I read Abha Dawesar’s Babyji when I was thirteen years old. That was my introduction to queerness. I had picked up the book because I liked the cover of that particular edition and until then, I admit, I had been quite clueless. Popular Indian movies and TV shows did not care for queer narratives. In the mid 2000s it was difficult to chance upon age-appropriate books for children that addressed issues of gender and sexuality. My parents did not care about what I read as long as I stayed away from the screens.
Naturally, I don’t remember much from Babyji but I do remember being intrigued by a love that was completely new to me. Instead of feeling uncomfortable or squirmy by the (quite) explicit lesbian sex scenes, I was comfortable with them. Of course, there’s no way to know how I would have felt about the book had I encountered it much later in life. Yet this reaffirms my belief that children are more accepting than adults, of other people and their identities. But that’s a conversation for another day.
Queerness in Indian “traditions”
We live in times where we are quick to throttle anything that we feel is an antagonist to Indian “culture” – this includes suspicion about monuments built by the Mughals to a general displeasure for books with queer undertones. However, Indian literature or even culture at large isn’t prudent.
Ancient texts acknowledge queer relationships and people – Shikhandi and the god Vishnu have often assumed the transgender form and are worshipped as religious figures too. Gender-shifting gods have no posed no trouble to the devout Hindu worshipper. Instead of a threat, gender fluidity is understood as a sign of playfulness – a humane quality in the gods.
Many powerful rulers were also known to keep consorts of their own sex. Eunuchs and trans-people were a common sight too in courtly settings. Hijras or intersex people have been a constant presence in Indian society and almost all languages have their own names for the community. In some cultures, the presence of Hijras is crucial to social and religious ceremonies. A baby is often thought to be lacking until they are blessed by Hijras. Of course, the liberty and security of these minorities is an issue of serious concern, but there has always space for queerness in our traditions.
Queerness in Indian writings
Some of the first and most significant examples of queerness in modern Indian literature is Ismat Chughtai’s collection of fiction and non-fiction Lifting the Veil where she explores female sexuality and lesbianism in pre-partition India. Chughtai was far ahead of her time. She braved the Lahore High Court’s charges of obscenity against her and continued to write about sexuality with her trademark wit and spunk. A lot has changed since the 1940s and today Indian authors write about these “niche” topics with relative freedom – there’s always a risk of offending some social/religious group, but most are published without much uproar.
Personal stories are an important part of the LGBTQIA+ repertoire. These books start conversations and talk about what it means to be queer without any pretence. In the anthology Loving Women: Being Lesbian in Unprivileged India, Maya Sharma brings ten real-life stories of what it means to be queer at the intersection of class, caste, and religion in North India. Vivek Tejuja’s memoir, So Now You Know: A Memoir of Growing Up Gay in India, is about growing up gay in 1990s’ India. He looks back at how cultural markers like Bollywood and the Indian family system shape queer identities. Parmesh Shahani in his memoir-cum-manifesto, Queeristan: LGBTQ Inclusion in the Indian Workplace, leads the conversation on how the conservative Indian office needs an immediate mindset makeover to make the workplace truly inclusive.
Memoirs of trans people have been translated into English from their native languages. The two autobiographies that are especially striking are The Truth About Me: A Hijra Life Story by A Revathi (translated from the Tamil by V Geetha) and Me Hijra, Me Laxmi by Laxminarayan Tripathi (translated from the Marathi by PG Joshi). Putting aside the literary merits of these writings, they nevertheless make for essential readings to understand the very particular stigmas attached to the trans community.
From historical to contemporary fiction, there’s a fair amount of LGBTQIA+ representation in modern Indian writings. In English, Manju Kapur’s A Married Woman and Ruth Vanita’s Memory of Light explore lesbianism against the backdrop of communal tensions and historical events. While the former is set in the early 2000s, the latter spans out in the 1780s – centuries apart, the stigma and illicitness of same-sex relationships persist in both narratives.
Among translations, Sachin Kundalkar’s Cobalt Blue (translated into English from the Marathi by Jerry Pinto) is a simple tale of love and heartbreak. Kundalkar juxtaposes the longing of the straight sister and her gay brother for the same man to illustrate the remarkable universality of love and lust.
Written in Kannada and translated into English by Rashmi Terdal, Mohanaswamy by Vasudhendra is a collection of interconnected short stories that lay bare the bigotry and hypocrisy that gay men face regularly in peri-urban India. While Kundalkar has been mostly private about his sexuality, Vasudhendra draws on his own experiences to add truth to fiction.
Poetry is perhaps the most intimate way to convey the truths about one’s self. Poet-activists like Akhil Katyal and Aditi Angiras have anthologised queer poems and prose-poems in The World That Belongs To Us: An Anthology of Queer Poetry from South Asia – it also includes the works of many young (and a few previously unpublished) queer poets from the region. Gay poets like Agha Shahid Ali find common ground between the personal and the political to illustrate how in war-ravaged lands (in his case, Kashmir), the simple act of falling in love with the person you desire can be an act of rebellion. His most popular collections of poetry are The Country Without a Post Office and The Veiled Suite.
Author-mythologist Devdutt Pattanaik’s Shikhandi and Other Tales They Don’t Tell You and The Pregnant King inspect how religion and sexuality intersect in queer storytelling. Amruta Patil also defies the genre of queer writings with Kari, an extraordinary, first-of-its-kind graphic novel on the issue. Here we see the eponymous Kari struggling to come to terms with her identity after she’s forced to attempt suicide. Patil addresses the conundrum of lesbianism in the modern Indian city.
Close, Too Close: The Tranquebar Book of Queer Erotica, edited by Meenu and Shruti, is a collection of erotic short stories from metros and small towns in India. This collection is a tender reminder that queerness has always been a part of the Indian identity, and not a western perversity as some would want you to believe.
Why we read queer stories
Out-and-proud public figures, Pride Marches, representation in media and literature, trustworthy and anonymous online forums, queer-friendly healthcare, and reforms in law are some of the ways through which the Indian queer community is asserting its identity.
Queer writings aren’t just reflections and representation, but a lesson in life itself. They ask for empathy for those who were left behind, and those who are (and will) go through the unfair struggle of living with dignity as their true selves. The fight is tough and far from over, but these writings anticipate a future of hope and change.