Journalist Shuma Raha, winner of the 2017 Juggernaut Short Story Prize and author of The Love Song of Maya K and Other Stories (2018), has come out with her debut novel, The Swap. The racy novel is a slice of amoral urban India and its desire to push the boundaries of sexual freedom.
Actor and producer Prabhleen Kaur, who has worked along with Rajkummar Rao in Hansal Mehta’s National Award-winning film Shahid, has acquired the digital rights of The Swap (HarperCollins India), which will be adapted into a web series this year.
Raha spoke to Firstpost about how playing mixed doubles is emerging as one of the trend-setting forms of pursuing pleasure amongst a section of city slickers. Excerpts from the conversation:
Are swinging couples a new trend in urban India? Or, ‘ram-pant’ as one of the characters in your debut novel, The Swap, says?
Swapping, or the practice where couples swap partners with each other because they are bored in their marriages and want sexual variety, is certainly not a new trend in urban India. I did a fair bit of research on this before I started writing The Swap, and I found ample evidence to suggest that it has been around in India for decades. Do a simple internet search, and you’ll find dozens of posts seeking “friendship” and “intimacy” with “liberal”, “like-minded” couples.
That said, I doubt if the practice is “rampant” — that’s what one of the characters in my novel says and it need not be taken as the truth! While swapping happens, especially in urban, affluent India, it can hardly be described as mainstream.
Are Priya Bakshi, your protagonist, and her husband Akash Srivastav, aberrations amid the country’s socio-political landscape, where inhibitions are seen to be a self-righteous way of life?
Priya Bakshi, from whose point of view The Swap is largely told, is a journalist. Her husband, Akash, is a chartered accountant in a multinational firm. They are regular, 30-something, upwardly mobile city-dwellers. I wanted to make them 100 percent real and relatable, because that is what makes their so-called aberrant sexual behaviour shocking. Both suffer from inhibitions, both want to conform to the self-righteous image of themselves in their own minds. And though the inhibitions are cast off in the end, in Priya’s mind, at least, the conflict between her sexual choices and the life she really wants, is ever present.
Your characters — from Akash’s childhood friend Dileep Mitra to Shalini Nair, Jasmeet Kang and Kulsum — are a slice of urban India. But, as the battle of faith rages on across campuses and streets of our country, how plausible is it for a Kulsum to hobnob with Akash and the rest in the polarised times we live in?
The characters in my novel are liberal Indians whose terms of engagement with each other have nothing to do with religion. I find the battle of faith, or polarisation, as it were, largely manufactured. In most of India, people interact with each other as friends and neighbours and colleagues — without any thought about their religious persuasion. In the book, Priya’s friends’ circle is a liberal one. In fact, Kulsum, who is a Muslim and Priya’s best friend, is the most fiercely liberal amongst them. So it is not unusual for this bunch to hang out together. In my view, this is what Indian society is really all about — the polarisation is synthetic, our syncretic culture is real.
Was Delhi, as the setting of your plot, a conscious choice? Can an Akash or a Priya be found in a B-town, say Ranchi or Raipur?
I chose to set The Swap in Delhi, because it’s a city I know well now. But really, the story could have been based in any metro, or in any tier-2 city, for that matter. Akash and Priya represent Indian urbanites who are pushing the boundaries of possibilities in their lives, including the boundaries of sexual possibilities.
The Swap reminded me of Alan J Pakula’s mystery crime-thriller Consenting Adults and Stanley Kubrick’s erotic drama Eyes Wide Shut. Is the kinky West intruding on the drawing and bedrooms of urban India? Or, is it a fantasy indulged by the upwardly mobile with disposable cash to spare?
You know, I don’t believe Western society is any more or any less kinky than other places in the world. Of course, we do imbibe a lot of stuff from the West, including ideas about women’s emancipation and sexual freedom. As far as swapping is concerned, you’re right, it’s the affluent who are mostly into it in India. They have the leisure to pursue pleasure in various forms.
Indian writing in English is largely squeamish about erotica. Is it a valid criticism?
Erotica can quickly degenerate into smut or hilarious bad-sex scenes. Maybe that’s why a lot of authors give it a wide berth. Indian authors are no exception. Just to be clear, despite its risqué subject, The Swap isn’t erotica. It’s a picture of a section of urban India, a picture that is centred on the practice of spouse swapping.
The Swap will come to life soon, thanks to a planned web series. Who’d you like to see play Akash and Priya and some of the other characters who come to life in the book because of their vivid characterisation?
I am very excited about the web series. I would love to see Radhika Apte play the role of Priya. And I’d pick Varun Dhawan for Akash. Rajat Kapoor would be perfect as their older, manipulative friend, Tarun Paul…
What next after The Swap?
Let’s see. Hopefully, another novel.
Read an excerpt from The Swap —
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Updated Date: Jan 13, 2020 09:44:03 IST