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Yaraana: Gay Writing from India

Book review by Raj Ayyar

Yaraana: Gay Writing from India edited by Hoshang Merchant, Penguin, 1999, $15

There's a critical tension underlying this potpourri of gay male short fiction and poetry: the constant tug of war between rampant male-male sexual desire and the deafening silence surrounding same-sex love in contemporary India.

The editor, Hoshang Merchant, who teaches Poetry and Surrealism at the University of Hyderabad, India tells us with sweeping panache that "homosexuality as it is known in the West does not exist in India. Most men are bisexuals. Or, to put it another way, most homosexuals get married due to societal pressures." This is truly a staggering grand narrative statement that most Indian men are either bisexual (in Western terms) or, better yet, homosexuals forced into arranged marriage!

The characters in many of these pieces are, for the most part, MSM's (men who have sex with men) and are into what Ashok Row Kavi describes as 'a contract of silence.' They pine for that sexy working class stud or 'do' him in the furtive anonymity of parks and public toilets, but they are seldom plagued by questions of gay identity.

In fact, a major difference between the topography of male-male sex in Merchant's fictive India and its current Western counterpart is that the uneasy identitarian question continues to stalk the language games of the most adamantly closeted gay person in the modern and post-modern West: 'Am I gay?' 'Can I come out safely?' and so on.

Even the 'dangerous' borderline cases of avowedly straight men in contexts like prison and the military explain away same-sex acts as 'relieving pressure', 'just fooling around' etc. to avoid and deny the plaguing question of sexual identity. Thus, for many if not most Western closet cases in the post-Stonewall era, the tightly shut closet door does not imply lack of awareness or lack of unease about identity.

In the Indian case, quite often the norm has nothing to do with sex acts or with identity--rather, it revolves around the compulsoriness of arranged marriage and the desperate clinging to 'being a man.' In the world of ^Yaraana ~the male protagonists rub up against each other on crowded trains, fondle private parts with nervous gawkiness and enjoy the full gamut of same sex acts without any identitarian unease or even awareness of the labels for such acts.

Is this a state of pre-discursive innocence? After all, Michel Foucault points out in his pivotal ^History of Sexuality ~that 'homosexuality' as commonly understood today, is a Western construct arising out of medical discourses of classification and control in the 19th Century.

Some troubling questions arise immediately. If this is pre-Foucauldian 'innocence' can one afford it in the context of rapidly spreading HIV-disease in India? Also, what about the luckless woman who is trapped in an 'arranged' heterosexual marriage with a man who often lacks the descriptive protocols to define his infidelities? Isn't there a fundamental lack of integrity on the part of the married man who sneaks off to parks late at night to gratify his unspeakable and unclassifiable desires? The fact that these are questions rendered hackneyed by constant repetition in feminist and HIV-educator conversations, does not diminish their importance or urgency. These are questions that Hoshang Merchant does not really answer in his long introduction and afterword to the book. He does say that "homosexuality (in India) is unspoken about...gays do not have a local habitation or even a name" and that it is shaming only because of the association of 'passive' male homosexuality with the state of a hijra (traditional Indian transgender person) or 'becoming a woman.'

The misogyny behind Indian homophobia is much more naked than in the contemporary West, since Western sexualities in the recent past are thickly layered with identity definitions, anxieties and modes of resistance and liberation. Thus, a Western gay male or lesbian has to fight a homophobia that is more directly aimed at the many layers of gay identity. The link between hatred of the feminine and of the 'feminized' male on the one hand and homophobia on the other, is more veiled in the West today.

However, Merchant does not offer any solutions and neither do most of the contributors to this anthology. He has a habit of going off on long rants and indulging his personal peeves with a grand sweeping over-generalization or two.

Such eccentricities might be dismissed as cute and quirky, if it were not for the seriousness of the issues involved. His only comment about a gay male-straight woman alliance is a querulous one-liner about his let-down feelings with straight women who "are fighting the same oppressor--the macho male" but fail to realize this.

Lesbians do not get even a passing mention in this anthology; neither do other hues of the LGBT spectrum, barring the 'operational' Indian bisexual (without that name) who moves from exclusively same-sex encounters to arranged marriage, often continuing same-sex liaisons on the side.

