I discovered Sarmad, the naked saint of Dilli, accidentally, while researching for a work of fiction. His story, not unusual for those times, mentions his obsessive love for a Hindu boy named Abhai Chand. They lived together in the city of Shahjahanabad, now in Old Delhi, in 17th century. Eventually executed by Aurangzeb for his support of Dara Shikoh, neither Sarmad’s poetry nor his relationship with Chand was considered criminal. It was a time in Delhi when same-sex desire was celebrated and love in diverse forms accepted. It was a more liberal and evolved Delhi than we will know in our lifetimes.
Reading Sunil Gupta and Charan Singh’s book Delhi: Communities of Belonging is to sift through a map of Delhi’s queer communities, numerous as they are. Set in modern Delhi, it could be the story of any large Indian urban city.
The characters of this book are drawn from differing times, social and economic classes and provide a chronicle of how much Delhi has changed and yet it has not. This was the city where the colonial law criminalising same-sex love was read down and then reinstated. It is also a city where one of India’s most visible queer communities emerged and exists till today.
Labels such as gay are too restrictive and unaccommodating, as we run through these stories. They were always somewhat alien in our contexts. Perhaps the more suitable terms to describe the dominant emotions, while engaging with the book, are desire, companionship, and love.
What do the images tell us? The queer people in this book, in Delhi or in India’s large urban cities, are now increasingly confident and unafraid. The pictures have a self-assurance and remarkable candour. They offer no discomfort with who they are. From the observed, they are in turn part of the observation. Still not free of violence, discrimination or societal pressure, they are striving to live free and independent lives.
Through these images, we see the stories of lives in transition, some shackled, though determined to be unbound in a society at odds with its own liberal history and inclusiveness. The images speak to us of love, desire, longing and conflict. These stories are also filled with a seeking of love and light (to borrow from Gupta).
In these images, the environment bears mute, sometimes grudging, witness to these desires. The economics of the city plays itself out, when presenting sharp contrasts in the choices that the privileged and economically independent have, compared to those that do not.
Jatin, one of the subjects of this book, reminds us that marriage is still a requirement for many to exist within families. You are then forced either to construct an alternative life, or break away from the patriarchy. I know at least two persons who could do neither and ended their lives, unable to reconcile this contradiction.
For some of us, who were part of Delhi’s queer movement almost two decades ago, Delhi’s transformation is apparent. In our early years of sexual explorations in this city, we discovered friendships, desire and love in public spaces across the city. We crossed class boundaries and lived dangerously, seeking both love and sexual fulfilment. It was a journey of self-discovery but also a discovery of Delhi’s numerous sub-cities. We did not care or perhaps had no other option. Boundaries did not matter – we sought fervently whatever was available.
Those who came out were few. We were a visible minority within an invisible one. This has changed substantially now. Numerous friends are now out, others are happily coupled in long-term relationships. They are stridently confident of their identity, within families, with friends and even at their workplaces.
This is why Gupta and Singh’s work is significant. This is not just a book about Delhi’s queer community, but a map to the numerous cities within Delhi. Through the narratives, this book questions labels and boundaries. What does it mean to be gay or homosexual in India today? Do these terms even define us? How different is our language of desire and identity across classes? Who has access to a community? Do these communities have access to each other? This book raises all these questions and is a reminder that in these times, we urgently need a new politics about desire, love, our sexualities and rights.
Where does it begin? From the stories and pictures in this book, to the conversation within homes, to television characters on our screens. Every change is useful, every protest remarkable and every pushback worthwhile.
The stories in this book are defiant, steady and filled with protest. A calm self assured dignified protest underlies every image. Protest to norms of sexuality, to neatly bound categories, and to restrictions on love.
Through these images the two artist-photographers present a stunning interweaving of multiple narratives to remind us that law or society cannot bind human desire and love. In these intolerant times, theirs is an instructive book to read to understand love and desire in a city of naked saints and other remarkable inhabitants.
The images are excerpted from the book Delhi: Communities of Belonging by Sunil Gupta and Charan Singh, published by The New Press. All images are © Sunil Gupta & Charan Singh.