Inside and Out
17 January 2014
New queer writing from Southasia suggests shifts in attitudes since 2009.
Out! Stories from the New Queer India, edited by Minal Hajratwala, takes the 2009 reading down of Section 377 of the Indian Penal code by the Delhi High Court – a law that criminalises homosexuality – as marking the beginning of the ‘New Queer India’. Out! takes the metaphor of the closet as its guiding imagery, and seeks to talk about queer lives in all their manifestations and ambiguities, however in or out of the proverbial closet they may be. Documenting a space outside the “magical gay ghetto” of Western queer fiction, Out! is filled with stories populated by “mothers, fathers, grandfathers and great-aunts, children, neighbours, and sometimes unlikely allies.” On the other hand, Close, Too Close: The Tranquebar Book of Queer Erotica, edited by Meenu and Shruti, is populated by hands, tongues, bodies and a physicality that for many individuals is the beginning of their experiences of difference. In order to look forward, this book starts with desire, that through which “many people first know of their sexuality”. In exploring the “less visible zones of queer sex writing from South Asia,” Close, Too Close is a visceral journey that satisfies as it charts the shifting spaces of desire, difference, love and the emotionally aloof. Both collections are an invaluable addition to the growing corpus of literature, art, film and scholarship which takes Southasian queer lives as its subject.
New queer India?
But if this is the ‘New Queer India’, what is new about it? Are these books themselves a testament to things that could not have come before? The short answer seems to be yes. Yet the Supreme Court verdict of 11 December 2013 to uphold Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, overruling the Delhi High Court’s 2009 decision on the grounds that “Section 377 IPC does not suffer from the vice of unconstitutionality,” is yet another challenge to a ‘queer India’ entering another ‘new’ phase.
Out! announces that the “genie has been let out of the bottle – and the closet.” The exposure of and interest in queer lives post-2009, which through extensive media coverage uncomfortably ‘outed’ many individuals, certainly marked a shift in the ‘mainstream’ gaze towards queer lives. Yet to overemphasise the shift of the mainstream would obscure the hard work of individuals and groups around India who have worked and continue to work tirelessly to make a queerer India in all the concrete ways, places and spaces where legality means little. It is these people that work for and populate the ‘New Queer India’, many of whose lives we can glimpse in these collections of writing. It is these people who stood together on 11 December and declared they would keep fighting this battle until it is won.
Both collections draw on a pre-existing tradition of queer writing and reading, whether 1960s queer American pulp novels lingering under Mills & Boons on a street-side book stall, or contemporary zines and blogs such as Scripts or Gaysi, or novels and short stories by writers such as R Raj Rao, Devdutt Pattanaik, Hoshang Merchant, or the classic Same Sex Love in India (2000) edited by Ruth Vanita and Saleem Kidwai. Headlines like “Authors get bold as gay literature picks up in India” (Times of India 2011) reflect the gentle growth in the publishing of and demand for queer literature in India, to which Out! and Close, Too Close add significant momentum.
While a first reading of Close, Too Close might have you ruffling pages to find a story that ‘fits’ your personal desires, a less heated reading reveals thirteen stories and a visual piece that intelligently explore the nexus of gender and sexuality. In these stories some of the characters openly adopt a label from the alphabet soup of GLBTIQHK (Gay, Lesbian, Bi-sexual, Transgender, Intersex, Queer, Hijra, Kothi). Mr Jay in D’Lo’s ‘Perfume’ outs himself early in the story as an “American Transgender Queer.” Others allude to, rather than explicitly state, identities and preferences. Out!, the erotic content in which is for the most part limited to paragraph-length descriptions, probably won’t have the reader turning the pages with such rapidity, but is similarly inclusive of stories of “gay men, lesbians, bisexual men and women and transgender and transsexual people”.
