Written over the course of more than two decades, The Audacity of Pleasure by Brinda Bose is a smorgasbord of stimulating and illuminating pieces about politics, language, law, methodology and cinema in the Indian context.

The fascinating collection comprises academic essays, journal articles and pieces previously published online, providing seasoned insight into subjects ranging from the invisible politics of (linguistic/cultural/state/self-instigated) censorship and the affective import of queer erotica to the tropes of an anti-novel, queer methods within the humanities and the intricacies of kinship between individuals belonging to the community of hijras in India.

Of vigilantism

The essays underscore how the threat and realities of institutional violence can spur a history of risk and resistance among liminal communities outside and, often, inside established political and state institutions. The arguments presented here illustrate the necessity of using unflinching non-compliance as a transgressive tactic in building up the strength necessary to confront right-wing aesthetic supremacy and conservative authoritarianism.

The short essay, “Vigilantism – Left, Right and Wrong” is particularly enjoyable for its mordant critique of academia and its refusal to throw up easy solutions to the problems of political ambivalence paired with ethical equivocation among academics. “Vigilantism, clearly, is the raw, stinging flavour of the season,” it begins, and goes on to provide a well-rounded critique of approaches adopted towards queerness within academia and without, especially in the arena of Indian realpolitik.

Clear-eyed, sharp, archly comic in parts, the essay boldly holds up a critical lens through which to view not only right-wing political actors and erstwhile left liberals, but also the individuals within academia who “drink coffee, hang out at all the left-leaning or liberal conferences, apparently leaning left or being liberal together...Such is the power and persuasion of the ethical good that wisdom and maturity and loyalty and familial bliss appear just around the corner, tantalisingly within reach – where each of them can claim a Bodhi tree and win peace as an award”.

Sexuality and identity

In “Hijra Intimacies and Inheritances”, sociology, ethnography, law and literary studies slide into one another to deliver an anthropological account of sexuality, inheritance and social identity. This chapter delves into the structures of inter-personal relationships within the hijra community – rituals, forms and expressions of sexuality and the paradigms pervading their lives, due to which they have been unjustifiably marginalised and denied visibility as a legitimate minority group in the eyes of the Indian legal system.

The author’s focus on terms like “antinormativity” and “nonconformity” here are critical buttresses to her line of inquiry, which marks their status as a liminal group present within the larger social fabric in India. The chapter also discusses some of the intricacies of the guru-chela relationship and the economics of the hijra household, while championing their potential for forging solidarities with other marginalised groups in order to strengthen their case for equal rights from a state apparatus that primarily seeks to oppress them. It discusses the evolving relationship between hijras (who are often legally grouped in the same category as transfolk) and the Indian judicial system with regards to questions of capital and sexuality – the economics of risk and pleasure.

The noteworthy photo essay, which makes up the last chapter of the book, chronicles various Durga Pujas organised by liminal collectives of transgender people and sex workers all over Kolkata. They are the fringe elements of the city who reassert their pluck and audacity each year by partially reclaiming urban space for themselves by participating in the grandest religious festival in their own neighbourhoods. Indeed, this is the kind of audacity the title of the book implies – this refusal to kowtow in the face of mistreatment and virulent discrimination; this transgression, dissent against – and subversion of – prevailing cultural prejudices.

A new normative?

At the time of publication of this book, it was not known conclusively that Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, which criminalises homosexuality, would be successfully overturned only a few months afterwards. Some of the essays here deal with the state of the struggle for queer acceptance and visibility, its formative factors, and the many possible directions it may veer towards in the near future.

The author cautions against a loss of daring on the part of LGBTQ projects and against the possible homonormativity that may end up being spawned as a result of the former. A question that resurfaces time and again through the essays is that once queerness has managed to achieve the position of the normative/status quo, how far and to what degree it will go to see itself being assimilated into the conservative fray.

