Did Savita Bhabhi stand for a common fetish in Indian men: a sexual liaison with older women.
by Devanik Saha
On a hot sunny afternoon in March 2008, in a tiny hostel room of my undergraduate college, my room-mate banged the door open and exclaimed excitedly, “Bhai, you’ve got to watch this shit!” As I showed an obvious lack of interest, he continued, “Savita Bhabhi is a new animated porn comic series launched online. Come, let’s read Savita Bhabhi. It’s slutty and how….” His voice brimmed with the myriad hormonally surcharged emotions that young students across India commonly resonate with.
Given the current climate in India, it may not be sanskari to further delve into more fetching details of Savita Bhabhi, a promiscuous, married woman set in conservative north India, that used to be promoted through a popular comic strip. Some critics labelled it as the face of new India’s ultra-liberal section. In staid, sexually prudish and morally high-handed India, chastity is often celebrated as a virtue, but the truth remains far from it. Most Indian men happen to dig older married women, and the proof of the pudding probably rests in the way even the government was possibly threatened by over 60 million visitors to cartoon porn star Savita Bhabhi’s site every month, leading to the final ban in 2009 under anti-pornography laws. A radical censorship move, it was naturally met with scathing criticism from prominent Indian bloggers and journalists, as even mainstream media columnists viewed the ban as reflective of a typically ‘meddlesome, patriarchal mindset’ of a ‘net nanny’ government.
Initially, the creators of the site were anonymous, passing under the assumed collective Indian Porn Empire, but following the ban, in 2009, the creator of the site, Puneet Agarwal, a UK resident, revealed his identity, hoping to salvage the situation, though he finally succumbed to family pressure and took down the famous comic strip that has now been converted into a subscription-based strip owned by kirtu.com. In an interview in 2015, Savita Bhabhi’s creator revealed his rationale behind the famous character: “Indians wanted a woman who’d put aside the ritual of first having her jewellery taken off and skip right to the underskirt for a different kind of muh dekhai. Savita Bhabhi delivered.”
And while we shuddered at our so-called moral degradation, in response to Times of India’s queries, Pornhub, a leading porn website, revealed that amongst trends from five cities—New Delhi, Chennai, Calcutta, Mumbai and Hyderabad—New Delhi takes the pole in terms of porn viewership, with 39.2 per cent of traffic. The top search terms for smut across India are ‘Indian college girls’, ‘Indian bhabhi’, ‘Bengali’ and ‘Indian aunty’. Mumbaikars, fourth-placed in terms of traffic, are the most Oedipal of porn viewers, with 46 per cent more likely to watch videos of older women listed under ‘MILF’ (or Mom I’d Like to F***). In 2015, India knocked out Canada to grab the third position, after the US and Britain, in visiting Pornhub, one of the world’s largest adult websites. In its annual review of how people globally view porn, Pornhub revealed that while the US added 11 seconds to their average time spent on watching porn, India—at 9 minutes 30 seconds—recorded a higher average time with a one-minute increase in the duration of each visit.
The epistemology of the name ‘Savita Bhabhi’, with an emphatic emphasis on ‘Bhabhi’, remains a debatable topic though. In fact, the hullabaloo surrounding India’s first animated porn comic naturally raised this critical, but largely ignored question as to why the creator chose the prefix Bhabhi to go with Savita? And why not adages such as Hot Savita, Sexy Savita, Savita Rani or maybe names that pinned familiar family ties, such as Savita Chachi, Savita Behen, Savita Maa, Savita Maasi, or Savita Bua? Would the comic have attracted the cult following it did riding on any one of these names?
I mean, why is the term ‘bhabhi’ rife with this overwhelming sexual overtone? Well, a Devar-Bhabhi relationship is often coloured with a dash of bashful promiscuity. And, did Savita Bhabhi, with her encounters with salesmen, students and subziwalas, blow the lid on how we as a nation, collectively and clandestinely, fantasise about horny, sex-starved bhabhis, and how sex with an older, more sexually experienced woman happens to be one of the kinkiest male fantasies?
A random search on Google with the words sex + bhabhi in the search bar results in upwards of ten pages with scandalous desi porn content openly advertising all sorts of sexual dalliances from ‘pados ki bhabhi’, ‘devar-bhabhi sex’, ‘Yogita bhabhi sex scandal’, ‘Indian bhabhi sex’ to young ‘Indian bhabhi-mature men’ sex. Or take the case of a basic search on Quora, where I looked for the word bhabhi, and the following questions cropped up: ‘What is the best thing about having a Bhabhi?’; ‘What are some mind-blowing facts about Savita Bhabhi?’; ‘Can I flirt with my bhabhi’?; ‘How can I prove to my sister-in-law that I am mature’?
