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Pen Points
Asian Males: Natural Curiosity & Same-Sex Love in India

Raj Ayyar to Abhinav

Dear Abhinav,

Author and Professor Raj Ayyar I'm glad you enjoyed the interview (with Randolfe Wicker in GayToday) Yes, I can buy the bit about your terminal non-homophobic straightness and your androgyny.

Re: The conspiracy of silence about India's long-standing tradition of same-sex love, terms, texts and practices, I think that it is due, in part, to the sex-phobic quality of much of middle-class Indian discourse in the colonial and post-colonial periods. Some of this, as Vanita & Kidwai point out, is due to colonial Victorian mores and laws imposed on a docile Indian population to de-heathenize them.

Thus, many Indians fail to read the passages in the Shiva Purana and elsewhere where Shiva and Vishnu have a passionate fling, with Vishnu in drag as Mohini, or that Arjuna was miraculously turned into a woman, just so he could enjoy Krishna the way the female gopis were privileged to! And the Krittivasa Ramayana talks about the children of '2 wombs' w/out the male principle interfering.

Also, there is ample evidence that most Indian men are at least bisexual by Western standards, since in a gender-segregated society, most tenderness, unspoken sex etc. are homosexual. Hence, the 'yaari'/yaraana, sakhyani traditions. Just a quick commercial: my review of Hoshang Merchant's Yaraana: Gay Writing from India will be up on Gay Today starting September 30 and my new interview with a gay cloning guru will be up in the 1st week of October. Do read 'em & give me your feedback. Also, if you get into gay today archives, there's an interview (by yours truly) with Saleem Kidwai, Ruth's co-editor (Same-Sex Love in India). These pieces should begin to answer some of your questions.

Do write SOOOOOON!!<


Abhinav Replies to Raj Ayyar

Dear Raj,

Several more passing thoughts generated by your last email:

"I think that it is due, in part, to the sex-phobic quality of much of middle-class Indian discourse in the colonial and post-colonial periods. Some of this, as Vanita & Kidwai point out, is due to colonial Victorian mores & laws imposed on a docile Indian population to de-heathenize them."

I was just reading Gore Vidal's Creation, interesting idea, not sure of the historical accuracy. In his text and in other accounts of pre-colonial India (In an Antique Land by Amitav Ghosh is another one) it is described as a generally very sexually licentious civilization. There is definitely ample evidence to suggest that it was not always the sexually reserved place it is now.

On the other hand... we must remember that under the colonially-imposed label of "Indian" society, it is as diverse mix of castes, communities and creeds. Sexual mores are generally more relaxed for the nobility as compared to the middle classes in every society since the dawn of time anyway. The Kama Sutra and the gardens of pleasure in King Bimbisara's time are probably not too different from the high-class escort services enjoyed by wealthy businessmen today. In short, harking back to the great prophet Nietszche yet again, the middle classes have always been chained by their "slave morality".

I cannot seriously imagine that my bania ancestors living in their villages, tending to their zamindari and their account books several generations ago, were ever any more particularly sexually liberated than they are today! The major difference being that, back then, they were married off when they were 13 or 14, sexual relations began soon after the onset of puberty, and so all problems of sexual frustration/experimentation etc. were avoided. The problem has begun in my parents generation, when Western influences begot new systems of education and socialization i.e. people are now expected to marry in their mid 20s, and yet the underlying social system of marriage and sexual mores did not evolve. THAT, in my view, is the source of the problem.

And let us not forget that the various Indian communities probably represent a spectrum of sexual attitudes just as much as they represent a spectrum of languages and any other behaviors. >From uncles marrying their 9 year old nieces in the south (sorry if I am generalizing "south"!), to the hot-blooded Punjabi dalliances in the farm fields, and the swingin' hips of Bollywood...

"Also, there is ample evidence that most Indian men are at least bisexual by Western standards, since in a gender-segregated society, most tenderness, unspoken sex etc. are homosexual. Hence, the 'yaari'/yaraana, sakhyani traditions."

I'm really not sure if I can agree with that. I can agree that a lot of Indian male behavior may APPEAR to be homosexual from a Westerner's point of view e.g. men embracing, holding hands etc. But, speaking from personal experience and also general common sense, I cannot agree that it can be said to be "homosexual" behavior. I mean, if you start defining the term "homosexual" to cover all forms of tenderness and friendship between men then yes we are all gay as they come!

But seriously, I would argue that just because our friendships are more affectionate, does not mean that they are necessarily indicative of an underlying sexual behavior pattern, even if you define "homosexuality" as loosely as you are attempting to. And, it has been my experience now that homosexuals are just as guilty of labeling and categorizing sexual behavior as the rest of us. If I decided to experiment with homosexual behavior, and then decided that it wasn't for me, would that make me a "homosexual"? Ultimately, they are all just labels.


