JUNE 19, 2020
ON SEPTEMBER 6, 2018, section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, titled “Unnatural Offences,” was struck down by the Supreme Court of India. The five-judge constitutional panel unanimously ruled, in the case Navtej Singh Johar v. Union of India, that Section 377 was unconstitutional “in so far as it criminalizes consensual sexual conduct between adults of the same sex.”
In a country ruled by a right-wing, Hindu-nationalist government that has shown a range of hostilities to minority communities, this was a big cause to throw a party! And a party it has been, for the last year and a half, among precious little else to celebrate, from the lynching of poor and minority members of society to the worst riots since Gujarat in 2002, right in the heart of the nation’s capital, just when US President Donald Trump was visiting the country. Things have been feeling so bleak of late that when the COVID-19 crisis shut India down, it initially appeared as something of a blessing since social isolation killed, along with many good things, the trauma of communal riots.
Looking back on this brief period, progressive Indian citizens see the abolition of Section 377 as the only moment in recent history that has called for a celebration. And so there were extended parties in the media and on social media, pride walks in cities, and a general sense of vindication for people who have lived as second-class citizens in the eyes of the law for far too long.
The literary public sphere, too, got into the act. India, a land of festivals, has, for the last decade and a half, proved a fertile ground for the newest kind, the literary festival. The first full-blown such event devoted to queer and inclusive culture, The Rainbow Literature Festival, was held in Delhi in December 2019. Organized by journalist, memoirist, and queer activist Sharif Rangnekar, Rainbow Litfest hit many emotional chords in a society beginning to grow jaded by what had become a predictable dog and pony show of literary festivals across the country.
Drawn by the promise of themes long pushed under the rug — non-normative sexualities in religion and mythology, history and politics, film and television, fiction, politics and the workplace, and, of course, the law — queer people came to Delhi’s Gulmohar Park from cities, small towns, and villages across the country. One such visitor was Maninder Jit Singh, a student in his early 20s from Patiala in Punjab, who came to the festival with a group of friends, enthused over a moment he thought would never arrive in India, and embodying the courage of what it means to be queer in small-town Punjab, a culture known for being masculinist and militaristic.
This celebratory mood shaped a certain trajectory of literary productivity. Two notable memoirs published in 2019 captured the light and shadow of secrecy and “normalcy” — Sharif D. Rangnekar’s From Straight to Normal, and Now You Know by editor and book-blogger Vivek Tejuja. This was followed by a work of “collective biography,” Gay Icons of India, edited by Hoshang Merchant and Akshaya K. Rath, which featured profiles of 22 leading English-speaking queer artists and activists — a book subsequently withdrawn due to errors in it. The media’s coverage of these books also suddenly started to feel different. Writing and films on the queer experience had always been there, of course, even if we merely considered Anglophone India. But as Riyad Wadia’s Bomgay, the first openly queer Indian film, had captured movingly in 1996, it was an underground life where shame and pride were equal sparring partners. This ambivalence was visible, too, in the fiction of R. Raj Rao, considered one of India’s first openly gay writer in English. “Don’t Let Him Know,” the title of Sandip Roy’s moving story of closeted identity, seemed to express the prevailing mood, even when the queer community longed to shout “Out,” the title of Minal Hajratwala’s 2012 collection of queer stories from India.
But after the Supreme Court decision in 2018, it began to feel that things had come a long way: from the underground cult of Bomgay, as it were, to the 2019 mainstream Bollywood movie Ek Ladki ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga (So It Felt When I Saw a Girl), a lesbian romance featuring one of India’s most popular movie stars, Sonam Kapoor. Speaking at the Rainbow Literature Festival, trans artist Gazal Dhaliwal, who co-wrote the film, said that the right to tell a queer story belongs to anyone, queer or not, who can tell it in a rich and sensitive way.
The first significant work of queer fiction in English to appear after the abolition of Article 377 was Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar’s My Father’s Garden (2018), a collection of three long, autobiographical stories about the narrator’s medical training and life as a young doctor in small-town Jharkhand, an impoverished rural state in eastern India. The intensity of sexual interaction between the young male students in the college hostel informed the first story, described in vivid detail. But intriguingly, when it came to the book’s reception, the queerness of the stories was far overshadowed by the politics of tribal identity. Shekhar was already well established in the Indian literary public sphere as a notable English-language writer from the Adivasi tribe, one of the indigenous peoples of India, and an authentic chronicler of their experience.
By mid-2019, however, the emphasis had shifted significantly. The celebratory narrative of post-377 India found clearest voice in the publication, by Penguin India, of Afghan-American journalist Nemat Sadat’s debut novel, The Carpet Weaver, a bildungsroman about a queer boy growing up in the masculinist, patriarchal culture of Afghanistan amid the warring currents of global ideologies. Sadat has been fond of telling the story of how his novel, rejected by US publishers, found ready acceptance in India, where the recent decriminalization of homosexual love made readers eager for this sort of narrative. Fiction was now expected to celebrate this newfound freedom and legitimacy, a fact that was brought home to me personally when the queer activist Chintan Girish Modi, in his popular column “The Queer Bookshelf,” gently accused my own novel, The Scent of God, of hushing queer love, pushing it back into the closet. Also published in early 2019, and intensely debated in queer circles, this story of love between two teenage boys in a boarding school run by Hindu monks had many reasons to be secretive, heteronormativity being the least of them in a world that sought to practice monastic celibacy.
Be that as it may, Roy’s evocative phrase “don’t let him know” seemed particularly out of place in post-377 India. Queerness in fiction was now expected to assert itself loud and proud. But is what is good for politics always good for art? If readers and reviewers are only looking for celebratory narratives about queerness, they will miss stories like Amrita Mahale’s 2018 novel Milk Teeth, if only because queer identity may appear as “secondary” to the central love interest in the novel, which is heterosexual. Embraced by many readers, Milk Teeth was not particularly noticed as queer fiction; perhaps its chronicling of the underground life of Kartik, who is expected to marry his childhood friend Ira, evoked too strongly a time when being queer was illegal. Milk Teeth continued in the vein of Bomgay, with its depiction of the self-hatred of a middle-class man who doesn’t have the courage to come out of the closet.
However lost, suppressed, and unliberated he might be, Mahale’s Kartik offered an unforgettable portrait of queer life in India. But is there a place for him in a landscape where his desire is illegal no more? Such is the question for queer fiction — perhaps for all non-heteronormative cultural production — following the historic decriminalization of homosexuality in India.
Saikat Majumdar is the author of three novels, most recently The Scent of God, one of The Times of India’s “20 Most Talked About Indian Novels of 2019,” as well as two books of criticism, including Prose of the World: Modernism and the Banality of Empire (2013). He has also co-edited a collection of essays, The Critic as Amateur (2019). He lives in Delhi, where he is professor of English and Creative Writing at Ashoka University.