Saikat Majumdar’s new novel, The Remains of the Body, is a book of strange desires that are imagined as shaping our most cherished relationships. It pushes a question for whom the time has now come – when will queerness stop being a marginal identity in India? While non-normative genders and sexualities become routine on Netflix, our governments start to clamp registration numbers on live-in relationships, and the fate of same-sex marriage is tossed back and forth between the legislature and the judiciary.

Hoshang Merchant, the iconic poet of heartfelt Yaarana, fought his early battles alone, for his gay identity as for his place in the literary tradition. Few have charted the paths he has, and few have lived to tell the tale the ways he has. Merchant started out at a time when this was a hard and lonely battle. He spoke to Saikat Majumdar, the novelist who sees queerness everywhere. Excerpts from the conversation:

You don’t live the queer life but cast a sympathetic eye on it since it’s everywhere. In your new book, The Remains of the Body, bisexuality is spelt out because this is how Californians including some NRIs live. Could you amplify my observation?
I love that you say “you don’t live a queer life” – rather than trying to say what I am or not. And it’s clear why you do: “since it’s everywhere”. “Queer”, for me, is anything that deviates from normative desire. But does the norm actually exist? Or is it just the abstract model of an absurd ideal? Difficult desires have often shaped my fiction – a young son’s obsession with his performer mother [The Firebird], gay love in a Hindu monastic boarding school [The Scent of God], the erotic energy of learning and pedagogy as it comes alive in poetry.

You will know, if anyone does, that “perverse” desire is such a great artistic force. What was that beautiful line you wrote about your young student who fell in love with you? “Jasmine and I used to make love like two lesbians.” The Remains can be imagined this way too: what are the physical frontiers of friendship between grown men who imagine themselves to be heterosexual, especially primitive childhood friendship that includes shared puberties? Can heterosexual intimacy be a conduit for a whole other kind of desire? What is the role of the woman in this triangulation? You have changed forms between mother, son, lover, and teacher like an Ovidian figure, haven’t you?

I was queer before the formulation of queer, gay before the formula for gay. I lived this life and those who came after now write the theory. Some write to formula but you are fresh because you are close to childhood. The poet is always a child. In my poems, I tell stories. I’m a novelist manque. Tell me why you always use indirection except in this NRI book where what Nissim Ezekiel used to call the semi-literate generation speaks? Why do you use this Indian Californian pidgin now forsaking your poetry?
I could see that coming. Pidgin, you say? Let me remind you of the migrant Chicano labourer whom you brought home in your student digs in Michigan in the early 1970’s. After intimacy, when you went to the kitchen to make tea, “a light liqueurish which smelt of home”, he stole your beautiful Nepali knife, to create, not beauty but violence. How strange that I have the stirrings of a similar incident in this novel. But it doesn’t actually happen. Not the invitation, not the tea, and certainly not the violence. But there is a moment, poised with dangerous pidgin promise. That is probably what comes across as indirection.

I’m fascinated by confusion. That draws me to children and teenagers, who shaped two of my previous novels. Early years are made of powerful feelings that you can’t make sense of – and this failure makes for rich art. But I realise more and more that adults too remain confused all their lives. If the sexual coming of age is a sharp threshold for adulthood, we cross and re-cross that threshold in so many visible and invisible ways through life. My adults in this novel talk smart, yes – but inside, they are as confused as children. Friendship, marriage, adultery – they are all crafted by this beautiful, destructive confusion.

Yes, the adult is also only half-literate emotionally. The immigrant is infantilised because he doesn’t speak the standard dialect. He is sexually immature because he can’t make sense of American sexual freedom and the violence so close to sex. Men who are failures in the office have violent sex with their wives. Immigrants wiping out their families with American guns are less and less rare. Sexual violence against the homosexual by the immigrant is a snatching back of manhood forfeited by the State.

The then illegality of homosexuality made for sissy beating in the community. But in your remarkable novel, The Scent of God, adolescent school sex even between teacher and student comes not as a denunciation of pederasty but as a liberation for pent-up adolescent boys and their teaching monks. We can’t talk of sex – you seem to say. We can only sense its scent. Am I right? Am I right to say that? You are never callous. Hence you are a poet. Tell us about this saying by NOT saying which I find poignant, which brings me to tears as few Indian English novels do.
This melts something inside me, that The Scent of God moved you so much! You, one of my word-icons since my apprenticeship days with P Lal in St Xavier’s College, Calcutta. Long before I thought about the question of the erotic that I would explore in my novels later. The atmospheric was always important to me, and it was the maddening mix of the spiritual and the homoerotic – often intensely homosexual – culture of the Hindu monastic boarding school that made me fictionalise it in The Scent.