Raj Ayyar Replies:

Dear Abhinav,

Saleem Kidwai Apart from all that I sent you yesterday, you may want to check out the following if you haven't done so already: my interview with Saleem Kidwai (GayToday archives for August 2002) and my interview with Ruth Vanita ('Queering India') on the Namaste website. Would enjoy your feedback on all of the above plus my latest interview with a gay cloning guru, Randy Wicker (up on the main page of GT now).

If that's too much 'homework' I make no apologies for it. After all, you're a sensitive thinking Indian intrigued and a trifle disturbed about all this. So, why not?


Abhinav Replies in Turn:

Hi there Prof!

I read the Randy Wicker interview and your review of Yaraana. I especially liked the Randy Wicker interview. What an in your face kind of guy! I liked his ideas, although somewhat over-the-top, on going beyond the 60s, drugs and counter-culture. What he said about self-employment being the ultimate freedom rang a bell for me in my current job-less situation.

Having hung out and lived with a lot of counter-culture hippie types in my last two years in Kyoto (which is a bit of a hang-out place for a lot of ex-hippies), I have gone through the stages of being fascinated with them and their free-wheeling ideas, getting disillusioned, and ultimately, rejecting them and moving on. I guess, not so much "rejecting" as "transcending".

They are like children, taking up issues and shouting about them, but they really need to "grow up" in a certain sense. Some of the nicest, kindest and most talented people I have met work in big corporations and wear suits and ties. And some of the most annoying, bigoted and selfish people I have met wear long hair, go to Phish concerts and smoke pot. So, in that sense I respected his ability to move on and realize that one's beliefs and opinions inevitably change over time, and that there is nothing fundamentally wrong with trying to make a buck.

I really wasn't very comfortable about his opinions on cloning though. If nothing else, the world population increasing as rapidly as it is, the last thing we need is more people. His justification that a clone would really just be a "late-born twin" sounds dubious. Although I am not horrified by the idea of cloning, I just don't see that it is necessary.

As a technological achievement, it would indeed be marvelous. I have no doubt that, like it or not, human cloning will become a reality in the future. From a spiritual perspective, death is a part of life. People wishing to live on in the world through cloning are hanging desperately onto their earthly selves. Just seems silly. Then again, I suppose that it is an issue for homosexual couples who want to have children together. But even then... having a surrogate mother or father is a separate issue from cloning oneself or one's partner.
Human Cloning Rights activist Randolfe Wicker

That leads me into the other thing you sent me, your review of the Yaraana book. There was an "aha!" moment there, you hit the nail on the head it seems with the lack of homosexual identity in India i.e. the pre-Foucaultian innocence. It seems the Judeo-Christian Western world has always been obsessed with "the Word" i.e. the label. Westerners are obsessed with the issue of sexual identity, it seems. "Am I gay?", "Am I straight?" etc. Frankly, I quite like our pre-Foucaultian innocence.

The lack of obsession with what one labels oneself as. Of course, not being homosexual, I probably cannot appreciate the difficulty that gay Indian men must face being forced into loveless arranged marriages. Then again, that's probably not so different from a non-homosexual Indian man (or woman) being forced into a loveless arranged marriage, which happens all the time. But anyway, that was a very clear look at the notion of gay identity in India.

And naturally the "attic" metaphor befits this situation much better than the "closet" metaphor of the West. Don't forget that our desi "attic" (or "wheat field") metaphor often extends to our heterosexual behavior as well. Straight guys and gals have problems too y'know!

I have a cousin in India who used to come on to me when I was younger. I was quite young then, and I didn't really know what to make of it. I thought he was gay. But, at the same time, he used to talk to me about girls, asking me if I had ever had sex with a girl etc. I guess that, being as sexually repressed as they are over there in small town Uttar Pradesh, any kind of sexual encounter is a welcome opportunity. And let me define "sexual encounter" in this case as any kind of physical pleasure obtained from contact with another human being. Ultimately we go back to the issue of labeling sexual behavior.

Which is not far removed from the issue of labeling anything else - culture, race, religion etc. Out of his sexual frustration he tried to obtain sexual pleasure from another man. Does that make him "gay"? Does that make his behavior "gay behavior"? Ultimately I suppose we are each living in this viscous shifting ether, growing in our opinions and experiences, what one believes today being anathema tomorrow, going back to Randy Wicker which rounds up this little email quite nicely!

Well, thanks for the HW! If only you could give me a degree :) I have been very up and down in the last few months with regard to my plan of what to do next with life. In typical lazy fashion I still haven't sent off my application to CIIS, although I have been working on the essays. At the same time, it seems that it might be better to stick with the corporate IT industry life at least for another few years. But I am not having any luck finding a new job either! Frustration...

