A “Confirmed Homosexual” Walks Into a Maze
Four and a half pages into the first story, the vivid image of a middle-aged Bengali jethu pops into my head一fountain pen in one hand, beedi in the other, cackling away at his past escapades, both sexual and otherwise—and I have to pause and chuckle along for a bit. Because that’s just what Krishnagopal Mallick’s writing makes you do, laugh with him, in slightly dazed awe. As you sit next to this ‘confirmed homosexual’ on one of his favourite benches around Madhab Babu’s pond and listen to him talk about queerness and Kolkata in the same breath, it seems like they simply couldn’t exist as two separate entities. And indeed, Mallick’s Calcutta is inextricable from his queer joy, whether it is his detailed analysis of College Square as a cruising spot in the late 90s or his youthful exploits in the bylanes of Harkata in the 50s. As Niladri R Chatterjee, the devoted translator of Mallick’s voice, tells us in his delicious introduction, had he been alive today, Mallick would have been a “laughing, swearing, mischievous, indefatigably prolific 85-year-old” and I can’t help but wish he could’ve had a good old guffaw at how his stories might scandalise an entirely new generation of politically correct bhadralok audiences.
However, I believe Mallick has no nefarious intention to provoke, although I’m sure he would’ve quite enjoyed this outcome. Whether it’s the young boy describing a quick grope by a neighbour in exchange for some chaanda or the old man speaking of his throbbing desire for a strange lad who needs his help, Mallick’s author surrogates are simply telling us everything as it unfolds within and around them and how we react to these events says more about our own sensibilities than his. After an initial stint with The Statesman in the late 1960s, Mallick started to publish little magazines and that is where his own queer stories found their first homes. The moralities, trials and jargon of the LGBTQ+ movement are quite alien to Mallick’s narratives, which are almost entirely devoid of the “queer struggle” that seems to be a prerequisite of this genre of storytelling otherwise. For the protagonists in his stories, there is no grand “coming out” arc; indeed, even the “closet” ceases to exist. The fact that Mallick’s often pseudonymous author surrogate is attracted to other men and boys is a reality as quotidian as Putiram’s radhaballabi.
In the first short story, ‘Bandhur Pantha’ (The Difficult Path), we lurk behind the narrator and his new acquaintance as they trudge along the dark, muddied streets of North Calcutta, the old man torn between his erotic pull towards the “dark, harmless boy of about fifteen or sixteen” and the call of citizenly duty. As the tale begins by describing the narrator’s beloved status among the local gays, I felt an odd sense of assuredness about his potential conduct with the boy, and the ending left me fiddling with my own muddied perceptions of “improper” desire and its implications in queer landscapes. As did the second story, ‘Senior Citizen’, wherein the narrator, feisty buro that he is, takes one step further and actually acts on his taboo desires—that too, bang in the middle of a crowded Kolkata bus. Whether or not he deserves the slap that almost comes his way, courtesy the recipient of his havas, is what prodded at my notions of consent and harassment; who decides if and where to draw the line?
The titular novella, ‘Byuhaprabesh’, is rampant with more, ahem, sticky questions of boyhood, pleasure and self-discovery finding their way amidst striking glimpses of Kolkata in the aftermath of the Great Calcutta Killings and the Partition. As Gopal goes from a shorts-wearing, detective novel-writing, stamp-collecting child to a dhoti-clad babu who is fascinated by his newly acquired moustache, the female body, and the dashing Manoj—we are yet again left baffled by this seemingly unremarkable narration of Gopal’s rather transgressive life. Here we have a young boy who talks about his favourite book right after getting assaulted by the bookseller; an almost-man who gushes over his new male love interest and engages in sweet teenage romance with him as if this were utterly commonplace in 1950s Kolkata, or, for that matter, in magazines in the late 90s. Mallick’s character is not a tragic victim of his queerness who “overcomes” his struggle; he is simply a boy who likes boys (and possibly girls) and he’s too busy having a ball(/s) to occupy himself with the ordeals of subverting heteronormativity. We enter the maze with Mallick but he’s the one who walks out, whistling to a Nachiketa banger.
The translator, Niladri R Chatterjee, is a novelist and professor of English at the University of Kalyani. He has been teaching a course in gender studies at the university since 2009 and runs a Facebook group called New Gender Studies. As a self-proclaimed Mallick fanboy, I asked him a few things about this book that won the 2023 Rainbow Lit Fest award for Best Fiction.
What would you say to Mallick-da if he were here right now? What do you think he’d say about this book?
I’d tell him how interesting I think it is that his career began in English and has come full circle back to the language he started his journey with.
I think he, however, would be excited about the prospect of getting more men after this book. Jokes apart, I believe he’d be thrilled at the possibility of his stories finally reaching a wider, hopefully more favourable, audience after a lifetime of homophobic neglect.
Would you say that translation in itself is a form of queer liberation? How does queerness manifest differently in different languages, particularly in India?
Oh, absolutely, it is. Every language operates according to gendered rules; heteronormativity is built into languages. Translating a work from language to another is perhaps subverting that heteronormativity, destabilising it as the story crosses over into another language. India, in particular, is a rich culture to mine when it comes to queerness, since it functions in Indian literature in very local ways, through local vocabularies which don’t quite adhere to the LGBTQ+ scripts of queerness, hence making them all the more significant and subversive. We need many, many more queer translations in Indian languages!
You’ve spoken about how there’s no element of shame or guilt in Mallick’s expression of what he (or his characters) desires, despite the epoch they’re located in. Can you tell us how your own ideas of queer expression talk to Mallick’s?
I think that the idea of a queer person being happy in their sexuality is perhaps rather disconcerting to a heteronormative person, since that is how they have framed the narrative to suit their sensibilities, making them far more accepting of queer pain than joy. So a narrative such as Mallick’s, where he simply refuses the heteronormative reader the pleasure of feeling pity for him, stands out starkly. Younger queer writers also tend to incline towards a kind of wallowing, as they tell tales of struggle; the humour that Mallick possesses in delightful abundance is missing from a lot of contemporary writing. In my own novel, The Scholar, I was determined to give my characters a happy ending, and that is exactly what I did.
How do you look at Kolkata as an entity within these stories, as someone who lives there today?
Kolkata is revealed as a queer site in Mallick’s work, which is a departure from usual depictions of its [heteronormative] cultural and literary glory. He tells us, if you’re going to acknowledge the conventional history of this grand city, you have to look at its queer history in the eye as well, warts and all, and I think that’s magnificent. I’d say he’d find today’s politically correct, categorised queerness in the city to be rather unsexy, though, now that it’s mainstream, haha.