Sharp, hilarious, and relatable are three words that best describe Shreya Sen-Handley’s book Memoirs of My Body. It opens with a seven-year-old Sen noticing her streaked underpants upon waking up after wet dreams about a boy who’s “literally from the wrong side of the tracks.” The young girl wonders what the discharge means? Various scenarios are concocted in her head — each so innocent it’s heartwarming. There could be no better opening for this novel: a journey of Sen’s self-discovery with which any woman would identify.
Sen’s book chronicles her life through childhood crushes, self-pleasuring or “monkey business” as her mother calls it, marriage, abuse, sex, and motherhood. It does so without glossing over the bad or glorifying the good. The author’s matter-of-fact tone, prevalent throughout the book — in chapters entitled Hit Me Baby, One More Time or Nudity Begins at Home, among others — is its strength.
While sharing her experiences of life as a woman, marital rape, miscarriages, being slut-shamed along with stories of other women, Sen manages to resonate with any woman, young or not, Indian or otherwise. Of these moments, she’s a delightful narrator. In the first chapter, she cheekily points out that her mother could be scientifically correct when calling masturbation monkey business. “Birds Do It, Bees Do It” is the title of that mini-chapter, and it opens with “maybe not, but I have it on good authority that primates, our nearest cousins, most certainly do it.”
I was expecting this to be a toilet-top read: not frivolous but nothing heavy. Memoirs of My Body was anything but. A significant portion of the book will have you (in the author’s words) “with your hands in your pants.” Word of warning: Don’t try that bit on the toilet. Not the prettiest picture. But then neither is the one painted by Sen’s novel. This is more than a book about a woman’s sex antics. It’s a novel about owning one’s self-loathing and sexuality, and it does so in explicit detail. In another chapter, she tells the readers the pet names she has made up for her vagina and “lady bits.”
The effect is hilarious but also empowering. A reader feels like Sen-Handley is showing, with a fair bit of humour, how much of a commodity women’s sexuality has become — as if our body parts are things owned by anyone other than the woman whose “lady bits” they are.
Sen is funny; she’s relevant, and she’s in touch. Memoirs of my Body regularly references television shows and books with which young people are familiar. In the first few pages, she references Reign, a teen TV drama, and how audiences reacted to the one masturbation scene in it. This reviewer has never seen the show, but most kids under 16 probably have. Sen-Handley manages to reach out to an audience that is often ignored in literary non-fiction: the youth of the nation.
Many books written by women in India try to remain within an imagined Lakshman Rekha of politeness, but not this one. Sen-Handley’s book is rude — very, very rambunctiously and delightfully rude. She is candid, not coy; she is shameless, not shy. These qualities alone make her a delightful narrator with whom all women — especially the volatile ones — will relate.
While Sen’s feminism is Sen inclusive, some may complain that it is also simplistic. For me, however, it was a thrill to read a joyful feminist.
Sen does not, however, describe her life in India through rose-tinted glasses. Her documentation of the racism, sexism, and marital rape are visceral. Her realisation that she was raped is documented slowly, paced precisely as such a realisation would hit many a survivor of sexual assault — especially if it’s perpetuated by someone they know and love. It’s difficult to read her account of being raped by her ex-husband. Yet, at times, she captures the gray areas between sex and love and sexual assault that many would not be brave enough to explore.
“This was love, I told myself sternly, and while right now wasn’t pretty, we’d had our moments. With that, I resubmitted myself to his bucking and heaving and getting nowhere,” she describes sex with her ex-husband at one point.
These portions of the book are, perhaps, the most powerful. It’s also intensely relevant today when the debate on whether to criminalise marital rape rages across every platform in India.
In some ways, Sen used detailed scenes filled with physical pleasure or abuse to highlight deeper psychological issues within Indian society. Though she enjoyed her time in the country — her accounts of festivals and people are filled with amazement — she is also a keen observer of body language. Time and again, in the novel, she surprises the reader by pointing out non-verbal cues that a lesser author might have missed.
Still, even while she’s narrating, in wince-worthy fashion, the trials of her life, Sen’s sense of humour does not let up. There’s a sense of mischief in this book, but it’s also laced with alarming observations about our country, and it treats women. The combination makes Memoirs of My Body a pleasure to read and extremely hard to put down.
Memoirs of My Body by Shreya Sen-Handley, published by Harper-Collins, is available on Amazon. The Kindle edition costs Rs 205 while the paperback edition is Rs 262.