A new book on queerness in India has different voices coming together on the issue
‘Out!’, a collection of short stories about queer India, is now stocked on bookshelves across the country. Published by Queer Ink, a digital bookstore for LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender) literature, the book is edited by author and writing coach Minal Hirjhatwala, who says that each of the stories are novel and startlingly original. “While compiling the stories, I was constantly struck by how fresh the voices were,” Minal says. The 30 contributing writers vary in their levels of experience -- some are established voices, like Amit Mirchandani, Sandip Roy and Kama Spice, while others are emerging writers looking for exposure.
The objective of the book, according to Shobhna S. Kumar, publisher and director of Queer Ink, is not to send out a social message or extend help to gay Indians. “Queers in India are not victims,” she is keen to clarify, “and to think they are would be patronising.” What she has tried to do, then, with the publication of this book, is “put the queer world out there and make it a part of discussion, whether positive or negative.” The intended readers of the book are not just those who identify as queer but also those who are heterosexual. “The book has been stocked in the New Arrivals section at Crossword,” Shobhna points out, referring to the leading chain of bookstores, “not just smaller independent stores. We hope that the book will be picked up by anyone who sees it, and is looking for an interesting, entertaining read.”
How Queer Ink has positioned the book, however, seems counterproductive to the objective of integrating India’s queer community into its mainstream. “As long as literature is branded ‘queer’, I do not see how it will be considered mainstream,” says Udayan Dhar, founder and editor-in-chief of Pink Pages, India’s largest online LGBT magazine. “An average heterosexual reader will not find such literature appealing, and this branding serves to further differentiate ‘queer literature’ from the mainstream by considering it a separate niche.” Intentionally or otherwise, the team behind ‘Out!’ seems to be reinforcing queer India’s status as a ‘minority’-- a group that perhaps needs to be put on the map and be taken notice of. Considering the community distinct from the majority may only serve to reinforce their alienation. “The LGBT community in Mumbai is thriving, just not openly so,” shares Shobhna, “and this book is an attempt to realistically portray the community and debunk false stereotypes and myths.”
Udayan remains unimpressed with such sentiments. “Publishers cannot play the gay card forever,” he says. “The concept is not novel anymore. There is enough awareness and media interest already. For this book to succeed, it needs to have strong content. Its thematic uniqueness is not enough to garner any attention.” The literature that has served to shed light on the reality of homosexuality and differences in gender identity has done so not by virtue of the presence of gay characters or situations.
Rather, the compelling quality of the narrative of novels such as Alan Hollinghurst’s ‘The Line of Beauty’ and Siddharth Sanghvi’s ‘The Lost Flamingoes of Bombay’ has attracted readers, and the unassuming mentions of queer identity in these stories have done more for acceptance and awareness by downplaying its relevance than publishers that specifically target the community by emblazoning tag words such as ‘queer’, ‘gay’ and ‘lesbian’ on cover art and in press releases. The book is an admirable effort: a collection of diverse voices, it seeks to increase the visibility of the queer community and set into motion discussion about diversity in gender identity and sexuality. However, it is going to take a much more concentrated effort to drag India out of the closet and into the living room.