“Sex in the Neo-liberal City: On Savita Bhabhi” is an absolutely brilliant article by Itty Abraham. In the article, Abraham argues that the cartoon is a barometer of a vastly changed social and technological milieu in urban India.
Clearly, Savitabhabhi, the cartoon strip — now censored in India — is about a sexually ravenous married Indian woman who persistently cuckolds her husband. Savita is invariably the initiator, the temptress; this is the quintessential Indian male neuroses. In the cartoon strip, the anxiety is considerably increased by Savita’s apparently indiscriminate choice of sex-partners: salesmen, servants, a rogue terrorist, even cricket-playing teenage boys.
The strip, and Abraham’s article, should be of particular interest to regular visitors to this site and members of the Cuck & Bull India YahooGroup, where two distinct trends predominate: first, the desire of married men to see their wives being pleasured by other men, often those of a lower social rank; and, second, the desire of married Indian women from the urban middle class to explore their sexuality in ways previously unknown and expressly forbidden.
Savita Bhabhi’s accounts of anonymous and spontaneous sex in the city opens us up to a new kind of pleasure: shopping for sex in a neo-liberal paradise where everything is available and for sale. She partakes of the goods on display with unabashed pleasure because she deserves them and can afford it. “She’s worth it” as the ad tagline says. Sex in the city is consumption without guilt or responsibility: the ultimate neo-liberal message.
To some extent, I believe Abraham is not quite accurate in the rejection of Savita’s value that is implicit in this passage. I’ve argued before that it is now completely pointless to pretend that the married Indian woman of the urban middle class continues to be disconnected from her reality. Indeed, Abraham’s portrayal of a far more liberal world makes this impossible. The Indian housewife is bombarded daily by an open press and satellite television with explicit sexual content and constant sexual innuendo. Almost all of it is derived from the west. Without exception, these sexual habits and attitudes are projected as desirable, and socially and morally acceptable (or, at any rate, not taboo). Women having casual sex with partners of a few minutes’ acquaintance; women changing partners without qualms or guilt; women not letting intense emotions or notions of child-bearing interfere with their sexuality; these are the sexually supercharged value-systems that have invaded the middle class urban Indian household. Is it even possible to be impervious to these influences?
Abraham is, however, on the mark when he observes:
Or are we closer to Ashok, driven by the pressures of an unrelenting work schedule, who never gets a chance to enjoy the fruits of the new urban paradise that his labors have helped create? Doomed to invisibility if he ever gets off the treadmill, his rewards are a domestic space surrounded by the material signs of achievement — TVs, fridges, microwaves, sofas. The lack of time he has to enjoy these pleasure goods is one pathetic symptom of his condition: an even more perverse situation is that these objects become voyeuristic witnesses to the infidelities taking place at home, those sexual transgressions and pleasures which he cannot be privy to. His is a world of production without consumption, singularly lacking in pleasure, made worse by the infidelities of his wife. Ashok is further made an object of ridicule by Savita’s double entendres and unspoken comments (to which readers are privy), which make him — pathetic, humiliated, ignorant, silent, absent — a peculiar, altogether spectral, symbol of our times. Necessary but not sufficient Ashok is the other side of this neo-liberal dream space.
But there is a historical progression to this, and it is recent. The need to compete in a world with smaller boundaries but larger markets, and comptetition from successful women, have considerably added to the pressure on the Indian husband. He surrounds himself with the trappings of his imagined success, as Abraham points out, believing that more material possessions can compensate for what has clearly been driven out. But for many Indian wives, the journey is less smooth: the initial thrill of gadgets soon gives way to boredom, loneliness, despair, irritation and frustration. The physical artefacts lose their value. Women seek something else now. While the husband sees his worth in the quantity of his physical possessions, the woman has no such independent reflection. At best, she must remain in the aura or penumbra of her husband’s so-called achievements and attainments. A new car, a three-door fridge. But you can’t fuck a fridge. The wife craves reinforcement of her own worth, independently of the number of widgets her husband stuffs into their house.
That sense of being valued, of being special, of being wanted and desired, should come from the husband. But he’s too busy chasing the late-model Honda. The by-now bored and restless wife is far more susceptible to the moral pressures of the Internet and television, all goading her in a new direction. A younger man, a stranger, a servant, anyone who evinces interest sates precisely this need: the need for self-recognition.
That is exactly what Savitabhabhi is: a self-assured, self-possessed, supremely confident, intelligent and self-aware married woman, one who is acutely conscious of her effect on men and her ability to unleash her sexual weaponry at will, a woman who does not see the need to suborn her instincts, needs and desires to that of her husband. The strip forces a recognition of this New Indian Woman.
And it does this without ever denigrating the institution of the Indian marriage. Savita achieves this balance between her own sexual hyperdrive and the very low-gear, Über-modest gharelu bhabhi who cooks, cleans, tends to her man and keeps home. She values this too; in almost every single sequence, even when she is being fucked, she has on her mangalsutra. There are those who shout that this alone is a desecration of the moral imperative of the Indian marriage. It is actually nothing of the kind. Quite the reverse, in fact, for it demonstrates that Savita can be a perfect wife without sacrificing her awakened sexuality. Savita should, in fact, be a role model for Indian housewives everywhere: a woman who does not wait to be taken, but who decides for herself what is best for herself.
Incidentally, for those upset by the Indian Government’s silly attempt to block the Savitabhabhi website, here’s a hint: just use any of the free anonymizers on the Internet (google “anonymizer”), type in the Savitabhabhi URL and the site is wide open. When will these morons in government learn?