Why 'Fifty Shades' outdid Harry Potter in bestseller lists

by Namita Bhandare

No snoopy salesmen. No raised eyebrows and no knowing smirks. Thank you Flipkart. My boxed set (yes, the whole shebang) comes wrapped, aptly enough, in brown paper. The husband wants to know what it’s about. “Oh,” I say, disingenuously, “It’s nothing. Just some Mills & Boon style romance.”

The Fifty Shades trilogy doesn’t fool my daughter. “Mommy porn!” she laughs. And I’m embarrassed and indignant at the same time. For the first time in my adult life I find myself reading a book, in secret, my copy of Bi Feiyu’s Three Sisters close at hand as camouflage, because for some inexplicable reason, Fifty Shades of Grey is a book I cannot seem to be able to put down despite its plodding plot, purple prose and utterly execrable sex.

Fifty Shades of Grey displayed in a US bookstore. AFP.

“I’d like to bite that lip,” he whispers darkly. Jeez, I’m a quivering, moist mess, and he hasn't even touched me. I squirm in my seat and meet his dark glare.”

It’s easy to diss EL James’s runaway bestsellers, Fifty Shades of Grey, Fifty Shades Darker and Fifty Shades Freed. But 31 million people, mainly 30-something women, have coughed up money, and they can’t all be nuts. In some hotels, the book has replaced the Bible. In all cases, it’s outsold the seven Harry Potter books. Amazon, in the business of selling books for 14 years now, says in four months flat James has become its best-selling author of all time. The Australian women’s Olympic swimming team is reported to be reading it to ‘relax’. Victoria Beckham says she loves it. Angelina Jolie is said to be panting to play the female lead in the film version. Hell, western media is reporting, it’s even fuelling a baby boom.

As Anastasia Steele, the female protagonist in the Fifty Shades trilogy would say (always in italics): “Holy crap!”

Fifty is faithful enough to the romance formula: Young, virginal, submissive girl meets older, wealthy, domineering guy. So far, so predictable. But here’s the twist. Twisted Older Wealthy (aka Christian Grey) wants to tie down Young Virginal (Anastasia Steele or Ana), literally, to a steamy BDSM – google it, I did -- contract that stipulates how much she must eat, work out, sleep, what she will wear, how she will stay shaved and/or waxed at all times (he pays of course), what are the ‘hard limits’ (‘no acts involving gynecological medical instruments’) and methods of ‘punishment’ for discipline or his own enjoyment -- he is not obliged to provide a reason -- that include flogging, spanking and whipping.

How does a book like this go on to becoming the hottest, biggest bestseller, the zeitgeist of our times? Make no mistake. Fifty Shades of Grey is a pale shade of grey, more white than dark. It hints at the forbidden but stops short. It’s kinky rather than perverse. The threat of pain is never really delivered (on the one occasion that it gets a bit out of, err, hand, Ana leaves). Young Innocent is seldom led to Older Wealthy’s ‘red room of pain’ that comes with such accessories as nipple clamps and butt plugs (live and learn). At one point, Young Innocent even berates herself for not being able to take more pain for her man. But, breathe easy, ladies, this book plays safe. And, yes, they never, ever have unprotected sex. Phew.

Because it comes couched as erotica rather than porn, it seems to be perfectly respectable to be seen reading it. Launched as an e-book on the internet, it was easy to buy and read in private. Then word of mouth took over, the phenomenon went viral and everyone was reading it. The first time I set eyes on the book was in, of all unlikely locations, an office canteen in, of all unlikely countries, strait-jacketed Singapore. No eyebrows were raised at the woman who was reading it, though my friend did ask her about it. “It’s a terrible book,” she explained. “But it’s for research.”

True to formula, Fifty is not about Ana’s descent into darkness but Christian’s emergence into light. By Book 2, they’re having ‘vanilla sex’ because that’s what he thinks she wants (no ‘kinky fuckery’, except, sometimes because that too is what she wants, sometimes). So, like the countless romances that precede it, Young Innocent is the redeemer. Also in Book 2, we have our sadistic hero down on his knees – no, no, not doing that -- but proposing marriage. Even Disney would approve.

In India, the book is selling ‘amazingly well’ says Ajit Vikram Singh, who owns the Fact & Fiction bookstore in Delhi, and it’s mainly women who are buying it with no trace of embarrassment. Random House reports the sale of 1.7 lakh copies with new orders still pouring in and Flipkart’s Ankit Nagori, vice president (retail) reports 5,000 orders in the past 90 days.

Yet, general attitudes to sexuality remain confusing. Sex education, for instance, remains taboo in most schools. Women who go against perceived Indian ‘traditions’, i.e. who drink or wear western clothes, face the wrath of a lynch mob whether in Guwahati or in Mangalore. We’re not even ready to allow cartoon porn in the form of Savita Bhabhi.

And yet, there is a new-found open-ness. India Today magazine’s annual sex survey for 2011 was headlined, coincidentally, Young and Kinky. Respondents, a majority of whom reported having arranged marriages, were happy to talk about their sexual fantasies. In cinema, it’s now perfectly alright to have the lead female actress fake an orgasm (Dirty Picture). Nobody bats an eyelid when Rajat Kapoor’s Mixed Doubles touches upon wife swapping and role playing. A film on a sperm donor Vicky Donor is praised by critics and goes on to becoming a hit. And porn stars like Sunny Leone can be seen not only on national television networks on reality shows but in mainstream cinema (Jism 2).

I’m not sure that Fifty Shades heralds the beginning of a boom in erotica in India. It will certainly not fuel a baby boom. It will certainly not send thousands flocking to sex shops – do we even have sex shops? – to buy handcuffs and whips. But for now, the books have a growing market and acceptance at least among a certain sort of reader.

Understandably, feminists are riled by the Fifty-hype. They are incensed that a book that objectifies women, making them playthings for rich men who can buy them, should be such a success -- and that too among women readers. A real life Christian Grey would be pilloried for being a stalker, a control freak, a sadist, a manipulator and, really -- there’s no nice way of saying this -- a crashing bore.

But in the world of fantasy what’s not to like about a monogamous man who keeps his house spotlessly clean, gets a personal shopper to buy your clothes, has a great family, picks you up from work in his chauffeur-driven car, gets his housekeeper to cook you pancakes for breakfast, makes sure your laundry is done, selects your wine and always, always, always gives you an orgasm?

I’d say, bring it on. And you can spank me for saying that.

Namita Bhandare is a Delhi-based writer and columnist and mother of two.

Updated Date: Aug 06, 2012 11:13 AM

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