But, like any act of representation of self or other, these books cannot accomplish the impossible task of representing all identities, desires and gender expressions, and will no doubt disappoint some. Though Out! is considerably longer than Close, Too Close, the two collections contain the same number of stories that either focus on or include trans characters. Bi-sexuality is not explicitly dealt with in either volume. Several stories in Out! follow married male characters, some even with children, yet these marriages take place in coercive situations, forcing the men to make choices against their ‘true’ homosexual natures. Vinaya Nayak’s story in Close, Too Close, ‘Screwing with Excess’, expresses some of the ambiguity that surrounds ultimate identities: “I was straight and he was gay. Well, not strictly, just at the edges of those boundaries, always threatening to spill over, but balancing rather breathtakingly.”
Perhaps the most valuable aspect of both of these collections is their familiarity to an Indian audience. That is not to say that these stories lack recognisability to other Southasian contexts, but familiarity in part derives from the dominance of Indian media in the region. Whether it is the “plush South Delhi colonies where the only people you ever actually see on the road are servants,” the call to Maghrib prayers on Mohammed Ali Road in Mumbai, the small village in West Bengal, or the bowl of rajma chawal, the places and objects that punctuate the stories of both these books are overwhelmingly familiar to an Indian audience.
Several authors featured in Close, Too Close are from a Southasian country other than India (Abeer Hoque is a “Nigerian-born Bangladeshi-American writer”, D’Lo is “a queer Tamil Sri L.A.nkan-American,” and Ellen L.R was “brought up in a more or less traditional Sri Lankan family”) yet only India, predominantly Delhi, sets the backdrop to most of the stories. While the physicality of bodies renders the specifics of place irrelevant in many stories, an explicit non-Indian Southasian context would have strengthened this volume’s pan-Southasian credentials. While a character in Satya’s ‘I Hate Wet Tissues’ states, regarding female-to-male top surgery, “this is impossible to do in Lahore what you have done in Delhi”, Ellen L R’s story refers throughout to a generic but unspecified “South Asian country”. It concludes with the following generalisation about connections between people: “In the first five minutes, they had found me on the map of people they knew, like all South Asians do.” An explicit narrative staging within a Sinhalese Buddhist family, in the shadow of the tallest mountain in the world, or for that matter in a Christian community in Nagaland, would have countered the ubiquitous Hindu or Muslim urban Indian context so familiar from Bollywood and other forms of mass media.
While Out! limits itself to India, its 29 stories and one conversation primarily imagine a metropolitan India familiar to an elite who would have the means and desire to read an English-language book such as this. In imagining the ‘New Queer India’, Out! brings together stories set across India, with the exception of the Northeast, in a way that is probably only possible in English. While queer literature in regional Indian languages is available and these days is reaching more individuals through efforts like Gaysi’s Writers Bloc project, it would be difficult to imagine the logistics of creating a single volume intelligible to a wide audience in a size acceptable to publishers and readers alike. With only two translated pieces, Out! joins Close, Too Close in being written by and for a metropolitan, English-speaking elite for whom the village life depicted in several of the stories belongs to a distant past, looming larger in imagination than recent lived-experience. Out! not only presumes such positionalities but documents them, through the character Amit in Sree Mithra’s ‘Homecoming’, and through the protagonist of Milind Wani’s ‘A Small Town Girl’, who visits a small village in West Bengal to document the twin suicides of two young women who had been lovers. Likewise, both books span the global to include diasporic ties, relationships and the realities of living outside of Southasia; of leaving and of returning.
Just as Out! seeks to escape what it describes as the Western “magical gay ghetto” (a world where only gay people exist), it would be sad to see these books fall into a ghetto of their own, closeted in the back of alternative bookshops and gathering dust on the shelves of the few academics who consider issues of gender and sexuality in Southasia. It is necessary and important to bemoan the predominance of Western contexts, assumptions and identities in erotica and other queer fiction available in Southasia, but it is just as important to speak of the absence of ‘other’ ways of being queer in the literature consumed by the West. Challenging the hegemony of Western faces, spaces and places in queer literature is important both for those whose faces are absent, and for those who expect to see a mirror of their own lives and contexts. I do not mean to somehow claim these books for the West, but rather to point out the ways these books are not just important for Southasian queer literature, but important for global queer literature.
