How many of you discovered sex on your parents’ bookshelves?
That’s an actual question. If you are reading a book review blog, it’s a pretty thick chance you are a prolific reader and have been so all your life. Since reading is usually an ingrained habit, you possibly have parents, or other close family members, who own/ed a substantial library that you cut your teeth on. You probably learnt about love from those mighty shelves, about hate and murder and genocide and the horrors of childbirth. You found out that grown-ups were scared, nervous, confused people too, and that they did lie. You read enough to be worried about what was waiting for you in the dark abyss of adulthood, and enough to be excited.
Did you also first learn about sex in those crevices, is what I’m asking. Or was it just me?
I was a lonely child with a precocious taste in reading. Hunger for the written word often made me pick up books that were meant for people thrice my age. I read two chapters about puberty from my mother’s copy of Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex before I had gotten my first period. I remember, at 11, the guilty pleasantness of flipping through Kenneth Clark’s The Nude, a scholarly book full of pictures of naked statues and paintings of ladies, my addiction to which could possibly have been the first clue to my inclusive orientation. At 12, it was a line in Milan Kundera’s The Joke that first flummoxed me about the actual mechanisms (He entered her?? Entered what? Entered how?)
But if any book had stained my innocent adolescence in the colors of womanhood, it had to be Nancy Friday’s My Secret Garden.
I was fourteen years old, and we were moving into a dismal little house in suburbs. I was given the responsibility of packing our inconveniently enormous library into large cardboard boxes and unpacking them again in their new home. It was a daunting task, but the chance to fondle so many books made the long hours of physical labour worth it.
I think it was the newspaper covering that drew my eye first. My parents rarely covered books unless they were ancient and coming to pieces. This one was neither, and yet it was clothed chastely in a Bangla newsprint from the mid-80s. Hasty stripping revealed a lurid yellow cover with a semi-nude nymphette reclining on a tigerskin rug. And the title in blood red and mid night blue- My Secret Garden by Nancy Friday- A Study of Women’s Sexual Fantasies.
My eyes narrowed with incredulity. Sexual fantasies- I knew all about those. I had been living with them for some time now, and it was only a year ago that I worried myself thin that too much of this thinking about sex could lead to pregnancy (in those pre-google days, I laid awake at night holding my breath and trying to see if I could feel a tiny heartbeat inside my tummy, and thanking every power I could thank when I got my chums every month. See, that bit I did know). But I was pretty sure I was the only one. The girls in my class had not even gotten breasts yet, and they still believed that babies were found at god’s alter in temples, Jaipur’s version of the stork or the cabbage patch. My parents never discussed sex or even love within my earshot, seemingly so prudish and innocent that I wondered if they had indeed found me in some temple. The fantasies were my secret sin, my secret garden, and NO ONE MUST EVER KNOW!
Except this Friday lady, who seemed not only to know about fantasies, but had gotten over two hundred women to share theirs with her. That was all the book was, one fantasy after another, interspersed with Nancy Friday’s droll wisdom. Shy ladies, candid ladies, virginal ladies, adventurous ladies, married ladies, widowed ladies, all let Nancy Friday, and me tagging along, into their secret gardens of rape, adultery, bestiality, humiliation, bondage, dominance, and pure, beautiful, sinful, guilty pleasure.
Finding that book, which I immediately kidnapped and squirreled away in my room for more opportune perusal, did three things for me. One, it made me understand that I was no lascivious freak, destined for a wanton life, marginalised in an uncorrupted world. It helped me understand and accept my sexuality, not merely at 14, but ever since.
Two, it made my parents more real in my eyes. It was their book, after all.
Three, it gave me some of the most magical moments of my hateful adolescence. Pretty soon I had favorite fantasies that I earmarked and kept coming back to. I read some passages so many times that I can still quote them from memory.
I left the book behind with the rest of my childhood when I left home for college, but Nancy Friday and her gardeners stayed with me. As the years passed and I lost my innocence layer by layer, I found myself wishing I could go back to the book again, see what it was like. Then, last month, 17 years after I first laid eyes on it, I sought it out on google and purchased a copy, almost on a whim. This new book has a far more tasteful cover, thicker pages and there is nothing lurid about it, but it is the same book.
Only, it is not the same book I had read at 14.
It is no longer a portal to forbidden, delicious pleasures. It is neither shocking nor scandalous any more. The 17 interim years have corrupted me beyond redemption. I have close friends who have more bizarre sex lives IRL than these women from the seventies could even fantasize about. Some are hilarious, some cute, some gross, and some are so fucking demented that I wonder if they were added by the author just for kicks.
So yes, a disappointment, reminding me of how old I’ve gotten, how world-weary. All the same, Nancy Friday was a rites of passage for me, and she shall have pride of place on my shelves, uncovered and unashamed. The flowers in her secret garden helped me take a leap of faith, and made teenage a little less unbearable, even if they don’t do anything for me now.
Except, oh,the one about a never-ending caterpillar. That one is just wicked.
-Amritorupa “hung like a garden” Kanjilal
Many thanks to Kriti Sharma of the Humans of New Delhi project for her brilliant inputs.