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The World Of Queer Literature Post-377

Written by Aryaman Kakkar

October 3rd 2020

The Indian queer community still remains a hushed conversation piece. While change is not omni-pervasive immediately, representation of queer society as people rather than subordinates of sexual desire and behavioural stereotypes in literature is an ever-growing issue. Members of the LGBTQIA+ community have grown up reading, learning, and absorbing the lives of heterosexual relationships – platonic, romantic, and erotic – and are resultingly left with the burden of  translating the life experiences of cis-het culture to our own. I call it ‘translation’ because we queer individuals consciously translate pronouns in text and characterizations in prose, a process that is disheartening for many. 

Despite what the mainstream media’s idea of inclusion is, queer identity extends far beyond homosexuals and transpersons to asexuals, aromantics, and genderqueer people too. By failing  to represent queer people on screen and in text, it forces them into labels that they may not be comfortable with, compounding existing feelings of estrangement. Perhaps more worringly, as a majority of Indians have a taboo perception of people with queer identities, the act of consuming queer literature is itself met with disapproving eyes.

The calls to remedy such issues have not gone unheard in the literary world. Authors and publishers pan-India are now turning their attention towards writing and releasing queer literature in the Indian literary market. Since the Supreme Court judgement on Section 377 in 2018, India has seen an increase in the creation and consumption of queer literature. To understand how we got to where we are today, we must first acknowledge and understand the history of queer literature in the subcontinent, and its reception by the populace pre- and post Section 377.

A Brief History Of Queer Literature

Queer literature has always existed on the fringes of the Indian imagination, ever-present but hidden under heavy cloaks and social taboos instilled by Colonial, Puritan, and Victorian values of sin and guilt. Preceding colonial times, Hindu mythology and Urdu poetry have always contained elements of queerness and homoeroticsism. Such myths and stories have been compiled by Ruth Vanita, Saleem Kidwai, and Devdutt Patnaik in an effort to reveal what conservative society has chosen to ignore, the result of which can be seen in the titles ‘Same Sex love in India’ and ‘The Man who Was a Woman and Other Queer Tales from Hindu Lore’. Following the archaic, we come to colonial times where Pandey Becan Sharma or “Ugra” released a collection of eight short stories which came to be known under the collective name of ‘Caklet’ (Chocolate)  which explored homoeroticsm between men in the Matvala Calcutta bi-weekly. Then came Ismat Chughtai in 1942 with ‘Lihaaf’, a story exploring a lesbian relationship for which the author was tried for in court on the charges of obscenity.

From the 60’s, India witnessed the birth of queer literature in regional languages in titles such as ‘Prateeksha’ by Rajendra Yadav (Hindi), ‘A Double Life’ by Vijaydan Detha (Rajasthani), ‘My Story’ by Kamala Das, and ‘Mitrachi Goshta’ by Vijay Tendulkar (Marathi) to name a few. Shakuntala Devi’s ‘The World of Homosexuals’ was the first Indian non-fiction study involving queer lives and homosexual identities which paved the way for further academic research into queer anthropology. Hoshang Merchant’s ‘Yaraana: Gay Writing from South Asia’ (1999) was one of the first collections of literature dealing with male homosexual love, containing poems, autobiographical accounts, excerpts of short stories and novels by authors ranging from Vikram Seth and Bhupen Kakkar to Mahesh Dattani and R. Raja Rao. With the crossing over into the new millennium, R. Raj Rao’s ‘The Boyfriend’ heralded in the century, and was popularly considered to be India’s first queer novel, followed by the release of ‘Mohanaswany’  by Vasudhendra a decade later. Queer literature established its presence in the realms of autobiography and non-fiction with titles such as ‘Me Hijra, Me Laxmi’ by Laxmi Narayan Tripathi, the acclaimed memoir of a transwoman, and ‘A Life in Trans Activism’ by A. Revathi.  