Reading across the rainbow line
My own experience of purchasing Close, Too Close in a well-known, mainstream South Delhi bookstore and being offered several other books of heterosexual erotica perhaps speaks to the ways in which ‘queer’ literature has not yet been shelved and sealed in its own section away from the genres on which it draws. Though I declined to purchase any of the other books, I was heartened by this attempt, or mistake, and heartily hope it happens to other individuals who will read across this magical rainbow line that separates queer fiction from all other fiction. Notably, Out! contains several stories that, rather than being told from the perspective of a queer protagonist, look into queer lives from the outside. A father consoles his wife on the occasion of their child’s sex-reassignment surgery: “she was always a girl. We just didn’t know it.” A too-long absent mother implores her son to take an HIV test. Raghavan inadvertently escorts his aging aunt to a pride march. A woman on the verge of marriage recollects childhood afternoons spent with the didis next door.
This ‘looking into’ queer lives from the outside is most explicit in Sarojini Sahoo’s story ‘Beyond the Curtain’. Here, Pooja and her husband Upamanyu observe a women and a girl whom “one could have even mistaken for a boy”, sitting and sleeping opposite them on the two-day train journey from Delhi to Orissa. On the first day of their journey, Upamanyu passes his wife a hastily scrawled question, “Did you observe the two? What do you make of them?” While Pooja does not directly answer her husband’s question, the story follows her as she sifts through the years of her life in search of a recollection of true love. Upamanyu’s question is pertinent to the premise of this book which declares itself to be the “first collection of queer Indian stories written for the general audience since the decriminalisation of homosexuality.” However the general audience of Out! is defined, it takes its readers one step further towards ‘making sense of them’, of us, of him, of her and those whose gender and sexuality is more than a single pronoun and a single desire.
Both books are perhaps best enjoyed in a non-linear manner, flicking, skipping stories and returning to some. Readers will hopefully recognise themselves in the characters, make assumptions and affix labels to others. Several of the stories in Close, Too Close crack open those assumptions as easily as they are made. The steamy houseboat sex of the unimaginably titled ‘Dreams and Desire in Srinagar’ descends into a comment on class and tourism as Shahid, the 20-year-old man running the houseboat asks, “I’m not gay, but we can still be friends right?…You were so nice to me when we went to Gulmarg three years ago. You bought me a ticket for the cable car without even asking me. No guest ever did that before.” The protagonist’s sexual fantasies dissolve, heart in mouth, speechless. The reader is left with both the aftertaste of pleasure and a feeling of acceptance.
Serious themes punctuate these books: HIV and gender dysphoria are the most common, as well as themes of loss, death and suicide. As the main character from D’Lo’s ‘Perfume’ comes to terms with another’s touch upon his transman body, he tells us: “I wasn’t ready that morning…eventually I might be…it’s harder to release my grip from the baggage around my body.” Seven months later, waking up every morning beside Ms Lakshmi, he states hopefully, “Almost three to four times a week, I wake up with her hopeful hands in my boxers. Today might be the day she smells me.” It is perhaps this feeing of anticipation that marks the ‘New Queer India’ – things that didn’t seem possible before do now. Books like these widen further the range of possibilities, of thought, of ideas, of acceptance and of hope for Southasia’s queer citizens.
In the dark days, months and perhaps years of re-criminalisation that follow the 11 December judgment, it will be books like these that we can turn to in moments of despair or hope, for recognition of our lives, loves and desires.
~Annie McCarthy is a PhD student at the Australian National University, Canberra. She is currently living in Delhi, undertaking fieldwork in low-income communities, exploring children’s creative responses to NGO messages and development discourses. The Delhi queer community was an important source of support, inspiration, and learning during her fieldwork. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org