'The Jackie Collins of India'

TIMES STAFF WRITER

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?"

To De's mind, the real "F-word" may be feminism, a concept she thoroughly disdains despite the fact that she populates her books with powerful, take-charge women.

Feminism "is a dirty word," she sniffs. "I don't define myself as a feminist. Never have. I enjoy pressing my husband's feet when he gets home from work. I do it most willingly. Had it been something that was thrust on me, then perhaps I would rebel. . . . But you cannot have two people wearing the pants in a marriage. And I'm quite happy to be in a sari all the time."

She wasn't always so pliant. Reared in Bombay by an archconservative family dominated by an authoritarian father, she rejected traditional values at the age of 20 and soon became a journalist who wrote occasional advice columns--known in India as "agony aunt" columns--as well as soft features for trendy society magazines. From this background came the idea to write her first pulp novel.

When she turned 40, she rediscovered tradition.

"I had to turn 40 before I made my peace with my father, and all these rebellions vanished magically," she says, even as she notes that her father still will not discuss her books. "Maybe I mellowed. When I look back, I wouldn't have wanted him to be any other way. But it was horrible when I was growing up."

Her father's continued reticence notwithstanding, she insists that her books are actually a tiny contribution to the new social openness compared to the cable-TV explosion.

"I think (cable) is going to have an unbelievable influence," she says. "(Hong Kong-based) Star TV and CNN are going to fast-forward India into catching up with the rest of the world. We're just going to make that quantum leap without all the transitional phases."

Each day, she notes, the country is bombarded with more and more TV shows that expose such social taboos as incest, rape, adultery and homosexuality--the very themes she is tackling. (Her third book, "Sisters," was released last month.)

Still, it annoys her that critics have focused on the steamy scenes in her books. "I'm not complaining," she says, "but they've all gone on and on in this sort of 19th-Century Victorian tone about the pornography. I'm often asked with a straight face, 'So how does it feel to be the Porn Queen of India?' And I feel this is Little Bo Peep stuff compared to (television and videos)."

So we're to believe she's Little Bo Peep, not Jackie Collins?

Well, no--although perhaps her most intimate confession of the day is that she's a third of the way through writing her latest book and has yet to craft its first sex scene.

But she really doesn't see herself as "The Jackie Collins of India," she explains:

"I'm not fighting the label because, at this point, it's a good marketing strategy. But I don't want to live with it for the rest of my life. I think she writes successful books and good books for her, and she's a kind of glamorous babe, and good for her. But I want to be me. I don't want to be a clone."

If cloned, however, De says she'd rather be seen as a tamer writer of the same genre--Danielle Steel.

"I enjoy her much more than I enjoy Jackie Collins, as a matter of fact," she says, acknowledging that she has read both authors to help perfect the sexy formula style. "I identify more with Danielle Steel. Our lives have run amazingly parallel courses.

"She's married for the second time, to a person who is in shipping (De's husband also works for a shipping company). She's got six kids, same as I do. And she leads a very structured kind of work-day existence, the way I do. . . . I mean, I don't want fat hair (a la Collins). And I don't want the kind of soft-focus tigress, come-and-eat-me-up look."

As one of her children wails in the background, De quickly adds that she is "desperate" that the values of conservative Hindu families endure the middle-class revolution that is helping sell her books.

"There's a generation that's just going to lose all this. . . ," she says earnestly. "I hated (traditions), I rebelled against them, but (my parents) didn't give up on them because of that. So I shouldn't give up on them just because my kids are indifferent to them right now.

"We live the glitz, yes," she notes, just before she has to excuse herself for the 3-year-old's birthday party. "But to me, it's still something I see as a voyeur. I don't feel a part of it. It's like being the eternal kind of outsider--looking and looking, but never being that."

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