In this column, Saikat Majumdar discusses books from India that haven’t received due attention.
Does the act of sexual liberation belong to the already liberated? To people who possess other freedoms — those of race, class, gender, caste, language, location, the ability of one’s own body? Most public forms of power are rooted in what Marx called the material base of society, i.e., its means of production. Generally, only the beneficiaries of those means can afford to enjoy a wide range of freedoms. Marxist determinism poses the inevitable question: is nonconforming sexual behavior available only to the rich and educated, and, in a country like India, to the urban, the Anglophone, and the caste-privileged?
In Milind Wani’s story “A Small-Town Girl,” Jhanvi, an urban, Anglophone journalist looks at the dead bodies of Shampa and Suparna — two poor young village girls who drank pesticide together in a paddy field in rural Bengal, so that they could die in each other’s arms — and wonders, “Do people stop being who they are when they die?” The two cousins fell in love with each other; their family and community punished them for it, forcibly marrying off the younger Suparna and preventing Shampa, older by a few years, the “corrupting” one, from meeting her helpless lover. As Jhanvi confronts the bodies of the girls, unclaimed and rejected by the village even after death, her sense of privilege battles with the pain of her own loss. Jhanvi’s lover, an attractive and sophisticated female scholar, has abandoned her. While reading her polite but blunt rejection note, her own class difference with her lost lover bruises Jhanvi’s heart: “Sophisticated people are often nicer to you when leaving you than when loving you.”
The attempted sexual liberation of the oppressed, no less than its cruel suppression, is one of the most striking themes of Out! Stories from the New Queer India, edited by Minal Hajratwala. Sometimes the oppressed are children, whose sexuality must be groomed according to fit heteronormative society. The little girl who narrates Sunny Singh’s story “A Cup Full of Jasmine Oil” does not understand her family’s silent hostility after she receives a soothing hair-massage with jasmine oil from the two friendly female professors who live with each other in the neighboring house. But the readers do. And she does too, years later, when the two women visit her at her wedding. While pinning jasmine flowers in the bride’s hair, one of them tells her with a mischievous smile: “Now that you are grown up, you’ll know the scent is an aphrodisiac.” But things are murkier when the child’s experience is directly sexual. In Srini Satya’s disturbing story “The Madras Miscellany Unedited,” the nine-year-old Prasanna, already a pro at playing with other boys’ “rats,” reaches out for his uncle Ravi’s “big rat” and its “hairy accompaniments” in the darkness of a cinema hall. The games continue as his uncle lives through his “celibate” month in preparation for his pilgrimage to the Sabari Malai temple in Kerala, presided by the deity Ayappa, who shuns meat and the temptation of female company. As he grows into a teenager, Prasanna realizes what his uncle did to him was abuse — everyone who comes to know his secret tells him so, but it remains a secret from most, even after the uncle is killed in a car accident. But years later, coming out fully as gay, while revisiting “those times with Ravi Mama and his ‘rat,’ Prasanna felt only one thing: Happy.”
Released by Queer Ink, an independent publisher championing stories of non-normative sexual identity, Out reminds us that the vast majority of such stories still remain far beyond mainstream publishing. In the best stories, the daring themes draw out beautiful sentences. In “She’s like the Wind,” Juthika Nagpal establishes the moist romance of Bombay weather in a stroke — “In any case, monsoons warrant lighters, selling at double price at night” — paving the way for a prickly story of two “women” being picked up on the street for sex by a man, the “hot daddy” type, who is caught in the act by his little girl. On their way back from the shady encounter, the two clasp each other’s bodies and tease each other about who’s “more chick” than the other. Gender-conforming lives, in several stories, combine a provincial, vernacular sensibility from different parts of India with sharp notes of urban hipness. Ashish Sawhny’s story about bruised romance in Bombay dances to the tune of the popular Bollywood number of its title, “Nimbooda Nimbooda Nimbooda,” while in Karuna Ezara Parikh’s experimental “New Dawns,” Sabah, a girl in Chandigarh, sits bored, “writing an essay on the skinning of seals in Canada.” In Dibyajyoti Sarma’s restrainedly realistic “A Married Man,” a wife traces the source of her husband’s suddenly diagnosed HIV to his concealed life and sexual identity. But this doesn’t prevent her from accepting her dead husband’s lover as a friend to the family and a source of affection for her little daughter. The nurturing touch of homosexual love in a heterosexual family unit is reminiscent of another story in this collection, R. Raj Rao’s striking “Crocodile Tears,” in which an educated, middle-class gay man spends decades supporting the heterosexual family life of his poor, working-class lover.
Published in 2012, Out articulates the spirit and jubilation of the early years of the legal struggle of the Naaz Foundation against Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, which criminalized sexual activity “against the order of nature.” The marginalized characters in these stories have long awaited recognition, which may finally come in a nation that has abandoned this discriminatory law.
Saikat Majumdar is the author of three novels: The Scent of God (2019), The Firebird (2015), published in the US as Play House (2017), and Silverfish (2007). He has also published a book of literary criticism, Prose of the World (2013), a general nonfiction book on higher education, College: Pathways of Possibility (2018), and a co-edited collection of essays, The Critic as Amateur (2019). He has taught at Stanford University, was a Fellow at the Humanities Centre at Wellesley College, and is currently professor of English & Creative Writing at Ashoka University.