On May 31, 1924, Matvala, a Calcutta biweekly, carried a short story titled “Chocolate” by Pandey Bechan Sharma “Ugra”. In the opening passages, a lovesick Dinkar Prasad is likened to Majnun by the narrator as he flops into a chair reciting a sher to articulate, yet encode, his grief. Manohar Chandra, another friend, attempts decoding with chher chhaar, teasing him in Banarasi Hindi. When Dinkar commends his verse, Manohar exclaims: “Has your fine lady, Urdu, been defeated[…]?”
Later, an adolescent boy, Ramesh, appears at the door, and Dinkar darts off. Manohar duly informs the narrator that Ramesh is Dinkar’s chocolate – the object of his romantic-erotic affections – before launching on a tirade to deride his same-sex desire: “He’ll sift through history, finish off the Puranas, and prove to you that love of boys is not unnatural but natural.” In this brief overture, Ugra condensed competing linguistic, ethnic, and cultural assessors of homosexuality. “Chocolate” prefaced a long public discussion on the subject in pre-Independence India that was characterised not by a spirit of hypocrisy but, rather, by one of ambiguity.
Its publication had a dual effect. Ugra notes: “Lines of worry appeared on the brows of the grave; frivolous laughter coloured the cheeks of the shallow.” Letters to the editor of Matvala and to Ugra, both commending and condemning the depiction of homosexual desire, were plentiful. Inspired by the polarised reception, Ugra published Paalat (Kept Boy), Hum Fidaye Lakhnau (We Are in Love With Lucknow), Qamariya Nagin Si Balkhaye (Waist Curved Like a She-Cobra), and Chocolate Charcha (Discussing Chocolate) in Matvala that very year. Shortly after the publication of Chocolate Charcha in December 1924, Ugra was charged with sedition for editing the victory issue of Swadesh and sentenced to nine months in prison under section 124A of the IPC.
Afterwards, Ugra was surrounded by friends and critics imploring him to desist from writing about “Chocolate” as if his being found guilty and the queer fiction he had written immediately prior to this were somehow related. Ugra, true to his moniker, brushed them aside and wrote Hey Sukumar (O Beautiful Young Man!), Vyabhichari Pyar (Dissolute Love), and Jail Mein (In Prison), which he gathered with the Matvala titles written in 1924 and published as a collection of short fiction, Chocolate, in Calcutta in 1927.
Distance from moralism
Ugra’s critics, among whom Banarasidass Chaturvedi was most vocal, disapproved of the detached mimesis with which he wrote about homosexual inclinations in “Chocolate”. Chaturvedi was the editor of Vishal Bharat, which, with its “lofty moralism and high literary tone”, Ruth Vanita – who translated Chocolate into English – tells us, contended with the “colloquialism, satire, and acerbic humour” of Matvala. He anointed Ugra a ghaslet litterateur – someone who did not seek to remedy the ills of society but to provoke them simply by refraining from perpetuating desires that were “moral”.
Ugra’s distance from such moralism is stark in his fiction. The queer Hindu man is always allowed to counteract the borrowed Victorian heteronormative diminutions of his desires in a tit-for-tat rhetoric. In Kept Boy, Shriramcharanji locks horns with the narrator when he confesses to his affair with a young Harisundar Varma. John Keats’s seemingly aphoristic “beauty is truth, truth beauty” is adapted into the debate between the men.
“Do you call this love? […] A man to love a man for his beauty!” the narrator chides Shriramcharanji, who retorts: “But the world can’t run only according to your thinking. Truth must be respected wherever it is. Beauty alone is truth. So whether the beauty is a woman’s or a man’s, I am a slave of love’’. Shriramcharanji’s subsequent defence involves a citation of Bhakti poets – the Muslim poet, Raskhan, and the Hindu poets, Surdas and Tulsidas – and their blazons to avatars of Vishnu. Queer readings of the same-sex blazon is not alien to Ugra – in Chocolate, he references Shakespeare and his Fair Youth.
