'Many stories radically shift what we understand as mainstream'

May 13, 2012, 08:48 IST | Sowmya Rajaram

In Close, Too Close, the first-ever anthology of this sort, 15 writers and artists from within India and outside seek, explore and question the sexualities and genders around us. Editors Meenu and Shruti take us through the intimate experiences found in between the pages of a decidedly delicious compilation

How were the stories selected?
We sent out an open call for submissions to queer lists, literary groups and blogs in India and the South Asian diaspora globally. Other than India, we were able to reach out to groups and individuals from Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka that engage with queer rights, writings and art. We also invited published authors and artists to contribute. Through the process of selection, we had the support of Shalini Krishan, the editor at Tranquebar.

What criteria did you follow while editing the pieces?
We wanted the stories to expand traditional notions of sex. Stories that explored realities beyond the normative expectations of sex were given priority. For example, you will find stories here that take sex out of the private and into public spaces, stories that are between more than just two people, stories that blur consent and stories that complicate gender and desire itself. We have tried to be as diverse as possible in representing lesbian, bisexual, gay, trans and queer lives. We wanted to include stories that were from regions in South Asia other than India. We did not choose stories simply because they were explicit but chose those that were able to elicit a range of emotions that the sexual can elicit. So the criteria with which stories were chosen included diversity of sexuality and genders, regional representation, emotional content and non-normativity.

What do you see fitting into the ambit of queer erotica?
Erotica has existed in all cultures, as in South Asian culture for a long time. What we now call queer erotica has been around, though, maybe less openly, than non-queer erotica. In terms of contemporary queer erotica, a lot of it is published in and about the West. Fitting into the ambit of queer erotica would be anything that is not normative, something that expresses desire by broadening and complicating the understanding of genders as well as sexualities.

A welcome sense of pride in one’s identity as a queer person seems to be prominent.
Yes, pride and celebration of identities and lives are quite prominent in many stories. Some stories also touch upon the shame associated with being queer or gender-variant in a largely heterosexual society. We cannot undermine the difficulties of living as a queer person in a heterosexually constructed world and the shame and stigma that society attaches to non-conforming desires and identities. However, many queer people make the tumultuous journey from shame to pride and experience a sense of joy in being who they are. Many stories simply reflect the lived realities of people’s lives — you enjoy food, friendships, sex, desire like any other person. The common thread in the stories is a celebration of the plurality and non-conformity of sexualities, genders, sexual expressions and lived realities.

How different are the pieces from the ‘mainstream’ lexicon of erotica?
‘Different’ bodies complicate our ideas and understanding of genders and sexual play between ‘men’ and ‘women’. The very fact that we are not talking about cis-genders is subversive. Cis-gender means a gender identity where an individual’s gender identity matches the behaviour or role considered appropriate for one’s sex. It makes us question the notion that only two genders exist and are fixed at birth based on biology. So we feel that many stories and the characters in them radically shift what we understand as mainstream. Queer does not only mean LGBT identities and individuals. Queer is a perspective that complicates existing notions of sex, desire, genders, relationships and power. As queer-feminist editors, we have positioned ourselves to make this anthology challenge the normative and many stories will reflect that.

What kind of space do you hope this book finds in the queer experience in India?
Today, queer people and activists are claiming queer rights in robust voices. These rights haven’t been recognised all this while, and it’s still a long way to go before hierarchy of sexuality can truly be broken. We feel, while we are articulating and demanding these rights, there also needs to be space to talk of our desires. Sexual rights, without talking of pleasure, as many have already noted, is incomplete. That is the space we feel the book will speak to.

Close, Too Close: The Tranquebar Book of Queer Erotica hits bookstores in early June. It will also be available online.
Log on to: http://www.facebook.com/closetooclose

Love and sex for everybody
Please explain the Fish and Fetish motif
Fish and Fetish is nothing but a fictional restaurant and catering agency started by a fish-loving gay entrepreneur. Being a Bengali, I love the machhli and on Ark Erotica it is only fair that good food is served. As far as fetish is concerned it could be a good strategy for creating a relevant brand identity.

