Saturday, February 07, 2009

Out of the Closet

By Sunil K Poolani

Same-Sex Love in India: A Literary History
Edited by Ruth Vanita and Saleem Kidwai
Penguin India
Price: 450; Pages: 479

If the West is more open to same-sex love (by allowing marriages between two gay people and even giving political positions and power) and the East is increasingly becoming intolerant to this “anti-natural” act of love-making, you only have to blame the West for it.
The Portuguese came to the Indian shores and, apart from looting our natural resources, inculcated in us rigid, and often barbaric, Christian sensibilities, which frowned upon any form of “indecent” sex practiced in India, then. Then came the British and their pseudo-Victorian sensibilities, which did more harm than the postal and railway systems they brought in.
And to think of it, it was in India that open sex and all kind of sexual variations were depicted and practiced since centuries; not to talk about same-sex love, which had great respectability since the time of the Vedas...
Precisely for that reason, Same-Sex Love in India: A Literary History, edited by Ruth Vanita and Saleem Kidwai should not just be welcomed but celebrated, as it vividly and meticulously tracks down the literature from India since two thousand years. What is more enriching is that the book contains select portions from Hindu, Buddhist and Muslim literary history. The range is amazing: from Mahabharata to Vijay Tendulkar.
What’s more, this veritable and valuable collection is for anyone who is interested in knowing the so-called nether world. Is this book just about same-sex and its literary history? On the contrary. Vanita, herself a lesbian, in her Preface says: “A primary and passionate attachment between two persons, even between a man and a woman, may or may not be acted upon sexually. For this reason our title focuses on love, not sex.”
And Kidwai, a homosexual, analysing the medieval material available on the subject, says: “During the early medieval period there are a few scattered references to same-sex love while in the late medieval period a huge body of literature on same-sex love develops.”
No wonder that the most powerful rulers then — Ghazni, Babar and Khilji — were practitioners and protectors of homosexuality, thus demolishing the myth that Muslims hardly imported homosexuality into Hindustan. For that reason, Muslim women from medieval India to, say, even in the lucid prose of Ismat Chughtai have practiced lesbianism.
And talking about the Hindu gods and their sexual orientations, Lord Ayyappa was thought to be a product of sex between two male deities; some even claim Murugan too is a progeny of that confluence. There are references about the love that existed between Lord Krishna and Arjuna — Arjuna after a sacred bath turns into the beautiful Arjuni who then consorts with Krishna. I hope the neo-Hindu fundamentalists realise this and become more tolerant.
One of the best verses in the book is by the indomitable Vikram Seth: “Some men like Jack / and some like Jill; / I’m glad I like / them both; but still / I wonder if / this freewheeling / really is an / enlightening thing— / or is its greater / scope a sign / of deviance from / some party line? / In the strict ranks / of Gay and Straight / what is my status? / Stray? or Great?”
Some of the best contemporary works are by V T Nandakumar’s Two Girls (translated from Malayalam); Bhupen Khakhar’s A Story (from Gujarati); Hoshang Merchant’s Poems for Vivan (English); and Nirmala Deshpande’s Mary Had a Little Lamb (from Marathi).
Even if you are “normal” but loves good literature, this commendable volume is for you. No, you do not need to hide it under the pillow…

1 comment:

Anonymous said...


One thing that sets you apart from other reviewers is the solid referencing you do. For every book that you review, it looks like you read many of the genre. It is this dedication that shows your passion for your work. The same with this review too.

I havent read too many books of same-sex love but one title "The women of Brewster Place" by Gloria Nolen had me gripped. It was strange for many reasons: a string of short stories interwoven to form the whole novel, a depiction of all kinds of love, a picture of the lives of Blacks ... Read this one many years ago but the powerful effect it left still lingers.

Another one that I found powerful for its brutal subtlety (?!) was "Cat on a hot tin roof" the Tennessee Williams play. I feel such depictions far outplay any explicit writing - for their finesse and universality.

Am a dodo on Indian writing of this genre, sorry :-)

Thanks for sharing this Sunil. You are one person who i can talk to about books - although I have become almost illiterate for the past many years :-(

uma chandrasekaran