Sunday, July 18, 2010

Pink Prose: Unqueering the Pitch

A year after the repealing of Section 377, there’s more homosexual literature coming out of Indian bookstores

Joeanna Rebello Fernandes

It was Oscar Wilde, beloved bisexual, who pronounced “There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written or badly written.” Yet, ‘good’ and ‘bad’ have come to cast a book by its ‘moral’ moorings. And these days, when morality is obsessed with sexuality, anything that smells ‘deviant’ has to be handled with care, if touched with a bargepole at all.
Until very recently, writers whose works were homoerotic were politely fobbed off by publishers with apologies that the market wasn’t ready or the work didn’t fit in with the publisher’s ‘list’. Section 377 was another empty gun to the head. A year after being repealed, and the subsequent press it received, alternative sexuality is now closer to mainstream ideas of ‘ normalcy’ than before. Heartened, more closet homosexuals and transpersons are coming out, even if within the community itself. And the syllogistic outcome of this disclosure is that more literature on the LGBT experience is coming out as well.
When Arun Mirchandani —a 28-year-old working in HR, who says he was inspired by Harvey Milk—worked up the nerve to tell his story in a semiautobiography called You Are Not Alone, he wore his soles thin, taking the manuscript to 12 publishers last year. This, in the wake of the repeal. The thirteenth publisher, Leadstart Publishing, had more mettle. “We’ve already sold 750 copies in two weeks,” says Swarup Nanda, CEO and Chairman of Leadstart.
Mirchandani’s was just the kind of specialised book Leadstart was looking for, going by its agenda of ‘creating more niches than masses’. This was the first book on alternative sexuality they produced, and they’re scoping writing rooms for more. They understand sales won’t be ginormous in a country like India, where, as Nanda piquantly puts it, “people look around before buying a condom or sanitary pad”. Their marketing plan is pretty simple too—make the LGBT community the primary market, which is why the book has been circulated within gay colonies like Queer-Ink, Bombay Dost and Humsafar Trust.
“The time has come to build awareness,” says Mirchandani, who knows how crucial edification is. It was only after homosexuality became dinner conversation across India around the time of the verdict that he found the courage to come out to his family. “They still won’t discuss the book with friends and family, and may even deny my authorship of it, but I respect that sentiment,” he says. “There’s still a cultural barrier that prevent parents of this generation from accepting a truth like this. Our generation will be more comfortable with it.”
Art does its bit to proselytise, and even though sporadic and low-key in this country, it has made apostates of the formerly homophobic. Films, art and literature bring the truth of alternative lifestyles closer home; they don’t just help the mainstream understand, they help their own cope. April saw the launch of Kashish, the first massive LGBT film festival. In April,, the country’s first online bookstore devoted to ‘queer’ texts surfaced. It doesn’t take a lesbian to tell you what a favour this service is. “When I moved to India I couldn’t find any literature that wasn’t mainstream,” says Shobhna S Kumar, founder-director of “At Crossword and Oxford you’d be hard pressed to find a book on feminism, let alone queer literature.” For two years Kumar compassed bookstores and libraries to see how much LGBT literature was available. The answer birthed the online bookstore with over 200 titles by foreign and Indian authors (in fiction and otherwise) and journals. “Books helped me navigate my own feelings; I learnt about other people’s lives, how they came out, how families coped,” says Kumar. She recalls the Indian NRI who left a book behind for his parents to learn the truth about his sexuality.
Apart from supplying an invaluable resource to readers of every bent, Kumar acknowledges another fortunate fallout of the online trade: privacy. “At a bookstore people are loath to buy a book on homosexuality, worried about what the staff or fellow customers think,” she points out. The Internet has been a popular hunting ground for whatever is elusive in India, and Amazon is their terminus for hard-to-come-by books. But according to Kumar, the universal retailer doesn’t ship books on queer issues to India. “They don’t tell you why. It must be a custom law,” Kumar surmises. Her company aims to do what Amazon doesn’t dare—not just by meeting the market for this literature but also to publish works. “We’ve received some manuscripts since the site launched,” she says. “But we’ll have our publishing processes up in about six months.”
2010 launched two titles in English fiction: one was Arun Mirchandani’s, the other was Quarantine by Rahul Mehta, published by Random House. Penguin too has brought out several titles on alternative sexuality, some of which are academic treatises. Even though publishing houses are dropping their guard, a growing number of LGBTs are making themselves heard through community journals, mailing lists and blogs. And not just in English. Gay and transtext blooms in Bengali, Kannada, Tamil, Telugu and Malayalam point to a braver publishing industry outside Delhi and Bombay. Some iconoclastic works by transpersons have emerged from the south, one of which is I Am Vidya by transgender writer ‘Living Smile Vidya’; the most recent other is by Revathi, published by Penguin as The Truth About Me.
“Many sexually liberated texts have emerged in Tamil, and these owe much to feminist Tamil poets like Kutti Revathi, Salma, Suhirtharani and Malathi Maithri, who brought the body into popular discourse,” says Aniruddhan Vasudevan, a dancer and gay rights activist in Chennai. Vasudevan says we need to go beyond literature sized by sexual stereotypes. “Instead of just queer texts, I’d much rather have the ‘queering of texts’— ways of queer interpretation,” he says.
And to get your sexual word-stock straight, refer to the dictionary on sexual terms compiled by the Tamil literary trust, Kalachuvadu.
-- The Times of India (Frog Books published You Are Not Alone by Arun Mirchandani.)