The art work by Anirban Ghose forms the end papers of the anthology

Take us through the panels.
Ark Erotica takes members of the LGBTQ community cruising and tries to be as inclusive as possible. The top left section has an artist whose gender-identity is ambiguous. The subject of his/her painting is a gigantic posterior of an individual — the idea is to give an impression in a humourous way of off-screen space where the first bit of the illustration ends and the stories in the book unfold. Then there are men and women indulging in a romantic group activity — some could be identified as men, some women, some transgender while some could be popular mythological and comic characters. The mermaids are a couple — they are naughty and fun too! Then there is the captain who appears to be mighty pleased and accepting, while enjoying the sea breeze. I also wanted to challenge the stereotype of “young and fit” individuals becoming representatives of sex and romance. There are these two senior gay men too on board who are in love and having a great time.

What space does the book have in the LGBTQ space here?
As much as it is important to talk about the violence and discrimination that members of the Queer community face, it’s also necessary to celebrate our sexuality and express it through the creative medium. I pray that this anthology pervades every prejudiced mind and initiates a debate. The politics of invisibilising sexuality either by repression or mockery has to end and this will only happen if we start having a dialogue with people and power structures around us. It has begun already with Close, Too Close.  Anirban Ghosh uses illustration reportage, sequential art, short films and documentaries to narrate tales on gender, sexuality, human rights as well as other mundane tales of growing up and the world around. Some of his works can be found on his webpage thebluebulb.blogspot.in

‘We are all queer people’
Your story struck me as one that is distinctly different from the ‘mainstream’ sexual experience. How did you achieve that?
As the protagonist in the story says, everyone has a secret. Everyone also has some aspect of himself or herself that is removed from society’s ideal — that needs to be either hidden or fought for. I reached into myself for that feeling. As for the other things that the protagonist goes through — her longing for companionship set against her wariness of others, the gauntlet she runs through every morning — which working woman does not have the same stories to tell? I am also lucky enough to count among my friends women who question the ideas of gender, sexuality and all the other boxes that society tries to fit people into. Conversations with them and reading the blogs they directed me to, helped me get some familiarity with the very specific challenges that people who define themselves as ‘queer’ face.

Panels from Shadowboxer, a story in illustrations, by Nilofer, published in the anthology

The bus journey touches upon issues of longing, abuse, public spaces, and so on. Where and what have you drawn from while writing this piece?
I lived it. I was travelling by bus one evening. I was tired and holding on to the bars, and sandwiched between two men. They had neatly fitted their contours to mine, and the experience was unnerving. It struck me then that the whole set up was more like a BDSM scene than a commute. I noted every sensation and it stayed in my head for a while. When the anthology call came, it seemed fitting.
Other than the fact that Soliloquy’s protagonist was born a man, she is Every Person. She is every woman who has steeled herself to step into a bus, every woman who has taken a delight in her jewellery, every woman who has quieted her desire with the thought ‘it could make life worse.’ I am her too. So in a way, it took me all the 35 years of my life to write it.

What kind of space do you hope this book will find in the queer experience in India?
I want that this book will send the message that it’s okay not to conform. It’s okay to strive to be what one feels compelled to be. I hope that this starts off a wave of self-expression. I want anyone who has ever thought of gays, transsexuals, or anyone who is not arranged-marriage-with-two-kids as ‘us tarah ke log’ to read this book. Because you know what? Most of the people I know are heterosexual and comfortable with the gender they were born with, and every single one of them is queer. We are all very, very queer individuals.
Chicu wrote the essay titled Soliloquy in Close, Too Close (see right)

An extract from the story Soliloquy by chicu
I stand damp and tousled in front of my cupboard. The pink synthetic, I decide. For whatever reason, my body wants to be seen today. And why not, I think as I discard the towel. I have earned these curves. They may come naturally to some, but they are the result of hard work for me. I gaze into the mirror with satisfaction at the gentle spread of my hips. My breasts are goose-pimpled from the shower, my nipples taut. Oh yes, show them off. I wink at myself.
My dress and make up routine is meticulous as always. A chikan bra and pretty panties are followed by a crisply-ironed petticoat and blouse.

The ritual of draping a sari soothes me and my confidence increases with each careful pleat. Draping the pallu takes a lot of attention. It must be just so. Not revealing enough to attract censure, but not hiding the curves I am proud of. The last safety-pin is in place. I give myself a critical look in the mirror. I check the back to see if the sari is riding up and note approvingly the brief hint of a dark waist behind the sheer pink material. Satisfied with the sari, I turn my attention to my hair. It is growing well now. I take pleasure in combing it out before gathering it into a prim bun.

