The Indian society has not yet warmed up to the idea of homosexuality and don’t let the numerous pride walks and the positive representation of the same in art forms lead you to think otherwise. Many truly believe that same-sex relationship is a western concept and that Indians who fall within the LGBTQ category have simply been brainwashed by media. They couldn’t be
A little research will show you that it is actually homophobia that is a western import. Same-sex relationship and love has been a part of Indian society since centuries. In fact, it is homophobia that was an import from the west rather than homosexuality. The description of sodomy in the Kamasutra, references of lesbianism in Ramadan and Mahabharat, actually show us that same-sex love was common in early India.
However, with the steady growth in the number of people who feel uncomfortable about the idea of same-sex lovers, the representation of the LGBTQ community never really quivered. Through compelling stories and canvasses, activists and members of the community have made it their mission to educate the masses. Publishing houses such as Queer Ink and magazines such as Bombay Dost has not only helped garner the attention of the masses towards the community, but provided people a space to open up about their experiences.
Over the years, there is a significant increase in the number of writers who are opening up to this genre. Stories of love, sexuality, and everything in between seem to be gaining the support of publishers, writers and readers. Now, it’s only a matter of time until this love and acceptance becomes real.
‘Lihaaf’ by Ismat Chugtai
In 1942, Ismat Chugtai’s scintillating tale made it to the pages of the Urdu literary journal Adab-i-Latif. The story is told from the point of a small girl who witnesses a lesbian encounter. Even without explicitly stating so, het book went on to face controversies over obscenity, for taking about such a controversial topic. Against all odds, she won the case. The story was written almost 60 years ago, in a country with stricter rules and laws, struggling through the time of independence. Chugtai was one of the first women to come forth and write a book on female sexuality. In all her works she paints a realistic picture about women, men and the middle class setup during the time of partition. Despite the harsh criticism, over the years the story has come to be viewed as one of the earliest works that talks about same-sex relationship and has been published in several anthologies of stories.
‘My Story’ by Kamala Das
Kamala Das not only wrote novels that had lesbian plot lines, but unabashedly shared her desires for women in her autobiography, My Story. She talks about the same-sex desires that she witnessed during her days in the boarding and the attraction she felt towards her female teachers. She even describes the desire she felt towards one of her doctors.
The book that was published in 1973 in Malayalam, faced a number of backlashes and controversies as most of the stories were personal. It openly speaks about the women’s sexual desires, a topic that is easily swept under the carpet. The book created a shock among the conservative Malayali community. She came from a popular, influential family and her father was the owner of a one of the most eminent newspapers, who tried to stop the publication of the book. The popularity of the book scared the community and parents forbade their children from reading it and cast it aside as a book of pornographic quality. However that did not stop the readers. The story was published in series and many women would eagerly wait every week to read it in secrecy. Soon in 1977, the book was compiled and was published in English. The autobiography is still on the shelves and reading this after so many years, makes one wonder at her boldness in a time when taboos were the norm.
‘Feminist Fables’ by Suniti Namjoshi
The 1980s saw the numerous works of Suniti Namjoshi, an openly lesbian author of Indian origin. All her books were known for its efforts in exploring feminity and female sexuality. Her Feminist Fables was published in 1981, and it came to be heralded as “a minor feminist classic”. In the book, she retells myths and legends as a way to run a commentary of the condition of women. Almost all the stories that have made it to the pages of her book are less than a page long. Her tweaked Fables and poems exposes the male-centric values that are instilled in us from childhood. Her work draws its subversive energies from a hard-nosed understanding of social realities rather than from bookish theories. They are clever and yet, far from patronising, making it a pleasurable read.
‘Ek Mitrachi Goshta’ (A Friend’s Story) by Vijay Tendulkar
With this Marathi play, Tendulkar tried to break the taboos surrounding homosexuality. His play depicts the story of a lesbian couple at a time when homosexuality was not even a part in the everyday vocabulary of Indians. Way back in 1981, actress Rohini Hattangadi created quite a stir when she played the lead in the controversial love story. The thought of two people of the same sex being in a romantic relationship was a taboo 34 years ago and unfortunately, not much has changed today. Hence, its English adaptation, A Friend’s Love Story, is timeless and echoes even in modern times.
‘Strange Obsession’ by Shobhaa Dè
In 1994, Shobhaa Dé’s Strange Obsession, a dark and mysterious story, was published. The protagonist of the novel catches the fancy of a psychotic woman, who can’t seem to take no for an answer. The novel focuses on the psychopathic tendencies of Minx and places her childhood as a reason for her choices, including lesbianism. In all of De’s works the trope of the modern Indian woman who refuses to be burdened by traditional ideas of morality is recurring. However, in this novel, instead of breaking free off her constructing environment, Minx seems to break down behind a point of recovery.