Let me leave you with a very fundamental and not-a-very-nice question considering the fact that you are a gay person. Apologies if it seems trivial and overly simple, but when I think about it, I can't help but feeling that, at some level, heterosexual behavior is "normal", simply because - just looking at our anatomy - the male organ is clearly designed to fit into the female orifice, which clearly works well because it results in reproduction. OK, once in a while, a man might decide to go off and have some fun with another man. After all, another man would know what would pleasure him best. A woman might decide to do the same. But ultimately, that form of behavior is only about pure physical pleasure. In the same way that getting a massage is pure physical pleasure, and also therapeutic.

Every society and human behavior going through cycles and Hegelian thesis-antithesis-synthesis phases, some societies have come to a stage where certain people decide to form love and sex relationships, sometimes exclusively, with people of their own sex. The "antithesis" phase of the cycle, if you will. I suppose there is a certain kind of freedom in such a relationship, one is freed from the bonds of familial duty, children and other such social baggage.

Nowadays we have enough people engaging in such kinds of behavior to have "gay communities", "gay magazines", "gay rights issues" etc. I definitely feel that it is a mistake to condemn or punish people for such behavior. Again, what people do in the privacy of their homes and other private establishments is entirely their own business. But then again... am I ignoring the evidence from ancient mythologies pointing to the fact that such relationships have always existed?

I guess that, being but a mere heterosexual bania boy who, at some point, would like nothing better than to have a family and a nice woman by his side, I am feeling a little lost among all these gay voices! I feel like I wanna put up my little hand among all these Jack Nichols, Allen Ginsbergs, Randy Wickers and Ruth Vanitas, Peter Golightlys and Manivannan Naidus and say "OK! Everybody time out! I just wanna find a nice girl and have a few babies and have a few laughs! Please remove my label!".


Raj Ayyar Writes Back to Abhinav:

Dear Abhinav,

I'm glad you enjoyed the 'homework' so much and that it stimulated a lot of cultural and personal reflection. I'd like you to reflect on and then respond to my observations here:

Re: cloning, I think that cloning & genetic engineering research have opened up new vistas of healing for Parkinson's, AIDS, Alzheimer's etc. So, it's not simply the thrill of imitating the gods and goddesses of ancient India & Greece and parthenogenetically creating life by flicking off some dirt from under one's fingernails. I do think that human cloning full-blown, undermines the necessary link between heterosexuality and reproduction and that link has always been vital to the 'survival of the species' argument diligently trotted out by heterosexists since Lucian's time. Also, a point that Randy chose to ignore in that interview: if artificial womb/incubators are do-able in the near future, then cloning would free the woman from the burden and the pain of child-bearing.

I don't see 'attic-ed' sexualities as a good thing for reasons I mention in my review: the widespread HIV epidemic is due, in part, to the fact that AIDS education cannot reach the silent wheatfields and 'desi' (local Indian) attics. Also, I think living a lie is even more loveless and detrimental, primarily to the wife, than the run-of-the-mill arranged Indian marriage.

Re: your cousin coming on to you while spouting 'girl talk' that's common closeted behavior the world over. For one thing, talking 'women' in a macho sense 'exonerates' the male homosexual sexual act and even allows us to bypass the guilt of that label altogether since we are simply 'relieving pressure' or some such bullshit, while our hearts, if not our sex organs, are in their proper hetero place!

I find it odd that you should associate same-sex acts with pure physical pleasure--you admit that a same-sex partner may know how to pleasure one better than an other sex partner and that it may be as good as a massage! Nice ambivalence there. Actually, Plato in the Symposium argues just the opposite: in Aristophanes' creation myth, Zeus bifurcates these spherical androgynes, each bifurcated part then wandering around looking for their 'other half' (interesting how Christianity castrated Plato's other half and made it a tepid heterosexual spousal reference!).

Plato believes that the those that are attracted to the opposite sex are inferior to same-sex lovers, since the former are just interested in 'breeding' and propagating the species (i.e. purely physical and of the earth, earthy), while same-sex lovers can 'ascend' from the merely physical to a glimpse of spiritual worlds together. I'm not interested in defending Plato's same-sex elitism as much as to underscore the fact that there are many philosophies and practices that see same-sex love as tender, spiritual as well as physical and much more romantic than other-sex attractions. That's true of many of the Hindu, Islamic and other texts dissected by Vanita & Kidwai in their work. Do read my 'Queering India with Ruth Vanita' on the Namaste website & my interview with Saleem in Gay Today interview archives (August 2002) if you haven't done so already.

If 'attic' and 'closet' sexualities (at least for males) appear to be so focused on physical gratification today, it's because: 1) there is a programmed sexually predatory attitude adopted by many males but 2) much more importantly, the very dynamics of living one's sexuality in secret, policed, bashed and harassed, lends wings to a purely sexual desperation and a 'grab it while you can' outlook. Needless to say, privileged heterosexuals (at least in the West) do not have a similar problem--they can pretty much kiss, fondle, make out in public and be viewed with sickening indulgence by the policing authorities (including parents and such).

