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Reading Sunny Singh's 'A Cup Full of Jasmine Oil'

With its rich semantic texture and evocative imagery Sunny Singh’s short story A Cup Full of Jasmine Oil invites various readings. The story tells how a young girl is both attracted and confused when her grandmother’s neighbor, who lives in a lesbian relationship, massages her skull and oils her curly hair. When the grandmother at one point forbids the oiling sessions, the girl suddenly becomes aware of hidden meanings and intuitions associated with this practice.

The essay juxtaposes a reading of the story from a more conventional western perspective with an interpretation from the point of the Indian system of aesthetics based on rasa. From this double perspective, it discusses various stylistic and thematic aspects of the story. Diverging interpretations are presented of the role of the characters, the functionality of their characterization, and the use of description and suggestion to evoke the semantic framework of the story.

The juxtaposition of two readings was prompted by a discussion with the author during a conference panel on rebellion in modern Indian literature and film. To prevent the impression of imposing a “scholarly” reading on a more “intuitive” reading, the essay continues the dialogue with the author and invites her to react to the reading and discuss the notion of an “Indian” aesthetic model, its relevance for her writing, and current critical approaches to modern Indian fiction. In her response, Sunny Singh explains how the theme of the story was prompted by her perception of the sharing of knowledge of sexuality and intimacy in a tightly-knit Indian social context. The discussion with the author extends beyond the specific story, and she presents her views on how her scholarly knowledge of modern Indian culture stimulates her in her creative work. Thereby, it aptly frames the exploration of a reading of A Cup Full of Jasmine Oil from the perspective of Indian literary aesthetics.