The good teacher
Hoshang Merchant, nearly 70 now, has more energy than most his age. His silvery voice — even when he’s asking you if you've read every bit of the book you're about to interview him for — makes you wish he'd been your professor in college. Not only because he could make any text seem lighter even in a factory-assembled classroom, but because he brings context and experience to every turn the conversation takes.
The poet, born in a Parsi family from Mumbai, who left to study literature at Purdue University and then returned to India to teach Poetry and Gay Studies at Hyderabad University, is out with his 29th title, Secret Writings of Hoshang Merchant. It's edited by Akshay Rath, a former student who teaches English at the National Institute Of Technology. "No one wanted to see my art — good or bad, sexy or sterile. My ‘1,001 Nights’ was written 15 years ago," emphasizes Merchant in the revelatory last chapter. Why?
"Up till now, the world was not ready for this kind of writing. Now, it's my students who are publishing me,” he adds. The media, he says, has played a big part in the changing perception of homosexuality in India. He doesn’t have a television in his home — it distracts him from his writing. But, from when he did, he remembers that every day there would three stories on foreign news channels of gay lawsuits, gay rights. “Even when there were negative stories, it would make you aware. Now, there’s gay pornography… there’s no mystery left anymore,” he says. For nearly three decades, Merchant taught students at a university where his sexuality was well-known, but it caused no friction in the classroom. Students, he says, would warn the next batch "he’s nice as long as you don’t rub him the wrong way".
"Students came from different parts of India. I have seen Indian women more ready to lose their virginity to American men, because they feared that Indian men would ask them to marry if they slept with them." Homosexual liberation, he asserts, is a part of human liberation — the liberation of all classes. It’s a long struggle, but things will change, he believes.
Merchant, who authored The Man Who Would Be Queen and earlier edited Yaraana: Gay Writing from India, has perhaps never been behind the closet. Then it is difficult to avoid comparison between his experience and that of linguist Ramchandra Siras, the professor at Aligarh Muslim University, who was persecuted for his sexuality.
"I watched Aligarh [the Hansal Mehta directed film on Siras' tragic end] with my first student and thought it could have been me. But, my student pointed out that Hyderabad is not Aligarh."
Hyderabad, he says, is and always has been cosmopolitan, and even if people talked behind his back 'they’d dare not take his job from him'. "I found out, after my father's death, that he had used his pull to get me the job. If I knew earlier, I'd have rebelled. I was a spoilt child… still am." More, importantly, says Merchant, they realised that the work he was doing was both important and beneficial. "There was one teacher at the university who I didn’t like… but one day, he told the students, ‘Hoshang was like Hercules, cleaning up King Augeas’ stables’ [thus making it clean, Hoshang points out that he didn’t think that talking about sexuality equated cleaning horse s***].” That he wrote 30 books in the period ensured that he kept his part of the bargain.
The conversation twirls around realities. Merchant says his life often doesn’t seem real. For some reason we bring up the latest Internet storm, 'the urban poor'. His voice is a jump in glee. "When I was a student in America, I had to have new clothes every week to wear to the gay bar. When you have $200 to spend every month, it means there’s nothing left to eat. If someone asked me about my lean body, I’d say I was dieting." The excited voice then turns sober. It’s a capitalist pressure to conform, he says. Decadent reality, is stupid reality. "Life is fun, but pleasure can give you AIDS," he laughs.
He chronicles the good times in the same breath that he speaks of violence he has faced — "you can’t write without some emotional distance.” He writes about being a gay man in different countries — India, Iran, Israel, America. “People who write have to have some experience to write about." It’s not just the times, he has changed too, he admits.
The book sheds light, but doesn't delve into a difficult childhood. But, then that's true of all families, isn’t it? Power struggles are to be expected when the individual struggles to assert himself against a social construct. “Parents, you love them and you hate them.” True. “But, in my next book, I have written about my father and mother. I gave it to my teacher to read, who said it was beautiful. But, for that you’ll have to wait another two years,” he laughs.
It’s been great talking to him, but the interview is over. Can we call if there are any further queries?
Yes, he offers.
When’s a good time?
"Anytime is show time for Hoshang."