by Sucharita Dutta-Asane
Minal Hajratwala (ed.), Out! Stories from the New Queer India, Queer Ink, 2012. 445 pgs.
In 2009, the High Court of Delhi struck down Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code. Sexual activity among same-sex, consenting adults was decriminalised, setting the ball rolling, hopefully, for the transition of society from its binding Victorian mindset to a more evolved and accommodating sphere. Out! Stories from the New Queer India is an anthology of queer writing from India that comes as a marker of the times, representing voices and stories that span the sexual, social, cultural, political and occupational spectrum. Published by Queer Ink and edited by Minal Hajratwala, Out! includes stories that run the gamut of situations and emotions—rural hinterlands and city centres, the hesitant confessions of love, the slow recognition of a spouse's "otherness," the acceptance of a son's sex change, the celebration of a neighbour's silent preferences. The characters in this first collection of queer Indian stories assert their identity and their right to be different and to live out these differences within the various strata of the Indian mainstream; these characters are in the process of slowly exiting the closet, demanding acceptance for their sexuality, talking out loud rather than whispering amongst one another.
Queer writing has made sporadic appearances in India. Hoshang Merchant and Dr. R. Raj Rao's books have persistently tried to crack the silence around this topic, and although one doesn't yet read much of this genre, new voices and books have begun to make small inroads into the literary mindscape and the publishing scene. This anthology could be the path-breaker that Indian writing in English and in translation needs at this socio-political juncture.
The stories in this anthology celebrate, discuss and assert being queer, yet they are sensitive about the heterosexual people whose lives intertwine with the principal characters. The stories are as much about the heterosexual characters, and their struggles to come to terms with the reality of homosexuality within their lives, as they are about the gay, lesbian, transgender search for terms of living. Out! posits a search of sorts—to understand what it means to be homosexual and to identify the fault lines of existence in a closed world. It also urges us to extend hands of friendship when worlds collide and come together through pain and understanding.
The stories have been categorised into various life-phases and themes: acceptance of the self, the struggle to come out, the effort to straddle worlds, the power play of sex and sexuality and the negotiation of relationships, the drama that unfolds daily within the human mind and spirit. These are not watertight compartments but planes of commonality.
Worlds collide to give rise to newer ways of living and loving. In R. Raj Rao's "Crocodile Tears," a gay foster-father, disillusioned, single and unappreciated, transcends social norms of parenting as he nurtures and mentors a child not his own but born of the union between his ex-lover and his wife. A lesbian couple on a train reorients a devoted wife to the meaning of romance in Sarojini Sahoo's "Behind the Curtain."
Another interesting theme that emerges is the heterosexual world's approach to the gay characters and their loves. In Dibyajyoti Sharma's "A Married Man," a wife tries to understand and accept her husband's gayness and appreciate his lover's concern for her; in Frank Krishner's "The Intervention," a roomful of aunties conspires to help a neighbour come out and find acceptance, neatly overturning the stereotypical "aunty" image—a futuristic scenario, perhaps, but a glimmer of hope nonetheless.
In Milind Wani's "A Small Town Girl" the village pradhan is seen to be a sensitive person, not a caricature conservative, rural headman who cannot see beyond his heterosexual, privileged nose. On being accused by the narrator of not using the law to protect the lesbian cousins, the pradhan's "eyes...stopped laughing. A shadow—sadness, rage perhaps—swept across the uneven geography of his face. But when he spoke, it was in a calm voice. 'I tried Madam-ji, I really tried. But what can one person do against an entire village?"
Similarly, the father in Gazal Dhaliwal's "A Lipstick and a Pink Silk Stole" is not the uber-orthodox pater figure we might expect but a conscientious, perceptive parent who accepts and celebrates his son's sex change operation and who is ashamed that as a parent he didn't understand his child's needs: "She was always a girl. We just didn't know it [...] I wish I had done it earlier. Every living day in that body is death for her. And to think she couldn't share that with us for so long because she was scared we'd abandon her? Doesn't that make you feel ashamed?" Dogmas, stereotypes and standard notions of family and loyalty are turned on their heads; what we have in place is a society in transition.
The anthology reflects this shifting cultural ethos and brings us India at the crossroads of sexual sensibilities. In the last section of this book, "A Queer Ink Conversation," Nandita Das and Chitra Palekar, filmmakers, artists and activists, discuss the silence around LGBT issues:
We were from a progressive family and yet we never talked about it […] this was just sidelined like garbage.
we talked about political and social issues, censorship, everything under the sun. We were taking part in protests, fighting against the government, and this was one issue which we had never talked about, our friends had never talked about […]
Out! evokes the reality we never talk about. As Hoshang Merchant says, "it takes a lot of effort to tell your story, but more people must make that effort" (DNA India, Nov. 2011). Out! is one such effort. On the flipside, some of the stories could have done with tighter editing, but perhaps that would have interfered with their inherent dialectics. For now, it is important to hear the voices and their stories.
The characters in this anthology do not seek acceptance. They exist. They struggle. They are confident of their preferences. The writers do not conform to any single sexual category. As Minal Hajratwala notes in the introduction, "They are teachers, executives, Dalits, villagers, Sikhs, sophisticates, Brahmins, journalists, Christians, doctors, engineers, Muslims, lawyers, dreamers, students, strugglers." It's time we read queer writing as an integral and evolving part of world literature, important and self-sustaining, rather than as a closed off ghetto; it's time we read stories and novels from writers, not because of their or their characters' gender preferences, but irrespective of gendered concerns.