“Queer rights activists, as some are already realising, must therefore be cautious of their supposed comrades in a common fight,” Bose warns. “They must realise the nature of such politics from who they have thought are likeminded fire-fighters in this political long-haul.” In other words, will the “queer dream” be like that of any other heterosexual family-oriented person who wishes to settle down into a comfortable domestic life of stability and non-risk? Will that be in keeping with the oblique spirit of queer resistance, she asks in the book, “locked into conservative traditions of family and community at home, where sex is almost shameful and the non-heterosexual is invisibilised”?

Desire and cinema

In a historical materialist reading of transgressive desire, “When the Towel Drops: Sexuality, Censorship and Cinema” advocates risk-taking as method and a political position to adopt. In the Bose’s hands, questions involving desire and transgression no longer seem disconnected from other political, philosophical concerns. She cites the instances of factory workers in Ranciere’s Proletarian Nights, who break their usual work/rest pattern demanded by the trammels of an exploitative economy in order to make room for errant nights of reading for pleasure instead of sleeping, and of sex workers in Shohini Ghosh’s Tales of the Night Fairies jokingly letting on that some of them do, in fact, enjoy their work some of the time.

Like the dreams of Ranciere’s factory workers, the “[h]umanities invites us to take that risky imaginative leap”. By looking at these moments of activity and confession as deviant, out-of-the-norm, unusual, she embeds gender in a perspective that integrates desire with the dynamics of labour. This helps bear out her argument about the subversive power of pleasure in the neoliberal economy that functions on an ethos of homogenising anomalies and ironing out any aberrations in an attempt to create a society that is entirely acquiescent.

In her discussion of Deepa Mehta’s film, Fire, Bose agrees with the notion that Mehta has expanded the tropes of queer imaginary within Indian (diasporic) cinema, but specified that the film continues to remain problematic in many ways. She discusses the role of female agency in the lesbian representation in the film, where much is left to be desired, debated, clarified and investigated. In “Modernity, Globality, Sexuality and the City”, Bose explicates the politics of the female gaze in the film with as much dexterity as when she subverts conventional readings of gender in Satyajit Ray’s Charulata.

Further, she examines how female sexual desiring emerges “in a synecdochal relationship with the modernising process” and problematises dichotomies (inner/outer, stasis/development, modernity/tradition) present in post-Independence, postcolonial Indian cities as a gendered, political limning of the city space.

In keeping with the ethos of conveying symbolism through fragmentation, Bose opines that Ray’s minimalist cinematography through “heaps of broken, or focused, images of bodies and their disparate parts” (including Charu’s pair of opera glasses as a recurrent image throughout the film) might, in fact, be indicative of “subtle (or intellectualised) sexualities” employed in order to portray masculinities and femininities within the city.

Claiming space

Even when, at times, Bose’s contentions are embedded in the matrix of legal cases and frameworks of social science theories, they are firmly moored to the shores of literary studies. She makes exciting use of a theoretical framework consisting of philosophy, literary studies, visual studies and postcolonial studies, and bravely examines issues that have nestled undetected in the folds of discourses on gender and society, holding them up to the light with assiduousness, rigour and sensitivity.

Bose’s politically engaged critique of issues doesn’t shy away from speaking truth to power – contextualising politics, activism, feminism, queer theory broadly into the terms of resistance against the flagrantly fascistic government currently in place in the country is an admirably bold move here. The debates presented within the book claim space for popular culture, propaganda/advertisements (for instance, to spread awareness about domestic abuse), critically-acclaimed films and queer erotica, which are themselves a part of the political machinery necessary to subvert such an administration.

If you’re going to read one book on gender in South Asia this year, let it be this one. Read this book and let its moxie and chutzpah rub off on you. This provocative, deeply engaging, audacious book of essays is an utterly vital addition to the currently-existing non-fiction literature on gender and sexuality in India.

The Audacity of Pleasure: Sexualities, literature and cinema in India, Brinda Bose, Three Essays Collective.