Even as same-sex couples in India struggle to gain legal recognition, in literature they are the heroes and heroines.
Over the years, a number of Indian writers have steadily produced remarkable gay literature, keeping alive the issue of inequality in love through their compelling stories. Here is an overview of some of the books and plays that have blazed a trail for gay rights in the country.
In 1942, Ismat Chughtai wrote her short story Lihaaf and provoked a high courtroom drama, with people baying for her blood. How dare she suggest something as chee-chee as a same-sex relationship? And while the bold author won the case, society never quite “forgave” her for such audacity.
Cut to 2010–a publishing house for LGBTQ literature, Queer Ink, is established in India, giving this community an exclusive space for writing. But a lot happened between these two milestones.
The 1980s were owned by Suniti Namjoshi, an openly lesbian author of Indian origin. She wrote books like Feminist Fables (1981), From the Bedside Book of Nightmares (1984), The Conversations of Cow (1985), Flesh and Paper (1986) and The Mothers of Maya Diip (1989), among others, exploring various aspects of the feminine, especially sexuality.
Also highly significant was Vijay Tendulkar’s Marathi play, Ek Mitrachi Goshta (A Friend’s Story), in the early 1980s. Tendulkar broke several taboos with this play, depicting two lesbian lovers at a time when many were not even sure what the word “lesbian” really meant. This and his other plays were translated and published in 2001.
What Tendulkar did in the domain of Marathi theatre, Mahesh Dattani did for its English counterpart. Most of his plays had unconventional gender roles and strong feminist streaks. One of his earliest plays depicting queer issues was Bravely Fought the Queen (1991). The Sahitya Akademi-winning playwright later wrote the acclaimed On a Muggy Night in Mumbai in 2000 in which a melee of characters with different sexual orientations effectively tackle the politics of sexuality.
Another India-born author who voiced unabashed support for gay rights and sexuality in general in the early years was Firdaus Kanga. His most notable work is the autobiographical Trying to Grow (1990), where he explores various themes revolving around sexuality. Shobhaa Dé followed with her Strange Obsession in 1994, the story of which was decidedly lesbian, albeit with a dark streak. Among anthologies, A Lotus of Another Colour (1993), edited by Rakesh Ratti, offered a clutch of stories about South Asian gay and lesbian experiences.
In the 1990s, watching Deepa Mehta’s highly controversial film, Fire, felt like breaking the law and becoming a grown-up. It was, in fact, more exciting than watching one’s first blue film—a soft-porn movie—because what did good middle class Indian kids know about two women kissing? And if the stalwarts of indie films like Shabana Azmi and Nandita Das were in it, the premise must be true. For many like me, this landmark film was a portal to a reality neatly kept under wraps by our society.
Fire also seemed to have opened artistic doors for many. Take Facing the Mirror: Lesbian Writing from India, edited by Ashwini Sukthankar, which was published in 1999: it was among the first anthologies dedicated to stories about lesbian relationships.
Since 2000, there has been an extraordinary rise in the number of works produced in this area.
Anita Nair flagged off this period with her novel Ladies Coupé (2001), which is the story of five women from very different backgrounds and dealt with lesbian encounters through one of the characters. However, Manju Kapoor’s book, A Married Woman (2002), was more robustly lesbian in plot.
The year 2001 also saw the publication of Same-Sex Love in India: Readings in Indian Literature, an impressive anthology charting the entire literary history of queer writing in India. It chronicled everything from the ancient Sanskrit epics and the Kamasutra to contemporary fiction. It was jointly edited by Saleem Kidvai and Ruth Vanita.
Vanita has since then produced an array of works on similar themes, which include Queering India: Same-Sex Love and Eroticism in Indian Culture and Society (2002), and Love’s Rite: Same-Sex Marriage in India and the West (2005).
When R. Raj Rao entered the literary scene in 2003 with his debut novel, The Boyfriend, the queer cause found its first loud voice. His subsequent novel, Hostel Room 131 (2010), is also an openly gay novel. The author is considered one of India’s best-known gay rights activists and a pioneer of queer literature. He also has to his name several poems, plays, and works of non-fiction, as well as credit for introducing LGBT literature at the academic level.
Gay literature found another champion in the works of Hoshang Merchant, who has, since the 1990s, created a vast body of work. The most significant are the anthologies he has edited—Yaraana: Gay Writing from India (2000), and Forbidden Sex, Forbidden Texts: New India’s Gay Poets (2008), as well as The Man Who Would be Queen: Autobiographical Fictions (2011).
In contemporary gay Marathi literature, Bindumadhav Khire, a gay rights and AIDS activist, is another pioneer. His self-published novels, Partner (2005), Indradhanu (2009) and Antarang (2013), were received with much enthusiasm by the queer community as significant firsts in regional literature.
The gay literature scene has exploded in the last five years. Big and small publishers, stalwarts and rookies, all seem to have come together in recognising and boosting this genre. Novels, short stories, poems, and autobiographical accounts are being produced at a furious pace.
The voices are many and the list is long, each telling a different story of love, sensitivity, sexuality, and everything in between. These include Leaving India: My Family’s Journey from Five Villages to Five Continents (2010) by Minal Hajratwala, Quarantine by Rahul Mehta (2011), The Exiles by Ghalib Shiraz Dhalla (2011), A Life Apart by Neel Mukherjee (2011), Out! Stories from the New Queer India, edited by Shobhna Kumar and Minal Hajratwala (2012), Vivek and I by Mayur Patel (2012), My Magical Palace (2012) by Kunal Mukherjee, Six Metres of Pavement (2012), by Farzana Doctor and Too Close: The Tranquebar Book of Queer Erotica (2012).
But there is change and inventiveness too. The point of being different yet normal is being driven home in different ways. Queer writing is now being seen in the space of young adult fiction—Himanjali Sarkar’s Talking of Muskaan (2014)—and even mythology! Devdutt Pattanaik, India’s best-selling mythologist, infused a new-yet-old angle to the queer story when he published The Pregnant King in 2008 and, recently, Shikhandi and Other Tales They Don’t Tell You (2014). Through uncommon tales from Indian mythology, he underlines the fact that homosexuality was no crime in ancient Indian culture. Now, will life imitate art?
Urmi Chanda-Vaz is a psychologist by training, a journalist by profession, and an Indologist in the making. She can be followed on Twitter here.