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With Section 377 Verdict, 2018 Opened Up The Way For Queer Representation In Modern Indian Literature

By December 26, 2018No Comments

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From being ridiculed as ‘son of prostitute’ during childhood to an author, Manish Gaekwad’s life has been nothing short of a typical Bollywood movie plot – a nothing to everything kind of a journey.

Manish grew up in Congress House, Mumbai, and Bandook Gully, Kolkata, at a time when ‘kotha culture’ was on decline in the country. These spots were key hotspots for men who showered notes on nautch girls or tawaifs.

For Manish, hearing “randi ka beta” from random people walking on road whenever he stepped out was something he took for breakfast. His mother was sold to a madam in a kotha in Kolkata when she reached puberty. She was married when she was just a child and worked as a bonded labour in Agra.

When he was five years old, he was sent to a boarding school in Kurseong (and later, Darjeeling). He would read discarded magazines, mostly borrowed from a raddi shop, while growing up and bought newspapers from pocket money. Interestingly, the itch for uncommon storylines drove him to develop a fondness for films like Wild At Heart, The Piano, and My Own Private Idaho.

From a ‘Randi ka Beta’ to a journalist and published author

Cut to 2018, Manish is now a published author, a journalist with big media houses suffixed to his work profile.

His novel ‘Lean Days’ released in 2018. The most striking part of the novel that spins between the old and new lanes of spectacular cities of India is its protagonist – a gay man. Manish says that queer protagonists must be normalised to an extent where a reader doesn’t draw a line between them and heterosexual protagonists.

For him, 2018 will always remain special.

“The first book is always special despite its flaws, which I see a lot. It is only after it was published that I now realise I can write, and so that thought is always leading me to focus on the next one, although how am I going to write the next one is even more bewildering than the first one.

“This year is even more special because right before the book came out, I wrote a blog about my mother that went viral. She used to work as a courtesan. Immediately after it I sold a film script, got work as a screenwriter, news portal began to ask me to contribute, and I even landed a second book deal.”

Decriminalisation of homosexuality by Supreme Court was an unreal moment

“A great moment for us as a country, but more than the mild tremor across the nation where people don’t even know what it means, it is the world waking up to the news that some 1.3 billion people have been told to behave. That is a huge responsibility, and the change has to start at home,” says Manish, recalling the historic verdict delivered by Supreme Court on September 6, 2018.

He says that while the change may not be visible to people outside of the LGBTQ community, but to those it matters as much as life, “There is less stress about being targeted.”

Decriminalisation has certainly empowered the community. They are no longer criminals in their own country. Manish believes that the struggle has only changed places and isn’t out of the picture entirely. “Now the struggle is from social pariah to homogeneous integration in society, in family, with friends, at the workplace, as an equal without the stigma of being identified by orientation. No change is overnight,” he adds.

For Manish, literature is the centre of gravity. The landmark verdict has opened a myriad of avenues for writers, artists and anyone pursuing fine arts. It is a fantastic opportunity to reflect the times in our literature, film, art, music, plays, the works. Talking about what has changed for him as a writer post the verdict, Manish asserts that the perspective and narrative must change.

It’s time to portray the Queer point of view

“Why is everything from a heterosexual man’s point of view? Flip that – employ your voice as a woman, as a queer person, as a person entirely devoid of sexuality even; explore race, gender, ability, class, ethnicity, anything, but please question heteronormativity and therefore challenge patriarchy, which is at the root of everything we know and must evolve from,” explains Manish as he explores the idea of shifting from binaries to fluidity in literature.

Filling the void of LGBTQ representation in the Indian literature

If one is an avid reader and have read modern writers like Ismat Chugtai, Devdutt Pattanaik and Jhumpa Lahiri, one would know that Indian literature is extremely rich when it comes to LGBT-themed literature’.

Literary figures like such as Ved Vyas, Vatsyayana, writing in Sanskrit, Bechan Sharma, Nirala, Kamleshwar, writing in Hindi, Ismat Chughtai in Urdu, Vijay Tendulkar, Bindumadhav Khire, Chandrakant Khote, Sachin Kundalkar in Marathi, Vaikom Muhammad Basheer, Kamala Das, in Malayalam, Shobhaa De, Anita Nair, Manju Kapur, R Raj Rao, Hoshang Merchant, Vikram Seth, Sandip Roy, Devdutt Pattanaik, Neel Mukherjee, Minal Hajratwala, Manil Suri, Jhumpa Lahiri in English, and the list goes on in several regional languages – prove that Indian literature a treasury of LGBTQ works.

“The irony is that gay people will do the simple Google search and read these books. Straight people, mostly men, maybe not. They will be repelled by the idea that a simple Google search will probably turn them into frightful L-G-B-T monsters. It is as illogical as that. They will refuse to endorse something as harmless as reading books that are not necessarily about heteronormal things.”

“Their most common excuse will be, ‘It does not interest me.’ That’s like gay people saying Romeo and Juliet does not interest them because it’s not Romeo and Justin or Rihanna and Juliet. Even if gay people don’t read Shakespeare, they are not averse to the idea of Romeo and Juliet – they find it equally romantic and enchanting as gay love stories. No one abhors Romeo and Juliet.”

“How many straight people will read LGBT-themed literature with the same sort of detached view and still appreciate it for what it is – about the lives of gay people going through the same bump and grind as straight people – how different can the two worlds be exactly when everyone lives in only one?”

One way of filling the gap is ensuring that there is no segregation of literature into gay and straight. The writers previously mentioned have represented the LGBTQ community in their works that are not always labelled as gay literature.

“Writers, irrespective of their orientation, have never shied from featuring gay characters in their works. It is the reader who needs to be inclusive either by chance, stumbling upon it and not being alarmed, or consciously reading these LGBT-themed books to dispel their own prejudice against it,” says Manish.

Hindu mythology, gay representation and literature

Hindu mythology has vividly mentioned heterosexual and homosexual acts alike. However, the narrative stemming from conservationists is far from reality. The normal understanding was somewhat lost under under Islamic and British rule in India.

The majority public discourse is now about how Hinduism doesn’t approve of homosexual relationships – which is actually a flawed argument.

In accounts of Muslim rulers in India, the biographers mention kings and queens with both male and female consorts – and this is despite their holy text condemning same-sex love.

India has had a love-hate relationship with same-sex love but at least it was not censored in literature.

After Britishers landed on Indian soil, everything went undercover and flourished as illicit reading material, making persons of LGBT orientation seem like a sleazy lot indulging in aberrant sexual behaviour, and pushing them further from the margins into a community that should be eradicated – and so the persecution, the law, the torture and harassment began. Mainstream writers who braved it, faced censure.

“In 1977, when Shakuntala Devi wrote The World of Homosexuals, making a strong case for decriminalisation of Section 377 that had been implemented by the British in 1864, the book opened the floodgates for queer studies,” says Manish outlining that it was in the 90s that the tide eventually turned when writers wrote what they saw.

“Isn’t literature also drawn from real life? So, like heterosexual romance, same-sex themes began to be explored in detail, and without the social mores of the Raj.”

Manish believes that LGBTQ representation in literature reinforces visibility and that is a step towards acknowledgement before acceptance. It means no more hiding in the closet for both reader and writer.



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