Yours queerly

Saurabh Sharma enlists a few literary works that defy expectations by normalising queerness and capturing the struggles associated with being gay or queer.
Last Updated : 15 June 2024, 19:02 IST

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Saikat Majumdar’s latest The Remains of the Body (Penguin, 2024) is a great attempt at exploring the sexual tension between people who are distressed by societal conformity yet tend to fight it. Reading this work was an experience, which ignited a pursuit to assess the normalisation of queer desire in Indian literature. Majumdar, who teaches English and creative writing at Ashoka University, says that for him, the novel “was driven by a failed dream for pansexuality, of being attracted to all genders — though limited, in this particular story, to the male and the female.”

The narrative power in disruptiveness

Furthermore, it stretches the “erotic limits of male heterosexual friendship that’s shaped, among other things, by an intense awareness of each other’s growing, and ageing, bodies — from puberty to early middle age,” and asks what prevents that awareness from becoming sexual. He says, “I imagined the protagonist as a gay man trapped in a straight body — just the way we are sometimes trapped in a body that doesn’t feel right for us. My fiction is often driven by a disruptive desire; I feel there is an innate narrative power in disruptiveness. The perverse source of that power is the normative ideal of sexuality that society forces on us. That ideal serves the needs of the state and the market, but real human happiness comes from stranger, unexpected moments and relationships. Everything society calls queer is what defines us — the norm is just an abstract and absurd ideal. I realise now that this is also what this new novel does — by revealing the queerness of people who imagine themselves as straight, it tries to make queerness not only normal but also the defining impulse behind all genuine human relationships.”

“Romantic and erotic friendship between women goes back a long way in Indian literature,” writes the author of On the Edge: 100 Years of Hindi Fiction on Same-Sex Desire (Penguin, 2023), Ruth Vanita in the introduction to her book. “It appears in the first Hindi short story, Rani Ketaki ki Kahani by Insha Allah Khan Insha (1756-1817), and is prominent in the 11th-century Sanskrit Kathasaritsagara, where women fall in love with women at first sight, and men with men, such life-long same-sex friends being termed swayamvara (self-chosen) sakha (man’s male friend) and sakhi (woman’s female friend).” Vanita’s scholarship is a testament to the fact that for aeons, the depiction and representation of such relationships have been the norm. However, such stories either linger in academic circles or are policed, preventing their socialisation to a wider audience. But it can’t be denied that stereotypical writings have always prevailed, too.

Call a spade a spade

Novelist and poet R Raj Rao, whose works have always pushed back against conformities, for example, observes why “socialising and networking in washrooms” doesn’t find adequate attention or isn’t explored much. The author of Mahmud and Ayaz (Speaking Tiger, 2024) notes that in “literature and cinema because of the prudish, conservative and Brahminical mindset of Indians that prefers painting a sanitised picture of things rather than staring at hard truths in the face.” He continues, “I can tell you from experience that the existence of dating apps like Grindr notwithstanding, washroom cruising even among the so-called educated gay men goes on, and is sought out for its immediacy. No amount of online cruising can replace it. As for the trauma-dumping that’s to be found in much gay writing, this is because many gay men use heterosexual love as a trope for shaping their own romantic and erotic life, rather than displaying the courage to branch out in new directions. But heteronormativity can never be a model for homosexual love. Homonormativity, though it exists, invariably comes up against a brick wall. It’s about time the gay community learns to call a spade a spade without worrying about social acceptance. As I have frequently said, moderate measures never work. Only radical ones do.”

Why sanitise the dynamics?

For the author of Cockatoo (Pan Macmillan, 2023), Yashraj Goswami, “the idea of queer representation in literature didn’t even exist in (his) imagination” while growing up. He never knew of any queer writer. Even though Oscar Wilde was taught in school, “the queer dimensions” of their work were never discussed. However, in cinema, he did observe that queer people “were always an object of ridicule; think of movies like Raja Hindustani or Jab Pyar Kiya Toh Darna Kya.” But “things have changed a lot since. Take Modern Family for instance. While I know it’s bashed for domesticising the queer and sanitising the queer couple dynamics, thanks to it I recently came out to my 12-year-old nephew, as I was able to explain to him that every human being deserves to be treated the same regardless of who they choose to love or have a family with.” To that end, he adds something, attempting to erase the hetero-queer divide: “When people ask about the genre of my book, I instinctively say human drama. I resist calling it a queer novel; it feels limiting somehow. I say it’s a novel with queer characters — much like life.” But representation also has other dimensions. Gender rights activist and author of The Yellow Sparrow: Memoirs of a Transgender (Speaking Tiger, 2023), which is translated from Manipuri by Rubani Yumkhaibam, Santa Khurai is “anxious around the (growing) visibility and representation of (queer literature) the way it is being framed” because for her there’s a “stereotypical format” that connects everything and it “fails to reflect (trans and queer) community’s joy and belongingness.” Additionally, such narratives are human-centric, ignoring “fables and long narrative poems” that help her “express personal and political in a lighter manner.”

Criticising Sahitya Akademi’s step, she notes that “organising a separate conclave for trans and queer writers is not an ideal step to inclusion”, as it doesn’t put them as equals to heterosexual writers. Furthermore, “the need to reinforce the regional- and state-level Sahitya Akademi units to encourage LGBTQIA+ writers by including them in the annual literature festival” focuses on numbers. She emphasises that if few writers from the northeast region get published, then it doesn’t mean there isn’t enough talent there but signals a “lack of support and exposure”.

The power of good writing

Founder of Dislang‚ an online magazine featuring writings by disabled and chronically ill people, and author of The Grammar of My Body: A Memoir (Penguin, 2023), Abhishek Anicca notes how in the last decade “more queer people in the publishing ecosystem have helped draw attention to our stories.” Despite “gatekeeping, the industry is changing” but “there’s a long way to go as there’s a huge gap in terms of intersectionality. But as more stories get published, more people will be empowered to tell their own stories.” But Abhishek also emphasises that “a writer should be judged by their writing — queerness and disability can be reflected in it, but good writing is essential.”

(The author is a Delhi-based writer who frequently reviews books and writes on gender. Instagram/ X: @writerly_life.)

Published 15 June 2024, 19:02 IST

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