As far as Abhinav's dream of marrying a 'nice' girl and settling down to bania (bourgeois) domesticity, I don't think Jack Nichols, Randy Wicker or I have a problem with it! In fact, rather than seeing yourself beleaguered by this mythic 'gay conspiracy' judging you, you may want to reflect on the systematic and relentless persecution of gays everywhere. A little question: I've always been big on getting friends and students to deal with what Jung calls the 'Shadow'--the part of ourselves that the nice persona self-definitions (e.g. 'nice' heterosexual Bania boy) hide and repress. What part of your shadow is drawn to all these gay researches, enjoys hangin' out with Kyoto queens etc., while desperately and defiantly defending your hetero lifestyle? It might be worth finding out....`.


Return of the Shadow! (Abhinov):

Two main points of interest in your last email: One the Platonic idea that same-sex love can in fact be "higher" than hetero-love, which is supposedly ultimately for breeding etc. The second being your challenge to discover my own "Shadow" and the seeming paradox behind the 'defense' of my straightness.

I have often had the same thought as the Platonic one regarding same-sex love i.e. It can be a kind of freedom, allowing one to have a healthy sexual relationship with another human being, while not being bound to the conventional mores of family, child-rearing etc. I don't necessarily see this as 'higher', but it's definitely as valid a form of sexual relationship as a 'straight' one. Furthermore, even several heterosexual couples nowadays choose to co-habit, without getting officially married or having children.

(Side note: Such heterosexual relationships did not exist during Plato's day, would he still have considered same-sex relations necessarily 'higher' in today's world?).

I suppose it comes down to the value judgement of what one considers 'higher'. Now this is the guy who came up with the theory of the Forms, and so he naturally associates 'earthy' activities with 'lower' activities.

I guess I am an earthy person in this respect. Personally (and I fully agree that this may be simply a result of cultural/family conditioning), having a family, children etc. with a woman that I genuinely love is about the highest form of relationship I think I can have. Again, re-iterating that a gay lifestyle (or even a childless straight lifestyle) is not necessarily 'lower' or 'higher' than this, it's just different.

I like to think that I do a lot of soul-searching and make efforts to get into my own Jungian 'Shadow'. I fully agree with Osho Rajneesh's idea (that's where I first heard it anyway) that to free oneself of something one has to express it, you will never be free of anything if you choose to repress it. And so I have made every effort to give myself up to every experience, good or bad. As to why I hang out with drag queens and gay men here and yet 'defend' my heterosexuality... well first of all it's not like I hang out with only gay people!

I just happen to have these two close friends who are gay, they run a theatre company here that I became heavily involved in and so I have worked closely with them often. And through them I think I became a lot more accepting of gay issues. But they are by no means my only friends here! And as I started talking to you; you have been bringing up a lot of gay issues as well lately so I have been trying to comment on them as best I can. I guess partly the defense thing may just be a feeling of overwhelm, sorry if the last email was a bit over the top "help me I'm a lost little heterosexual!" Although I do feel like that sometimes, to be honest. I'm just not the typical macho male going out and doing this or that, and yet not gay either.

Out here in Japan, I have a race issue to deal with as well. Being a non-white man I am in a difficult set of circumstances with regard to sexual issues. Again, going back to the cultural/family conditioning thing, I guess I am still struggling with these very basic issues of sexual repression drilled into me by conservative mom.

Although I am not gay, I have had a difficult time dealing with sex-related issues in my life, still do. And so, being surrounded by all these gay issues, gay repression etc. I guess I just felt the need to assert the fact that even as a straight person I have sexual problems, feelings of repression etc. Any show of sexual behavior/curiosity was treated pretty, well brutally, by my parents when I was younger, and yet at the same time I have been a very sexually-driven person since childhood. Throw in an abusive dad and a super-protective mom and you have one confused boy! Further complicated by the fact that I was always much, much closer to my mom than my dad, I would even go so far as to say that I didn't really have any strong masculine role models as I was growing up.

Yes I did forget for a moment the repression and anguish gay people face on a daily basis in most parts of the world. I guess I've never really seen it, the only gay people I've known are in places where it's acceptable. Going back to the Shadow thing, I currently feel like I have gone full circle i.e. coming from Bania family where I was always expected to go and marry some nice girl etc. But being a very sexually curious kid, I spent a lot of time in the last few years doing lots of dodgy things, had a few wild times, but now I feel like I'm over that, I've been there, done that, and if I really ask myself what I want, deep down inside, it's a nice girl and a family. I've had enough of sexual desperation. Reiterating that nice girl + family does not necessarily mean marrying someone the parents pick out.


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