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Queer literature in India: Son, are you Mohanaswamy?

Last October, reporting from the Bangalore Literature Festival, I attended a session titled ‘An Equal World: Beyond 377’, which had, among other eminent names, the Kannada author Vasudhendra, whose much-acclaimed work, Mohanaswamy (2013), is a book about the journey of a young gay man looking for love. What he said in response to a question caught my attention. There is a lack of queer literature in Indian languages, he said, adding that it was a sorely needed category.

This is true. Hours of research later, I came across a handful of books in a few Indian languages, separated by decades in terms of publication years. In 1927, Pandey Bechan Sharma, better known as ‘Ugra’ (extreme), wrote a Hindi collection of eight stories about same-sex love called Chocolate. Ismat Chughtai’s Urdu lesbian fiction ‘Lihaaf’ came out in1942. Kamala Das’s autobiography, Ente Katha, published in Malayalam in 1973, is well-known. The tragically ending Mitrachi Goshta, a Marathi play by Vijay Tendulkar (first performed in 1981), also features among these few books. Recent years have seen some new releases as well as translations, but the fact remains that they are few and far between.

Predefined templates

A key issue that has plagued queer literature in Indian languages is that the community has not yet been normalised. In India and the world over, being queer is still viewed through multiple lenses of morality and propriety, based on religion, mores, social stature, and even governance. For a community still grappling with gaining everyday acceptance, creating literature can take a backseat or can be done only from behind a veil of anonymity.

Queer literature in India: Son, are you Mohanaswamy?

From this lack of normalisation arises several related issues. The first is the misconception that being queer is an urban phenomenon, limited to the English-speaking community. “Conversations around gay rights and lives of gay men are mostly limited to urban spaces, and visibly limited to ‘upper caste’ gay men from the English-speaking population,” says Moulee, Editor of ‘Queer Chennai Chronicles’ and Curator of Queer LitFest, Chennai. “In reality, most of us advocating for LGBTQIA+ rights grew up in tier 2 and 3 cities or are from rural areas. The voices of working-class gay men and Dalit-Bahujan gay men are sidelined, even by the media, which looks for the ‘ideal’ urban gay man who they think represents the community.”

This need to box queer identities into predefined templates for the sake of general acceptance led to some factually incorrect Indian-languages works. Many were homophobic and quite a few were written by straight authors with an outsider’s perspective on the community. This continues to happen, perhaps not with the intensity of a few decades ago, but it does. This lack of authentic literature in Indian languages leads to a higher visibility of books in English, further reinforcing the idea of queerness as an urban phenomenon. Moreover, we as a country are obsessed with the silver screen, which tends to portray queer characters either as comic or as caricatures. This has made coming-out all the more difficult.

Trusted circles

Gay and lesbian individuals who have come out publicly are a minority. And so are the people with the ability to write about their experience. The authors I spoke to say that it is difficult to create authentic queer literature in one’s language unless one has come out publicly. This obviously limits the number of writers, even as there are efforts to change that.

Bindumadhav Khire should know. An LGBTQIA+ rights activist and founder of the Samapathik Trust in Pune, he published the novel Partner in 2008 and Manachiye Gunti, a compilation of stories about the parents of LGBTQIA+ people (translated into English as Beautiful People) in 2013.

Both books are in Marathi, and published through his trust. But he speaks of how it is difficult to get others to come forward and share their stories despite providing them with a platform. “Because they are not out of the closet, the fear of associating with queer literature is higher,” he says. Such people, he finds, are happy in the anonymity of the online world and in small closed communities of people, offline and online, in trusted circles.

There is also the possibility of editors not understanding the intricacies of the issues faced by the community and therefore not being able to do justice to books, even if manuscripts come to them. This is not necessarily the norm, however, and varies among languages. Several authors have turned to self-publication, online platforms and dedicated publishing houses like Queer Ink to create content in Indian languages.

Queer literature needs to reach out to the community as well as to general readers in their own language and through positive representation, if normalisation is to come about. The difference literature can make begins with its ability to simply open up conversations which wouldn’t have been possible without it.

Common context

Vasudhendra recalls an incident where a conservative couple was concerned about their 30-year-old unmarried son. The family, being ardent fans of Vasudhendra’s work, had, of course, read Mohanaswamy (which has recently been translated into English too). The worried mother gathered up the courage to ask her son if he was Mohanaswamy, to which the man, though surprised, simply said that he was not and was just waiting for another year to consider marriage. “What this signalled to me was that a book of this nature gave a conventional mother the courage to ask her son directly if he was gay. It gave them a common context to ask the question. Such incidents allow for the ice to be broken,” says Vasudhendra.

Queer literature in India: Son, are you Mohanaswamy?

Writers of queer literature believe that this genre has undergone a major transformation.

“Over the past decade, the language of queer activism and its discourse has vastly changed,” says Moulee. “You can see the difference in the literature published now. Since there is considerable discussion around queer issues today, general readers are also interested in reading this genre. Though not a widespread phenomenon, there is a small demography that seeks it out,” she says.

One of the best ways to give queer literature a wider readership is, of course, through translation. What a gay man or woman undergoes varies from one region to another in India and this alone brings in a sense of uniqueness to their stories, which need to be shared. “English has become the bridge connecting these regional islands,” says Vasudhendra. “Many believe that books should be translated first into Indian languages. But the fact is that unless a book becomes popular in English, translators won’t come forward to take it into their own language.”

Online network

Kishor Kumar, an IT professional and author of the Malayalam book, Randu Purushanmar Chumbikkumbol, his autobiography of a gay life, also believes in the power of English as a link language. He is, however, still looking for publishers for an English version of his book. “Genuine queer Indian experiences will come from the pen of a Malayali, Tamilian, Bihari, Bengali etc. Unfortunately, only Westernised metro-city narratives from Mumbai or Delhi are considered ‘Indian’ by certain publishing houses,” he says.

We must also remember that without normalisation, it may not be an option for all readers, queer or otherwise, to take a visibly queer book home. Khire recalls an incident where a young man walked into his office in Pune with a copy of Partner and said that he belonged to a small village where he couldn’t be seen with it. “The young man bought the book, read it at a nearby park all day, and returned it to the office address printed on the back so that someone else could benefit from it. This is why we work on making our literature available for free download online, allowing for more people to read with a sense of security and privacy,” says Khire.

“A lot of queer persons use the Internet to communicate with one another and also read blogs and social media posts related to their community. It helps us identify writers with whom we would otherwise not have been able to connect. There is a minuscule physical space that caters to queer literature and it’s the Internet that fills the gaps. In the coming years, being online will help us network and find more queer writers and translators,” says Moulee.

What queer literature needs today is more voices to bring it to the level of cis-het literature. What it also needs is a mature reading public that will view such literature as it does any other genre. With wider discourses, better understanding, translations and more writing from within the community, we are slowly but surely getting there.

The writer is an independent journalist with many stories to tell.

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Printable version | Nov 27, 2020 10:19:57 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/queer-literature-in-india-son-are-you-mohanaswamy/article28400513.ece

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