Though there were answers to each of them, one answer is particularly worth highlighting. Question: What is the best thing about having a bhabhi? Answer: Getting your line cleared. (For the uninitiated: In Indian families till a few decades ago, and perhaps even today, the younger siblings generally do not marry until the elder is settled.)
The fetish for hot bhabhis stems perhaps also fundamentally from the longstanding male preoccupation of dating and having sex with older women. In fact, in college canteens and dorms, one is commonly heard using the phrase, ‘In every man’s life there is a Summer of ’69, or the term ‘Mrs. Robinson’ for an older woman, cross-referencing The Graduate, where Dustin Hoffman had a fling with the mother of his love interest. Rakesh Jha, 18, a college student who is dating a 35-year-old separated woman, theorises his sexual outing, on conditions of anonymity: “Women like her are more mature than young girls in their 20s and far more interested in sex sans any nakras and demands. Also, they prefer to give you pleasure rather than seeking it selfishly, which naturally gives me a sense of accomplishment and sexual high as a man. We don’t have to waste time on their tantrums and immaturity, which is why older women are better, in bed and otherwise”.
There is also a preconceived notion in India that most housewives are plain bored and sexually depraved, especially after kids and the strain of handling ghar grihasthi, and thus ever willing to have some fun on the side—the most common bait being the younger, bashful dewar who’s almost always in close proximity to her. The assumption also has its roots in the asexual nature of most Indian women, post a certain age and especially after they become mothers—with their sex life dwindling and their husbands also battling their own mid-life crises. With experimentation not in vogue in most Indian bedrooms, where procreation takes precedence over pleasure and defines sexual performance, coupled with the innate lack of privacy, thanks to noisy in-laws and bawling children, couples often drift apart, with the woman’s carnal desires imagined to being fulfilled by men on the outside—dewar, darwans, darzi…affording them a cheap pleasure in seducing an older woman, which is much greater than a roll in the hay with a virginal novice, who needs a lot of coaxing and convincing to let go of her coyness.
Romancing the bhabhi also has a deep connection to Indian history and culture. Sudhir Kakar, psychoanalyst and writer of Intimate Relations: Exploring Indian Sexuality (1989) says, “For a time in Indian social history, the erotic importance of the brother-in-law—in the sense that he would or could have sexual relations with his elder brother’s widow—was officially recognised in the custom of Niyoga, which dates back to the times of the Rig Veda, where a man, identified by the commentators as the brother-in-law, is described as extending his hand in a promised marriage to a widow inclined to share her husband’s funeral pyre. Though the custom fell into disuse, especially with the prohibition of widow remarriage, the psychological core of Niyoga, namely the mutual awareness of a married woman and younger brother-in-law as potential or actual sexual partners, is very much an actuality today”.
As per a census report, widows form nine per cent of the female population, while only 40 per cent of them happen to be over 50 years of age.
The practice of a widow marrying the brother of the dead husband is fairly common. When the dead body of the late husband is about to be cremated, the dead man’s brother takes the widow in his custody and marries her soon after. This principle is also fully supported in Yaska’s Nirukta. “Arise, woman, thou art lying by one, whose life is gone; come to the world of the living, away from the husband, and become the wife of him, who grasps thy hand, woos thee as a lover”, says an ancient Hindu Vedic text. Kautilya in Arthashastra has also allowed widow marriage, for marriage of widows was not restricted in ancient times. According to Manu Smriti, women who do not experience sexual intercourse with their first husband can remarry. During the middle ages, Chandragupta Vikramaditya married the wife of his dead brother. However, the Parashar Smriti is far more liberal in their approach—they believe that if a woman’s husband dies, disappears, becomes a saint, is impotent or becomes penniless, the wife can remarry.
In Punjab, the custom of Chaddar, for instance, involved the wife of a deceased man marrying the younger brother (her brother-in-law). This was done in a brief ceremony, where the widow placed a white chaddar (bedsheet) on the younger brother. From that moment she became the wife of the younger brother. This was done to keep the woman within the same family and provide protection to her children from the first marriage. In most cases, the women were forced into such an alliance by her mother-in law. The 1986 film starring Rishi Kapoor and Hema Malini, Ek Chadar Maili Si, was based on this, and raised many an eyebrow because of its unconventional star pairing.
Rabindranath Tagore too was deeply inspired by Kadambari Devi, his sister-in- law, wife of his elder brother Jyotirindranath. Kadambari Devi entered the Tagore household as Jyotirindranath’s to-be wife when she was all of nine. Rabindranath was seven. Eventually, she married Jyotirindranath at 19. Few years hence, she committed suicide, within four months of Rabindranath’s marriage, by consuming opium. Though conclusive evidence isn’t available, contemporary rumours, as well as some researchers, claimed that Kadambari spiralled into depression after Rabindranath’s marriage, with the poet’s attention shifting from her to another woman. It is also believed that Kadambari Devi never wanted Rabindranath to find a wife and once when she was entrusted with the task of searching for a bride, she couldn’t, or didn’t do so deliberately. She even secretly tried to stop his arranged marriage.
