Writer Ghalib Shiraz Dhalla's new novel is a story of an Indian wife, her husband and his male lover based in Los Angeles. While queer writing is still at a nascent stage, efforts are underway to bring it into the mainstream
Queer writing is usually considered to bring with it notions of exclusivity, of including in its ambit only those voices that are, by definition, outside the mainstream.
In practice, this kind of baggage is not really lugged around by a lot of literature that ends up as being considered queer resonant, intendedly or otherwise.
A Gay Parade in Mumbai
The boundaries of this world are found to be more amorphously defined that one would imagine.
It's an inclusive universe, and if you cast the net you can sometimes end up with a literary haul that is oddly diverse and remarkably full-flavoured. Over the ages, and across countries, this has certainly been the case. In India, we're attempting to catch up.
In these post-377 times (a widely accepted epithet despite a protracted legal battle that still lies ahead in the battle for decriminalisation), there are two strands of writing that seem to have emerged. There is the kind of writing that purportedly speaks to the sub-culture, for it, and by it.
Here, ideas like that of the mythical pink rupee or a content-hungry Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender (LGBT) demographic, are bandied around, whether or not whole queer populations can be actually delineated in such unifying terms (and in such a country as India especially, where it's impossible to pigeonhole anything with any great degree of accuracy).
There is no evidence that niche audiences actually exist, like so-called urban, gay men with disposable incomes who are partial to refurbished chick lit and beefcake magazines, or the disaffected feminist lesbians who turn up for political-poetry-cum-tantra sessions in droves.
Then there is the kind of writing, where voices that have been quelled in the past because of an overriding parochial mindset, or have been fearful of being throttled by a bullying majority, are now encouraged to communicate with the mainstream, and make accessible the worlds that have always existed under its fold.
Sometimes, authors try to straddle both these streams, trying to maintain a universal tenor in their works without diluting the themes that make their writing precious and unique. In practice, crossing over is not easily achieved, because sometimes being classified as 'gay literature' implies that a book and its readership have been effectively 'ghetto-ised'.
Authors try to fight it all the time-the connotations of being queer-while also trying to embrace what the term actually signifies with all its enriching nuances. Gay writing is not gay propaganda.
Books such as Hostel Room 131 by R Raj Rao, or You Are Not Alone by Arun Mirchandani, released over the past year, are titles that sometimes lend credence to the cynical view that some books have only made it to the surface because of the lacunae in any kind of writing that caters to queer people specifically.
Rao's book seems mired in the well of its own indulgence. The self-lacerating world of its unpleasant protagonist makes for bleak reading of the sort that a new generation of queer readers is discomfited by.
They will rather more easily pick up unchallenging texts like Mirchandani's, which is written rather artlessly but which may be giving voice and expression to this new generation that seems entrenched in the superficial 'rainbow' ethos of their times.
The harsh underbelly that Rao talks about is every much a real part of the Indian gay existence, so it needs to be expounded upon, but it should be done in the effective manner employed in books like Eunuch Park, from author Palash Krishna Mehrotra.
Whatever the merits of his book, Mirchandani represents a bullish new breed of author, willing to put himself out there, and woo queer audiences without worrying about the labels and tags he may be bogged down with, or the pressures of suddenly becoming the spokesperson of an entire community, with all the approbation that comes with it, and of course, dealing with a kind of adulation that seems almost underlined by his queerness.
His book is now in its second reprint, and for some it would seems that this strategy has paid off, but there are personal costs involved that he has also borne. Other writers who have engaged with the community have been Mahesh Natarajan, whose collection of short stories, Pink Sheep, makes for a light but reasonably engaging read, and American writer Rahul Mehta whose book Quarantine is wonderfully written, and with beautiful turns of phrases, although it sees India through the so-called NRI prism that some people find quite reductive.
One thing that works quite well for the new crop of gay and lesbian writers, is the well-oiled machinery of the urban queer network and the new distribution channels that now exist.
There are retail outlets like Azaad Bazaar that fosters a sense of community that may not have existed a couple of years ago. Queer Ink is India's first online queer bookstore, and this year will see the launch of its fledgling publishing arm, with a new anthology of brand-new queer writing.
So we can now leave behind the days of only accidentally discovering queer titles in bookstores, where there isn't a dedicated Gay & Lesbian section unlike corresponding stores in the West.
Perhaps the one book that transcends any categorisation, is Parvati Sharma's beautifully realised The Dead Camel & Other Stories. There is a delicacy with which she weaves her worlds, without compromising on the heft of the larger themes that she tackles head on. Sharma's book has found its way to queer audiences without the need of a promotional drive.
Devdutt Patanaik's books on mythology frequently situate queer themes in their universal contexts, and have a dedicated fan following. Anjali Josephs's Saraswati Park, which features a prominent gay character, also seems to have arrived at a readership not defined by self-limiting parameters.
Shortlisted for the Crossword Book Award, the book may signal in a small way that queer writing has arrived. It hasn't come of age as yet, and it may take years before we see a consistent literary maturity to works thus classified, but at least the rights noises have now begun to be made.
The writer is the former editor of Bombay Dost
'The novel is ultimately about universal truths'
Excerpts from an Interview with Ghalib Shiraz Dhalla
Q: Your novel The Exiles is titled The Two Krishnas in its US release. How have you woven the Krishna mythology into your book?
