Shobha Dé (now Shobhaa) is a phenomenon. She’s an institution. She’s practically a school of thought. She’s certainly a brand. For some Dévotees, she’s a goddess. For others, she a kind of literary Cruella Dé Ville: unscrupulous, immoral, glamorous, vampy, and obscenely rich. There seems to be precious little middle ground. As far as Shobha’s concerned, she illicits but two reactions. To borrow from suitably pithy phrase from Julie Burchill: love it or shove it.
Two reviews of her non-fiction book, Shooting from the Hip, on the Amazon.com site say it all. The first admires her writing style, which is “simple, personal and gets to the point fast… It’s also a great book for anyone curious about Bombay.” Reviewer number two begs to differ: “All books by this famous author are amongst the worst books I have ever read.”
She’s reviled by feminists, who have precious little time for the poor-little-rich-girls who populate her books. She’s reviled by literary critics, who dismiss her books as mere pulp – a waste of good trees. She’s reviled by left-wing cultural critics, who are OK with mass culture because that’s got a nicely respectable proletarian air, but not with pop culture which smacks of consumerist capitalism. But her publishers just love her. And the public can’t seem to get enough. So she must be doing something right…
So really, what are we to make of Shobha? Goddess or whore? Icon or just con?
How can someone be this prolific, this well-known, this saleable, and this energetic (six children! Where does she find the time?), and still look like a sex goddess? For us lesser mortals who struggle to juggle jobs and homes, writing and shopping, cooking and cleaning and holding it all together, whose most lavish beauty treatment is to drag a comb through our hair in the morning, Shobha looks like some sort of SuperWoman. She’s been dubbed ‘India’s Jackie Collins’ but she’s more like India’s Shirley Conran.
If Shobha was around in nineteenth century Vienna, you can bet your bottom deutschemark that half the ladies swooning upon Dr Freud’s couch would have been wracked with the thwarted desire to be Ms Dé, and Sigmund would have come up with the flip-side of ‘penis envy’: Venus envy.
Unlike penis envy, where women suffer from a lack of that which makes men potent, Venus envy means that they suffer from a lack of that which makes them desirable. They don’t want the phallus – heck, no. Even Freud pointed out that the ‘Mummy, why haven’t I got one?’ lament characterising penis envy is essentially an infantile state. Once they grow up, girls generally realise that the Have-nots can be just as powerful, potent and happening as the Haves. It’s then that they suffer from a more subtle sense of lack: that they should be ‘more of a woman’.
Powerful women throughout the ages have wielded this deadly combination of sexiness and independence. At 52, Shobha retains the glamorous patina of her early modelling days. It seems increasingly that age cannot wither Shobha Dé any more than it could Cleopatra (though her ‘infinite variety’ is beginning to look a bit ragged round the edges). In an interview with Ashwina Vakil, she states: “What I feel increasingly bugged by is the pressure to look a certain way. I’m really indifferent about my appearance, it’s never been important enough to me to present this glamorous vision to the world.” Methinks the lady doth protest too much, for she then goes on to admit: “On the other hand, I enjoy the image on many levels. It suits me, it works for me, why should I fight it?”
This should come as no surprise, for Ms Dé has made a career out of having her cake and eating it. But enough of the lady – what about the books?
Shobha Dé has clocked up eleven solo books in as many years (all, oddly, beginning with ‘S’): Socialite Evenings (1989), Starry Nights (1991), Strange Obsessions and Sisters (both 1992), Sultry Days, Snapshots and Shooting from the Hip (all in 1994), Second Thoughts (1996), Surviving Men (1997), Selective Memory (1998) and Speedpost:Letters to my children (1999). She’s probably written another one in the time it’s taken me to list these. It’s frightening.
