Review of Aditya Tiwari’s Over the Rainbow India’s Queer Heroes: Seeing the light

An anthology celebrates trailblazers of the LGBTQIA+ movement in India

Published - November 17, 2023 09:03 am IST

At a pride march in Chennai.

At a pride march in Chennai. | Photo Credit: Akhila Easwaran

In 2008, writer Vikram Seth made an appearance on Barkha Dutt’s show We The People (on NDTV). The episode was discussing gay rights and Seth said it was important for him to speak out because he was gay “or at least partially gay”, he said, joking about his bisexuality. This was a highly significant moment both for Indian television history as well as queer rights. Fifteen years may not feel like a long time ago, but the media landscape and societal consensus was nowhere near what it is right now, in 2023. To come out as bisexual on a primetime TV show took a lot of courage. To be fair, Seth belonging to a famous family and his relative privilege probably made it easier for him. But nevertheless, this was history unfolding live and as a 19-year-old, it was a thought-provoking moment that made me sit up and listen — and later, to read accounts of queer childhoods in India.

Seth is one of the 19 individuals celebrated in Over the Rainbow: India’s Queer Heroes, edited by Aditya Tiwari. The list is a wide-ranging one, including scholars Ruth Vanita and Saleem Kidwai, activist Grace Banu, filmmaker Rituparno Ghosh, designer Wendell Rodericks et al. The idea is to introduce young readers to these people, give them a basic overview about them and their achievements. The profiles are concise, lucidly written, and accessible.

Overcoming barriers

I was especially pleased to read the chapter on athlete Dutee Chand, the first Indian to win a gold medal in an international 100m event. The people who run global athletics have treated Chand very poorly indeed, and her case has become a flash point for all sorts of vested political interests. It is heartening to see this book acknowledge her pioneering status in Indian athletics — and also the barriers she has had to overcome as a queer person thrust into the spotlight. The chapter on queer artist Bhupen Khakhar is also insightful and introduces Khakhar’s life and work to the layperson quite effectively.

In the preface, Tiwari makes a very important point — that India has always had several indigenous queer traditions and histories that have always operated independently, with little correspondence to analogous movements in the West. To better understand Indian queerness, therefore, it is vital that these homegrown identities and structures are studied thoroughly.

“The history of India’s LGBTQ+ movement isn’t synonymous with the one in the West. While we must never forget trailblazers like Martha P. Johnson or Sylvia Rivera during Pride month, in India we must also acknowledge the ferocity of those numerous hijras and kothis who have been at the forefront of the movement for centuries. It is also important to mention the intersectionality of caste and class, which made all our heroes’ journeys even more challenging. The Pride flag alone is insufficient to make one whole sari for a hijra who has to clap and strip naked on the streets to protect herself.”

Need for representation

Tiwari’s preface also makes clear the need for representation — a thorny and contentious media issue at the best of times. He describes growing up in Jabalpur, and how in a small town the idea of a queer person being “successful” or being seen as an “achiever” was non-existent. Sadly, not much has changed in this context for India, if we are being perfectly honest.

Recently, the Supreme Court had an opportunity to reverse some of the injustice that Indian queer people face every day. Eventually, though, the court declined to intervene and give queer people, say, the right to marry. This is disheartening for young queer kids growing up in India. But hopefully, in time there will be more pressure exerted on the judiciary as well as the legislature. And projects like Over the Rainbow will help the powers-that-be see the light.

Over the Rainbow: India’s Queer Heroes; Edited by Aditya Tiwari, Juggernaut Books, ₹350.

The writer and journalist is working on his first book of non-fiction.

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