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
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
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
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
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.