Sharp, hilarious, and relatable are three words that best describe Shreya Sen-Handley’s book Memoirs of My Body. It opens with a treatise on masturbation — a seven-year-old Sen having wet dreams about a boy who’s “literally from the wrong side of the tracks.” 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.
Shreya Sen-Handley is funny; she’s relevant; and she’s in touch. Memoirs of my Body regularly references television shows and books that young people are familiar with. In the first few pages, she references Reign, a teen TV show, 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.
While I was expecting this to be a frivolous read, it was anything but. A large portion of the book will have you (in the author’s words) “with your hands in your pants.” But 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 resulting 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 a woman’s sexuality has become — as if our body parts are things that can be owned by anyone other than the woman whose “lady bits” they are.
Sen shares her own experiences of being slut shamed along with stories of other women. These portions of the book will resonate with any Indian woman, young or not. Of these experiences, 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.”
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.
I say all women and not just urban Indians because the feminism on display in Sen’s book is inclusive, though some may complain that it is also simplistic. For me, however, it was a thrill to read a joyful feminist.
This is not to say that Sen describes her life in India through rose-tinted glasses. Her documentation of the racism, sexism, and marital rape are visceral. It’s hard to read her account of being raped by her ex-husband. But, that particular chapter is, perhaps, the most powerful part of the book. 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 has used detailed scenes filled with physical pleasure or abuse to highlight deeper psychological issues within Indian society. Though she clearly 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 how Indian women are treated. The combination makes Memoirs of My Body a pleasure to read and extremely hard to put down.