To critique a piece of art or writing is to consider yourself directly above or somewhat separate from piece in order to have the perceptive vision to analyse it. As a young writer, having only splashed in the shallow waters of the ocean of my identity, I began as neither, when I started reading R. Raj Rao’s Criminal Love? – Queer Theory, Culture, and Politics in India.
Published by SAGE Publications Rao’s book is a collection of nine essays strung around themes of investigating an every-person view of queer theory. A preface by Thomas Waugh sums up the core idea of the book in its first line-
‘This book comprises three fundamental aspects relevant to us in India today- theory, culture and politics.‘
Rao takes us through the essays, each working on a question the author poses to the reader, and then like excavating an artefact layer for layer from the earth, he takes the reader excitedly into exploring the concepts with him.
In the first two essays, Sex, sexuality, gender and culture and Identities, Rao introduces the reader to essential gender theory creating a base of understanding to work the rest of the book on. Through this he is also able to establish meanings of academic words or definitions which might otherwise come off as dissuading jargon to the uninitiated. It establishes the authors firm belief that most modern queer theory comes to us from 20th century western contexts of scholars like Judith butler, who’s contributions while seminal, do little to understand the politics of queer lives in the Indian context. In the essay ‘Normativities‘, Rao breaks down the socially constructed and deeply flawed ideas of what constitutes the norm, what is considered normal, and what must be considered an all pervading normative. The essay on Homosociality is one of the most interesting with its deep dives into understanding the increasingly blurred lines of hetero and homo – different sex and same sex – love, attraction, friendships and dynamics, and their representations in our media, films, books and everyday life while also competing to see which of them can sell off as palatable and which not. In the subsequent essays ‘Homophobia‘, ‘Lesbianism‘ and ‘Perversion’, Rao brings forth several case studies and takes us back and forth from examples and anecdotes to highlight the injustice and hypocritical othering one goes through as a perceived deviant in the act of existing queerly.
In the essay Historiography, the author goes through several iterations of Indian queer theorists and their ideas, writings and quite a few pop cultural references either agreeing or skirmishing with concepts of his contemporaries and those who have come before him. He highlights the LGBTQIA+ contributions from other writers of the subcontinent like Ruth Vanita, Saleem Kidwai, Giti Thadani and Devdatt Patnaik. The final and perhaps the longest of his essays, ‘The politics of section 377 IPC‘ begins from way back in 1860 when the law was first introduced to the Indian penal code by the British Crown. It goes on to dismantling the semantics of the codified law and its ramifications over the last two hundred years on the real lives it has affected. In a piece written in the time before the recent decriminalisation of article 377, Rao brings out fearless and often controversial opinions of his to the fore which have come to gather both praise and controversy.
Through the confluence of western queer theory and his understanding of socio-cultural sensibilities in India, Rao – who came out of the closet openly almost 33 years ago – paints an interesting picture in his stiff collection of essays. The writing is somewhat staccato, and sentences read as a mouthful but the ideas in the book are mostly solid lead us to believe a good editor could have made the manuscript really come to life. Apart from theorizing, the author often begins to talk directly at the reader which can be disconcerting, but perhaps is the author’s style of not tiptoeing around conversations that are already hushed up in the real world.
Reading through it left me with questions that had never occurred to me before, which is always a plus.
R Raj Rao is a writer, poet and teacher of literature along with being a vocal gay rights activist in the country. Among several of his writings is his first novel, The Boyfriend , published in 2010.