Biography Reviews

‘All My Masters’ review: Compassionate portraits

A history of poet Hoshang Merchant and the gay movement in India

All My Masters is the second volume of poet Hoshang Merchant’s autobiography. If the first The Man Who Would be Queen (Penguin, 2011) was written in the classic first person narrative of the genre, the second is divided into chapters that speak of the people who influenced Merchant. Together, they produce a double history — both the social text that formed Merchant and also that which formed the times. As such, then, they form a history of the man (who sometimes seems like he sprung out of nowhere fully formed as a gay man on the Indian scene) but also of the gay movement in India. Both are damaged, internationalist and exhilarating histories, the latter often erased in the euphoria of the contemporary ‘queer’ moment with its self-appointedly important newness individualism, the kind of individualism, Adrienne Rich, in one of the epigraphs to All My Masters rails against.

Breathless style

Epigraphs abound in Merchant’s prose and poetry; his texts are palimpsests, pastiches of other people’s words, mingled with his own. Indeed, his telegraphic, breathless style often suggests a desire to be rid of the need to write altogether, writing as a quick cleansing of the soul. Indeed, sometimes the writing is so quick, it is impossible to stay with the sudden insight, the intuitive perception. The hurried pace not only inhibits reflection but also deprives the reader of leisure or control in the act of reading. Whether or not intentional, reading Merchant destabilises the reader.

It, therefore, requires a special kind of reader to appreciate Merchant’s writing: one has to surrender to the protocols of it, be interested in his damaged sensibility, soar and fall with him but also stop at a phrase or a word, pull out of the whirligig and put the book down to savour the phrase, or thought. But, more importantly, the reader has to be interested in how a gay sensibility is produced in India (or indeed anywhere), what kind of bruising has produced gay history in India (or indeed anywhere).

The presiding deity of the book is radical, gay Italian filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini from whose autobiography this one takes inspiration. But the book has little of Pasolini’s corrosive enquiries and is a quieter, mellower Merchant looking back on his life with forgiveness and compassion. This is most evident in the portraits of his parents, by his own accounts in other places (like the first volume of the autobiography) violent and difficult people, who damaged Merchant, like most parents do, for life. Here, however, he enters their subjectivities, contextualises their own pasts and produces touching, even loving portraits.

Among the other interesting portraits are those of Anaïs Nin (on whose work Merchant wrote his Ph.D.) at Purdue, Pakistani-American poet Ifti Naseem and Merchant’s sister Whabiz, a most interesting character in her own right.

Other portraits misrepresent people, are factually incorrect, out people, disrespect them by letting portraits of them trail off into randomness; yet others barely rise above mindless and uninteresting gossip, brilliant figures are reduced by pop psychology texts by pop biography. But there is a nugget or two to be taken from practically every one of them.

Contrary claims

In one of the early chapters entitled ‘My Politics’, Merchant characteristically makes several contrary claims: he is repelled by lies, outing people is ethical, the Left/Right binary is too simplistic, Israel and Palestine both need to be criticised, his only battle is gay liberation, all this across two pages. It is this sort of impressionistic, pithy, Quentin Crispian conversational writing that is both the bane and the occasional brilliance of Merchant’s oeuvre, both in poetry and prose. His use of both lacks formal precision, attention to detail or the patience of logically working out an argument.

But the sudden, epiphanic and intuitive insight can take the reader’s breath away and make one think about it long after the moment of the line has passed or the portrait has been put down, like his viciously accurate little account of Marxists, both in India and abroad.

Like Crisp, he is risible and more often than not contentious (he supports Indira Gandhi’s Emergency, for example, or surely Palestinian peasant politics cannot be equalled to the genocidal nature of the Israeli state) but even when one does not agree with him (and for this reader that is more often than not), the reader still comes away with the kernel of a thought, an admission, a recognition of complicity, a sense of the heft that is the undertow of the joke, the self-mockery and the arrow aimed at someone or at himself.

Merchant is the monstre sacre of the Indian public sphere, a bête noire. But patience with his work throws up flashes of a Tiresias-like figure, telling us things about ourselves and the world that we would do well to learn.

All My Masters; Hoshang Merchant, Queer Ink, ₹400.

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