How LGBT Literature in India Has Fared Since Homosexuality Became Lawful

India’s queer communities are hoping more representation in the canon will be readily available and accepted

Illustrations: Osheen Siva

InIn September 2018, India’s LGBTQ movement secured a major victory. The Indian Supreme Court revoked Section 377, a colonial-era law dating back to 1860 that established homosexuality as an offense punishable with a prison sentence of anywhere from 10 years to life.

The day has since gone down in history for LGBTQ activists and members of the community who had been fighting this legal battle for decades. In 2019, however, the community is now fighting a different battle to change social perspectives in a country still defined by strong patriarchal codes. Among the many intersecting struggles for asserting their rights, freedoms, and identities has been in the publishing industry, where there has been a dearth of characters and books that reflect the realities of Indian queer people.

For 28-year-old Akansha, who goes by her first name only and identifies as queer, her journey to understanding her identity started when she enrolled for a master’s program in gender studies at Ambedkar University in Delhi. Her interest was piqued by wanting to understand the social function of sexuality laid down in heterosexual metrics. “For me, growing up in a north Indian upper-middle-class Hindu family, I led a very heterosexual life. Heteronormativity was/is marked in our everyday ways of understanding the world around us. Moreover, I studied in a missionary girls’ school, which made it even more repressive,” she says, recalling incidents from her teenage years when school counselors called on Akansha and her classmates for “having a close,” as she describes the colloquial phrase to “understand our feelings for another woman.”

Any mention of sexuality in popular media, while not illegal, is frowned upon. As a result, there’s been little available in the way of literary gratification to the queer community.

“That was something which was fed to all of us young women growing up there. How to dress/behave like a woman—basically fit in conventional femininity. Within this frame, I studied gender and sexuality, but even then it remained very academic. It was later, through political movements, that I started questioning my own sexuality and looking for literature that could provide me a narrative of romance or togetherness that wasn’t in the heterosexual domain,” Akansha says.

Her search resulted in very few interactions with fictional characters that represented queer South Asian women. “Most of the literature or canonical cinema that we were exposed to was never South Asian,” Akansha says, pointing to culturally pertinent scenarios that the Indian queer community encounters, such as while interacting with Indian parents or neighbors in close-knit communities, or even with the landlord while leasing a home. “These elements have not found their way into Indian literature yet,” she says.

FFor those like Akansha who identify with the homosexual and queer community in India, the search for books that reflect their identities and realities can be long and arduous. Any mention of sexuality in popular media, while not illegal, is frowned upon. As a result, there’s been little in the way of literary gratification available to the queer community.

Echoing a similar sentiment, Akhil Katyal, a prominent LGBT writer, recalls his first experience of finding a mention of homosexuality while exploring one of his father’s medical books. It wasn’t until he started university in Delhi that he came across an anthology called Yaarana, edited by Hoshang Merchant, a gay Indian writer. “The title word, yaraana, means dosti, or friendship, and I remember just holding it in my hand, and it felt so great,” Katyal says.

Despite the Indian publishing industry’s significant growth since the height of the freedom struggle in the 1920s — it’s now the sixth-largest literary market in the world, according to a survey released in 2015 — publishers have largely been wary of books by, for, or about the LGBTQ community.

“There has been a certain scarcity in the narratives available for us,” says Sakshi Juneja, chief producer at Gaysi, an independent zine based in Mumbai that was created to fill this content void in the Indian queer community. As a queer Indian woman reader, Juneja found few writings online that she resonated with and set to change that.

Since the 2018 court judgment, however, there has been a significant shift in production of more-inclusive content of all kinds, including literature. A number of books with gay and lesbian themes were published in the past year, including Vivek Tejuja’s memoir, So Now You Know; Amruta Patil’s graphic novel Kari; the first Indian LGBT young adult novel, Babyji, by Abha Dawesar; and many others that are set to launch in the coming months. The LGBTQ community, as Juneja puts it, “is in fashion right now!”

TThe first major step for LGBT rights in India came in 2009, when a Delhi high court revoked Section 377, pushing the cause into the mainstream. In 2013, however, a judgment by a three-member bench of the Supreme Court set back progress by upholding the anti-LGBT law, an action that threatened the lives of those who came out after the 2009 judgment. This regressive move pushed the queer community and its allies to fight the law more aggressively, initiating stronger debates and discourse on LGBT rights in the mainstream.

“The 2013 verdict actually gave us [the movement and its content producers] good publicity,” Juneja says. Gaysi and similar publications that emerged in that period, like Pink Pages, Galaxy Magazine, and Scripts by Labia (a newsletter for lesbian and bisexual women), were able to go mainstream alongside the wave of activism that rose in India seeking decriminalization of homosexuality.