In many works of fiction, the world of the queer protagonist is a reflection of a reality of draconian laws and repressed sexuality. The themes of self-introspection and hiding one’s true self from society are pervasive in ‘Babyji’ by Abha Dawesar, ‘Cobalt Blue’ by Sachin Kundalkar, and ‘A Married Woman’ by Manju Kapur. These literary pieces paint pained pictures of struggling with one’s sexuality in a society that fears and misunderstands what is ‘other’, – values carried from a colonial, draconian society – and captures hardships many in the community still go through today. While the demographic of readers of queer literature may be growing with each passing day, queerness and consequently everything queer is still treated with caution and wide-eyed curiosity, family and stranger all at once. The titles named above cover nearly 75 years of queer experiences, yet for such a long stretch of Indian history, they are few and far in between. Authors have always been hesitant writing about queer matter as a result of the stigma and taboo surrounding this shadowed avenue of communities.  These empty spaces of stories and records of our peoples have waited long enough to be reclaimed as the time for a new India came in the autumn of 2018. 

Queer Literature Post-377 

The 2018 Supreme Court judgement on Section 377 was a momentous step forward for the queer movement in India. With the decriminalization of homosexuality, Indian society has become increasingly cognizant of the presence and culture of queer individuals in society.  An issue many queer people faced around this time was misrepresentation and popular stereotypes being perpetuated, such as voracious sexual appetites, the erasure of bisexual and gender-neutral peoples, male heterosexual fantasies of lesbians and voyeurism, and the negation of asexual and aromantic peoples to mention a few. Fetishizing queerness transforms people on the continuum into embodiments and personifications of kink, reducing sexuality and gender to nothing. The freedom to identify with variations of the same ‘label’, was thereby taken from the community,  leaving queer people constantly left to combat these preconceived notions in everyday conversations. 

Literature post-377 changed the idea of queerness in Indian society. Alongside stories depicting repressed sexuality and forbidden thoughts, literature containing descriptions of queer people in everday situations emerged in the market by queer and ally authors alike. Vasudhendra’s book ‘Mohanaswamy’ (2013) looks at queer identity in India, and not what the consequences of Section 377 were. The text moves through several divides – urban/rural, English/other bhashas (languages) to give the readers a full view of homoerotic cultures. ‘A People’s History of Heaven’ by Mathangi Subramanian explore the lives of queer girls in a slum deep within the skyscrapers in Bengaluru. Such titles moves beyond the more popular stories of hidden love, and instead observe the queer peoples of India in their lives as people and not forbidden romantic interests. 

The memoirs of trans-peoples such as Laxmi Narayan Tripathi and A. Revathi explores the internal struggles of trans women and their transitions, focusing on their journeys in activism and what it means to be a trans woman in India. ‘The Subtweet’ by Vivek Shraya explores what it means to be queer on social media in a fictional setting, and how a single accusation can have detrimental effects on the lives of people. ‘The Carpet Weaver’ by Nemat Sadat and ‘My Father’s Garden’ by Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar both explore the lives of queer men in Adivasi and Muslim minorites, pulling the reader along on a journey to find companionship and acceptance in a society that hates them for it. “Bombay Swastika” by Brahman Sing is a thriller between Nazi Berlin and Bombay. In an interview, he said: 

“Mine is not a book on homosexuality, but a book in which a homosexual character intervenes in the most absolute normality, as part of history, as part of the world.  I grew up with a gay brother and for me, relating to a different sexuality is like dealing with a glaring and always existent part of society.”

These titles achieve the goal of a extropective gaze in myriad socities, each with its own connotations and cultures of queerness, adding to a holistic world-view of what it means to be queer. These narratives enable readers – both queer and not – to connect with the characters and understand the context within which queerness exists today: an necessity if society is to progress in its understanding and acceptance of the queer community. 

An Urban Myth

Contrary to popular belief, the fight for gay rights in India stem from the queer peoples of Tier 2 and 3 cities, belonging to the working class, Dalit, and Adivasi minorities. With decriminalization, authors and academics of queer topics are gaining courage to write about the lives and experiences of these individuals. The anonymity of the city gives them the smokescreen for the protection of their identities if needed. ‘The World That Belongs To Us’ edited by Aditi Angiras and Akhil Katyal achieves exactly this with the first ever all-inclusive anthology of queer poetry from South Asia. With poets both famous and anonymous, the anthology explores gender and sexual identities along the continuum from a multitude of poets across South Asia writing in their regional vernaculars then translated into English.

