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Same Sex Love in India

Book Review by Ashok Row Kavi

Same-Sex Love in India – Readings from Literature and History , ed. by Ruth Vanita and Saleem Kidwai, St.Martin's Press, 2000, 368 pages, hardcover, $49.95

Readers please note before you read this review. Let me warn you that I know both the authors; one for many years as an imaginary adversary. The second as a mysterious woman who unraveled many little secrets I did not fathom in the feverish feminist circles that try to hold onto their sanity in a suffocating heterosexist world.

Let me explain my dilemma as a self-confessed homosexual reviewing one of the most momentous writings of our hidden history and presence here in India. I see it as nothing less.

Saleem Kidwai and I have basic differences about the nature of Indian nationalism and the evolving resurgence of what is loosely called Hindu Nationalism. The story goes back to nearly a decade ago when a common link existed between us: Siddharth Gautam, an activist lawyer from the Marwari community who flitted in and out of my life like a colorful butterfly. We sadly never got any time to know each other except through stereotypes. What got conveyed became a big bone of contention that still hasn't been sorted out. And through the years neither of us has shifted from our ideological positions except in trying to cut through the bonds of suspicion and hostility.

With Ruth Vanita, it has been a growing, garrulous and good-natured openness. I was amazed at her broad vision of Indian same-sex heritage and I absorbed every word from her learned comments as they flashed across my internet life-line to her. What's surprising is I've never met her. So powerful is the power of the internet that I have managed to comprehend a sensitive and very erudite woman through cyber space.

Thus, dear readers, I am hopelessly compromised. I review a book by two people I respect. I tug tirelessly at my objectivity but I cannot hide my admiration and my awe at the work accomplished – without funding, without sponsorships and without loud vulgar international funders falling all over you to get them a good report. Each has won his/her spurs in his/her own rights and I am proud to announce them as victorious in their strenuous efforts, if my certificate is worth anything.

Where do I begin and where do I end? Please do consider you are spanning a living civilisation not just a contemporary culture. Ruth handles the Hindu, Buddhist and Jain sacred lore and chronicles with contrite comments while Saleem wades wickedly through the Muslim palimpsest of over a thousand years of the Islamic period. Do I sense emptiness? Yes and no! Yes, because something is always missing as the duo threads through Indian debris as if walking warily over eggshells and secondly, discovering conclusively that so little has been missed in the final bargain.

The story begins with the preface itself where there is a strenuous effort to acknowledge subaltern stories buried in the sands of time. However, the most satisfying rationale is in their decision as to what is 'India'. It has always irritated me to call this huge homogeneous yet polychromatic land 'South Asia'. The term is a fatuous invention of NRIs to bring the Indo-Asian Diaspora together in their western wilderness,

Hence It made me smile when the authors finally decided on the term "India' after shying stating that it was "as arbitrary as any other and is determined mainly by the limits of our own abilities and expertise" (page xv). My feelings exactly, at protesting the rotten concept of 'Bharat' as a hangover of Nehruvian necrophilia.

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As one proceeds, one finds more delightful nuggets. What both unearths and affirms is the 'essentialist argument' – that we homosexuals (or gandus, mindis, samalingi, kothis, mamus, manubhais, pothis, nankhatais, bockachodhas or whatever you wish to call us gay/lesbian people) have always existed since time immemorial in this land. The 'social construction' argument around various same-sex behaviors has been problematic and, I suspect, will lead to violence soon, but it has been effectively cremated.

Both Ruth and Saleem have effectively killed the arguments of the later, which match those of the Shiv Sena, VHP and assorted Marxists – that we did not exist in the glorious past and are an aberration of a corrupted bourgeoisie infected by the occidental virus. The historical references within the Puranas, the Shastras and the sacred lore of the Dharma place us squarely within the dazzling diadem of Indian civilisation. And we thank Ruth for giving us a fighting chance to be seen and heard.

But before that let me proudly point out the characteristic difference between Indian civilization and the colonial and post-colonial periods, in their own words:

“Our study suggests that at most times and places in pre-nineteenth-century India, love between women and between men, even when disapproved of, was not actively persecuted. As far as we know, no one has ever been executed for homosexuality in India” (page xviii). In these dangerous times when over 800 gay persons have been executed in one year in neighboring Iran and with stories of gay bashing slowly emerging in our cities and towns, this remarkable quality of our civilization must be held high for gay men and women everywhere.

It is extremely important to note the authenticity of the texts and we must thank them for the clarity they speak with. “We have translated all the Hindi and Urdu and most of the Persian texts ourselves, they state bluntly (page xix) winning us over instantly after having read extrapolations and clever editing till one cowered with apprehensions, with other writers.

I think my friends like Jeremy Seabrook would profit by the very simple sub-chapter on 'terminology' where the authors then plunge into modern Indian homosexual politics. Starting with the theories of Michel Foucoult, Lillian Federman et al who argued that the homosexual emerged as a category only in the late nineteenth century, Ruth and Saleem have this to say after perusing the works of John Boswell and others.

“…such categories did exist much before the nineteenth century psychologists reframed them. The terms 'homosexual' or 'heterosexual' were not used but other terms were used to refer to those who showed a lifelong preference (to their own kind)” (Page xxi).