Her first novel, Socialite Evenings, is truly awful with its depressive, social climbing, cynical, bored heroine, Karuna, and her long-drawn out friendship with the vacuous Anjali. Not one character in the book commands an ounce of sympathy – all the men are fake and on-the-make, from her boring husband to her self-centred lover, and all the women seem to put their brains on hold and follow the whims of lower body parts to hunt out a mate. Suicide attempts, abortions, sad, empty lives. It wouldn’t be so bad if it wasn’t quite so relentless. One reviewer complains: “the mere fact that her protagonists are wealthy and have affairs or kinky sex does not prevent them from being unutterably tedious.” Quite. It’s also got one of those terrible, awful, should-have-been-strangled-at-birth endings where the heroine, at the end of the book, sits down to write her story – and it begins with the first sentence of the book you’ve just finished. About as hackneyed as “And then I woke up and it was all a dream!”, this trite little snake-eating-tail literary trick merely serves to underline the pointlessness of the whole exercise.
But the public lapped it up. The book was a bestseller, and no longer was Dé merely a grande dame of popular magazine world – she founded and edited Stardust, Society and Celebrity – she had emerged as a well-known novelist. There’s an old saying, if you can’t be good at least be the first. And for all it’s shoddy plotting and shallow characterisation, Socialite Evenings was the first to portray the richie-rich world of the modern Indian upper classes. It showed to the world that India wasn’t just beggars and bustis. Dominique LaPierre can keep his City of Joy. The only Joy these characters want comes in a bottle by Jean Patou picked up at duty-free. And as for the clever-clever language mixie of Rushdie, let the firangs ooh and aah over this cross cultural melting pot. Dé is far too straight-talking to bother with Salman’s hothouse hybrids. This is an Indian author, writing in India, about India, and for Indians. “I don’t align myself with anybody, I’m completely independent as a writer,” she claims in the Vakil interview. “I don’t have to please anybody, so I don’t suck up to anybody. I can do what I want to, I don’t have to care about offending anyone.” So there.
She swiftly followed up the success of her first novel with two more, published in 1990: Starry Nights and Sisters, which followed pretty much the same formula. These feature women, who still believe that seventies mantra that diamonds are a girl’s best friend, who use their looks, their charm, their female wiles to get what they want. The nearest they’ve come to physical labour is pouting really hard. And men? Men are there to be used and abused; meal tickets, sexual playthings – except, funnily enough, it’s usually the women who come out bruised.
Then in 1992 she came up with Strange Obsession, a truly awful, barrel-bottom-scraping bit of nonsense about an aspiring model called Amrita and her suitor, Meenakshi, a.k.a. ‘Minx’ Iyengar, undoubtedly the most 2 dimensional lesbian ever to have stalked the pages of literature. The ‘strange obsession’ of the title, refers to the psychotic love which Minx develops for Amrita. Well, ‘develops’ is perhaps over-stating the case. That makes it sound like there’s some time-scale involved, that there are nuances of feeling, or at the very least different phases. But no: it happens in an instant. And stays that way. All very obsessive. But then, you know, these lesbians: very odd lot. That is about the long and the short of this peculiar book.
However, her next book, Sultry Days, is actually pretty good. At least the central relationship – unlike Karuna and Anjali’s in Socialite Evenings or Amrita and Minx’s in Strange Obsession – is believable. Here a young girl is drawn to God – no, it’s not a spiritual journey, that’s the nickname of an anarchic, unconventional but charismatic ne’er-do-well called Deb with whom she falls in love. There’s the usual splattering of swear words and a fair dose of sex, but she manages to create a character in God who is genuinely interesting, unconventional and lovable for all his sexist, macho, homophobic posturing. Perhaps our sympathies are engaged because we finally have a character who’s not one of the richie-rich set, who in fact loathes and pours scorn on upper middle-class values of the older generation, as well as the yuppies and media puppies with their easy lives and their easier virtue. “So what did Mr Multinational say about me to his beloved daughter, his ladli beti… Does Daddy like his darling’s bum of a boyfriend, huh? Poor Daddy, wouldn’t he have loved to see you married off to some marketing manager – a man with a future and no past. An MBA from Harvard. Or at least Ahmedabad. The sort of creep who hands out visiting cards with his degrees embossed in bold type. Ha-ha. I’ve ruined his neat little plans for you, haven’t I, baby? I love it.”
