“How did Hoshang become a gay icon for India? Who could tell better than himself? So listen to it and do not weep because weakness will not arouse you into action. After Hoshang had done lamenting, he found his true potential as he placed on this earth to do.

He has written an autobiography. There are big holes in it. Holes pertaining to family, friends, and lovers. Those holes are not to be filled. They are there for a purpose, to protect other people’s privacy. He may expose only himself in the autobiography.”

This is how the chapter on Hoshang Merchant begins in Gay Icons of India, with an admittance of “holes” in his previous writing. Holes are objects of treasures for queer people – it is what they love the most. But holes are also lethal; they kill. The earlier generation of queers can bear testimony to this – those who died of AIDS, those on whose corpse the queer movement gradually built itself.

It is this love-hate relation to holes that Merchant and Rath translate into their writing, which shifts registers between pleasure and pathos, achievement and failure, community and loneliness. The book, divided into three sections – “Forerunners”, “Contemporaries”, “A Future Past” – takes readers on a rollercoaster ride through three generations of gay men and women: Stories of their lives, loves, losses, struggles, achievements, joys, activisms, and artistic practices.

The word “icon”, derived from the Greek eikōn, means “likeness”, “portrait”, or “image”. Given its religious etymology, the names of icons are written in stone – in that sense, they command absolute reverence and devotion. Icons do not allow for mobility or critique – they are larger than life impressions who occupy altars and pedestals. But who, even in their distant dream, would dare to imagine the gays, fairies, and queers to be anything but this pious?

Two impossibilities make a possibility

To that extent, the phrase “gay icons” is a paradox unto itself. It is a paradox that authors Hoshang Merchant and Akshaya K Rath do not shy away from. In fact, they hold on to in their book Gay Icons of India, which showcases twenty-two English-speaking, urban, queer personalities – including artists, filmmakers, dancers, poets, and activists.

The book opens up two impossibilities for its readers: First, the impossibility of “cataloguing” gay icons, and second, holding on to any kind of political coherence. Toe begin with, one realises that the book names some icons, while others are only implied. For instance, the chapter on Hoshang Merchant is subtitled “When Mourning Became Meena Kumari” and opens with quotes by Shakespeare and Keats. We know how gays love to dance to Meena Kumari’s songs - the high-end melodrama, the grandeur of the cinema sets, and the graceful and aesthetic appeal of the tragedienne provide a site for campy queer identification.

Similarly, the chapter on Rituparno Ghosh begins with an invocation of Chapal Rani/Bhaduri, the queen of Bengali jatra. It is interesting and important to observe that iconicity in this text is as much reified as it is citational. The authors have crafted a way to read this iconicity in multiple ways, extending beyond those who have earned full-length chapters, thereby making the book communitarian in its impulse and resisting the drive towards individualism.

A rainbow in many senses

However, no community is pure and complete. Gays are not one happy family – they are divided not only along the lines of class, caste, or religion, but also politics. Merchant and Rath’s book makes no pretence to claim any political uniformity in their selection of “gay icons”. This is why Ashok Row Kavi and Ashley Tellis are made to cohabit the space of the text, while they might radically differ in their political opinions. The sheer diversity and range of names that the authors choose – in terms of temporality, profession, and location – only reveal the impossibility of imagining a singular narrative of queer politics and history in India.

This is a book of many stories, which at times reverberate with one another, and sometimes drift away from each other, contributing towards the experiential richness and diversity of the text, which is also the reality of queer lives in India. The authors themselves acknowledge this when they admit: “ one can see that there is no monolithic lesbian or queer collective in India.”

To this extent, the book offers something for everybody. Readers can churn their own narrative of iconicity from this text. My favourite chapters are the ones on Hoshang Merchant, Bhupen Kakkar, Agha Shahid Ali, Rituparno Ghosh, Amruta Patil, and Ashley Tellis. They are sharp, brilliant, witty, and campy in tone and content – perfect to match the intellectual tang of these personalities who are stalwarts in their own disciplines.

However, what is worth salvaging from this book is the sprinkled salt and pepper sarcasm – the tongue-in-cheek nature of comments that lend a gay flavour even to the object of critique. For instance, in the introduction to the book, when Merchant and Rath scorn at section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, they say: “Macaulay, who laid down the sexual laws for India, was an old Victorian Bachelor.” This statement is preceded by the remark: “homophobia is engendered by closet gays, not by straight men who are sure of their sexuality.” The pieces of the jigsaw puzzle are laid here for you, without making any direct observation or connection; the readers are free to take meaning out of this!

With all its flamboyance and stylistic mellifluousness, though, what Gay Icons of India lacks is a consistency of voice. Despite its twin authorship, the unnamed first person narrator, confuses the reader as to whether it is Merchant or Rath!

There can be a queer defence to this strategy of writing, where the “I” may be made to signify more than one, resisting a consecration of identity. But I am not willing to buy that argument because, if it is a conscious strategy, it is poorly executed. One who is familiar with the style of Hoshang Merchant’s writings can clearly distinguish between his chapters and those by Rath.

As academic Jonathan Gil Harris points out in the epilogue, at a time when India is driven by a vision of a Hindu rashtra, Gay Icons of India presents people from different communities and backgrounds – Christian, Muslim, Parsi, Sikh, Hindu – not simply saying “we are here and we are queer” but also articulating that “we” are more than one and many. And if none of this tempts you to savour the book already, its Andy Warholesque cover may be irresistible.

Gay Icons of India

Gay Icons of India, Hoshang Merchant and Akshaya K Rath, Pan Macmillan India.

Rahul Sen teaches courses on critical writing, literature, feminism, and sexualities at Ashoka University, Sonepat.