With five books from four publishers in recent months, gay writing has finally come to market. But these are not ‘coming out’ stories
“I am a thirteen-year-old boy. I am in class 9th (sic) and me and my closest friend often study together. We often talk about sex. But last month during one of our study sessions, my friend kissed me. Ever since, we have stopped meeting each other. Is my friend gay?”
I used to wait for them—those confused and curious queries in my newspaper’s Sunday edition. It wasn’t fiction. And it really intrigued me. It was voyeuristic and it offered the only chance to read something on matters gay in this country.
It has been 15 years since. I discovered that there was a world in the shadows that was not just wandering about, but also, if sometimes cagily, willing to accept its gay identity. And then, in July 2009, the Delhi High Court struck down Article 377(b) of the Indian Penal Code. It became legal to declare yourself gay (or lesbian, transgender or bisexual), at least within Delhi. (Hopefully, the court’s judgment will be upheld when the case comes up for hearing before the Supreme Court—later this year.)
Meanwhile, the pride marches have swelled. Earlier this year, two girl students decided to get ‘married’. The Delhi Police provided them protection, though their families disowned them.
Riding on this new visibility and assurance come five books from four different publishers. The anthology Yaraana: Gay writing from South Asia isn’t exactly new. It is an expanded edition of a book published earlier in 1999. As the compilation brings forth, gay writing in South Asia isn’t new, and it definitely doesn’t happen just in English. The pieces included come from Sri Lanka, Nepal, Pakistan and India, and apart from pieces written in English, there are translations from Urdu, Bengali, Hindi, Gujarati and Marathi. There are immigrant voices too.
The book picks up some very readable extracts from books like Trying to Grow (the coming-out story of Firdaus Kanga, a handicapped artist), Sheltered Flame by Iqbal Mateen (the story of a prostitute and her gay son) and Waiting for Winter by Belinder Dhanoa.
Also memorable is Frank Krishner’s ‘The Sweetest of All’, a sweet and sad story of Mark’s lovers who marry to escape the ‘shame’ of being gay. There are stories of rape, attempted rape, denial and abstinence. Stories where the victim becomes the perpetrator. One begins to see alternate sexuality beyond just in the obvious colourful hues that have come to be associated with it in the mainstream media.
But not everything fits. Stories like ‘On account of a Girl’ lose their humour in translation. What might have been funny in Bengali sounds irritatingly tepid in English.
Good anthologies makes us curious, and this one does succeed in doing so, but only in parts.
Compared to the other offering from Penguin, though, it is quite the masterwork. Mayur Patel’s debut, Vivek and I is 377 pages of unintentional comedy. It tells the story of a gay man (Kaushik), and his two unfulfilled love stories, who ultimately finds resolution in charity and God. Added to the corniness is Patel’s so-bad-it’s-a-classic writing. For instance, the protagonist, Kaushik, is supposed to be empathetic towards the poor. This is how Patel chooses to depict this:
‘I compared these uneducated, neglected people with the highly educated people of Baroda who lied and betrayed, and were experts in playing mean games in their daily life.’
‘The poor tribals live a pitiful life, in tiny huts with practiacally (sic) no money.’
‘Bara means okay. I couldn’t even utter this word if I wanted to. She (the maid) used this word and many others from her language quite often. It felt good to hear these words from the local people… I failed (to pronounce it) miserably because of my urban accent.’…
There’s more fun to be had. Love, according to Patel, is mostly ‘mental’. People are not ‘fashion conscious’ in Valai (where a large part of the story is based). Friends and acquaintances in Valai are almost always introduced with a rider about how they speak English and how fair or dark they are. A neighbour’s teenaged daughter runs away with her lover and ‘brings shame to her family’.
And then, there’s this gem: ‘Other human limbs might be treacherous but the genital organs can’t ever lie.’
To add to this, there are at least a hundred typos in the book. Then again, you’ve got to feel for the copy editor.