The inexpressible keeps drawing me fatally. When a man looks at his best buddy’s wife and thinks that she has known his buddy in intimate ways he never will – what is that feeling? Regret, sadness, anger, utopia? If he touches his friend’s wife, is he shaped by straight or a hidden queer desire? For most people leading heteronormative lives, these questions will always lie beyond expression. What happens, tell me, to your male-male yaraana with a woman in between? The common filmi version is rivalry, but can straight desire hide a queerer one?

Saikat Majumdar's latest novel.

Freud said that long ago; India didn't listen but Hoshang the Hindi filmgoer always knew the two heroes were more interested in each other than the heroine.

Hence the orgasmic bloodletting of the climatic fight between the two in formula films. Fathers don’t interest me. I forgot what happened to the dad in The Firebird. Perhaps he remarried? Mine did. I was forced to tackle with my monster parent because he lived so long and idiotically wouldn’t relinquish power despite senility. Perhaps a thwarted love turned to hate. Thwarted in my case because of my open homosexuality which matters more to me than his raggedy love. I can be very hard in the name of self-preservation. Assault on me was never innocent. They meant to kill. To abolish homosexuality. I was innocent of the motive until recently.
And you have the scars on your body and soul to prove it. Don’t you? That last line of your poem, Gujarat: “How far does one go into history to find kindness?” That line bleeds. You read the private in terms of public politics beautifully, and that draws me deep. Sexual life has always been a bitterly and intensely political thing, and this is something you’ve shown insistently in your poetry and essays. And now, more than ever – with laws tightening around living together and tempers flying around new kinds of marriages and civil unions.

No matter how powerful the spectacle of public politics in the postcolonial state – Partition and Emergency and now Gujarat and beyond – I’ve always fallen like gravity into the politics of the bedroom, kitchen, and the neighbouring chai adda, schools and colleges – which have dominated my writing. How do marriage and sexuality shape and be shaped by immigrant ambition? This is also a question for The Remains – question you have dealt with in so many ways, from your Zoroastrian origins in the Middle East to your American graduate student experience. Migration, too has been an erotic question for you, no?

Migration is love among the underdogs. But dogs like rats in a cage turn on each other. Suits the Establishment fine.

I have one last question for you. The modernism of either/ or belief will put me as gay and u as straight. Now u as a post-modernist are courageous enough to queer ourselves. What can you do as an influential writer to support gays on Civil union if not gay marriage for India which the Supreme court squashed. I'm asking you because I was bitter that Sudhir Kakkar didn’t mention the word homosexuality in his vast oeuvre on Indian sexuality. He breezily told me Indian medical association has struck off homosexuality off its list of mental diseases. TWENTY years after the American Medical association did so. I was a criminal for 73 years of my life before the Supreme Coury judgment legalised homosexuality. What can people like you do to support us gays and educate public opinion in a post-modernist world in a country with a feudal and colonial attitude to homosexuality. Could you a married man stick your head out?
I cannot even begin to bear the load of that powerful statement: “I was a criminal for 73 years.” Oh, but you’ve made crime such a thing of jouissance, such ecstasy! We’ve got such writing out of this criminal life. Homosexuality is de-criminalised now but may Hoshang Merchant never be! You are beyond legal recognition – that is a different matter, but yes, recognition is crucial for a marginalised community. Both on practical and symbolic levels. I believe people who identify as members of such a community must take leadership in this movement for rights and recognition, with the rest following their lead and rallying behind for support. The support has to come from all strata of society, but the terms of the movement must be set by members who identify.

I’m here at least twice over. First, as an artist and thinker who imagines queerness as all-pervasive, and hence the true norm of society. The actual norms we create are there for the state and the needs of the capitalist marketplace, which the heteronormative family, with its focus on property and inheritance and labour, serves well. But does it bring happiness and fulfilment? No one asks as long as society functions, howsoever dysfunctionally. But as an artist and intellectual, I’m not answerable to the state and the market and so I push spaces of imagination where queerness is the true drive for creativity.

But I’m also here as a citizen – and that is the part that comes out when I’m writing an op-ed article or teaching a course – and to the true citizen, this is a matter of civil rights. And it must be extended to all adults without distinction made about life and love preferences. And rights bring the same responsibilities with them. I’ve always stuck my head out. And it feels like that no longer. I have two children, a ten-year-old boy and a 14-year-old girl, and to the young generation of today shapeless sexuality is the norm far more than I could have imagined when I was that age – and I’m sure when you were there as well. I teach and I write and as an educationist I speak to many high school students, teachers, counsellors and parents. Faith changes a little every time. That too, is the plea in this novel – queerness resides in places supposedly straight folks expect the least. But they have to deal with it, no matter how much they wish to deny it all.

Hoshang Merchant is an Indian poet. He is a preeminent voice of gay liberation in India and modern India’s first openly gay poet.