Some members of India’s LGBT community, however, feel that cutting a separate niche for LGBT writing has prevented it from entering the mainstream. “These books were always considered revolutionary at best and out of the ordinary otherwise. We never penetrated into the mainstream market. We continued preaching to the converted,” says Harish Iyer, a prominent Indian LGBT rights activist, who adds that publications continue to be characterized as being created by and for LGBT people, and not necessarily the mainstream.

While ancient texts like the Kama Sutra demonstrate all kinds of desires for all kinds of people, there was always a certain degree of moral ambiguity in ancient India over the status of queer or homosexual people.

That said, Iyer doesn’t entirely dismiss the impact of last year’s ruling. “[Attitudes are] definitely changing, and since the legal verdict, people are far more open to wanting to understand, to read, and see us as one among them. Previously, a lot of the content read outside the community was driven by curiosity — ‘Let’s see what these gay people do.’ Now it’s more than that. Gay characters are emerging in some of the fiction stories we see and hear,” Iyer says.

Juneja agrees, adding from her own experience at Gaysi: “Post-2013, we found more people picked up our issues. And we realized that our consumer base is not just people from the community, but also from outside — we were in vogue!”

TThe history of queer literature in India is a complicated one. While ancient texts like the Kama Sutra demonstrate and advocate for all kinds of desires for all kinds of people, there was always a certain degree of moral ambiguity in ancient India over the status of queer or homosexual people. Additionally, Britain’s 250-year colonial rule over India codified this in the country’s penal code in 1860. This was largely influenced by Victorian-era laws from Great Britain, therefore bringing to India a relatively Western morality. Many LGBT people and their allies in India like to believe that their precolonial history and writings are rich with sexual inclusivity. “Amongst scenes from epics and legends [etched on walls of old temples], one invariably finds erotic images… [and] hidden in niches as in Khajuraho, one does find images of either women erotically embracing other women or men displaying their genitals to each other,” wrote prominent Indian historian Devdutt Pattanaik, who has studied the mythologies of the Indian subcontinent. “These images cannot be simply dismissed as perverted fantasies of an artist or his patron considering the profound ritual importance given to these shrines.”

Still, Katyal, among many other queer writers, including those from India’s marginalized lower-caste Dalit community, argue that this glorified view of homosexuality and queerness in Indian history is exaggerated. “Kama Sutra is actually about the figure of an upper-caste male citizen, to whom all desires are available, whether it is a young boy, or whether it is a woman, or a [eunuch]. So, the fluidity is available to only the upper-caste man, whereas it is not the same for the others who are not consumers but the targets of that sexuality,” says Katyal, explaining that sexual fluidity was and still remains inaccessible to those in the lower castes of Hinduism, a religion of the Indian majority. Still, he admits that the colonial years strengthened the legal framework for the eventual criminalization of homosexuality.

Simultaneously, the changing legal codes affected social ideas of morality, including literature. Despite colonial oppression and strong resistance, however, many local-language writers persisted, bringing LGBT and queer characters into fiction as far back as the freedom struggles of the 1920s. Prominent works from that era included books by Urdu writer Ismat Chughtai, which explore feminine sexuality and lesbian themes in 1941 Bihar, and Pandey Bechan Sharma, who in 1924, under the the pen name Ugra, published a book titled Chocolate, a reference to the term used for boys who had relationships with older men. These books created much furor among the public and the literary community. Sharma was arrested and charged with sedition shortly after the publication of Chocolate, though many suspected his nine-month prison sentence was related to his queer fiction writing. Later, in 1944, Chughtai was put on trail for obscenity charges stemming from her short story “Lihaaf,” which depicted lesbian themes and was banned across South Asia.

“Such books were referred to as ghasleti sahitye [kerosene literature] by conservative Hindi writers because they caused fire [in the society],” Katyal says. This transgressive idiom eventually went on to become its own genre, encompassing a wide variety of regional writings considered erotic, pornographic, or simply scandalous and bold.

Today, LGBT literary makers and readers alike agree that literature representing the LGBT community in India is making strides. “There is interest in creating new content targeted towards LGBT consumers, but in the regular books and movies, there has been very little change in how LGBT characters are represented,” Juneja points out. She urges publishers and content creators to embrace the changes and evolve with them. “Don’t limit us and slot us in one box or category. LGBT stories don’t have to only be a genre on its own, but can intersect with so many other [forms of] literature,” she says.

Akansha also hopes that the 2018 decriminalization will encourage more publishers and content creators to explore characters that reflect South Asian queer identities. “Unfortunately, when we talk to my generation, a lot of our information and understanding of sexuality comes from the American pop culture that we’ve been raised on,” she says. “It is always a welcome and refreshing change watching characters that we can relate to and, in many ways, help the movement that is still fighting for social acceptance.”

Writer. Journalist. Humanist. Based in #Afghanistan. Words @ForeignPolicy @Guardian @AJEnglish @WashingtonPost @Vice Earlier: Web producer @dna @TimesofIndia

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