The past decade has seen a lot of changes with respect to literature in India. And several Indian authors have tried to establish an identity with queer literature. City Express talks to a few writers who shed some light on the concept.
by Prabhu Mallikarjunan
It is so true that a woman may be in love with a woman and a man with a man. It is pleasant to be sure of it, because it is undoubtedly the same love that we shall feel when we are angels…,” Margaret Fuller (American feminist and literary critic).
Queer literature is finally coming out of the closet in India, and is not very difficult to access books in mainstream bookstores, even in smaller towns in India. Queer literature is more than sociological and mere academic interest in a queer aspect of cultural studies.
While the late eighties and early nineties witnessed the earliest of gay literature in India, it’s the past decade that saw a lot of hysterical activity and changed the need for queer literature. Perhaps, widespread writings during this time and its acceptance clubbed with activism may have led to the end of Section 377 of Indian Penal Code (The section was read down to decriminalise same-sex behaviour among consenting adults).
One of the pioneering anthologies, ‘Same-Sex Love In India: Readings From Literature and History’, the book co-authored by Ruth Vanita and Saleem Kidwai published in 2000 presents a collection of stories that defies both stereotypes of Indian culture and Foucault’s definition of homosexuality as a 19th century invention and an attempt to distinguish same-sex from cross-sex love.
And, some of the books with collections of gay and lesbian writings like ‘Yaraana’ edited by Hoshang Merchant (Published by Penguin), ‘Facing The Mirror’ edited by Ashwini Sukthankar (also Penguin), ‘Law Like Love’ (by Arvind Narrain and Alok Gupta), and ‘Because I Have a Voice’ by Arvind Narrain and Gautam Bhan, has cleared the space for what could potentially have become a radical field in which same sex cultures might have been articulated.
Today, Kidwai feels that though queer literature (though the term queer took prominence post 2000) has come way ahead, and it has become too easy for the writer to get their work published. However, he is wary about the quality of writing.
“The writers (on queer subject) today don’t have to take the additional task of convincing the publishers.I have seen many of the books stocked along with other new releases and it is no more a taboo subject. However, the quality of writing is not so high and publishers need to be cautious,” Kidwai said.
Colonialism brought us a deep-seated homophobia, of which Section 377 was an example. We have been distanced from our traditions that we just know the tailored stories, and have become convinced that homosexuality is a ‘western’ idea.
Referring to the late nineties, Kidwai said, the readers were not too open about the subject and publishers were not ready to publish because of the limited readership.
He referred to the case of “Fire”, a queer Film Classic by Indian-born director Deepa Mehta released in 1996, which had an unprecedented lesbian theme that led to riots outside cinemas in India and necessitated police protection for the director for over a year.
Anita Roy of Zubaan, a publishing house which has published many books on alternate sexuality recently told IANS that after the repealing of Sec 377 of IPC, writers became more confident about articulating their views; hey felt liberated. The publishers are also becoming aware that there are readers out there who identify themselves as queer.
Gautam Bhan, an activist for queer and gender rights and the General Editor of the new sexualities series announced by Yoda Press, sees a major shift in the last decade not just in English but also in regional languages, particularly in Tamil.
“The access to the queer books is getting wider and the internet as a medium is expanding the reach. There is no ‘western’ tag attached to our books, and each new book in India has a different story to tell,” Bhan added.
Arvind Narrain, director of the Alternative Law Forum in Bangalore, one of the key lawyers in the Delhi case that overturned Section 377 has co-authored several books with Bhan.
He says that the efforts at writing on queer-related themes that have come before us have focused either on mapping the relentless violence inflicted by the state and civil society on queer people or on stories of queer people as they live their lives.
These books answer a lot of questions one has about gender and sexuality, and it also gives a good insight on issues that are hard to understand just by experience. “Being a homosexual myself, I am quite curious to know about it and how people handle their lives and situations.
“I am very interested in knowing the “journey” of homosexuality simply because it would help me in my life,” said a reader who wanted to maintain her anonymity. However, she completely disagrees with the term ‘queer’. “I don’t like the term “Queer” which means being at odds with the normal. I feel one’s sexuality is just a state of being which is very normal and natural,” she adds.
Narrain adds that the sheer depth of talent within the queer community and the eagerness of so many to write openly about their lives and beliefs excited and humbled him.
The internet, which offers a certain degree of anonymity, has increased people’s access to queer groups and resources, making it a bit easier for younger people to connect with others like themselves.
“Given a choice, getting the reader to consider reading queer literature as part of one’s regular reading is a difficult task, but the internet can bridge the gap,” Bhan said.
When questioned whether if the queer literature is likely to receive a backlash from the influence of increasing right-wing propaganda in India, he said he would not be surprised if that happens.
■ Tracing the global history:
In America, predominantly, the queer literature can be traced to pre and post Stonewall Roits in New York. On a Friday evening, June 27, 1969, the New York City Police force raided a popular Greenwich Village gay bar, the Stonewall Inn.
The raids were usual until 1969 and were said to have been conducted without much resistance. However, that particular night the street erupted into violent protest as the crowds in the bar fought back. The backlash and several nights of protest that followed have come to be known as the Stonewall Riots.
It is said that prior to Stonewall riots, the public expression of the lives and experiences of gays and lesbians was limited. Nevertheless, the Stonewall Riots marked the beginning of the gay liberation movement and led to many literary achievements.
These concepts are also explored in ‘Same-Sex Love and the English Literary Imagination’ by Ruth Vanita. Using characters inspired by Percy Shelley, Jane Austen, Oscar Wilde and Virginia Woolf; Ruth Vanita uncovered love between women in a sophisticated and provocative manner in her book.
Vanita refutes the conventional theories of the invisibility of the ‘queer’ and shifts the focus from marginalisation of women to their empowerment as literary ancestors.
“…The love that dare not speak its name’, in this century, is such a great affection of an elder for a younger man…It is beautiful. It is fine. It is the noblest form of affection. There is nothing unnatural about it. It is intellectual. And it repeatedly exists between an elder and a younger man when the elder has intellect and the younger man has all the joy, hope and glamour of life before him. That it should be so, the world does not understand. The world mocks at it and sometimes puts someone in the pillory for it…”
Transcript Excerpts from the First Criminal Trial (April 26 to May 1, 1895) 1 of Oscar Wilde, popular playwright who was imprisoned for alleged homosexuality. (1-published online by University of Missouri-Kansas City Law School)
Interview with Minal Hajratwala by Prajwala Hegde-India is warming up to queer quest