In several ways, the public discussion instigated by Chocolate (the “first public debate on homosexuality” in the Raj as claimed by Vanita) set several precedents for the 1944 trial of Ismat Chughtai vs The Crown in which Chughtai’s short story, “Lihāf”, was the object of arbitration. Chughtai remarked on the ambivalent nature of fiction in putting forth the truth or, at least, miming reality, and how, in doing so, it did not mandate moralism or propagandism. As she relayed to M Aslam, “no one ever told me that writing on the subject I deal with in “Lihāf” is a sin, nor did I ever read anywhere that I shouldn’t write about this…disease…or tendency”.
At the trial, a “witness” took offence with a female character “collecting ashiqs”. His accusation was in the same vein as Chaturvedi’s critique of Ugra. “It’s not obscene to mention them [such girls who are not ‘respectable’],” he claimed, “but for an educated woman from a respectable family to write about these girls merits condemnation.” But it does not necessitate legal action, Chughtai’s lawyer rebutted, and triumphed.
The ambiguity of authorial intent was common to both infamies. But, in our collective memory, we seldom recall Ugra as the progenitor of public discussions on queer sexualities in pre-Partition literary spheres. This is partly owing to the scale of the scandals. As an immediate antagonist of the Progressive Writers’ Movement, which Chughtai was a part of, the involvement of the Crown bolstered the visibility of the trial and the lesbianism in “Lihāf”.
Ugra’s critics and supporters moved mostly in Hindi literary circles, like Chaturvedi, Ramnath Lal “Suman” (who condemned same-sex desire in a commentary on Ugra’s Chocolate and Kept Boy in Matvala in 1924), and Suryakanth Tripathi “Nirala” (whose 1939 novel, Kulli Bhaat, was a quiet but empathetic appeal to shunners of queer men). At one point, however, Gandhi is recruited in this chocolate charcha. Vanita describes a momentous episode in 1929 when Chaturvedi’s wrote his critique of Chocolate and sent it off to Gandhi who included it in Young India without reading Ugra’s collection.
Soon thereafter, Gandhi read Ugra and found little to condemn. He wrote to Chaturvedi claiming how his reception to Chocolate was milder than Chaturvedi’s. The latter, disconcerted by Gandhi’s reception, prevented the letter from being publicly circulated until 1951. Ugra, a Gandhian himself, was discouraged by Chaturvedi’s piece in Young India, deeming it, perhaps, Gandhi joining forces with Chaturvedi to pronounce, once and for all, Ugra a ghaslet writer. Thereafter, he decided to take a hiatus from writing fiction to pursue a career in cinema in Bombay. Chaturvedi’s act of meddling with the circulation of Gandhi’s letter is endemic not only to the private literary wars hinged on sexual moralism but also to the contrived notion that being queer and being the appropriate citizen for the anticipatory independent India were mutually exclusive.
The masculine ideal
When Thomas Macaulay first looked at the Bengali man and deemed him “feeble even to Effeminacy”, he was a cog in a colonial machinery that transferred shame through a cascade effect. In Britain, many believed that aristocrats, by modelling themselves after the “effeminate” French, had maligned Anglo-Saxon “purity” and inspired a nation of men who had gone “soft and effeminate”. Commentators like Charles Kingsley, William Blake, Thomas Hughes, et al, concurred.
The colonial project found in the body of the Hindu man opportunities manifold, most prominently to mitigate the shame of effeminacy Britons faced in the metropole. Its proponents not only bolstered their own martial-masculine superiority by “feminizing” Hindu men but also prescribed an homme au corps idéal to which the Protestant Briton adhered more than the Hindu.
In her counter-masculinist albeit queer-blind critique of Hindu nationalism and their vociferous proponents, Make Me a Man!, Sikata Banerjee shows how the Indian Independence Movement produced figures like VD Savarkar and Swami Vivekananda who preached in a forked tongue. They instigated the renaissance of a pre-colonial masculinity to counter the shame of effeminacy passed on by the Britons. But in doing so, they mimicked the colonial rhetoric: they held dearly to those prized Protestant ideals.
