To hear Indians tell it, author Shobhaa De has built an empire on smut. Billed as “the Jackie Collins of India” since an editor at Time magazine’s India bureau coined the phrase decades ago, De is renowned for writing her strong heroines into sex scenes that would make Madonna blush. But even a dip into De’s novels makes it clear her books are only the means to an end; the author’s masterwork has been her construction of her very public self – and the performance of her life.
A newspaper and magazine columnist whose opinions are published four times a week, a near-constant blogger and the author of 16 books, De has managed to hold India’s attention for nearly 40 years through a mix of poise, savvy and ruthlessness – and a prodigious knack for self-reinvention. “The performance comes easily and effortlessly,” she says. “The performance also gives me a sense of separation from the self. It’s a performance and I know it’s a performance, so it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t touch me.”
Born Shobha Rajadhyaksha, the daughter of a bureaucrat, De parlayed her remarkable beauty into a career as a model, then as an editor at a film magazine, and finally, somehow – a marriage-divorce-and-remarriage later – emerged as what the Indian press describes as a socialite. “By that they mean, you’re glamorous, and you’re seen at some of the best evenings and soirees in India, and internationally, and it sets you apart from the ordinary hack,” says De.
The author of Socialite Evenings, Starry Nights, Sultry Days, and so on, De describes herself as a compulsive writer, for whom writing is “almost like a physical need”, and her often contradictory, seemingly unedited prose reflects this. She probably writes too much. Her blog, columns and books range from the cuttingly perceptive to the banal but she has an unerring understanding of her audience’s fantasies, anxieties and prejudices, and her celebrity makes her most inane, throwaway remarks important because Shobhaa De has said them.
Her romance novels are perennial bestsellers – so much so that then-editor of Penguin India David Davidar once reprimanded staff sniggering over one of her manuscripts, “Don’t laugh; her books pay your salaries.” And her provocative columns not only attract a legion of loyal readers, they often make headlines of their own – as when debutante Bollywood actress Sonam Kapoor responded to a characteristic De savaging by calling her “a 60-something porn writer”. Suffice to say, De didn’t dissolve into tears. “I love spats,” De says. “I’m sure I have [made enemies], but that’s not my concern. If they think of me as an enemy, then that’s their problem, not mine.”
Relaxed on the sofa in her opulent apartment overlooking the neighbourhood of Malabar Hill, De is dressed casually, eschewing the glam saris she trots out for photo shoots and public appearances. With flowing black hair, high cheekbones and a powerful nose, she is indeed a striking woman – by appearance, closer to 45 than 62. When asked what she represents to the rest of India, she answers, “a woman who has lived life on her own terms, and done so fearlessly”. In person, she’s charismatic enough to pull it off without sounding like an ass. But it is obvious why her critics have focused on the faults that have prevented her from gaining literary respect, rather than the strengths that have brought her commercial success.
Sex is part of the formula, no doubt. Written 10 years before Bollywood depicted its first on-screen kiss, one of her novels begins, “Prem liked to make love in public places,” and the scene that follows delivers the goods. But the sex in De’s novels is neither exciting nor unusual enough to warrant much attention – even in reputedly conservative India – and Bollywood actresses such as Zeenat Aman and Rekha have lived more provocative lives. De’s shock value came because she overturned the bedroom hierarchy by writing and acting out all India’s fears about female sexuality. “She has not only lived an unconventional life,” says literature professor Rukmini Bhaya Nair. “She has talked about it and written about it.”
“I think what people found extremely shocking was not even the [sex] scene itself,” De recalls. “But the idea that a woman could walk out of a marriage because she is bored with the man, not because he is a wife-beater or an alcoholic or insane or impotent or any of the usual reasons that could be condoned for leaving a marriage. When I wrote Surviving Men, a lot of men refused to bring that book home for their wives, or forbade them from reading it, because they felt I was putting ideas into their heads.”
De’s supporters find something subversive in her life, perhaps even more than in her books. “She is the other in every woman,” says Prem K Srivastava, a literature professor at Delhi University. “No woman can ever dare to do what she does. She can only dream and fantasise about writing what Shobhaa De writes.”
In recent years, De’s drive to reinvent herself has been relentless. She’s written a sort of self-help book, a Thomas Friedman-esque paean to the new India, and a work of fiction for young adults. But she has a new novel in the works, and she’s not ready to shed her reputation as a sex symbol yet. “I’m going to go back to it with a vengeance,” she says.
Life of a steamstress
Shobhaa De’s CV
1948: Born Shobha Rajadhyaksha in Mumbai. Studies psychology at St Xavier’s College, Mumbai.
1971: Founds Stardust magazine with publisher Nari Hira and creates Neeta's Natter, an influential film gossip column.
1989: Publishes first novel, Socialite Evenings, a potboiler about the sex lives of Mumbai's elite.
1995: Penguin India releases The Shobha De Omnibus
1998: Writes Surviving Men, a man-basher that husbands forbid their wives from reading.
2005: Spouse: The Truth About Marriage establishes Shobhaa De as a national agony aunt.