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…

Cry thy country, not mine

Sunil K Poolani

One has to realise that this is one discussed-to-death issue: how to portray India by Indians writing in English. And over and over again, this crops up: when some rookie wins a ‘coveted’ award by showing the ‘real nature’ of India. Recently, this argument got augmented when one Aravind Adiga won a Booker, and critics, mainly those who are jealous of his success, crying wolf, vivifying, in their dawned belated wisdom, not only the book was badly written but it portrayed our ‘great country’ in bad light.
Cry, thy beloved country. Before that, let’s do some soul-searching, ahem, looking back at the Indian writing for the English-reading, western masses, an introspection. Yes, the Vedas and other puranic stuff were all available in English translation by eighteenth century to the Western public. And the bhadralok Bengali did get some of their books in print in British India. Then came Tagore. His writings were one of the lucid ones that I have ever read. But look at the tragedy: the Nobel was awarded because the Committee could lay their hands only on an English translation of Gitanjali, a mediocre work by any standard, and thank W B Yeats, Tagore’s great well-wisher, for that.
By then the English-reading and -writing intelligentsia in India had grown voluminously. But the path to get noticed in the West was not that easy. R K Narayan (thanks to Graham Green) and Kamala Markandaya (due to her British journalist friends) had to literally slug it out to get their voice heard. They portrayed a great India, of townships and non-interesting people; but the beauty was in the writing. Then came Raja Rao and Mulk Raj Anand. All had their respective stints in Britain, without which even I would not have quoted their names in this article.
I believe there is one man who rewrote the whole script of Indian writing in English: Rushdie. He chutnified it for the bewilderment of the upholders of the British English. Then, like fairness creams, the West started smelling a great market and to keep up the demand, one could never write about the huge multiplexes in Bangalore or Bombay, not even about a strange country where “tigers roam around in the streets”, but you have had to talk about the filth in your background — amidst all the beauty one has to show to the world, there, and in detail, the murky, incestuous world of slime and grime.
Arundhati Roy, that today’s great whiner, did try to portray a twisty and charming world of Kerala backwaters. That was a decade ago. And then the economic shift changed to China and India. And people in the US and Germany started losing money and jobs. And the Muslim fundamentalists, afraid of the so-called great success story, started planting bombs in every Indian city you could imagine in. The Bombay terror attacks were the final straw on the camel’s back. So they think.
Like in a role reversal (and I hate the phrase, “the Empire Strikes Back’), even Bollywood movies are showing where one should invest their money to cater to a wisdom for the West’s amusement. So why should literature take a backseat? For good or bad, there are some good writings emerging out of India. And frankly I give a fig whether how India is portrayed or not. If you are disturbed about the way the West is looking at us, well, that is pseudo-secularism. Literature has no boundaries and all it matters is good writing. Not the markets.
Two good examples come to my mind. Recent books by Richard Crasta and Murzban F Shroff. Shroff penned Breathless in Bombay, a collection of brilliant short stories. The period Shroff retells of Bombay is contemporary. Gallons of water have embraced the sea from Mahim Creek, and it is not the city of Salim Sinai any more. No soothsayer might have guessed when Rushdie wrote his magnum opus (thus immortalising Bombay in world literature), that it would, one day, instead of disintegrating, will become one of the most happening, prosperous and trendy cities in the world. But Shroff did show the murkier side of Bombay life: Aids patients, the bhelpuriwala, the prostitutes, the downtrodden…
And now about Crasta: The Killing of an Author is funny, sad, and eye-opening. Like others who are dependent on psychiatric drugs, Crasta has to have them for his depression and anxiety. He knows he needs them to function, but does not know the side-effects. The book presents how most innocent civilians like him get caught up in drug enslavement without the slightest inkling of what could happen if you take this, that and the other. It is also a warning to those who are plagued with mental problems to learn more about what they ingest, even if it is prescribed by their loved ones.
Do you find all these funny and “selling-India” types? Well, I do not. Say it the way it is, said some joker. I could not have agreed more.
(Sahara Time)

Sunday, February 01, 2009

How my Column Died a Premature Death

One fine morning, when I was sleeping, A T Jayanti, who claimed was the editor of Deccan Chronicle and The Asian Age, called me up and said, she wanted me to write a column for her books page. My answer was: "I don't think I could do that." But she persisted and said: "Give it a try." I agreed.
For around 25 weeks the column appeared, and one fine day, Jayanti called me up and said: "Enough is enough, high time you stopped it." Why? "In fact, wasn't I getting damn good responses?"
She never gave a good explanation. One of the plausible reasons I could arrive at was that I had criticised a crappy book written by a certain kid called Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan. Now, she and her family are well connected. (Do a Google search, in case you want to know, how.) I came to know all these from Jayanti's own colleagues, who detest her like hell, and are unhappy with her ways of functioning. "So be it", I said. "Who the hell cares?" Anyway the column was not my idea.
Then came the surprise, bingo, one Sunday. My column has been replaced by, guess who, the Reddy girl.
I came to know about that from a reader from Chennai, because I had stopped reading The Asian Age since M J Akbar was unceremoniously ousted.
Well, this is what my friend from Chennai had to say:

"Hi Sunil
I'm just seething after reading that piece of pedestrian shit dished out in the DC ..... the replacement for your column. Gosh its absolute drivel. No language to speak of, no book sense, no nothing. I wouldnt insult a child by calling it childish - its worse than the worst essay written by a low grade student. The vocab is silly. As to an idea, it just isnt there. What next?? Are we going to have Mills & Boons featured please??? I am tearing angry. Just tearing angry. Am now minus one more piece to read in that paper.
Well, who said the world's a fair place eh?! :-( Obviously you havent 'cultivated' or 'capitalized' i guess!!
Can you tell me where else you write a column - for any other publication? I do miss your column. The incisive brainy analysis, the total command over the language, the hard work that is evident when you draw from multiple readings to get your thoughts home, your real love and feel for books and that special world. You take us there, my friend. Still remember where you wrote about the smell of a new book .... hmmm...
Look, you're an original. Stay so. Just walk away from this goddam mediocrity and keep doing what you do .... you have your own crowd rooting for you and the truth you bring in with your writing.
Uma Chandrasekaran"