Read To Win

Why we don’t (and why we do) need a LGBTQ label for fiction

Five books that establish the best things about titles classified in this category.

My initial reaction, when asked to pick my favourite (Indian) LGBTQ themed books, was why? I’m deeply uncomfortable with labels. Surely a book about love is about love – whether it’s LBGTQ or “straight”.

What is a label meant to indicate? That the book might be of interest only to that group? I’m wary of how labels can be dangerously reductive – after all, a good book is many different things and might appeal to many different types of readers. Labels essentialise a text, making it about one thing, and by doing so potentially narrows its readership.

But I do concede that publishers, on the other hand, might also use them to try and ensure that the books end up in the hands of people who are most likely to love them. Labels perhaps function as signposts, to give readers an idea of the subject matter the book deals with, or guides – “if you liked that, you might like this”.

Some also argue that particular labels – Black writing, Jewish literature, and of course, LGBTQ – carry with them a persecuted history, and hence must be reclaimed and made visible while working to transform the mainstream. And given that Section 377 still hasn’t been overturned and booted back to the Victorian Age where it belongs, perhaps this is a point worth considering.

My second reaction, when asked to pick my favourite (Indian) LGBTQ themed books, was ‘but there are so many’. How wonderful is that? There is much to look forward to.

Cobalt Blue, Sachin Kundalkar
Translated from the Marathi by the very adept Jerry Pinto, Cobalt Blue reads like a love song. It tells the story of two siblings, Tanay and Anuja, who both fall in love with the enigmatic man who comes to stay in their house as a paying guest. The novella is split in half – told first from the perspective of Tanay, followed by Anuja, and their interior narratives circle around their beloved until he suddenly disappears and is lost from their lives.

Kundalkar’s writing is masterful in its play of voice, capturing through his characters the claustrophobia of a small town, their longing to escape a middle class existence, and how love, and being in love, has the ability to transform every small detail from the mundane to the magnificent.

Close to Home, Parvati Sharma
Parvati Sharma followed her splendid debut, The Dead Camel and Other Stories About Love, with the equally engaging Close to Home. They’re both, in their own way, explorations on love and sexuality, rife with Sharma’s wonderful ear for dialogue, and wickedly lively sense of humour. Close to Home is set in the familiar confines of South Delhi, and opens with Mrinalini and Jahanara in love, sharing soupy Maggi, rain drenched afternoons, and cheap whisky.

Soon, though, fissures appear – caused by Jahanara’s affluent boyfriend and the promise of marital bliss. Sharma unpacks the politics of gender and class through elegantly muted, skilfully understated writing.

A Married Woman, Manju Kapoor
With an opening line that reads “Astha was brought up properly, as befits a woman, with large supplements of fear” it’s easy to see why Manju Kapur’s A Married Woman is on this list. Her second novel is deep, dark, intelligent, and moves with furious swiftness. Astha is a good middle class girl growing up in 1970s Delhi, who marries Hemant, a man approved by her mother. Soon outgrowing the confines of motherhood and marriage, though, she becomes involved with a local troupe that performs political theatre.

With a backdrop of the Babri Masjid incident, there is impending tragedy, of course, but it also means she meets Pipee. The two women slowly, shyly fall in love, an awakening that that is magnetic and magical.

Quarantine, Rahul Mehta
Rahul Mehta’s stories linger. They’re written in masterfully quiet strokes, crisp, clear language, and manage to manoeuvre poignantly through the complications of being gay, seeking social acceptance, losing love. The characters in Quarantine, openly gay Indian American men, must negotiate the swirling, stormy waters of “Western” cosmopolitanism and their families and cultural traditions.

In the first eponymous story, the narrator’s boyfriend asks him, on a visit to his home, “Why did you touch your grandfather’s feet?” He replies that it’s a sign of respect. “I know, but you don’t respect him.” There’s a tussle at the heart of Mehta’s stories, between all sorts of displacements.

Trying to Grow, Firdaus Kanga
Published in 1991, this semi-autobiographical novel is set in Mumbai, and recounts the life of a young boy born with Osteogenesis imperfecta, a Latin medical term for brittle bones. Daryus, (hence nicknamed Brit), may never grow to be taller than four feet, but as his mother says, “It’s the heights you reach that count, not the height you are.” And Trying to Grow, terrifically moving and funny, reaches far and high.

The book treats homosexuality as it should be – as if it did not matter. Because love and desire must simply be that ungendered. Brit occupies spaces of much marginalisation, he’s queer and physically specially abled, yet the book places him and his family right at the centre of life.

Janice Pariat is the author of a collection of short stories, Boats on Land, and a novel, Seahorse.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”


“Like what?”


A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”




“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:


This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.