One cannot help but pause and appreciate the cover page of Vikram Kolmaanskog’s latest collection of stories, titled Lord of the Senses, published by Team Angelica. It is not possible to read or review the book without being smitten by Kolmaanskog’s beauty as he poses with a flute as Krishna in the image which adorns the cover.
In many ways, the sensuousness of the title anticipates the synaesthetic dimensions of the text, which strives to fuse the five senses in an orgasmic or trance-like state. The book must, therefore, be read as a (w)hole – from cover to cover – not simply relying on the written words but on the many sights, smells, silences, touches, tastes, pauses, images, and voices that tie and lend shape to the text.
I finished reading Lord of the Senses, which is a collection of twenty-one stories on desire, sexuality, spirituality, belonging, family, cruising, and more, at a time when the country was burning and raging against the Citizenship Amendment Act. At a moment when the current political dispensation is attempting to homogenise the narrative about what it means to be “Indian” by serving singular truths about religion, identity, caste, and nationality, Kolmaanskog’s stories open the multiple cracks and crevices that inform these categories.
The political valence of these stories, like any great work of art, lies in refusing to consolidate identity – religious, racial, national, or sexual – and continuously gyrates around their possibilities, impossibilities, and failures. Notwithstanding the fact that the book is written by a self-proclaimed gay man and most of the stories centre around queer desires, queerness in the text can also be experienced in the aesthetics of the narrative that transgresses boundaries and cannot be contained within the narrow limits of identities. It is this aspect of Kolmaanskog’s writing that I will elaborate upon.
Sex is the fulcrum
In a story titled “Fucking Delhi”, Kolmannskog writes: “I guess it is...an identity thing, how we define our small selves, us versus them, but friendship and literature can challenge narrow views and reveal the complexities of people and places.” This meta-textual insight seems to be at the crux of the text and drives the narrative of Lord of the Senses.
Sometimes this anti-identitarian trope is a conscious literary strategy. For instance, in the story titled “Raavan Leela”, the author documents his sexual intimacies with a dalit man. One wonders what it means for a half-Indian, half-Norwegian man, who flirts with both Hinduism and Buddhism, to moan and say “come inside me” to a dalit person? Sex is the fulcrum in the text which takes away identities, confounding and complicating them rather than pinning them down to monolithic truths.
This literary strategy is, however, not simply limited to the level of the plot but also the form of the text. There are at least three ways in which one can witness this. First, in the opening story which revolves around Meera’s desire for Krishna, the author makes fiction, history, and mythology coalesce. Through this fictionalisation of history and historicisation of fiction, Kolmaanskog wittingly or unwittingly lifts the frail divide which maintains these as separate fields of inquiry. This story is neither fiction nor history, and simultaneously both fiction and history.
Secondly, the author experiments with the form of story-telling by deviating from the standard prose style. The story titled “Engagement” is written as an exchange of dialogue between individuals, which is conventionally akin to the style of drama. It is important to note that along with retaining the sense of the “dramatic”, the author also writes in the dramatic method and includes this in a collection that promises “stories”.
Whether or not this literary experimentation succeeds will be left to the readers to decide. But what this does, politically, is to complicate the (in)significance of names which expands the queer possibilities of the text. The normative script of “stories” is defamiliarised, and a “story” is made to mean many things, which are oftentimes unfamiliar and unexpected.
Third, and this brings me to the final point about queer aesthetics, the stories in Lord of the Senses not only play around with the conventional form of short fiction, but also deviate from the usual structures of the plot. In fact, it is the absence of a central plot which is the most striking feature of the narrative which flows through free associations, almost like diary entries, and spiralling of thoughts that piggyback themselves on the five senses.
This construction of a decentralised plot (which, by default, implies multiple plots and not just one) may as well be attributed to the author’s training as a gestalt therapist, but I would like to deviate from that strain of biographical criticism and argue that the absence of a singular plot takes away definitiveness from the tales. The stories have multiple referents that cannot be contained within the limits of the plot. These are just a few aspects of the queer design of the book.
A borderless union
The Indian Supreme Court scrapped section 377 of the IPC in 2018. Vikram Kolmaanskog’s Lord of the Senses will prove to be an important book in the queer landscape of India after the decriminalisation of homosexuality. The architecture of this text refuses to make sexuality the symptom of queerness and uses queerness as a method to explore several other registers.
One of the stories, titled “Growing Up Queer”, relates the implications of racial marginality in the life of a young boy who struggles to come to terms with his queerness in Norway, and tries to understand the meaning of “home”. Queerness, here, is not just sexual non-conformity but a placeholder to understand home and homelessness, love and separation.
However, this is not to say that the “sexual” is driven underground or trumped by other registers. After all, the stories are deeply invested in the erotic and sex seems to be the driving force behind the narrative. But just like there is no one plot in the text or one thing that queerness may mean, “sex” comes to be read as many things. It is not localised in one place but emerges unanticipatedly from unexpected quarters.
The final story in the book, “When He Cut My Hair”, which is my favourite story from the collection, beautifully captures this dispersal of the sexual around us, in everyday life, and the various ways in which it interacts with and produces other registers. In this story, the author documents his desire for a barber and the various instances in which the “sexual” is produced – for instance, when Kolmaanskog writes, “...the barber has started shaving me now. I feel his grip firm on my skull … I smell the sweetness from his mouth.”
The erotic charge of the words with which the world of the salon is crafted is far more salacious than a scene of passionate sex as depicted in “A Safe Harbour”. Invoking the five senses, the author once again suggests that the sexual need not be localised at one site but distributed all around us; it can be felt and experienced through sights, sounds, smells, and tastes.
However, this chapter proves to be great for another reason - its treatment of the figure of god. God, here, is not just the supreme ruler who is distant, revered, and worshipped; he is a friend, a lover, a beloved, and if one dare say - an object of lust. Look at how carefully the author documents this. Upon watching a man, Kolmaanskog writes:
“He is beautiful, physically, but there is something more, another beauty added to that. It is in how he bathes. It is a ritual, starting with the head and then moving down the body. His every movement is so attentive: how he fills the lota…how he pours it onto his body…”
This sight of a young man, bathing, makes the author remember a similar image:
“I remember how Papa used to wash the murtis in the temple. He would take each god and goddess, pour water over their bodies, then milk and honey, then rinse them with water again...”
This metonymic displacement of voyeurism onto the figures and figurines of gods and goddesses is a radical imagination and dangerous fantasy in 21st century India, where people are killed and riots are organised in the name of god. Within that order of things, it is queer to imagine a borderless union between the physical and the metaphysical, and puncture a hole in that border through the thrusting power of the sexual!
Lord Of The Senses, Vikram Kolmannskog, Team Angelica.
Rahul Sen teaches courses on Critical Writing, Literature, and Queer Theory at Ashoka University, Sonipat.