‘Political correctness in literature is boring’ | Interview with author R. Raj Rao on his new novel ‘Mahmud and Ayaz’

The poet and author on tokenistic queer narratives and the self-censorship directed towards gay stories

April 19, 2024 09:35 am | Updated 09:35 am IST

R. Raj Rao uses a chapter from history to tell a contemporary homosexual love story set in Mumbai.

R. Raj Rao uses a chapter from history to tell a contemporary homosexual love story set in Mumbai. | Photo Credit: Rahul Bendugade

Writer and poet R. Raj Rao’s latest novel Mahmud and Ayaz (Speaking Tiger) bears his signature style. Unsettling and unapologetic, Rao models the relationship between a young Muslim man and his Hindu domestic help, whom he helps convert to Islam, after the love affair between Sultan Mahmud of Ghazni and his Turkish slave-cum-lover Ayaz. In this interview, the author discusses the queer aesthetics in his works and what compelled him to work on this book. Edited excerpts:

When did you first read about Sultan Mahmud and Ayaz?

Late historian Saleem Kidwai drew my attention to the love story through his seminal book Same-Sex Love in India: Readings from Literature and History, which he co-edited with Ruth Vanita. Though Kidwai mentions it more or less in passing, he compares the Mahmud-Ayaz love story with legendary heterosexual ones like Laila-Majnu, Shireen-Farhad, etc., noting that unlike their affairs, which ended in tragedy, Mahmud and Ayaz had a happy ending. So, I used it as a backdrop and connected it with the contemporary homosexual love story set in Mumbai. That said, what really interests me is not pure history, but its connection and relevance to the present.

Interview with author R. Raj Rao on his new novel ‘Mahmud and Ayaz’

Do you believe that stories of queer desire largely remain unsocialised because they challenge the cis-heteronormative status quo?

That’s absolutely true. Regardless of the reading down of Section 377, there remains censorship — even self-censorship — towards queer stories. For Mahmud and Ayaz, I travelled to Somnath — Sultan Mahmud and Ayaz made several trips to that town exactly 1,000 years ago — and Kashmir, where the latter part of the novel is set. But that was all I could do besides relying on libraries and the Internet to research for my novel. So, I can’t say that everything that I’d have liked to include in the book was readily accessible.

From its painfully slow development in the early 90s, has queer literature been mainstreamed now?

There are more books and movies now, but they’re also very tokenistic. Queer writing needs a particular kind of queer aesthetics. Unless one is really able to formulate it, it doesn’t work because queer writing isn’t the same as mainstream writing. There’s more to it than the genders of the lovers being the same. I also believe that political correctness in literature is boring. In day-to-day life, one tries to be politically correct but if one does that in fiction, the work turns out to be extremely didactic and preachy.

In the novel, you explore how HIV-AIDS is unfairly and almost synonymously linked to queer lives. Is the condition used as a weapon to marginalise queer people? Additionally, can you share AIDS-themed works by other writers that people should read to sensitise themselves?

Mahmud reads several AIDS-themed books in the last chapter of the novel, and my list would be more or less the same as his. Here, AIDS becomes a metaphor for defeat. I certainly don’t intend to stereotype it as a gay disease. Although the point-of-view is unapologetic about the radicalisation of minorities, and homosexuality itself becomes a metaphor for dissent, the forces out to crush dissent are too powerful for it to succeed. Those forces are represented by good health against which AIDS, for which there is no cure, is helpless. But AIDS in the novel is also the modern-day equivalent of the condition that ultimately took the life of Sultan Mahmud of Ghazni. It’s an illness that’s stigmatised, unlike any other fatal condition that invokes sympathy. It serves to ensure that the battlelines between the co-opted and the outlawed are not blurred.

The interviewer is a Delhi-based queer writer and freelance journalist.

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