I sought out intimacy and loved it. It was the ultimate high. The first time I read in detail about the potential for confusing intimacy and sex was in Ashley Montagu's Touching: The Human Significance of Skin. This was a landmark book in my life, not least because of the concrete details of intimacy as it differs amongst cultures; knowledge that could only benefit in a society of immigrants. It would be wonderful if that book, along with Desmond Morris' Intimate Behavior, were required reading to advance through some primary rite of passage, like testing for a driver's license or applying for one's citizenship.

My two cultures have whirled me though a revolving door chasing my own tail: in one culture, for the sake of sex we compromise intimacy; in the other culture, for the sake of intimacy we compromise sex. After thinking long and hard, the curt question "Why Sex?" as it tumbles out of this young man's mouth reveals underneath it a gentler, more confused question, "Why India? Why involve sex with Indians? Why make all this public?" Here then I feel the embarrassment in this young man, and perhaps a protective concern for me, because when a woman speaks of sex, in the Indian mind she commits a transgression whose inevitable end is shame heaped on herself, her family, her community and society. Perhaps he meant to ask, "Arrey Behenji, do you really feel safe and secure when exploring this topic? Aiyyo Memsahib, who will protect your honor in public when you have been rejected once and for all?"

The truth is that I not only feel safe when exploring sexual issues, but I have the respect, validation and encouragement of my family and community to keep me going. The fear of rejection has not been an issue for me since I left for college at eighteen. Between the permissions which my parents bestowed on me and the permissions that I have claimed for myself, I have been privileged not only in re-inventing myself in the new culture, but in exploring anew my origins in the old. Whenever I am asked whether I could have written this book in India, I answer 'No'. Even though most of the stories are set in India, for me Junglee Girl is very much an American book, based on permissions and perceptions that I acquired here.

Likewise, in the future I will write books set in the U.S. made possible solely by perspectives and analyses acquired in India. And so it goes. I only know what I know from moving back and forth between cultures. Sex is but a tool, albeit a favored one, with which to dig out the buried treasures of identity, power and roles. But unearthed alongside it far too often is the unyielding rock of anxiety, fear and shame that dulls all tools when mistaken for the more valuable ore.

Comments

When you write about sex and live privates, although you might find that very interesting, other people savor such stories. It's no surprise that your book is so famous now. You are a very good writer. That's clear...

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