‘Why should we give the church or temple the power to define who is a religious person?’: an interview with Vikram Kolmannskog

The Norwegian author reconciles religiosity, spirituality and being queer

Published - April 14, 2018 04:15 pm IST

‘Being truthful to who I am — a spiritual person, a queer person — is an important practice for me.’

‘Being truthful to who I am — a spiritual person, a queer person — is an important practice for me.’

At a time when people in the arts often shy away from speaking of their spiritual practice for fear of being perceived as woolly-headed, apolitical or even dogmatic, Vikram Kolmannskog comes as a breath of fresh air. This poet and Gestalt (a school of psychology) therapist from Oslo, who recently toured India with his new book Taste And See: A Queer Prayer , wears his heart on his sleeve more fiercely than you can imagine.

“My experience and belief is that embodied awareness, being present here and now, with the senses, with attention and love, is a pathway to the sacred. True sensuality and spirituality are intimately linked,” he says, without hiding his emotional self behind the practised talk about craft that many contemporary poets like to spout.

The book takes its title from a psalm that reads “Taste and see that the lord is good.” It is a narrative poem loosely based on Kolmannskog’s own experiences as a gay man at a Christian retreat centre in Norway last summer — a luscious landscape with forest paths, mountain walks and ripe blueberries. The narrator’s mind is as filled with thoughts of Jesus as with finding a partner who can fulfil his need for pleasure and intimacy. “I think the story deals with something many can relate to, namely loneliness, longing and the search for love and meaning in an age of hookup apps,” he says. Excerpts from an interview:

While many queer people all over the world have spoken out about how they have been shamed by the church for their sexual orientation/ preferences, you speak of Jesus with a deep familiarity. Would you say that there is a difference between the way in which Jesus is presented in organised religion and the way in which you personally relate to him?

Being queer will often involve a certain questioning: Who am I? How shall I lead my life and express myself? These are also crucial questions in spirituality. As many others today — queer or straight — I am quite comfortable calling myself spiritual. It indicates that one has a personal and direct relationship with truth and the sacred. However, sometimes I also want to say that I am religious. While there has been much power abuse and other unfortunate effects of the church — or any institution with people, really — religious institutions also carry resources that I value and benefit from, including poetry, song and stories, meditation and prayer methods, community events, sacred spaces and buildings.

Some people in the church or temple may not want us there, but why should we give them the power to define who is a religious person? There have always been struggles within various institutions. While some may object to the homoeroticism in my story, it fits into a long tradition of mystic erotic poetry. In India, this is a rich tradition, of course, with Mira, Basavanna and many others. In the Bible itself, we have the ‘Song of Songs’, where one person begs their lover for a kiss. And again, the title of the story, Taste and See , is taken from a psalm.

Today, there are positive changes in some churches. In Oslo, Norway, we just got a new bishop who is very committed to recognising queer love and people and giving us a space in the church. And one of the most surprising and nicest outcomes of the publication of my book is that I have become friends with Frode Grøstad, a gay man and Christian priest. Frode has struggled to get positions within the church but he has not suppressed his sexuality or his faith. He has neither left his partner nor the church. Change is possible.

Would it be accurate to say that your understanding of the sacred is shaped partly by your cultural heritage?

My dual heritage with an Indian-origin mother and Norwegian father influences me and my writing. My paternal grandfather gave me my first Bible, and I remember us talking about Christian spirituality and religion. As he grew older, he became more humble and open, and I could also talk to him about Hinduism and other traditions.

While I don’t remember much of Bapuji, my maternal grandfather — he passed away when I was quite young — I have been told many stories that probably merge with my own memories. He practised yoga and meditation. He used to read Gandhi, Kabir and the Bhagavad Gita. I have clearer memories of Ba, my maternal grandmother. She didn’t speak much English, and I didn’t speak much Gujarati as a child. Yet, we had a very close relationship. When we visited, I would get up early every morning and go to her bedroom. She would smile, hold my hand, give me a mala , take one herself, and we would sit and do japa next to each other on her bed. She taught me one of my first mantras, and I consider her one of my gurus.

One of my maternal aunts, who is deeply spiritual, has also been a great inspiration. I noticed how she led her life, how she interacted lovingly with other living beings, people as well as animals. The Hinduism I grew up with was a very inclusive and generous one. Jesus, Krishna, and other idols would all find place in the puja rooms.

In Norway, I stood out as someone practising Hinduism. In a way, this was also a coming-out process. I remember inviting neighbourhood children over and doing puja with them in my bedroom. I also remember being ridiculed at school for believing in a monkey god. Being truthful to who I am — a spiritual person, a queer person — is an important practice for me.

How has your book been received in India, a country where queer relationships are stigmatised by culture as well as by law?

The people I have met and spoken to have been quite positive. I should say that these people have mostly been queer or poets or people who appreciate poetry, though. Other groups may react very differently. While Section 377 is still in force and many in India today may be quite homophobic, we find queerness in the complex and rich culture and history of India. And my impression is that there have been some very important changes in Indian society over the last few years, regardless of the formal legal situation. Today, there are several films and books that have a queer theme, and there are pride marches being organised all over the country. Perhaps the queer movement can also help India and Indians appreciate and re-own the celebration of sex and the erotic that was here much more in the past.

Why did you choose to publish this book yourself, and what is the story behind naming the publishing house ‘Mohini Books’?

I started Mohini Books with two other queer friends. It takes its name and inspiration from the Indian myth of Mohini, a queer story which celebrates the diversity of genders and sexualities, a playfulness and a subversive spirituality. This book is the first publication because it fits with our profile. We have already had various people, including queer writers in India, express interest in collaborating, and we will start accepting submissions from January next year. We are small but already have enough projects that we are working on this year.

The writer lives in Mumbai, and writes on art, gender, films, education, peace and conflict.

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