The Far Corners Of The Nation And What Isn’t There

The lack of queer literature in regional dialects is an issue that needs redressal as regional vernaculars are then devoid of the validation of self that accompanies a queer reader of queer literature. Due to increasing cognizance of queer issues and rights in the last few decades, the Indian populace has taken to bookshops and online shopping services such as Queer Ink to fan the flames of their curiosity of the queer. An organizer of the The Chennai Queer Literature Festival 2018, – the first queer lit fest of India – Moulee said

 “I strongly believe that the conversation around LGBTQ rights will spread beyond urban centres (even within urban centres) only if we speak in the language of the people. Also, literature and resources and positive representation of queer lives in Tamil would validate queer persons who speak only Tamil… For readers I would say that book stalls play a major role in taking the book to the readers.” 

Already titles like ‘Randu Purushanmar Chumbikkumbol’ (Malayalam) by Kishor Kumar, ‘Punarapi’ (Kannada) by Kavya Kadame Nagarakatte, and Vidupattavai (Tamil) by Gireesh have been released in the last few years, speaking volumes about the confidence of authors and poets publishing their works in a world that needs their voices, a world that awaits with open arms the stories of those who belong not to the majority. Online market spaces and publishers like Queer Ink and the Gaysi Zine are succeeding in bringing regional authors of queer literature to the mainstream. Many regional authors consider English the link between the popularization of queer literature and its increased availability in regional languages. They believe that authentic queer experiences will only come from the pen of a Malayali, Tamilian, Bihari, Bengali. However, only once a title is popular in the English or Hindi vernacular will translators take up the mantle of translating queer works into regional languages.

Closed Doors and Minds

One of the major hurdles authors of queer literature face is finding a publisher who is willing to publish their work. Certain publishers consider only urbanized narratives of queer experiences occurring in cities like Mumbai and Delhi as qualifiers of ‘Indian’ queer literature. Tamil authors of queer manuscritpts are subject to similar scenes as their language does not fall within this sphere. Moulee  says:

 “…big publishing houses are not open to publish our works — English and non-English Indian languages. They either have editors who are clueless about queer lives. When a person does not have knowledge about queer lives, how can they even edit or work on that literature or with the author? The question for me is, when will our publishing industry in india be inclusive of queer persons?”

 Despite these struggles, the queer literary scene has picked up post-377. The increasing sales of queer literature by individuals both in and outside the community made Indian publishers realize the growing trend of the consumption of queer literature. Publishers such as Queer Ink, Gaysi Zine, and Queer Chennai Chronicles have taken it upon themselves to publish queer literary works by regional authors and make them avaiable for consumption to the public. Queer literature has gained some favour within the publishing industry, with many titles having been released in the last year alone: a big leap from a book or two a decade. 

At the precipice of great change and testing times, we still have a long way to go. While publishers are taking on queer literary works, there has been very little change in how LGBTQIA+ characters are represented. Attitudes are changing, albeit slowly, and time is something we have a lot of as we envision ways of making the queer literary scene thrive. Today’s intrusive and critical society has made individuals who are out of the closet a minority, and the people who are out with the ability to write, even more so. The queer literary works of today are what provide comfort and validation to many who believe that what they feel is wrong. It is that which we should strive to rectify, to one day instigate change and evolve into a society where normal is a continuum and literature is a sea of rainbows.

Experience Further: The song’s melancholic progression into crescendos echoes the longing of the queer peoples for validation and acception from society and from queer literature. It encapsulates the saddened, profound realization that despite everything, cis-het culture will never truly understand the need for queer peoples to tell their stories and receive open arms in return. 

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Anant Shah- Founder

Anant Shah (just as his Instagram bio says) has always been interested in connecting people though their different cultures. He is drawn to this goal, given his background of a family of artists, as well as his work at several different organisations such as the People Tree with Orijit Sen, The Conflictorium in Ahmedabad and The UN (AIDS) Communications and Global Advocacy Team in Geneva. As a graduate of History and International relations at Ashoka University, he co-founded and set up the Ashoka Literature festival in 2019. Longing to increase this critical discourse on contemporary and traditional Indian Cultures he finally decided to start InCulture.

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