Anthology Reviews

Being gay and un-English

Mohanaswamy; Vasudhendra, trs Rashmi Terdal, Harper Perennial, ₹399.  

Mohanaswamy, the protagonist of Vasudhendra’s eponymous collection of short stories, says that people who cannot communicate in English using smartphones are left standing by the wayside as the world moves on. How does a gay man who is not conversant in English find a partner when most dating apps only have an English language interface, he asks.

The queer literary scene too does not connect much with the non-English speaking part of the community. While queer literature in English has grown quite substantially in recent years within and outside the country, Indian languages have seen far fewer books on the theme of homosexuality.

Mohanaswamy, the first work of gay fiction in Kannada, now available in English translation, brings a rich, new world of experience into the larger queer literary landscape.

The short stories are an up-close account of middle-class gay men in urban and semi-urban India. The stories run through a gamut of emotions and stages of self discovery — the painful confusion about identity during growing years, humiliation piled on by a deeply homophobic society, finding love, longing and lust, pangs of separation and abandonment and finally an acceptance of self without shame or guilt — not necessarily in a linear progression.

While the opening story ‘Gordian Knot’ sketches the unequal relationship between Mohanaswamy and his partner Karthik in a somewhat emotionally overwrought tone, ‘Bicycle Riding’ has the protagonist learning to ride a bicycle in the hope of “turning from gay to straight” and finally discovering in a poignant moment that even if he “learnt to fly an aeroplane, he will still want to make love to a man.” Stories like ‘Kashiveera’, ‘Anagha’ and ‘Bed Bug’ unveil the blatant and subtle cruelties of a deeply prejudiced society.

The last two stories — ‘Four Faces’ and ‘Kilimonjaro’ — have the protagonist finally comfortable in his own skin. ‘Four Faces’, arguably the most nuanced story in the collection, portrays four gay men coming from different castes, classes and geographic locations finding selfhood in diverse ways. The final story, ‘Kilimonjaro’, has Mohanaswamy looking at the world with a certain equanimity in the acceptance that there are no easy resolutions or escape routes from loneliness. “Standing still at a distance, the fire inside Mount Kilimanjaro’s belly bubbled slowly.” The mighty mountain reflects Mohanaswamy’s own state of mind.

The translation of this significant collection, while unobtrusive and easy on the reader for the most part, could certainly have done with a little more care in details. One comes across inelegances like “Disciplinarian elders were seen giving pep talks to vainglorious youths” and “The grapevine was abuzz with rumours that he was going steady with some girl.” One also wonders about some choices the translator makes. For instance, “son of a shaved widow” as a qualification for “boli maga” within the flowing text while leaving “maaraya” (an informal way of address) without translation or explanation.

Giving Mohanaswamy credit only for pushing the cause of homosexual writing in Kannada would perhaps be unfair to Vasudhendra, a critically-acclaimed short story writer with 13 books to his name long before he “came out” But there is no downplaying the fact that this collection serves an activist purpose as well.

In a short interview with translator Rashmi Terdal, Vasudhendra says, “While English-speaking gays in towns are exposed to homosexual literature, those living in smaller towns and villages do not have the advantage... So, there I was reaching out to people of the gay community and becoming their voice in a way.”

At a more personal level, Vasudhedhra says that the collection was his “rebirth” which meant not leading a “pseudo life” anymore and being “honest to myself and society.” The collection also brings something completely new to the Kannada literary world. The author has been very candid in stating that several well-known writers in Kannada saw gay love as “something which is frightening, ridden with guilt, done under inevitable circumstances and against nature.”

In such a context, Mohanaswamy came with a certain “shock value” when it was first released for its open exploration of sexuality. Ironically, the Kannada book was released on December 11, 2013, the day Supreme Court upheld Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code that criminalises homosexuality.

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Printable version | Mar 1, 2021 2:41:05 AM |

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