This is Dé at her bitchiest best. God is truly the voice of India’s Generation X – where ‘X’ is a savage, gleeful crossing out: disenfranchised, nihilistic, anti-everything. A far cry from the Generation Me kids, with their designer-label lifestyles and their Channel V aspirations.
Shobha loves to shock. She’s a cheap sensationalist. In fact her books sell on the assumption that half her readers will go wide-eyed and giggly, or open mouthed and gasping at the sheer temerity of her books which revealed to the world that Indian’s, too, say bad words. And do bad things: perform (is this the right verb?) fellatio, and enjoy voyeurism, and have sex on planes with strangers, and all sorts of other terrible things. Adultery, porn, gangsterism, kidnappings, rape. It’s a dog-eat-dog world out there, and the ones who survive are the bitches.
These early books were bought enthusiastically by all sorts of book-lovers, but frequently hurriedly covered in anonymous brown paper wraps. Given the kind of raunch which hardly raises a blush these days, the furtiveness with which her novels were read then seems really rather sweet. But at the time, it sent a shiver of liberation through the reading public.
Her 1996 coup was Surviving Men: The Smart Woman’s Guide to Staying on Top. Designed to get hackles raised, she takes broad swipes at the whole male population. In the gospel according to Dé, men are pathetic creatures, “transparent, gullible, slow animals” who think, if at all, with their dicks. Women, or at least smart women, know this and can manipulate them as easily as putty in order to get what they want. Take this book, if at all, with several canisters of salt. It may be progressive in some ways, but in others it is hopelessly conservative. On the question ‘Is it possible to actually Love A Man?’, Dé writes: “It’s easier to love dogs, for example, or exotic plants, or servants, or a favourite kitchen gadget. Curtains and linen too. But not men.” Excuse me? Does not a servant have a gender? Is he not human too? If he you cut him, will he not bleed? Sorry to get Shakespearean about this, but really. The class politics leap out and sock you in the face. For someone who has such incredible popular appeal, she takes her responsibility a bit too lightly sometimes, reinforcing – unthinkingly – some of middle-class India’s most lamentable prejudices.
Other things she just gets plain wrong. “Women’s laughter is restricted to sharing anecdotes about their children’s antics”, for example. Women, apparently, never laugh in groups and never laugh at themselves: “Laughter is reserved for those precious moments when they’re by themselves (something that only happens when women bathe).” Shobha should really join some of my girlfriends for a fun night out. Yes, we do laugh at ourselves, in a group, and not just about our children (!), and I just can’t believe that we’re the only girls to do this outside the privacy of our own bathrooms.
One journalist writing about the book noted “there are more four-letter words in Surviving Men than in the average military barracks” (Ajay Singh, ‘The trouble with men’, 1997). If this is the case, then the average military barracks must be populated by nuns. I counted just one ‘fuck’ in the whole book. For someone who’s main USP is her outspokenness on sexual matters, De is surprisingly coy, often resorting to euphemistic initials like ‘F.O.’ and ‘b.j.’. Worse, nowhere in the book does she mention safe sex. It is extraordinary that anyone can write a book about sexual matters in the late nineties and not mention HIV/AIDS or safe sexual practices. There is not a single mention of the word ‘condom’ (or, even ‘F.L.’). All Shobha Dé’s books may be riddled with sins of ommission and commission, but this has surely got to be one of the worst.
On the subject of French letters, a word about her accents. They are acutely (and gravely) flawed. They see-saw about all over the place: we have ‘premiéres’, ‘piéces de resistance’ and ‘clichès’. Someone is described as having found their ‘niché’ in life (hopefully not as a proofreader); another dismisses the notion of romance ‘á la films.’ By the time we get to Speedpost she’d got her clichés right, but unfortunately had taken to wearing Nikés! Such gaffs may be forgivable in another writer, but for one 50% of whose surname is accented, it’s just sheer sloppiness. You’d have thought she – or at any rate her copyeditor – would have got it right, given that most of these pretentious frenchisms are thrown in by society hostesses out to score points over their less sophisticated, soignée rivals. Pardon my French, indeed.
