The porn ban in India is relatively recent, and one that can still be bypassed. Growing up in the UAE, however, being deprived of pornography was always a reality for me. At the brink of adolescence, as you begin to discover your sexual side, you’ll always strive to find a loophole around such barriers. For me, that came in the form of Tumblr, which was at the peak of its popularity in 2010. I stumbled onto the platform because it had embedded porn videos that the government hadn’t perhaps discovered yet, but it was the erotica that I stayed for. As a woman, the chances of finding sexual content that isn’t exclusively tailored for the male gaze is rare. The popularity of books — right from Madame Bovary to 50 Shades of Grey — proves that women are always on the hunt for the right balance of tasteful, yet explicit content to tickle their fantasies, and I was no different at the age of 15. Little did I know then that I’d be the one writing erotica, just a few years down the line.
Leaving behind the suffocating sexual silence of the Middle East, I moved to Pune to attend a college well-known for its debauchery. To say it was a culture shock would be putting it too mildly. If you wanted to live a certain lifestyle, you either needed rich parents to fund it or work to afford it yourself. While the former was my reality for most of my first year, my cushy world quickly disappeared in 2016 when my father told me he’d lost his job. Most of my expenses were still taken care of, but it didn’t feel right to go to my parents for my frivolous needs, like that spontaneous Goa trip. Online internships had just started to pick up back then, but with stipends in the vicinity of Rs 2,000-5,000, they just weren’t going to cut it.
Then, as we once chatted about money matters, a friend said: “Umm… okay, so this is going to sound weird, but I’ve written sex stories for money”. “How much money?” was my first question. She told me to direct all my queries to a woman I would later be introduced to via Facebook; in her profile photo, she seemed to be old enough to be my grandmother. I questioned all my life choices before finally messaging her. She asked me to write a sample sex scene; it was almost as though the classic couch scene in pornographic scenes where the poor, naive actress is asked to perform for the first time, had come to life in the literary sense. And so began my short-lived secret career as an erotica writer.
The only thing I knew about Veera* — courtesy her Facebook account — was that she was from Shimla, yet I trusted her, bravely emailing her from my college email account. She fixed a rate of 30 paise per word, which at the time felt like an enormous sum, considering that the average erotica book was well over 30,000 words. She’d send me a plotline — usually some perfectly inane narrative that I’d seen far too many times during the days of my romcom addiction. There was always a richer man enamoured by a lovely, delicate young woman and over the course of 40,000-and-some words, they would engage in explicit, vividly descriptive sex more than four times. Yes, that was an actual rule: we had to have at least one sex scene for every 7,500-10,000 words or so; even it wasn’t necessarily penetrative, there had to be some kind of sexual play involved. The protagonists’ “love story” was a thinly-veiled cover for two characters to explore each other’s orifices. After my third or fourth book, I had a file on my computer titled ‘SexScenes.doc’ which had all the possible permutations and combinations of sexual acts. All I had to do was change up the names and the chronology of the acts, occasionally adding some dirty talk between the characters.
I was told right at the outset that I would be a ghostwriter, and these works would be published on Amazon, available only on Kindle, for under Rs 50. I asked Veera one day how she became a ‘middleman’ (middleperson?) in this business. “Why do you need to know that bachcha?” she asked me. Her endearing way of referring to me always felt strange in the context of our professional arrangement of selling smut, but she stuck to it until our very last conversation.
The peak of my erotica writing journey happened to intersect with a time when I was strongly questioning my sexuality. Tumblr had already sparked the knowledge within me of the possibility that I wasn’t straight. I believe that whenever you write fiction, you always leave pieces of yourself hidden in your work, even if that work happens to be a 50,000-word story on a lesbian shape-shifter falling in love with a human woman. For someone who was coming to terms with her attraction to women while still dating a man, erotica became a cathartic canvas for being able to express my desires in a healthy way. Until then, I’d considered ‘heterosexual’ to be the default setting and somewhere along the line I had to unlearn what I knew, in order to be true to myself and to the work I was doing.
As a media student at the time, I was also able to look at my work objectively and see how sexual stereotypes quickly crept into it despite my firm feminist stance. I noticed how women, in both fictional or real sexual scenarios, often fell back to being more performative and less interactive during sex for the pleasure of their male partners, and their climax was never emphasised as much as the man’s. In such a case, you can only blame “the media” and its influence for their skewed portrayals before you realise that you’re part of the problem too. I did bring it up with Veera but I also had to pick my battles. All the protagonists I was asked to write about were able-bodied, the men always muscular and the women always dainty yet voluptuous. It was, as a former Victoria’s Secret executive framed it, “less about reality and more about selling the fantasy”.
Over time, my relationship with Veera also evolved. She began to trust me more, she’d ask me to write plotlines, so I could let my imagination run wild. She indicated that there was an interest in supernatural themes, so I concocted a vampire story and a gay werewolf story too. Imagining how a dragon shape-shifter would have sex? I couldn’t believe I was getting paid to write this! I never did end up reading any of the stories after they were published, because Veera insisted on keeping the ghostwriters and the credited writers apart. I also began editing others’ stories and eventually helped Veera hire more people after going through hundreds of badly written sex stories (there was a mention of biting a clit, that’s all I’m going to say).
A friend who also worked with Veera often expressed her concern: “She looks so old and frail, what if she just dies one day and doesn’t pay us?” For the most part though, Veera was consistent with her payments and feedback, and never forgot to wish me during different festivals. After college ended, I moved back home to find a job, this work kept me afloat — all under the garb of “content writing”. Eventually, I moved to a full-time position, which I couldn’t balance the erotica writing anymore. I still remember Veera asking me to quickly proofread a piece in 2018, which happened to be her last message to me. I promptly responded, but she hasn’t replied since. (Veera, if you’re reading this, you still owe me Rs 500 for that!) That radio silence marked the end of the line for me as an erotica writer.