Vivekananda prescribed the figure of the warrior-monk whose “hard’” nationalism was based on a robust body and devoted spirituality that could not be softened ([mis]read: feminised/weakened) by amorous exchanges with women. Savarkar’s figure of the Hindu soldier revived Rajput and Marathi valour in lieu of systemically producing antagonistic “others”, chief among them, the Mughals.
The traits perpetuated by colonisers were not rejected by Hindu nationalists. Instead, figures like Savarkar and Vivekananda strove to match the corps idéal. Like the Christian colonialists, Hindu nationalists found only a specific breed of men suitable to safeguard the nation: the chaste and militarised with specific ethno-religious affiliations streamlined for the sake of “purity” which often stood in for “unity”.
The audacity of being queer
This brings me to the second notable distinction between the scandals. Against a Hindutva rhetoric, Chughtai, as a Muslim woman, would have been doubly susceptible to being construed an “other”. Her victory at Lahore, an important one, ridiculed the chain of command that was slowly becoming conspicuous in pre-Partition India – a chain which began with the Protestant man of the metropole at the top, followed by the Hindu man, then, progressing on to “others”. Her victory diluted the potency of this chain by disempowering the Crown and extended a warning to the burgeoning supremacist attitudes of many Hindutva fanatics by showing how the chain would never be absolute.
Here, it would be useful to reiterate Bal Thackeray’s reaction to Deepa Mehta’s Fire, released in India in 1998, and for which “Lihāf” served as a very loose inspiration. He not only decreed that queer desire was alien to “our” culture, but also objected to the protagonists’ names, Radha and Sita, prominent figures in Hindu mythology, suggesting that they be amended to Shabana and Saira instead. With this comment, he other-ed, all at once, the female, the Muslim, and the queer in his monolithic determination of an Indian culture.
The cloistered wars that waged within the Hindi literary community, and Ugra’s imprisonment, which was not directly related to the homosexual men in his fiction, bore a distinct character to the other-ness of Chughtai and her queer women in “Lihāf”. Ugra, a fervent nationalist (one need not look farther than his short story, “Uski Ma” (“His Mother, Their Mother”), a staple in the ICSE curriculum, for evidence), and one of the foremost male writers of Hindi literature, became an anomaly.
With his ethnosexual affiliations, he was not as prone to being marginalised as Chughtai. But the audacity of his queer characters with which they made their case in the face of homophobia did little to betray Ugra’s own notions on queerness. His ambiguity lent a malleability to his fiction. Both critics and supporters of Ugra took advantage of this malleability in their defences.
However, Vanita draws our attention to how Ugra’s supporters defended him against censorship, not the homophobia. Whilst the opposing camp claimed that the stories would only excite queer desire, his supporters underlined the necessity for Chocolate to highlight what they also deemed a societal ill. It was a campaign to return Ugra to the graces of a nationalist movement from which he was swiftly being excluded only because he had not made his stance on homosexuality absolute.
And so to Section 377
Chughtai’s victory was a triumph of fiction’s ambivalence over a didacticism that was prescribed by nation-makers in the chain of command. It did not vehemently validate the legitimacy of queer desire during the Raj. Bereft of a national stage on which Chughtai’s win spoke for itself, Ugra had to make his case in a foreword to the collection.
Similar to Chughtai’s triumph, it appealed less to the concerns of homosexuals and even lesser to the “puppet-masters of government”. More pertinently, his foreword perfectly echoed the ambiguity that characterises the ambiguity of Thomas Macaulay’s Section 377 which was posthumously incorporated in the IPC in 1861.
In the Offences Against the Person Act effected in Britain the same year as Section 377, the focus remained prominently upon criminalising sodomy. The Sexual Offences Act of 1956 went a step further: under Unnatural Offences, it made acts of “gross indecency” among men, in public or in private, illegal. The Sexual Offences Act of 1967 amended the 1956 provision, making it legal for men over 21 to have sex privately in England and Wales. Scotland followed suit in 1981, and Northern Ireland the year after.
