Book Review: Mohanaswamy By Vasudhendra

This collection of short stories is a view into the lives of middle-class gay men in rural and urban India. The stories are doused in pain, guilt, humiliation, confusion, disappointment, heartbreak, lust, self-realisation, and acceptance.

Vasudhendra is a celebrated Kannada writer. His collection of short stories titled ‘Mohanaswamy’ is one of its kind. He has been what seems to be the only openly gay author in Kannada literature. ‘Mohanaswamy’ is about a gay man from rural Karnataka. Vasudhendra’s attempt to write about homosexuality in a regional language is a pioneering move on his part.

‘Mohanaswamy’ is a semi-autobiographical piece. It borrows a lot from the actual life experiences of Vasudhendra. All the stories surround the life of the protagonist, Mohanaswamy, who is from a village in Karnataka. Translated from Kannada by Rashmi Terdal, the book is now available to be read in English.

This collection of short stories is a view into the lives of middle-class gay men in rural and urban India. The stories are doused in pain, guilt, humiliation, confusion, disappointment, heartbreak, lust, self-realisation, and acceptance. The book is extremely necessary and important as there has been no such resource whatsoever for the non-English people living in this country. In an interview with Terdal, Vasudhendra opens up about how his young readers have confided in him about their sexuality; he became a voice for them through his coming out. Queer literature has progressed in India through English, yet we often leave people behind due to the barriers of language.

The book has a set of 10 short stories. It starts off with ‘The Gordian Knot’, a story about Mohanaswamy and his newly lost love with Karthik, who leaves him to marry a woman. It’s the unfortunate reality of many homosexual relationships in this country. The plot sketches the emotional and distraught relationship between the two and how it falls apart.

“If I learn to ride a bicycle, I will turn from gay to straight.”
‘Bicycle Riding’ sees Mohanaswamy in college trying to reverse his homosexuality, only to realise that it doesn’t matter what he knows, he will always want to make love to a man.

‘Kashiveera’, ‘Anagha – the Sinless’, ‘Bed Bug’ are stories that depict a highly prejudiced and ununderstanding society. Mohanaswamy goes through life fearing his feelings, and fearing what would happen if people knew. This causes a so-called friend to blackmail him. He recollects stories of people he once knew- a father trying to beat the homosexuality out of his son, sending him to a prostitute and eventually disowning him, a transgender woman being murdered by her own family.

The stories are heartbreakingly beautiful as they take you through the realities of a gay person’s life. You will feel the pain and fear through Mohanaswamy’s stories- stories about how he was bullied in his childhood by his own sister, how his father started to become unavailable when he realised that he was gay, and how his mother molested him just to make sure that “her son was a man after all”.

By the time you reach the last two stories, ‘Four Faces’ and ‘Mt. Kilimanjaro’, you finally begin to recognise Mohanaswamy’s acceptance of himself. He has had a hard life, but he finally accepts himself for who he is. This book is a coming out for Vasudhendra himself. In my humble opinion, the collection of these stories is very relatable to a reader.

The simplicity with which Vasudhendra writes is beautifully heart wrenching. We often overlook or ignore topics related to lust, sex, and sexual orientation in the Indian society. The author’s effort is honestly one of the best things to happen to Kannada literature. People in semi-urban and rural areas who do not have the access to the vocabulary or the anonymity of the internet are finally being spoken to and spoken about through ‘Mohanaswamy’. People who come from privilege often take this for granted, and that is exactly why one should read this book. It is a distressing reality check.

Some of the slang may have been lost in translation, yet Rashmi Terdal has tried to do justice to Vasudhendra’s original book. Her choices may be questionable sometimes, but overall, it is a decent job. ‘Mohanaswamy’ represents the desire and right to live and love without fear. It is a fairly easy read, and I assure you that you will find it hard to put the book down until you’re done with it.

“Why should we be so scared? Have we murdered anybody? We just love each other.”

About the author

Teenasai

Teenasai Balamu is a full-time musician (GrapeGuitarBox) based in Bangalore. When she's not playing music, you can find her in her natural habitat drinking tea and laughing at memes on the internet. She's passionate about tea, pizza, sports, doggos, comedy shows, music, and putting an end to patriarchy. Motto: F*** Heteronormativity.
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