“I HUNG OUT with a lot of pimps and sex workers. I went to brothels. Sometimes it was a little dangerous, but I always took a man with me. You can be brave, but you can't be risky; I was brazen but not foolish.”
Whoever said being an author wasn't glamorous?
“Brothels, clinics, crisis centres, hospitals,” continues Ira Trivedi. “I had to make inroads carefully, but being a young woman really helped. I had a non-threatening persona; if I'd been a middle-aged Indian man it would have been impossible to write the book.”
The volume in question is India in Love: Marriage and Sexuality in the 21st Century, Trivedi's penetrating account of the sexual revolution churning through its towns and cities. Trivedi, 29, hit all points of the country's compass on her three-and-a-half year mission to chart mutating attitudes to sex and its bedfellows. In trying to understand how increasing sexual freedom could also, paradoxically, heighten repression and amplify often horrific violence against women, she scrutinised sex lives everywhere from colleges to offices, the emergence of gay rights, prostitution, pornography, economics and sociology. And at the end of it all? After a sometimes harrowing 600-odd interviews in 12 cities, having witnessed the effects of rape and other sexual assault?
“After writing the book, sex to me became such a dirty thing,” says Trivedi sadly. “There was no lightness or joy in it; it was just dark and grimy and abusive. There seemed such a dark light around sex in India, there was nothing beautiful about it. And it was hard for me to take myself out of it; I had to tell myself repeatedly, ‘This is not your story. It's the story of other people who are far more interesting than you. These are not your ideals.'
“Gone are the days of The Kama Sutra, when sex was a really beautiful, golden thing, in a beautiful, holistic way.”
Trivedi is reflecting on the hard slog that props up India in Love and on the surprising itinerary that has brought her to Hong Kong and this latest stop on the book-promotion merry-go-round. The public eye first lit upon her as a 19-year-old beauty queen contesting the 2005 Miss India pageant. The experience gave her the raw material for her first book, the novel What Would You Do to Save the World? Confessions of a Could-Have-Been Beauty Queen, published soon after the event.
A precocious Trivedi contested Miss India while taking a semester out from prestigious Wellesley College in Massachusetts, to which she then returned, before completing an internship with JP Morgan – which eventually realised her second novel, There's No Love on Wall Street. From downtown New York it was back to Wellesley – and creative-writing classes with Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Junot Díaz – then an MBA at Columbia Business School, which, at 20, she was the youngest student ever to attend, and on a fellowship to boot. (“That was luck,” she says.) With friends, she founded a USbased technology company and today, while choosing the word “writer” to describe herself, is also a journalist and yoga teacher.
Back to the jumping-off point of the past, whirlwind decade, of which she says: “The first book was pretty much autobiographical. I wrote it right after the pageant, which I'd kind of entered for research. I didn't really want to be a beauty queen and was half-hearted about the whole thing. I said maybe I'd write about it, then I did – and then I regretted the experience for a long time. The book became controversial because it was an exposé of beauty pageants and the Miss India is huge. India is a country of pageantry. Now the book has been made into a TV mini-series about girls who want to be beauty queens.”
And where exactly might a TV series about beauty queens fit into a culture hardly renowned for its respect for women, and whose psychosexual landscape is fracturing in a climate of ghastly rape-and-murder headlines?
“India is in a weird flux at the moment,” says Trivedi. “Women are reporting attacks more, it's become an issue; they weren't encouraged to report attacks before. People are talking about sex, finally, which means there's a sexual revolution. It also means more violence. It's a question of modernisation, a real shift of cultures.
“India in Love focuses on the fastest-growing section of the population, the middle class. The country is urbanising at an incredibly fast pace: every minute, 35 people go from village to city and in 10 years India will have the world's biggest middle class. People don't want to marry in their caste any more, they want to marry in their class. Life has taken a mysterious turn.”
As it has for an author born in Lucknow, raised until the age of four in Vancouver and now living in Delhi, and whose adventures in the past decade also included a stint in marketing with a private-jet chartering company and residence in the UK, France and Germany.
“My yoga days have transformed me,” says Trivedi. “In the old days it was living life in the fast lane – in the jet lane! But the pace of life has slowed a little. India in Love provided a sort of anchor in my life: it was a wonderful feeling to wake up every morning and have that purpose. I felt like I was doing something important, not just for me, but as though it was something the world needed to know. That got me writing every day.
“I love writing novels though, and fiction is still close to my heart. Before I die I want to write one love story that really touches everyone's heart, that's my ambition. But right now I feel like India in Love has taken away all my words.”