Shobha De's raunchy novels have enraged and titillated India.
"HE DREW me close to him and stuck his tongue down my throat. His rough hands were tearing at my blouse, while his knee was still locked between my legs. 'Let's do it standing up,' he said, unzipping his stained jeans."

This is standard fare for readers of the lurid "sex and shopping" novels that dominate the lower end of the popular fiction market. It comes not from the pages of Jackie Collins, though, but from Shobha De, a Bombay- based writer who has shocked polite Indian society with a series of raunchy tales set in her native city.

These homegrown "bonkbusters", with their racy plots, strong language and explicit sex scenes, have proved an overnight publishing sensation, transforming De into India's biggest-selling English-language novelist. But reviewers and commentators are scandalised. Despite being the land of the Kama Sutra and erotic temple carvings, modern India - thanks largely to the influence of the British Raj - is distinctly prudish. Hence one critic's denunciation of De as the "princess of porn".

Now De, a former model and gossip columnist, has written her first non- fiction book, Surviving Men: The Smart Woman's Guide To Staying On Top. Shortly to be published in Britain, where she has a dedicated following in the Asian community, it is a witty and acerbic analysis of the shortcomings of Indian men and is, she says, of universal relevance.

The book, 27 short chapters with headings such as Are Men Moral?, portrays men as a pathetic bunch of creatures, inept in bed, lacking in personal hygiene and easily manipulated.

In London this week to conduct a three-day creative writing workshop, De relates with glee the furious reception that Surviving Men was given at home. "Indian men are very thin-skinned, and they're not used to being lampooned," she says. "They take all this as an affront to their masculinity.

"You see, urban Indian women have made great leaps forward, but men are still living in the 15th century."

De, just turned 50, was the first Indian woman novelist to write about sex in a manner neither coy nor apologetic. Her debut work, Socialite Evenings, a tale of wealth, power and intrigue among the Bombay jetset, sold 40,000 copies - a huge number, by Indian standards - and led one critic to observe that Penguin India, her publisher, "have decided to put themselves in the service of the country, masturbating the nation".

De, immaculate in a bright turquoise salwar-kameez, shrugs her slim shoulders. "Sex is still a taboo subject in India, although God knows our population figures speak for themselves." She denies that she set out to shock - "I didn't want to be a literary streaker" - but clearly enjoys doing so, albeit from her safe vantage point as a member of the moneyed elite.

Born in the state of Maharashtra, De moved to Bombay as a child and, after taking a psychology degree, overcame the opposition of her conservative Brahmin parents to take up a career in modelling. Later, after a stint as an advertising copywriter, she became the founder-editor of Stardust, a gossip magazine about the "Bollywood" film industry. The transition to celebrity author was almost accidental; she sat down to write a non- fiction book about Bombay at the request of Penguin and ended up with Socialite Evenings.

De affects weariness with the Indian media's obsession with her glamorous image - neglecting to mention that she exploits that image as part of a highly successful marketing strategy. A portrait of her, posed by a fashion photographer, appears on the dustjacket of all her books, showing off her cool beauty to perfection. De also maintains a high profile through three weekly columns in Indian newspapers in which she doles out provocative views on love, life and politics.

Her self-promotion machine has also made much of the fact that she moves in the same charmed circles as the tycoons and movie moguls who people her fiction. Indeed, one of her early publicity blurbs boasted that "her private life reads like one of her novels".

In fact, she says, she leads "a disappointingly conventional life". Married to a millionaire shipping magnate who proposed to her within 10 minutes of meeting her, she has six children and writes her books in long-hand on the dining room table of their oceanside penthouse apartment.

The broad appeal of her novels, she believes, lies in their depiction of a modern, urban India that is unknown to most Indians. "They also have an aspirational quality," she says. "Indians are fascinated by Bombay; the city is a magnet. It is deliciously evil and has a tremendous energy, a cutting-edge quality that pushes you to the edge."

She believes that her books reflect the changing nature of male/female relationships in India, where an explosion in job opportunities over the past decade has spawned a new breed of woman: educated, assertive, increasingly prepared to demand her rights in all areas of life including the bedroom.

"My heroines are anything but victims and doormats," says De. "They don't get kicked around and, if they do, they kick right back. In the groin, if at all possible."

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