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Books bring fame. But very few bring life: Vasudhendra

‘I don’t think I have changed too drastically as a writer.’   | Photo Credit: Sudhakara Jain

Too much has already been said about Mohanaswamy! Let’s talk about other things,” laughs Vasudhendra, with a broad sweep of his hand. So, sitting in his quiet apartment off the chaotic and noisy Bannerghatta Road in Bengaluru, we talk about many other things—the subtle difference between muddi palya and huli palya, two signature dishes of North Karnataka cuisine, of Alasingacharya’s penance-like work on the 18-volume Mahabharata that are neatly arranged in his book rack, of his current obsession with the history of the Vijayanagara empire and the many fascinating and gory details of the period lost in the “golden era” narrative.

But at least for now, there is no escape from going right back to Mohanaswamy, Vasundhendra’s 13th work in Kannada and the first to be translated into English. The buzz created by the “first gay fiction in Kannada” is yet to die down and the English translation has only put the buzz on a larger canvas. HarperCollins Mexico will publish the book in Spanish in about eight months. Closer home, it has already been published in Malayalam.

Vasudhendra had published the first story of the collection in the literary magazine Desha Kala under the pseudonym Shanmukha S. But it was the collection with 11 short stories and a poem, which came out in 2013, that marked his coming out as a gay person. By his own admission, it was a “rebirth” of sorts.

Gift of truth

“Books bring fame and money to an author, but very few bring life itself,” says Vasudhendra, talking about how writing Mohanaswamy pulled him out of depression, loneliness and self-loathing. “It helped me recover myself. I could start talking clearly and fearlessly with no compulsion to hide anything. The biggest gift it has given me is an ability to be totally honest.”

He recalls how a courier boy calling him “madam” on the phone or someone asking him why he could not ride a bike was enough to send him into depression. “Boys talk freely about their crushes on girls, but a gay teenager cannot talk about his attraction for a boy even to his best friends.” He remained a loner and never had playmates because the other boys mocked his “effeminate” bowling run-up.

“Once I started accepting my sexuality I transformed into an athletic person. I now play squash, go hiking, go on Himalayan treks every year, I have climbed Kilimanjaro... I cannot even begin to describe this sense of liberation,” says the 47-year-old.

The release of the Kannada book, ironically, coincided with the Supreme Court order upholding Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code that criminalises gay sex. This left Vasudhendra wondering if he would end up in jail next. “But I am no longer scared of even jail. May be we can build a nice, big community inside!”

After the initial stunned silence, the Kannada literary world slowly but surely warmed up to Mohanaswamy and his tumultuous journey towards self discovery. “Women readers in particular embraced it wholeheartedly since they found in Mohanaswamy a resonance with their own experiences of loneliness and oppression.” The biggest response came from the LGBT community, particularly from smaller towns in Karnataka, which reached out to him. Reading it was as cathartic to them as writing it was for Vasudhendra. Since he is now also a trained counsellor, these reader-author interactions often opened paths for a process of healing.

The English translation has only widened this base. One of the community reviews in goodreads.com says, “Growing up gay and then living a life or preparing to live a life of loneliness isn’t easy. Mohanaswamy gets under your skin and makes you realize and face those issues. At least, it did that for me. It almost showed me the mirror and it wasn’t easy...”

Being a writer from within the community certainly made a big difference. “Yes, a non-lesbian or a non-gay person can write with empathy like a non-Dalit can about the Dalit world. But there are limits to that empathy,” he says, drawing a distinction between K. Shivarama Karanth’s characterisation of Dalit protagonist Choma in Chomana Dudi and Devanoor Mahadeva’s Amasa in the eponymous short story, which offers an insider’s view.

No straitjacketing

But Vasudhendra also cautiously guards against his newly-recognised identity turning into a straitjacket. He is aware of his privileges as an “upper” caste man, a software professional who has worked in India and abroad and is economically independent.

He is also aware that his travails as a boy growing up in Sandur (a small mining town in North Karnataka’s Ballari district) in the ’80s is very different from life as a gay person in a metropolis like Bengaluru now. “Interestingly some gay men in cities found the situations in my book behind the times and those in smaller towns thought they were way too ahead of the times.”

It is important to remember that being gay is one part of the identity and does not define an entire personality, Vasudhendra argues. At least the Kannada readers have not bracketed him as a “gay author.”

While 4,000 copies of Mohanaswamy have been sold in Kannada, his most popular work to date has been Nammamma Andre Nangishta (I am Fond of My Mother), of which over 18,000 copies have been sold. His most recent work is Aidu Paise Varadakshine (Five Paise of Dowry). He successfully runs the publishing house Chanda Pustaka, which has not only brought out all his books but also those of several young and promising Kannada authors.

Over to Vijayanagara

“I don’t think I have changed too drastically as a writer. I felt very passionately about the subject and wrote Mohanaswamy. It means a lot to me, but it is not like I will go on writing about the same theme...” Vasudhendra trails off, suddenly realising we have ended up talking about Mohanaswamy for over an hour. “Saakappa! (Enough of that!),” he laughs heartily.

Over a cup of filter coffee with just the right amount of sugar, we spend the next half hour talking about his latest passion—travelogues of Domingos Paes and Fernao Nuniz who visited Hampi during the Vijayanagara period.

“Prostitutes, who paid taxes and led a life of relative independence could well be called the feminists of those times,” he says, contrasting it with the confined lives of queens. Vasudhendra wants to dedicate the next one year to reading about Vijayanagara period, shuttling between his sister’s home in Hospet close to Hampi, and Bengaluru, where he teaches part-time at an engineering college.

So can we expect a big novel next from this famous writer of short stories? Vasudhendra cheerfully replies, “Let’s see what comes out of it. I want to read, read and read for now...”

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Printable version | Apr 18, 2021 12:02:18 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/books-authors/books-bring-fame-but-very-few-bring-life/article19230954.ece

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