I guess The Two Krishnas was too Indian for India, and The Exiles was too western for the US. Ah, marketing! It's a good metaphor for how we all want something different.
The Exiles is a novel about infidelity in modern day Los Angeles, narrated from the perspective of the wife an Indian woman named Pooja whose husband, Rahul takes a Muslim lover, Atif, an illegal immigrant.
This turns her world upside-down and compels her to question not just her marriage to a man she has followed to the ends of the earth, but also her faith. Ultimately, we realise that they are all looking for the same thing love, acceptance and truth.
The novel uses Sufism and Hindu mythology as a backdrop to explore the pitfalls of blind faith and the duality in the people we love and the gods we worship (hence the title in the US).
The Two Krishnas by Ghalib Shiraz Dhalla
Published by Magnus Books
The Exiles (India Edition)
Published by HarperCollins, India
This book demanded years of research into sacred yet obscure texts, including Sufi poetry and the Puranas, texts in which gay sexuality was celebrated.
Coming from a family of Hindus who had converted to Islam, I wasn't ever orthodox. We speak Kutchi and Gujarati at home.
Many of our religious hymns reference Hindu deities like Krishna. My own spiritual practice observes all schools of thought, including Hinduism and Buddhism, which is why it was very important to me to treat this novel as a celebration of the lesser known but more progressive aspects of both Hinduism and Islam.
Krishna is the most accessible and least sanctimonious of the deities.
The maakhan chor, the herdsman, the supportive friend on any battlefield Krishna represents human aspects that are recognisable within us.
Q: As a Muslim man, did you have to go through some struggle to reconcile being gay with your religion?
My mother who had much difficulty accepting my sexuality, was also able to demonstrate that there doesn't need to be a conflict between the secular and the spiritual, as long as one lives honestly and shirks any kind of deception. An individual's relationship with God hinges upon their relationship with themselves. Ultimately, all religious texts are malleable and one should not feel oppressed by somebody else's interpretation of his faith. One should try and carve a practice that is more intuitive, less dogmatic.
Q: You have broached the topic of the married gay man, which is very much a part of an Indian ethos.
Well, as tragic as these situations are, where a woman ends up marrying a bisexual or gay man we must remember that we are all, each and everyone of us, complicit in this. By depriving human beings of their right to be truthful about their sexuality, to love whom they choose to, society compels individuals to participate in such deception until one day they're found out.
Q: You are marketing your book to a mainstream audience, without compromising its strong themes of sexuality.
I think ghettoizing a novel as either gay or straight is becoming secondary to the narrative value of a book. This time, even though a central character of the novel is gay, there is also the perspective of a wife and a bisexual husband and as such, the novel can be related to by everyone. The novel is ultimately about universal truths. My intent as a writer was to explore the wages of deception; how lies can destroy lives gay, straight, bisexual so it was gratifying when the publishers were able to glean this from the novel and see why this novel was not should not be confined to a single demographic.
The exiles-an excerpt
This time, they regarded each other not with desperation, but like grateful survivors.
They put aside their shields, removed their guards and breastplates, and looked at one other with tenderness and the exhaustion that comes from the end of a shared and infinitely demanding ordeal.
Somewhere else, as the world clattered away, Atif and Rahul held each other in an embrace, comforted by the beating of their hearts, their solitudes slowly merging.
There is such an alchemy, Atif was reminded, where two people can dissolve in each other, a closeness where tragedy and loneliness can, at least momentarily, be expunged, and every earthly cause that has driven us to trauma finds a cure.
This, Atif thought, savouring the taste of what he knew may be certain blasphemy, is what religion tries to teach us and miserably fails in: abandonment. Here is my Islam. I have submitted completely to him mind, body and soul consequence be damned.
He knew now the meaning of the Sufi poems he had pored over, as if he had been given the key to their secret door, no longer shrunk down to just poems and love songs translated sometimes in a language in which there couldn't possibly be a word to describe the kind of fire he felt inside, but expanded infinitely like a sky within.
Standing there, it occurred to Rahul that although Pooja and he had spent a whole lifetime building a house, brick by brick, over a dungeon full of painful memories neither one of them could bear to confront, Atif was now reacquainting him with his past, to a part of himself he had been unable to accept. The thawing brought hope. And where there was hope, there was life.
Atif sensed Rahul's pain and looked up at him, cupping his face in his hands, feeling the stubble prickle his palms. "I would have liked to age better than this," said Rahul. "Just to be more, give more, something of real meaning."
But you have! Atif wanted to say. Can't you see that? He had created a son, of whom Atif knew nothing about, but was certain was a model child, the kind who would surely enter some coveted college and become the proverbial Indian engineer or doctor, anything other than a striving, tortured writer or underpaid bookseller. And he had not walked out on his wife.
Atif wanted to tell Rahul that he had brought happiness into his vacuous life, replaced the family that he had lost, given him, despite the shortcomings of their relationship, the chance to love.
But Atif said nothing, covering Rahul's face with kisses, knowing that there was nothing he could do or say that would make Rahul feel absolved about being there with him; that ultimately, the guilt of abandonment would always linger, no matter how small.