There are letters of a different kind in her latest book, Speedpost, which is evidence – if any were needed – that her publishers, Penguin, just can’t say ‘no’. Dé is the goose that’s laid a clutch of golden eggs, and so what if they sometimes turn out to be turkeys? This series of ‘letters to her children’ are nauseatingly ikky: designed to let us know all about the secret touchy-feely vulnerable side to Shobha. There are some secrets better kept. She’s more than a mom. She’s a friend. And she’s going to tell absolutely everyone about it. If that isn’t enough to make you want to go out and slit your wrists I don’t know what is. Please, please, give us back Shobha the hard bitch, the devil-may-care-but-I-don’t, the sex kitten, the literary slut, the brand, the product, the pulp queen – give us anything but, please god Mr Davidar, not Shobha the loving mother. Give us cheap sensationalism any day over cheap sentimentality.
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In the interview with Ajay Singh in 1997, Dé admits to an unfulfilled ambition: to write her autobiography. She says “I have three publishers asking me for it when I turn 50 next year… But I think it’s a little premature. For one thing, my children are still too young to understand certain things about my life.” Well, that qualm lasted all of about five minutes. Her autobiography, Selective Memory appeared the following year, with her letters to her children following hard on its heels.
For over a decade, Dé has reigned as India’s paperback queen. During this period, she has provoked more debate about Indians and their sexual proclivities than probably all well-meaning NGOs put together. Such is the power of marketing, and such is the popularity of the Dé brand. The book she co-edited with Kushwant Singh, Uncertain Liaisons was perhaps the first to try to open up a dialogue between men and women, in marked contrast to Surviving Men which is merely a diatribe. For all these reasons, she should be – and is – applauded. It’s just a shame the books themselves aren’t better. It’s such a wasted opportunity.
Her image has also changed from queen of sleaze to downright respectability. You no longer have to wrap her books in anonymous brown paper. She is studied in foreign universities, much to the distress and consternation of the country’s literary elite, who are left holding their dog-eared copies of Bankim and Tagore, bemoaning this sad state of literary affairs. I think it’s all to the good. Perhaps by including popular fiction, we expand our understanding of serious literature. Or gain a wider perspective on the pleasures of reading. Or question the whys and wherefores of who makes it in to the accepted ‘canon’. Or even understand a little more about the society we live in. Or, if you’re lucky, all of the above.
One great thing about Dé is that even though most of her books are riddled with ruthless social climbers, black-belts in one-upmanship who make Machiavelli look like Little Bo Peep, she herself seems miraculously untouched by this. She has, in a sense, shovelled shit and come up smelling of roses. She’s not a snob. And perhaps that’s why she commands such popular appeal.
But it cuts both ways. Her often savage dissection of Bombay highlife somehow lacks the edge to become true satire. You feel, somehow, that though she may hate its values (or lack of them), she’s also too close to all that to really put the knife in. She may not flinch from describing lewd sexual acts – but neither does she condone them. You’ll find that most, if not all, of the sex in these books is done by villains, who usually get their post-coital come-uppance in the end. The more explicit the sex, the badder the baddy. So, you can have the enjoyment of retaining the moral high-ground even while you’re getting off on the view.
It’s a little like being told that fat is a feminist issue, by someone who has no trouble slipping into size 10 Levis. It’s all very well for you to say that, sister, as you waddle away desperately trying to construct an empowering self-image. Shobha Dé can afford to pour scorn on Bombay’s struggling starlets and wanna-be models, when she looks so fabulous herself – and that takes hard work, and money, despite her protestations to the contrary. She can afford to satirise the nouveau riche when every time she sets pen to paper, it turns to gold. Her publishers must be laughing all the way to the bank. They’d probably meet up with her on her way back – unless she’s at home laughing away in the privacy of her own toilet. Yep, she’s got the Midas touch alright. Perhaps, after all, that’s what’s really wrong with Shobha Dé – and if that’s all that’s wrong, who needs to be right?
Tehelka magazine, 2000