Review ‘Gay Icons of India’: The Audacity Of Identities

[UPDATE: The publishers withdrew this book immediately after publication, because it is filled with serious inaccuracies regarding Ruth Vanita, amounting in some cases to defamation.]

To theorize the Revolution is also revolution

Paolo Friere, Pedagogy of the Oppressed

In a country that is rummaging through scraps of the past, to stitch together an indigenous Queer history, ‘Gay Icons of India’ is a trailblazer. Hoshang Merchant and Akshaya K Rath weave a narrative that only traces the path from the inception of this movement to the present day. In post 377 India, where all is millennial and gay, this book revives the lost Indian Gay History. It strides through the lives of twenty two, very iconic Indians, who are the harbingers of this revolution through their extensive work. They are artists, poets, dancers, professors, lawyers and more importantly the pioneers of this movement in this subcontinent. The information in this books, the detailed lives and the harsh truths and realities are something you won’t find on the internet. The records in this book are authentic and revolting, taking us through a course from the early 1900s to 2018 and the changing faces of the revolution in the backdrop of changing nations and governments and an ever so constant hostility towards the queers. Even though written about 22 people, this book recounts stories of hundreds of people, each beautifully intertwined with another. Thus, the book isn’t just about the ‘gay icons’ but also various iconic gays and their iconic contributions and dissents in their respective fields.

The premise of the book explores the very basics of homosexuality and what it means in the Indian contexts. It captures not nuanced sociological theories but instead the religious and indigenous understanding and hostility towards it. The whole idea of pleasure: oral, anal and genital while being key to non-hetero narratives is often implied and skipped in such books. Here, it is described and posed as an argumentative concept, giving a brief understanding of the stigma and ostracization and the roots of it. Though cursory, it also explores the religious scriptures of Hinduism, Islam and Christianity and is written in an argumentative rather than absolute manner. The intersection of art and sexuality, the apparent androgyny of arts and the erasure of androgynous narratives in it also add another dimension. The conflict of art and identity is also posed and this comprehensive introduction which not only sets the contexts rather explains them to their genesis sets it apart from other books along similar semi biographical lines.

The licit aspects of it, from the nascent 377 in Macaulay’s Indian penal code, to contemporary Congress and BJP era changes are also discussed, with several questions left open for the future ahead. The whole idea of femininity and masculinity, patriarchal mindsets within queer communities and the male gaze theory give the book another dimension. On another note, deeper gradients of overlapping identities and disadvantage structures are lightly touched upon. While the set of icons is but diverse, caste, regional, class and other identities aren’t explored in great depth, thus, leaving several the play of several power structures untouched.

when people are without icons they then start creating their own icons;
and when they are without history they make it.

The subsequent queer narratives are divided into three parts: Forerunners, Contemporaries and the Future past, each traversing through different eras of this movement. Where the in the former, outright acceptance and performance of queer identities is a revolution in itself, the later narratives shape legal and societal discourse around the movement. Each narrative within these is enmeshed with the others provide some sort of a continuum to a reader while also adding a new layer of complexity to the subject. Each story is like none other and varies across professions and regions and situations and suppositions. In each biographical entry there are fleeting yet significant mentions of other such people who have propelled the revolutions ahead.

The first part: Forerunners, set in the earlier stages gyrates around societal and personal prejudice and ostracization. Themes like suicide, ignorance, erasure and cultural confluences are the cynosure. The second part, the contemporaries deal with grave themes like AIDS to permeation of queer narratives into mainstream cinema and literature. These icons are instrumental in the creation of several alternative aid structures for queer people providing acceptance and visibility to outright social, financial and medical support. The final collection, the future part recounts stories of those who have virtually brought no man’s land to every persons doorstep. Taking on bolder themes through their work from homoeroticism to redefining queer narratives in the subcontinent to the perceived tragedy and sorrowfulness to wrath and hope . These icons shape the queer future for India, each taking on a different paths and mechanics to reinvent the clockwork behind this movement and retell what the world perceives this movement to be.

For a post 377 India, a book like this, gives the millennial gay a moment to sit back and rethink the way this revolution propels forward. While discourse here is still foreplayed and adapted from the west, a revival of history like this is vital not only for the queer movement of India but also the culture of India.  It gives a profound look into Indian queer history while leaving a lot to be bettered for the history that is yet to be made. Wittily written with a language that unravels the complexities of lives and identities without compromising on the gravity and intricacy of this story, it unites lived experiences with earnest poetry. Stories like these instill hope into a movement that appears to be at its inevitable dead end. This revolution has been long underway and this book ignites a hundred fires that will fuel it further ahead.

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Anureet writes poems and research papers; none of them really well. She aspires to write a book someday, until then, an economics undergraduate, her life is a series of awkward handholds, too many hand poems and ofcourse Adam Smith's invisible hand.
Anureet Watta

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