A less-known publisher, Gyaana Books has taken its chances with another first time author, Mahesh Natarajan, with the cleverly titled Pink Sheep. Natarajan is a Bangalore-based off-shoring consultant, career-counsellor and psychotherapist. As a storyteller, though, he limits his geographical range largely to Bangalore.
Within its gay theme, the book covers a wide breadth of stories. Couples bicker and then finally come around. There are parents who don’t want to take a hint about their child’s sexuality, and then there are those who, unexpectedly and delightfully, accept it from an early age. There are stories of death—of partners and relationships. There’s even a clumsy attempt at a thriller.
The writing work best when Natrajan is dealing with families—the irritatingly overbearing aunt, the self-righteous uncle, the charming relationship between a couple with a huge age gap. Natarajan also works well when dealing with somewhat simple equations between couples, like in the story ‘Practical Matters’. In one story, he uses the details of religious practices in a South-Indian Hindu household to good effect. These stories are believable, and at times, even touching.
But there are also undeveloped plots, conflicts that sound unintentionally funny and contrived situations, too many of them. Characters act like fools but there is neither humour nor satire to relieve this. Past lovers meet at airport terminals but the interaction sounds so fake, you cringe.
Decidedly more assured and accomplished is another debut collection of short stories published by Random House last year. Rahul Mehta’s Quarantine flits between the US and India. In almost all the nine stories, the central character is a second-generation Indian-American gay man.
While some of this might seem familiar territory, what elevates this collection of stories is the author’s empathy for his characters. We do get characters who are out of place, lost between the new and the old, and sometimes with little control over their own lives, but they deal with it in a very believable, everyday manner.
And yet, the stories never get banal.
The gay men here are not fighting for acceptance. They are mostly comfortable in that identity. But all relationships change. Out of the everyday life of his characters, Mehta threads out little details in the shape of memories and habits to give us a hint of the change that is about to come. He has a sharp ear for dialogue. So whether the characters are breaking down, throwing a tantrum or on the verge of a break-up, the dialogue is always believably apt. The stories ‘The Better Person’, ‘Yours’ and ‘Citizen’ stand out especially.
I think I have saved the best for the last. Parvati Sharma’s The Dead Camel and Other Stories of Love is a sparkling debut of a book. The twelve stories here are delightful. Some of them assume a lightness of tone that is charming. Details fringe the stories, yet add a certain wholeness. Like this:
‘The next day, Amrit’s phone rang in an empty house, its shrill tone perplexing the pigeons that sometimes perched on the window sills, warbling indelicately.’
Her prose creates images that are almost cinematic. The book doesn’t announce itself as gay fiction and it wouldn’t be right to piegeonhole it as just that. There are some stories, of course, about women who love women (and discuss Chugtai under a quilt) and men who love men (and get thwarted), but there are also men and women who love each other. But it is always engaging, her stories.
There is sex, and it is well-written. There is this even tenor that flows through her stories. Sharma’s stories are based largely in the now, but some times the prose and humour remind you of F Scott Fitzgerald. And you wonder if the voice is old or new.
One of the most popular formats within gay fiction elsewhere has been the coming-out narrative. Even though the West is fatigued of it, we are still to hear a defining coming-out story in India. Almost all the authors discussed here are first-time authors. Strangely (and perhaps consciously), almost none of them chooses to tell such a story. While the central character in Vivek and I is struggling with his gay identity, he never moves beyond self-pity. ‘The coming out’, when it happens, reminds me of our saas-bahu serials.
In Pink Sheep, most men tread tentatively so as not to upset their parents. The characters of Paravati Sharma are comfortably gay, but live in an alternate world. They are yet to assert their sexual identities in public.
Which is disappointing, actually. The idea of the ‘queer’ is not new to Indian readers. It would, in fact, not be wrong to say that Indian society is comfortable with the occasional ‘queer’. But LGBTs are sharper identities. They are bound to let the senses rip. And it’s time to hear a story that draws blood from such a cut.