Her eccentricities and her desire to dominate others are a result of her efforts to get over her neglected childhood. She finds her comfort in Amrita’s submission. The arrival of Rakesh in Amrita’s life sets the make-believe balance that the duo had in their lives. If the novel can be considered as a breakthrough in the LGBTQ literature, is questionable. In fact, the novel seems to portray Minx’s homosexuality as a result of her desire to gain control and thereby break free from the shackles of her childhood. Nonetheless, it has to be given credit for bringing such topics to the public domain.
‘Facing the Mirror: Lesbian Writing from India’, edited by Ashwini Sukthankar
Published in 1999, Facing the Mirror is one of the first curated collection of stories that revolve around lesbian relationships. From personal experiences to purely fictional expressions of the woes of being a woman in world where all customs and laws seems have been made to benefit men, have made their way to the collection. The book took about two-and-a-half years to put together. It was an immensely difficult task to compile the book because they had to gain the trust of the writers to be able to put it together. The 77 contributors included a Haryanvi housewife, a Mumbai domestic worker, professionals, and activists. According to Sukthankar, the book belongs to these women who put their thoughts and lives on scraps of paper or tape, and to “those women who I wish had written but weren’t able to”.
‘Same-Sex Love in India: Readings in Indian Literature’, edited by Saleem Kidvai and Ruth Vanita
This anthology that charts the entire literary history of queer writing in India was published in 2001. From the ancient Sanskrit epics and stories from the Pali Jataka to the contemporary narratives have formed this compilation. The book details the history of ideas in Indian written traditions about homoerotic love. The selection of Indian texts is extremely interesting because the works that were produced since the 19th century shows the increasing homophobia in the country. It was the colonial legacy, the imposition of the Victorian ideals of morality and imposition of the anti-sodomy laws that made homosexuality a taboo– a fact that is clearly highlighted through the writings in the collection.
‘A Married Woman’ by Manju Kapoor
Manju Kapoor’s A Married Woman wouldn’t be the best example in terms of a great read from the LBT genre. However, it is one of the works that brazenly explored a lesbian plot at a time when people where still opening up to the idea of homosexuality on literature.
In A Married Woman, the author uses lesbianism as a weapon to represent women who are marginalised- in terms of how her sexual preference gains strength from the companionship, which she treasures with another individual, a woman. Our society always looks at the relationship with people of the same sex with a deviant eye.
Astha and Pipeelika are two completely different characters who fall in love with each other. The novel starts of with the protagonist, Astha who is portrayed as a simple girl who wishes to get married and lead a blissful life. The monotony that she experiences, post her marriage into an upper class family, leads her to Pipeelika. In fact, her lesbian desire might be purely a result of the boredom and the submissiveness she experiences from her marriage. Pipeelika gives Astha the strength and confidence that she needs so that she can move away from the stereotypical role of an Indian married woman.
While the novel cannot be proclaimed as one of the greatest works that discussed lesbianism, it should be given due credit for being published at a time when people were only accepting homosexuality as a topic of discussion. While whether Astha is really a lesbian, is questionable, one cannot deny that her sexual freedom leads to her liberation. As she breaks from the societal norms of who she should be with, she continues to find a more truthful life, not bound by domesticity.
‘Precursor of Love’ by Rita Garg
In Rita Gary’s novel, the Girl (as she is referred to in the entire book) is a lesbian who has multiple partners through the course of the book. Her easy-going attitude is what attracts Amilya, the protagonist. A chance encounter sparks off friendship. Friends turn lovers and their relationship changes the both of them.
The loneliness in her life is what pushes Amilya to befriend the Girl. Her personality attracts Amilya and she uses the Girl as a muse for her novel. Even though Amilya is the older one of the two, right from the beginning it is established that the Girl has the upper hand in the relationship. She is in every sense of the word, the ‘man’ in the relationship. She never forces her into anything, but successfully manages to manipulate Amilya with her emotions, including tears.
Their relationship with each other is somewhat symbiotic. Amilya uses the Girl for her novel, while the Girl uses Amilya to fill a void in her life. Whole they never seem to consummate their relationship through the course of the book, in their own way, they seem to complete each other. Lesbianism seems to be something that they have adopted to escape from dissatisfaction of life. Amilya realisation that she needs children of her own is an example of how the Indian middle class is far from ready to accept relationships that they view as unnatural.
Literature has always been considered as a harbinger of change for its ability to make readers think and reflect. For years, LGBT has continued to be viewed as a sensitive topic. While the reasonings for it are many, the various pieces of writings that have been published over the years, makes one wonder if homosexuality is actually an “unnatural phenomenon” as the world seems to view it as. Literature as a platform of expression has never shied away from talking about taboo topics. It is because of the constant efforts by artists and writers that we are able to accept and understand new concepts and change with the changing times. It hasn’t been an easy journey, especially for those who decided to speak up their minds at a time when topics such as sex and sexuality itself were considered to be taboo topics. Over the years, we have come to see protagonists, and not just sidekicks, who fall within the LGBTQ category. Hopefully, in the years to come we will learn to love the members of the community, just as we have loved these characters.