Now for the icing on the cake: make-up and accessories. I smile like a little girl playing with her treasure chest as I sort through my assorted bits of sunshine. I choose earrings, bangles, and a slim necklace. My fingers graze the silver anklets and I hesitate. Was it Coco Chanel who said that when accessorizing one should always take off the last thing one put on? I wear them anyway. Forgetting my care for the carefully-draped pleats, I hitch up my sari and bounce on my feet listening to the jingle of the bells. I look up and laugh with the delighted girl I see in the mirror. The pink frosted lipstick I choose reflects my sunny mood. A swipe of kajal is followed by a dusting of powder.

Never forget to powder your ears, I remember my adopted mother saying. My adopted mother. It seems false to say that. After all, she gave birth to the woman I see in the mirror; gave me the permission to be who I always was. I cannot fault my birth mother either. After many girls, she finally gave birth to a boy. The family was elated, and many plans were made for the little heir. When she discovered my penchant for dressing in my sisters’ clothes, her distress was understandable. In an attempt to dissuade me, she boxed my ears when she found me using her make-up. I thought then that she was ashamed of me. Later, I realized she was also afraid for me.

She wanted to spare her child pain. She suffered when the neighbours tutted about me; she suffered even more when her husband beat her for giving birth to a defective son. Most of all, she was anguished when he — my father — threatened to beat me into submission. Her punishments were milder than those he threatened to inflict on me. Naturally, she wanted to correct my behaviour before he took that job upon himself. It was not in her to understand that for me, the pain of living as a man was a torture far worse than her beatings. She meant well, but she left me with no option but to run away. What else could I do? I was tired of the beatings and the ridicule. I was tired of seeing my mother being punished for who I was.

Running away was so easy! A walk ‘to the market’, an exchange of some money for a rail ticket, and I soon found myself in a city large enough to provide me with anonymity. Sadly, a city that is generous with its anonymity is stingy with its welcome. Here too, I was cursed with being between worlds. Being from a ‘good family’ I could not bring myself to beg, but at the same time that family did not have place for me. My money ran out fast, and I found myself without shelter and food. And it was then that Amma found me. Starving, delirious with fever, with the earrings I had stolen from my mother clenched in my fist.

‘If you get better, I will pierce your ears so that you can wear them,’ she promised me as I struggled against the healing poultices she applied on my chest. She followed through on that promise, and on many more. The only payment she extracted was an unquestioning obedience. I was not the only one in Amma’s care. I found myself with other women like me, all allowed to live the way they were meant to be. The other women followed a fairly stereotypical career; singing and dancing at peoples’ houses and more or less coercing them into parting with their money. For me, Amma had something different in mind. ‘You are not like them,’ she said. ‘You are posh. You are a graduate.

People listen to you. You should work in an office; we need someone like that.’ I was happy enough to agree. I worked as a typist and did Amma’s chores whenever she needed someone ‘posh’ to negotiate the world for her. I only protested when she told me to leave the house and live elsewhere. ‘There is nothing more I can do for you,’ she told me. ‘Go out now, beti. Live the way you want to live. Come and visit your Amma, but live outside.’ She was right. Hormone therapy and Amma’s training had made me all the woman I could be. The operation to complete the transformation from man to woman is not within my reach and probably will never be. I do not mind too much. This is enough for me. I am happy, I am free. As for the odd hidden secret, who does not have one?

I finish applying my make-up. As I take a last look in the mirror, my elated mood disappears. I recollect what I go through once I step out of the doors that protect me now. I feel the speculative glances on my body, hear the whispers. I see myself brushing past the leering crowd with my head lowered as if in submission. It is not lenient, this world of mine. It reminds me over and over again that I am vulnerable, forcing me to dig deep within for my reserves of strength.

Every day, I return depleted to sleep alone in my little room. I always wonder what it would be like to have someone to return to. Would we hurry back home together? Shutting the world out would no longer be merely a relief, it would be a joy. Home would not mean just a place to hide, but a sanctuary in every sense of the word. But would it really be like that, I ask myself. I think of the people I know who are as trapped in their relationships as I am outside of one. I don’t care. I want my chance. I want to know what it feels like. The clock reminds me I am running late. As I rush out, my face assumes the wooden expression it reserves for masking vulnerability. 

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