'We are in the centre, not at the margins anymore'
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 enlightened 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?
-- Vikram Seth from Dubious
It is not just people but places too that are opening their hearts and minds to greater acceptance of the Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender (LGBT) community. On Wednesday evening, the Crossword bookstore at Kemps Corner hosted the launch of a book called, ‘Out! Stories from the New Queer India’. The book was launched by actor Nandita Das, who became a voice, even though inadvertently, in the LGBT awareness campaign as early as 1996 when she acted in the film ‘Fire’, a movie about lesbian love.
The book Out! is a collection of 30 short stories featuring LGBT themes. Published by a publishing house called Queer Ink, Out! documents lives of the queer in contemporary India. Bold, quiet, frenetic or simply even-paced the stories are based in different settings from courthouses, to palatial homes and a little boat in rural Kerala, all coming together in a collection, which celebrates diversity in every sense of the word.
As the Wednesday evening traffic droned out outside the Kemps Corner store, a smattering of the community, supporters, friends, book buyers and browsers gathered for the official launch, which included reading of excerpts from the stories and an interactive session. The two chairs on the dais were taken by the book’s editor Minal Hajratwala who, “divides her time between Bangalore and San Francisco” the bookstore’s representative and host for the evening, said, and actor Nandita Das, who looked very girl-next-door in jeans 'n' kurta.
Said Hajratwala as introduction, “I came out as a lesbian 20 years ago at Stanford University (US) and I was one of the first Indian women to do so. I also recall seeing the movie ‘Fire’ in a living room in San Francisco; it was a pirated copy that somebody had brought in. To think that after all those years, it seems like a dream and a miracle that this movement has come so far in India and we are having this discussion here, in this very mainstream bookstore that has hosted so many distinguished authors in the past. It just proves that we (LGBT) are in the centre and not at the margins any longer.”
After than emphatic summing up, Hajratwala spoke about whetting the collection of stories for the book, “We had a multitude of stories from everywhere, rural and urban and were so happy with the diversity, it was so exciting that untold, secret and taboo topics can now be told.” Hajratwala buttressed her statements with an example that during the book editing, authors who had preferred anonymity chucked the ‘safe’ option and decided to use their real names. “`I am proud of this story and want my real name not a pseudonym’, a writer said to me,” Hajratwala stated.
Nandita Das, meanwhile referred to her contribution in the book which is a conversation with Chitra Palekar, who is now a prominent voice urging parents to accept their children's sexuality. She also spoke about her own journey of understanding which started 15-16 years ago. “Even though the atmosphere in my home was very liberal, we never really discussed homosexuality. When I was offered ‘Fire’ I just saw it as a beautiful love story, not a story about two women in love. A lot of people asked me why I did a ‘bold’ first film. There are a few films that have a two-pronged impact -- they impact you personally and impact society too. I wonder how one can hate somebody and get away with it but how one can love somebody and not be able to get away with it.”
There was silence after that last statement as the speaker paused and the audience drank in the gravity of those words. Das then spoke about getting involved with the LGBT cause, saying, “Sometimes, you cannot choose the cause, the cause chooses you. I think that certain books and films are really about inclusiveness and for people who have never made an effort to know more.
It is to open minds and hearts to becoming more sensitive. They are a real gift in these times when there is so much chaos in our society. The need for more open minds is evident at a time when the nation is shook up about the gang rape incident. I wonder why we even engage with arguments and statements, which are just like so down there, we are hearing voices which talk about how women dress…” Das ended.
Then a clutch of writers came up and read excerpts from their stories for one minute each. There was Juthika Nagpal who claimed she was ‘gender fluid’ and read from her story She's Like the Wind. Meher Pestonji read from her story. R Raj Rao’s excerpt from his story, ‘Crocodile Tears’, had an edgy, raw sexuality, Milind Wani took the mike with ‘A Small-Town Girl’, Gazal Dhaliwal read from her, ‘A Lipstick and a Pink Silk Stole’ and Ashish Sawhny read from his story called ‘Nimbooda’.
Post reading, Das and Hajratwala took questions from the audience. Das said in response to a question about how much we have moved on film-wise, post ‘Fire’, that, ‘I do not watch a lot of films but I have to say that in mainstream cinema, there are still a lot of people happy playing safe. Economics still interferes so much in art.”
Hajratwala said in response to a question about the process of editing the book, “We had a cluster of coming out stories and stories about suicide. I had to put a cap on the latter, as I did not want this to be a book about suicides.” That was especially poignant, as the black humour reminded one that no matter how open spaces and minds are becoming, the community is still battling huge obstacles on the road ahead.
There was a frisson of excitement at that point, one saw India’s path breaker for the gay community Ashok Row Kavi making his way into the audience. Kavi made an observation to Hajratwala that the stories by the men in the book had more pace, “they are more frenetic and fast-paced, have a get-on-with-it feel" while those by the women are, “more languorous and intense.” To this, Hajratwala quipped, “maybe it is a sex thing,” to some laughs. There was a final pat on the back for Shobhana Kumar of Queer Ink who published the book, with Hajratwala saying, “The publishing house has taken a great financial and creative leap with the book.”
It was time then for the group of press photographers to take their own leap, clamouring for pictures of Nandita Das, while others crowded the dais to get their books signed. The event and the space it was held at was a small step ahead for the community. Small step though it was but significant enough to warrant a little twist to lines of a poem called ‘To His Coy Mistress’ by poet Andrew Marvell. With apologies to Marvell for taking license with his work one can end with a doff of the hat for those that spoke Out! that evening for:
The closet is a safe and private place But none I think do there embrace.