The 30 stories in this refreshing and thought-provoking anthology coming after the Delhi High Court decriminalised homosexuality, sets out to do what its editor Minal Hajratwala says in her introduction. “We crack open the almirah to give you a peek. Come in, look around, join the party — and feel free to try on anything you want.”
To come “out” and declare your sexual preferences would have been unthinkable a while ago but today there is a confidence in a community that is much maligned. These stories allow you to intimately experience a world that is misunderstood, stereotyped and judged harshly. To single out any of the stories would be unfair since each of them is quite unique, lively, some explicit and sensuous. But all of them engage you with an infinite variety of emotions and experiences. And all of it is not remote but happening in a contemporary world in the villages and cities of India where people who have had the courage to come “out” or have not as in the case of Mayank, the anguished protagonist in one of the stories, wanting the best of two worlds, are speaking out.
“The Intervention” by Frank Krishner for instance, must be one of the most amusingly written stories of a busybody trying to bring two men together, while “Aththai” by Shridhar Sadasivan is among the most moving in the book. The stories give you a sympathetic and nuanced insight into a world that is often scorned by the so called “normal” heterosexual world.
The anthology allows you to see the lives of the other half so to speak, the tragedy and also the funny side, the pain, struggle for identity, recognition and acceptance and on a happier note the pride and dignity in choosing a path that is derided by many.
The sections in the book are divided according to various themes and for instance you have the first lot of stories titled “As I stood before the mirror in the harsh yellow light”, which comes from “Blank Mirror” by Ashley Tellis. Everything, right from the stories to the language is evocative — one of the best being “A cup full of jasmine oil,” which as it sensuously unwinds to its close almost has you smelling that oil and feeling intoxicated.
The stories, some of them translations open out in an intimate, confiding way. In “A small town girl” by Milind Wani, the journalist who is sent to cover the deaths of two young women in a village is grappling with the turmoil in her own life almost as a parallel to the cruel fate that leads to the suicide of the two young girls who are lovers, something unheard of and unacceptable in a small village. The mother of one of the girls accepts the choice her daughter made, but she has no voice in a world dominated by unthinking brutes who inflict their notions of sexuality on the girls with fatal results.
As the interviews with director Nandita Das and Chitra Palekar at the end of the book indicate, even the most progressive people are often judgmental when it comes to homosexuality, and are intolerant of it.
“Find Me” on the two girls in a convent school illuminates the early learning on how being a lesbian is a bad and undesirable thing. That one of the girls didn’t even know what the word means is not surprising, and her discovery of it makes for a charming account. Some of the writing does deal with the reality of testing HIV positive or being diagnosed with AIDS.
“A married man” pries open the world of a man who wanted to keep both his secret life and his marriage intact till finally he contracted AIDS and death did him apart from the two lives he was leading. The stories are tragic, some very funny. The voices are eager and new and there is pain, bravado, sorrow and humour in the stories which mirror the reality of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender movement. Right from the wait for the path-breaking court judgment to the estranged mother facing upto the reality of caring for her son who has to live with AIDS, there is a whole gamut of emotions which people are faced with in real life, which is not given its due.
Reading these stories should open the eyes of those who revel in their narrow, opinionated and misconceived notions of sexuality and help understand the tremendous pain, trauma and difficulties of those trying to grapple with the stigma attached to their choices and lead an unfettered life.
Out! Stories from the New Queer India, Edited by Minal Hajratwala, QueerInk, Rs.350.