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Reading Between the Lines: Queer Writings from India

Pride March in India
Source: Grazia

My first introduction to queerness was through Abha Dawesar’s Babyji, when I must have been 13. I had picked up the book by chance and until then, I admit, I had been quite clueless. Mainstream Indian movies and TV shows shied away from queer narratives, and there weren’t many books for children that encouraged conversations on gender and sexuality. My parents didn’t exactly monitor what I read so I was free to pick titles that appealed to me. Naturally, I don’t remember much from the book, but I do remember being intrigued by a love that I wasn’t familiar with. Rather than feeling uncomfortable or squirmy by the (quite) explicit scenes of sex between two women, I was mostly okay with it. This makes me wonder if children are instinctively broadminded unlike adults when it comes to accepting identities that they might not even be familiar with. But, that’s a conversation for another day. 

It is not to say that Indian literature or culture at large is a prudent one – it isn’t. Ancient texts have been rather forthcoming to queer relationships and people – Shikhandini and Lord Vishnu have often assumed the transgender form, and they are worshipped as religious figures, too. Many powerful rulers were known to keep consorts of their own sex, and trans people were a common sight in a courtly setting. Hijras or intersex people have also been an integral part of Indian society and almost all languages have their own nomenclature for the community. It’s not uncommon either to see the Hijras at social and religious ceremonies. Of course, the liberty and security of these minorities in the country is an issue of serious concern, but it’s safe to say that queerness is not alien to the Indian cultural landscape.

Activist and author A. Revathi

One of the first and most significant examples of queerness in contemporary Indian literature is Ismat Chughtai’s Lifting the Veil where she explores female sexuality and lesbianism in pre-partition India. Chughtai was an author far ahead of her time, who despite the Lahore High Court’s charges of obscenity against her, continued to write about sex and sexuality with her trademark wit and spunk. A lot has changed since the 1940s and today Indian authors write about these “niche” topics with relative freedom – there’s always a risk of offending some social/religious group, but most titles are published without much uproar. 

Personal stories make for a huge chunk of LGBT+ writings. These books start conversations and talk about queerness as it is without feeding the caricature-like portrayals that are common to popular fiction. Authors like Vivek Tejuja penned his memoir about growing up gay in 1990’s India where he looks back at how typical cultural markers like Bollywood and the Indian family system shape queer identities. Another sub-genre of queer literature that’s gaining momentum in India is memoirs and autobiographies of transpeople – writings that are often translated into English from their native languages. The two examples that immediately come to mind are The Truth About Me: A Hijra Life Story by A. Revathi and Me Hijra, Me Laxmi by Laxminarayan Tripathi. While the literary nuances of these writings are debatable, the memoirs made seismic changes in humanizing an otherwise disdained identity. Similarly, Parmesh Shahani in his memoir-cum-manifesto, Queeristan: LGBTQ Inclusion in the Indian Workplace, leads the conversation on how the conservative Indian office needs an immediate mindset makeover to make the workplace truly inclusive. These are fantastic instances of how even the most invisible of us can claim our rightful place by taking over the reins of our stories in our hands. 

When it comes to writings of the self, one cannot overlook poetry. Poet-activists like Akhil Katyal and Aditi Angiras have put together deeply personal poems and prose-poems in The World That Belongs To Us: An Anthology of Queer Poetry from South Asia as a mirror to queerness in South Asia. Gay poets like Agha Shahid Ali often mix the personal with political to illustrate how in war-ravaged lands (in his case, Kashmir), simple acts like falling in love with the person you desire can be an act of rebellion!

I have always felt that fiction is limitless, and especially so for queer stories. From historical fiction to pulp, there’s a fair amount of LGBT representation in the modern Indian literary space. In English writings, Manju Kapur’s A Married Woman and Ruth Vanita’s Memory of Light explore lesbianism against the backdrop of communal tensions, historical events, and gender imbalance in India. While the former is set in the early 2000s, the latter spans out in the 1780s – centuries apart, the stigma and illicitness of same-sex relationships persist in both narratives. Of course, one cannot leave out writings in regional languages while discussing Indian literature. Translations sell widely and throw light on how queerness is perceived in different cultures. Sachin Kundalkar’s Cobalt Blue (translated into English from Marathi) is a simple tale of love and heartbreak. Kundalkar juxtaposes the longing of the straight sister and her gay brother for the same man to illustrate the remarkable universality of love and lust.

Written in Kannadiga and translated into English, Mohanaswamy by Vasudhendra is a collection of interconnected short stories that lay bare the bigotry and hypocrisy that is reserved for gay men in periurban India. While Kundalkar has been mostly private about his sexuality,  Vasudhendra has relied on his lived experiences to add truth to fiction. Devdutt Pattanaik’s Shikhandi and The Pregnant King make the mix interesting as mythology and religion intersect in queer storytelling within the realm of Hinduism. 

LGBT writings are genre-defying in their own right, and Amruta Patil’s Kari is an extraordinary, first-of-its-kind graphic novel on the issue. Here we see the eponymous Kari struggling to come to terms with her identity after she’s compelled to attempt suicide. Patil addresses the conundrum of lesbianism in a modern Indian city where heterosexuality is still the default. Kari is also a fantastic attempt at unraveling how mental health is intimately related to the freedom to be one’s true self. Another title that confronts the queer storytelling norm is Close, Too Close: The Tranquebar Book of Queer Erotica, a collection of erotic short stories from metros and small-town India. This collection is a tender reminder that queerness has always been a part of the Indian identity, and not a western perversity as some would have you believe.

Out-and-proud public figures, Pride Marches, representation in media and literature, trustworthy and anonymous online forums, queer-friendly healthcare, and reforms in law are only some of the ways that are reshaping the contemporary queer space in India. LGBTQIA+ writings aren’t just a source of reflection and representation, but a lesson in life itself. They kindle empathy for those who were left behind, and those who are (and will) go through the unfair struggle of living with dignity as their true selves. The fight is tough and far from over, but these writings promise a future of hope and change.

Sayari Debnath
Sayari Debnath
Sayari Debnath is a literature graduate from Calcutta, India. She enjoys talking about books, cats and Renaissance paintings. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram.
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