This should effectively silence the “kothis and do parathas” or whatever term they choose to now rally around. And maybe Seabrook had better visit many more parks in India before writing his rather unsatisfying book on Men-Having-Sex-With-Men. I completely agree with Mahesh Dattani here who detests the phrase because tomorrow we might also be referred to as “cocksuckers” or “arse-fuckers” by our behaviors.

Ruth then plunges into the Ancient Indian Materials in her introduction and that is where the most controversy is going to rise. In her extraordinary methodology and narrative, Ruth wades through Sanskrit text with a careful combing like operation. Her readings of the Mahabharata are extraordinary in that they are the ring of authenticity and sympathy. When she reads between the lines she reads them smack on target . Let me give you an instance.

(Page 6) “It is when dialog breaks down that the violence erupts and escalates. Violent action is remembered repeatedly as that which breeds more violent action…..”.

The most important reminder is “It is important that the central philosophical moment is cast as a loving conversation between two men”.

This is her succinct comment on the Bhagavad-Gita, which is going to upset a lot of devoted Hindus, but it has the ring of truth.

Of course, she is equally deflationary of the virgin births which she traces to Indian sacred lore where dual mothering is one of the births of the semi-divine being or they arise directly from the elements like Sita's from the earth and Draupadi's from fire. She brings in the sexual bonding of two males and the progeny thereof in a casual manner as just one of the processes as in the case of Kartikeya and Ganesh.

The question of the Ayappa legend, which is part sacred lore and part history, has never been properly delineated by Brahminical sources for though it is explained away as Vishnu's form as Mohini it it clear that he is known as 'Hariharaputra' (son of Shiva (hara) and Vishnu (hari). In other words he is the son of two male gods.

Actually, the narrative becomes more colourful and resourceful as Saleem carries on the narrative in the Muslim period. The incredible stories of Amir Khusro and the court chronicles of the Moghuls are all extremely intensive and powerfully written. He too refuses to make too many concessions to the prissy readers.

Thus from the same-sex lovers of the slave Khiji dynasties to the murderous stories of the later day Moghuls, it is one long tale of young men sharing the beds of monarchs and then taking over in subtle ways. For example on Page 135 Ziauddin Barani concludes:

“The unfaithful world destroyed the family of Alauddin. In the way Alaudin and Qutubuddin were destroyed by Malik Naib and Khusro Khan, the wise and those looking for lessons will see the results of pampering young men and catamites”

The translations of Mir Taqi Mir are, of course, classic and worth weighing the book in silver bullion. The couplets on Page 188 must be printed in gold and hung on the walls of gay men in India. It starts with:

My mind has been tossed like a ball in the playing field of love Since the days when I too roamed around, tossing a ball

Down to the last…

These boys have a strange sense of honor Let's see, Mir, if you can save your own.

Wah, wah

There is so much of such excellently gleaned material that one needs to thank Saleem for having done his homework. His quotes from Nurul Hasan Hashmi when he states:

“Each Urdu contains a large body of homoerotic poetry. According to one critic, Urdu poetry was franker in its expression and closer to life in the period before Indian rebellion against British rule in 1857”.(Page 119).

Also, the short and succinct evolution of Urdu as the languages of the masses is best put straight in Saleem's words: “It evolved from a mixture of many dialects in use in northern India in the early mediival period and was initially given other names, such as Hindvi and Rekhta”. Some North Indian chauvinists will really go red the face when reminded that the first use of Urdu was in the Deccan where 'Dakkhani” (1668 – 1744) used urdu in his homo-erotic poetry.

Some of the classic literary gleanings here are from the 'Mutribi' Samarqandi from Jehangir's reign (so much for Anarkali's legend). Page 143. From Madho Hussein to Sarmad, Saleem does a filigree like narration of homo-eroticism that resembles a silver thread of the heritage of homosexuality in India. It is done with a dignity and self-worth that is not just educative but immensely empowering for gay men and women in India.

However, it is in Part IV of the book where the post colonial period brings us into modern Indian literature and poetry. Ruth and Saleem surpass themselves in the way they have picked and chosen the complicated evolution of the homosexual movement in India.

They are careful in not making it a paen of passion as if were a linear progression of hot headed activists. There is a gentleness, a confusion and a convoluted pain in the way the pouring out of homo-eroticism goes. From the Empire and the New Law (Section 377 of the IPC), they go through the early modern Hindi/Bengali short stories to Amrita-Sher-Gill's letters. It is a carefully crafted and difficult job And best left to the reader to judge. But let it be said it is satisfying as a treat to see that we were never quiet however much the repression from Victorian and Marxist prudes.

Towards the end, let me say that it left me unhappy; unhappy that they were a dazzling over view of a vast subject. But something is better than nothing on the subject. Methinks this book is the harbinger of many more excellent and more in-depth histories of homosexuality in Jambu-Dwipa

Till then Ruth Vanita and Saleem Kidwai, stand up and take a bow. The emerging homosexual communities of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal greet you with a resounding roar of happiness. You have made our heartbeats heard across the waves and it will join the others who rattle their sabres for their rights in America and Europe.

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