A Warm Bath with The Husbands - guest feature by Sharmila Chauhan

I never set out to write about ‘female sexuality’ yet as my play The Husbands opens in Soho Theatre this week – I believe my subconscious has on this occasion managed to have her way with me.

Through themes of female genocide (the alarmingly increasing rate by which girl babies and fetuses are destroyed in parts of South Asia) and the ensuing polyandrous arrangements – the play; by its very set-up – is wide open for debate around this issue.

- Polyandry?

- Yes polyandry

- What is that? I’ve heard of polygamy – but polyandry?

- A woman with multiple husbands

I try to state it matter of fact, but mostly I can’t help but to smile a little – a gentle pull of the lips to help digest an idea that can seem – even in this ‘free’ society - very controversial.

Admittedly polyandry is not a common word or even a common arrangement. However things are changing. In parts Asia, polyandry is becoming more ‘popular’ as parents struggle to find brides for their sons – having collectively killed off any potential candidates at birth.

From this this dire and desperate situation was born The Husbands. A matriarchal fictional world where women are political leaders and head of household. Where women choose as many husbands as they want or desire.

This need – or want is perhaps the most contentious part of the scenario. Subjugated women, taking on many husbands illicit sympathy, a ‘cause’ for us to fight against. But a woman expressing her sexuality and desire in this way is still in our hyper-sexualised reality, quite confounding.

When I sit in with the audience at a show it feels like we have all gotten into a very hot bath. There is discomfort, disquiet, wriggling. Sometimes people may want to get out altogether. But they can not – compelled to watch as Aya (not a young twenty-something woman either) kisses not one, not two but three men.

It is not that I think that polyandry or polyamory should be a way of life for mainstream society – but using a enclosed community we might be able to debate issues - mostly around women’s desire, which despite its current sometimes explicit, iconography is still shrouded in mystery.

Every era has its heroines. But too often in this hyper-sexualised society I find that women, though elevated to a highly sexual role – have a very small voice in articulating what that sexuality is for themselves. We may hint, to invite sex – but the power – the gratification is taken or granted by the patriarchal system which not only creates the images but tells us how to interpret them.

Many women, including myself, were disturbed by 50 Shades. It is not that I don't think women should be reading this kind of ‘erotica’ or ‘clit-lit’ en masse (indeed I believe literature to be one of the strongest avenues for exploration of female desire) but simply that again we see the concept of surrender take centre-stage. Where the seemingly innocuous (and quite frankly bland) Anastasia Steele surrenders herself to the will of Mr Grey a seemingly cold (but ‘achingly addictive’) man – and finds herself compelled to enter his world to ‘find’ herself. This is not to say that there is no place for surrender, or even submission (both vital parts of sexual dynamics) or even S&M – a ‘hardy perennial’ of the Western sexual landscape today – simply that if this is the ‘best’ we can do to explore the complexity of the female desire then there is a part of the puzzle missing.

Ironically in the past the West may have been more daring about our approaches to female sexuality. Both Anais Nin and Erica Jong were powerful and brave writers. Each brought her own perspective. What feels missing today however is the examination of female sexuality in its wide, encompassing forms – from sensual and tender, to strong and lustful to intellectual – sexuality, like love, comes in many forms.

I’ve always felt strongly about including sensuality in my work. The sensory experience of living is itself the route of desires of all kinds. And desire – with its single, unyielding voice - is probably one of the strongest, most primal instincts there are. Yet there is a distinct lack of female sexuality - or even honest representation - of sexual relations in the majority of the media we consume. People seem to shy away from anything tackling bigger issues of sexuality unless of course its been stamped by the (patriarchal) brand as ok.

In Asian culture, the culture surrounding women and our sexuality is deeply embedded. As with many things in India, a polarized approach seems the habit - from the infamous Karma Sutra, the Devdasi women, the matriarchal polyandrous societies of ancient times – Indian culture affords me a rich, sensual, empowered history to draw from. Yet the paradoxical subjugation, oppression and abuse of women is not far off either. I think it is the proximity of these two opposites that creates the fuel for The Husbands.

I suppose this is what I’ve been trying to do with my own writing. To imbibe it with a type of sensual pleasure – a type of awareness that tingles and then resonates taking the reader on a complete journey. After all, sexuality can begin very slowly or indeed creep upon us and surprise.

For me the interesting thing about female desire is its mystery – its diversity and beauty and strength. Many women still battle with it and for many that battle can often be lost with life, marriage and children. Yet, there is a part of us that will always desire and always want. Society might be simpler when women want less and do more, buut until we are able to unlock and honestly debate our sexuality and own it; not wear it as a badge, but as something integral to ourselves – that belongs to us – we can not change anything. We must ourselves get into a hot bath and see what that feels like. Even for a little while.

(c) Sharmila Chauhan 2014

Sharmila Chauhan was shortlisted for the Asian New Writer award and chosen for the Royal Court's writing programme. Her short stories have been published online and in print, including Tell Tales Vol 2 and Happy Birthday to Me. She is also a pharmacologist so her work life mixes medicine, prose and plays.

The Husbands , produced by Kali Theatre and Pentabus Theatre, is at Soho Theatre, Tue 11th March – Sun 23rd March.

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