Even though Kadambari-Rabindranath’s romance bloomed 90 years before Kakar’s book, he throws some insight on the fragile relationship that often flowers from a woman’s loneliness in her marriage, coupled with a young man’s first sexual stirrings: “In clinical practice, I have found that women who are on terms of sexual intimacy with brothers-in-law rarely express any guilt. Their anxiety is occasioned more by leaving home or his impending marriage, which the woman perceives as an end to her sensual and emotional life,” he adds.
Tagore’s platonic fixation and unflinching loyalty towards Kadambari, his bou-thaan, or bhabhi, was reflected in his writings. In one of his letters, sourced online, he stated poignantly, “But where is the sweetheart of mine who was almost the only companion of my boyhood and with whom I spent my idle days of youth, exploring the mysteries of dreamland? She, my queen, has died and my world has shut against the door of its inner apartment of beauty which gives on the real taste of freedom.” Some of Rabindranath’s biographers have also called Kadambari ‘the deepest female influence on Rabindranath’s youth’, ‘playmate and guardian angel’ and the ‘deepest, heartfelt realisation in (Rabindranath’s) life’. What Kadambari Devi meant to him is best expressed in rousing lines such as: “The heart of human beings is like liquid, which changes shape if the containers are different. Very rarely it finds the ideal container where it will not feel the emptiness or constriction”. In 1901, the poet wrote the long story Noshtoneer; the inspiration was his relationship with Kadambari. In 1964, Satyajit Ray filmed it exquisitely as Charulata.
Modern Indian housewives are not afraid today to break the shackles of diligent duty and explore their unbridled sexuality. The staggeringly high rates of adultery show women walk out of the lakshman rekha of their marriages, sometimes finding sexual and emotional gratification in the arms of their own ilk. In 2014, a popular extra-marital affair website, Ashley Madison, launched their India version. Within 48 hours, it received 50,357 new users, 1,00,000 unique page views and a 1607 per cent increase in daily revenue in the first few days, as reported by International Business Times India.
While one can endlessly debate the morality of an incestuous relationship in contemporary India, the stereotyping of the oversexed bhabhi has also contributed to their commodification, with popular culture contributing to and projecting a set image. Television serials that dominate prime-time viewership often showcase the main protagonist as still being the luscious and curvy desi bhabhi.
In Bhabhiji Ghar Par Hai!, a hit comedy series on &TV, two men are seen flirting and craving for each other’s wives by trying to impress and flatter them. Being a family serial, this obviously cannot delve into sexual intricacies, but clearly, the basic premise of the serial is to sexualise the bhabhi. On October 3, Sunny Leone, India’s most searched celebrity on Google, made a guest appearance on the show. A news website reported her entry thus: “Bhabi Ji Ghar Par Hai! is all set to get the hottest bhabhi ever, with the entry of Sunny Leone”.
When it comes to Bollywood, cult films like the Sooraj Barjatya blockbuster Hum Aapke Hain Koun hinted at a dash of ‘chherkhani’ and mischief in the still most-played, now-classic song at big, fat Indian weddings—Didi Tera Dewar Deewana, with Madhuri Dixit doing her stuff in a suggestive, backless choli.
A common speculation also smirches the characters of defence wives, who are thought to be dilly-dallying with their husbands’ young, ‘brother’ officers during their husbands’ absence in long-distance postings. Akshay Kumar’s last movie, Rustom, based on a real-life incident in the 1950s, dealt with how a navy officer’s wife (played by Ileana D’Cruz) indulged in a steamy affair with her husband’s friend when he was away. The friend is eventually murdered by the irate husband. The rest of the movie focuses on the much publicised legal case. Though the movie’s primary motive wasn’t to objectify the housewife, it propagates the stereotype of defence wives as licentious.
“Is it true that in some of the Indian cultures and societies, a guy is allowed to have sex with his sister-in-law, especially in North India?” someone asks me on Quora, as I finish writing this piece.
In Mahabharata’s Unions
In the Mahabharata, when Vichitravirya dies, his mother asks his half-brother, Bhishma, to give Vichitravirya’s
widows children. When he refuses, she sends for her eldest son, Vyas, to do the needful. This custom of letting a brother go to the childless wife was known as ‘niyog’. Another episode talks about Brihaspati forcing himself on his sister-in-law, Mamata. She rejects him not on any moral grounds but because she is pregnant! Unable to contain his lust, Brihaspati sheds his semen outside her body and thus is born Vitatha. Draupadi is shared amongst the five Pandavas and, wisely, goes to each brother one year at a time, passing through fire to ‘purify’ herself, so that when a year is over she is restored as a ‘virgin’ for the next husband.
(Devanik Saha is an independent journalist who has written extensively on sexuality and women for leading Indian publications and blogs)