(Click on picture for link to page or read it below)
“The Body Politik
Sen-Handley does not shrink from a rigorous and unsentimental assessment of her sexual forays and missteps
~by Jael Silliman
Memoirs of My Body; Author: Shreya Sen-Handley; Publisher: HarperCollins; Pages: 274
Young women living in India, or of Indian descent now living abroad, dealing frankly and explicitly with the politics of sexuality and desire in the public domain are finding an audience. They are direct and fearless about uncovering troubling societal notions that assert control over women’s bodies and attempt to curb women’s sexuality. For example, Ira Trivedi’s India in Love: Marriage and Sexuality in the 21st Century (2014) examined the changing sexual mores of young Indians in non-Metro cities. She argued convincingly that the sexual revolution that has occurred in the last 20 years has fundamentally reshaped the ways in which young people think and deal with each other in relationships. She probed disturbing social attitudes towards prostitution, pornography and gay marriage, and underlined the incredible individual and social costs emanating from sexual repression.
This year’s Lipstick Under My Burkha by Alankrita Shrivastava is a bold and compelling film by a young woman that deals with the politics of desire, and the still too-high price women have to pay for breaking taboos about sexuality. The popularity of this sexually explicit movie indicates that a broad public is ready to engage with an honest treatment of sexuality from a woman’s point of view.
Shreya Sen-Handley, in Memoirs of My Body, goes a step further: it is her own body and sexuality that drives this provocative book forward. Her body is the touchstone for reflecting on the broader experience of sexuality and its conundrums. She demonstrates great confidence in moving from her own experience to speak of women more broadly today and through history. While some of her work is based on her life growing up in Kolkata and working in Delhi, Sen-Handley, now living in London, remarried and a mother of two, draws on her experiences abroad and on contemporary global events to ground her work.
The book opens when Sen-Handley is barely six, made to feel guilty when she is “caught” masturbating by her “horrified” mother. Her “pleasurable little world shattered into tiny shards of shame”. Sen-Handley questions why she was forced to carry this burden of shame, where nothing shameful had been done. “For years the whole experience of sex, especially my own sexual urges, would be tainted by this view that sex is filthy, bestial, and one of my many failings.”
The failure to deal honestly with masturbation, the labelling of women masturbating as a mental disorder that has existed since Ancient Greece, and the punishments historically meted out to children found masturbating, which included tying them to their beds and “clamping especially made metal appliances on their genitals”, provide insights on how far society has gone to curb women’s pursuit of sexual pleasure.
In a chronological sequence, always starting with her own wide-ranging sexual experiences and relationships, Sen-Handley does not shrink from a rigorous and unsentimental assessment of her sexual forays and missteps. For example, she describes her first experience of intercourse as uncomfortable and uninspiring, so different from the million love songs that had been spawned, where she was supposed to hear “celestial music”. Instead she heard “…the gritting of teeth (mine) and the revolting slab of flesh (his) against firm flesh (mine). Not what I had signed up for at all!”
Sen-Handley has a strong libido, her mind is sharp and her reading on the topic is wide. She takes the reader on her sexual journey where one can touch the humiliation of being dark and, therefore, unattractive in India, the searing impact of sexual harassment at the workplace, the mental and physical violence she faced in her first marriage and her subsequent plunge into dating in London. Here, her dusky body and curvaceous figure resulted in her being pursued, much to her delight, “by a line of suitors”, albeit many of them “frogs”. Sen-Handley unflinchingly discusses the sexual desires of her male suitors who include the Bitty Bobs, the men fixated on certain parts of women’s bodies, not the whole. She insists that these kinds of men who exist all over the world, have made “a fine art of objectification of women’s bodies”. The media, advertising, fashion and film all decide what unreal shape and size a woman’s face and body should be, which in turn fuel the weight-loss programmes, gyms, diet food and cosmetic surgeons who all promise to make women that perfect size and shape to be desirable. The “body-shame industry”, as she calls it, is worth $600 billion.
Sen-Handley’s writing is fresh and uncompromising. This sassy, engaging book is at once Sen-Handley’s story and a universal one. Men and women will find the book challenging and will have much to learn from it.”