Worse, Merchant detests the term 'gay' and sees himself as a none-too-happy homosexual. "I resent gay as a category as it is a political one", he says in the introduction and yet, he uses the language of gay analysis, anguish and politics when it suits him. He launches into this long tirade about the 'bourgeois' gay in the West. "In the bourgeois West, the homosexual is accepted as a happy credit card-carrying, tax-paying bourgeois with just another kink in the head or in the bed. That too is just one more bourgeois plot to make us disappear."

Puhleeze, Mr. Merchant! I would sympathize with his stand a lot more if it was more explicitly cautionary about the dangers of internalizing Western gay models uncritically. He does rave against MTV but fails to develop a coherent post-colonial argument from his leftist perspective, against the dangers of over-Westernization in the context of an India swept by globalization.

He does recognize that the MSM with all his inarticulateness about his sex practices may well be the product of British colonial redefinition of India and Indian sexualities. Not only did colonialism stigmatize traditional non-puritan sexualities, it also criminalized some of those behaviors, as in the infamous Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, shamefully retained by the Indian government after independence.

However, the real challenge for LGBT education in India and other post-colonial cultures is to construct a new patchwork gay identity, that is neither uncritically Western nor simply an unimaginative regression to ancient or medieval erotic practices. Those practices can serve as a backdrop of rich possibility in crafting a new Indian lifestyle. Terms like 'yaraana' , 'sakhyani' etc. connote great tenderness in same-sex bonding, both male-male and female-female.

Ruth Vanita and Saleem Kidwai have done a masterful job in presenting texts and practices endorsing, celebrating and analyzing same-sex love, texts that are indigenous to India from ancient Vedic times to the present (^Same-Sex Love in India ~eds. Vanita and Kidwai). The tricky part is to come up with the patchwork and to have the humility to realize that there is no grand synthesis here, just an assortment of trial and error identities loosely worn.

To my mind, the centerpiece of Merchant's anthology is his own short story 'The Slaves.' There is an interesting binarism between sex at the window where "my curious neighbors had their curiosity satisfied" and sex in the attic (not the closet!) "where the neighbors couldn't pry."
Author Saleem Kidwai

The 'attic' is a familiar metaphor in feminist theory. The 'madwoman in the attic' from Mr. Rochester's first wife in Jane Eyre to the present, signifies the confinement or marginalization of any woman who is different, non-submissive or just plain inconvenient.

Here we have a very different poetics of the attic. The two male protagonists lure a willing young man into the sealed safety of the attic. "The thin boy offered his lean ass standing up. Mazhar entered him from behind with force after wetting his dick with his own spit...the pelvic thrusts became fiercer and fiercer. It was a warm August afternoon and our attic was sealed shut against any intrusion." The attic gives Mazhar the safety to make out with the young guy thrice in a row without the distraction of the neighbor's gaze. His friend's voyeurism is different in that it, apparently, enhances his pleasure.

I think that there is a fundamental typological distinction between Merchant's Attic and the Western Closet in that this Attic simply safeguards the privacy of a sex act without a name or habitation, in an overpopulated land where private sexual space is increasingly problematic even for the staidly married heterosexual couple, whereas the Closet shields sexual identity.

The conspicuous exception to these 'attic-ed' non-identities in ^Yaraana ~is Ashok Row Kavi's slice of autobiography entitled 'The Contract of Silence.' As one of India's leading gay pioneers, Ashok edits a gay magazine called Bombay Dost and is a dynamic mover and shaker in the new Indian gay movement. His contribution to this volume is funny, snide and poignant all at once.

Raj Ayyar Ashok helped to inaugurate a new self-consciously 'out' and yet distinctively Indian gay consciousness that challenges and partly dismantles the MSM silent monolith. There are numerous gay support groups, HIV-education foundations and LGBT social and political coalitions sprouting all over India. This might be the beginning of that patchwork identity that I mentioned earlier.

Which raises a concluding question: has the gay Indian movement impacted the erotic silence of the attic, the frenzied meeting of sweaty bodies in dark parks during India's many power failures or the dynamics of a love that often does not know its own name, let alone daring to speak it?

I think it has to some extent, at least among the Westernized Indian elite in metropolises like Bombay, Delhi or Bangalore.

But, in the vast majority of Indian small towns and villages, the silence probably remains....
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