It doesn’t escape me even for one moment that ‘queer’ is ‘content’ for many. It sells and therefore exists. Writing anything and get away with it – especially when it’s published in the West, they anyway don’t know much and fact-checking is something the world is grappling with – as long as it’s ‘queer stuff’.
After reading Saikat Majumdar’s article “Post-377: LGBTQ Literary Culture in India” in the Los Angeles Review of Books (LARB) this belief solidified. In LARB I found one of the many traders of queerness who are interested in publishing ‘queer content,’ and not concerned about getting it right. And in Saikat’s article, a sloppy work.
Like many bad pieces floating on the Internet why I picked this one? It’s a legitimate question, and a concerning one. The answer is: Saikat is a professor. He’s from the arts. He’s the one who asks in this article “But is what is good for politics always good for art?” However, sadly this work misses out on doing justice to either.
The Unpolitical Art of Saikat
The politics behind a work of art legitimates its credibility as a work of latter. It’s the other way round, too. Art and politics are inseparable. And, in Saikat’s statement, what’s interesting is the vagueness of “good”. He must define what good is like. Also, good for whom? As Toni Morrison would’ve asked: Invisible to whom?
And even the clever words of Saikat couldn’t help and hide the PR activity for a select few that he did in this article hiding behind the garb of reflecting on the queer literary culture in post-377 India.
The article begins by celebrating the reading down of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), but for an article written post-COVID-19 it seemed extremely limiting and self-serving when the professor didn’t deem it fit to include the oppression of the trans folx by the State since September 2018. The passing of the horrendous Trans Bill on August 5, 2019 didn’t find a single mention. Of course, trans voices don’t matter neither to the “literary culture” which Saikat sketched in the article nor to most publishers.
Not to say that he seemed least concerned about the conditions in which most of the queer population, especially trans folx, are surviving during the pandemic.
According to him, it’s been a “party” post-377. I don’t know if Saikat lives under a rock, but for an article written in June, 2020 by a professor – presumably learned – how can one be so ignorant. This ignorance reminds me of Sylvia Rivera who when booed during a pride parade reminded audience that it’s because of gay liberation that she and Marsha and others fought for, and this is how the audience wants to repay her.
So Many Gay Books. Aww…
Naming one book after the other Saikat’s celebratory tone about the fact that much gay fiction and nonfiction is getting published he misses one more point: diversity. How many fictions, nonfictions by trans writer, Saikat? Or for that matter by any gender nonconforming person? Or anyone under the sun except gay man or woman? LGBTQIA+, this alphabetic soup, has letters other than G, someone please remind Saikat.
Failing to acknowledge the intersectionality of identity he complains that Hansda’s tribal identity took precedence over queerness in the book. Reading My Father’s Garden it’s for the readers to do that job, not Hansda. It’s not our arena to discuss what should matter more for the book which touches upon so many other things, too. It shows what matters to the reviewer or reader when they talk more about the book’s politics. It says less about Hansda. Also, we exercise multiple identities, knowingly or unknowingly, and it’s the totality, the wholeness of our being and collection of our identities that makes us who we are.
Another idea which Saikat romanticizes about is India being “a land of festivals” and how post-377 we could see it becoming “a fertile ground for the newest kind” of festivals. He’s talking about, and mentions, the Rainbow Literature Festival. Applauding the RLF and criticizing other literary festivals he writes: “ … society beginning to grow jaded by what had become a predictable dog and pony show of literary festivals across the country.” He unknowingly described RLF itself, an elitist, casteist and mostly cisgender-celebrating event. It’s all Bollywood, and less of a literature fest.
Interestingly, while writing this piece today, I checked out Saikat’s article once again. And I saw a comment by a name: Ruth Vanita. And this was her comment: “The publishers have withdrawn Gay Icons of India because it is full of blatant lies and unsubstantiated gossip. I am horrified that it appeared at the festival and that the writer of this article is unaware that it has been withdrawn.” Seems like one among the greatest voices that put queer literary map out there for many to follow disagrees with this sloppy article, too. I find myself in a good company.
I was contended to write this much about the article, but I couldn’t ignore one thing. Unlike Saikat some things don’t escape me while writing a critique. Saikat, in his article, thanks the COVID-19 pandemic for he believes it has “killed, along with many good things, the trauma of communal riots.” It seems that according to the professor we needed a pandemic, a lethal one to the tune of coronavirus, to fight the extremist government.
Again one may remind him that many of the student activists, among them queer people, professors and public intellectuals are behind bars because of their role in speaking, and rightfully so, against the government. It might need a bigger force than the COVID-19 pandemic to stop the fascists in achieving their agenda, which is to silence any form of dissent and criticism. Criticism which allows us to continue to rekindle our queerness, too, unlike the sloppy article in question.