Unlike Britain, Macaulay’s Section 377 was not amended or elaborated upon in legal terms to tighten the meaning or determine in clearer terms those citizens most liable to being prosecuted. Although between 2017 and 2018, in a purgatorial state, it was legal for citizens to have sex privately but sodomy among consensual adults was still illegal, India never had explicit clauses to criminalise “gross indecency” or design a gendered layout of its culprits as Britain strove to.
It is rather telling, that Britain took great pains to streamline permissible sexual acts amongst men, to go so far as to have a separate clause to define, again, quite vaguely, decent behaviour between them. When Savarkar’s Hindu soldier and Vivekananda’s warrior-monk harkened to the Protestant ideals of militant masculinity, could following suit in this matter be far behind? Naturally, with the shame of effeminacy that Britain sought to delegate, a new shame, of queer shame, emerged in India, and merged with the shame of effeminacy.
Homosexuality and effeminacy became synonymous. Like the effeminate, the homosexual was deemed unfit, vociferously by the Hindu, to participate in nation-building, a practice from which women, queer or otherwise, were mostly excluded, unless they shed their femininity a-la-Manikarnika. And, most pertinently, Vanita informs us, another notable import at this time was the confluence of consensual homosexual desire with paedophilia, which homophobes often used as their “trump card”.
A certain ambiguity
Neither in “Lihāf” nor in Chocolate can one look past the disparity of ages. A recent article refocusses our attention on the child abuse inflicted by Begum Jaan on the narrator in “Lihāf”. The adolescent lovers of Ugra’s queer men (Ramesh in the title story resists Dinkar’s affections) might be Ugra’s appeal not against queerness but paedophilia.
In his foreword, Ugra calls upon “beautiful children, the small, flowerlike playthings of the country” to read his stories and “tremble for fear of the conspiracies, the temptations, the vices of those followers of chocolate”. Chocolate-panthi could therefore imply not the path of homosexuality but of child abuse. Yet, in his foreword, Ugra is ambiguous about whether he charges children to beware of paedophiles or of homosexuals who might affect their heterosexuality. It is this ambiguity which perhaps gnaws at his collection even to this day.
Reading Ugra’s near-forgotten collection inspires us to examine the process of ambiguity by means of which homosexuality and paedophilia were congealed in criminality during the Raj, then separated in the September 6, 2018 judgment. The ambiguity of the “order of nature” that made Macaulay’s words malleable was perhaps consciously echoed in Ugra’s own malleability. Perhaps, he was telling us, in coded cadences, that the 2018 expungement of queer sex and queerness from the congealed illegality of paedophilia and bestiality needed to happen sooner. Perhaps his supposed homophobia, which Vanita refers to many times without nuance, was a means to satirise the nationalists who were ironically colonial mimics.
Chocolate is also the evidence of palimpsestic comprehensions of homosexuality that have accumulated through history. The cultural congealment of pre-colonial literary traditions of depicting queer desire, the Victorian intrusion, and the Hindu-national renaissance that hoped to delete effeminate/queer shame are all packed in Ugra’s stories. Dinkar’s shayari harkens to a long tradition in Urdu literature to articulate queer desire: Rekhti poetry is perhaps the most prominent of these forms. In “Dissolute Love”, Devsingh decries his friend Kalyanchandra’s attraction to boys by claiming: “the shadow of Muslim poets has fallen on this Hindi poet”.
Here, perhaps, Ugra mocked the competitive tendencies Hindu nationalism had taken. By foregoing laundebaazi to refer to his queer men as followers of “chocolate”, he wanted to qualify queer desire with something that was “universally popular”, or simply universal, and showed how “ineradicably Western tastes are a part of modern Indian identity”. Or, as I deem it, how the institutionalised homophobia inaugurated by Macaulay, though expelled now, would be, like most freedoms, a fragile one, that will be preserved using myriad rhetorics borrowed from distinct ethnosexual cultures, as Shriramcharanji does in Kept Boy, a practice that goes against any monolithic ideals some factions harbour in India today.