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'The Jackie Collins of India'

April 01, 1992|MARK FINEMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BOMBAY, India — And now this from India's "Queen of Porn," the first woman author here to use "the F-word," as she calls it, in print: "The way my day and my life is structured, it's all with kids!"

"With kids and kids and kids," says Shobha De. "And, you know, their days, their tennis, their pianos, their birthdays, their school schedules, their clothes. . . ."

Is this "the Jackie Collins of India," as her critics and even her publisher have dubbed her? Is this the author of "Socialite Evenings" and "Starry Nights," two racy pulp novels about Bombay's glitz?

Wait a minute.

This woman is a mother of six whose 3-year-old is playfully overseeing preparations for an afternoon birthday party, whose 6-year-old, with a little wooden angel dangling from her backpack, wants to know what's on TV now. And she is saying: "Look, I do feel irreverent about a lot of things. But there are other things which are sacred, which I wouldn't want my kids to lose. For instance, the kids still sleep in our bedroom, and the little one in our bed. . . ."

Her living room is plastered with oversize oil paintings of Indian life by a trendy South Indian artist; they coexist with ancient wood carvings from Hindu temple door frames and elegant but comfortable sofa sets.

"Really," she confesses as she surveys the living room of her tasteful high-rise apartment overlooking the Arabian Sea, "I do come from the middle class."

That's what Shobha De, India's hottest-selling English-language novelist, and the phenomenon surrounding her are all about: a middle-class, Western-style revolution that is exploding the boundaries of social permissiveness on the Asian subcontinent.

Perhaps there could be no better stage for De, 44, than mad Bombay, headquarters of the showy Hindi-language film industry and the throbbing heart of its booming stock exchange and private-sector revolution. Where else could she write a first novel that offers a cast of characters described on the book jacket as:

"Neurotic, man-hungry Anjali; gorgeous, vivacious Ritu, who has developed flirting into a fine art and who leaves her second husband for a smuggler; trampy, outrageous Si; Abe, who prefers young girls; Varun, a high-profile editor with a penchant for young boys; Krish, the pretentious ad man, whose wife actively helps him in his extramarital affairs. . . ."

But even her friends didn't believe life happens like that in Bombay--please, no sleaze; we're Indian.

"They imagined that I was re-creating Hollywood or Los Angeles or New York, merely Indianizing it," De recalls.

She knows better. A recent example: one of the dozens of nightly high-society cocktail soirees that provide the fodder for her fiction. Among the guests, she says, was a Calcutta actress who "had a Bloody Mary in one hand, and she was talking, showing her legs . . . and she said to me, 'I love your house. I love your paintings. I love your kids. I love your husband--he's got a great ass. I want it all.'

"I laughed, and my husband laughed. But people around thought, 'Oh, my God!' And if I were to report this in a book, people would think I made it up. 'It doesn't happen. People don't talk like that.' But they do. People certainly do talk like that here."

But how do all this glitz and eccentricity and outrageous affluence square with the outside world's image of India, an India of poverty, slums, half-naked children and mystical self-destruction?

"I resent that," De snaps. "It's a cliche image of India. I mean, just because (veteran filmmaker) Satyajit Ray makes a film 100 years ago, it becomes the international statement about India, and it's all about the famine and the begging bowl."

She warms to the topic: "A lot has changed. I don't see why we should even be made to feel apologetic for this lifestyle. Each time a Western journalist comes to interview me, he says, 'But what about the slums?' Yeah, what about the slums? . . . It sounds too patronizing to say, 'Oh, I do my bit for the downtrodden.' I mean, bull. We're all too busy leading our own lives. And they're leading their lives. They're aspiring to a better lifestyle. So am I, as far as I'm concerned."

What is more, De is turning her aspirations into success and is achieving household-word status among the expanding Indian middle class, the slice of society that constitutes most of the English speakers here and that appears largely ready to accept her writing genre.

When her second book, "Starry Nights," was released last year--with a drawing of a nude woman on the front cover--"they said it was the first time they'd broken through the 'F' barrier, the first time they'd run the F-word without asterisks," she recalls.

"But really, it went almost unnoticed. It didn't get 1,001 letters saying, 'How could you?' So wouldn't you say that shows people are getting kind of hardened?"

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