Stories Of People Like Us: Review Of ‘Footprints Of A Queer History’

One of the finest qualities of this book is that Maya lets her collaborators speak. She doesn’t let her thoughts interrupt their telling of stories. Wokeness takes a backseat, and only sensitivity prevails.

TW: mention of murder

Maya Sharma, author of Loving Women: Being Lesbian in Unprivileged India (Yoda Press, 2006) is out with her latest, which is titled Footprints of a Queer History: Life-Stories from Gujarat (Yoda Press, 2022).

This striking book documents the everyday stories from the margins of gender and sexuality in the state of Gujarat. It’s perhaps one of the most defining works where narratives of trans men have been eloquently and sensitively told. But it’s also about the transformation that Vikalp (Women’s Group) in Vadodara, Gujarat has witnessed as Maya and her colleagues went about liaising between multiple institutions and agencies to fight for the rights of ‘people like us’.

Looking back

In the book, Maya documents the lives of people “in the community [who] lived within shifting identities, and some [who] completely refuted the identity of ‘lesbian’ because the word connoted the female gender.” And in doing so, she tells the stories of how people broke away from the heteropatriarchal setups that they were confined to. However, as is the case with societies and families across the rural-urban spectrum in India, no one takes such acts of defiance lightly. What ensues is a mix of confrontation, sharing of narratives and counter-narratives between an array of parties that Maya adroitly notes and tries to make sense of. Interestingly, all of this would have merely ended up becoming a datapoint in a survey by organisations like the National Crime Records Bureau. But a book like Maya’s once again affirms the belief that “surveys [do] nothing to unravel layers [of the meaning]” because data can only tell a story — whether true or not remains to be found out, and as one knows there’s no single story when it comes to queer lives. It’s this multiplicity that Maya lets us taste in their book. But before that, she looks back to give her readers a glimpse of Gujarat’s queer past.

She shares examples of practices, sites, and literature that help locate the history of non-normative desires in the region. She notes that in Surkheda, Ambada, and Sanada villages of Chhotaudepur, “it is the bridegroom’s sister who heads the wedding procession, marries the woman, and takes home the bride for her brother; a practice that has evolved to overcome a ‘curse’ upon the village in which men would lose their lives if they themselves went to fetch the bride.” Then she lists ‘same-sex’ love literary works from Gujarat and mentions the queer artist Bhupen Khakhar, who “used his art to tackle some of India’s most taboo subjects, such as the incessant Hindu-Muslim conflict as well as the invisibilisation of homosexuality.”

Their stories in their voice

One of the finest qualities of this book is that Maya lets her collaborators speak. She doesn’t let her thoughts interrupt their telling of stories. Wokeness takes a backseat, and only sensitivity prevails.

In telling the stories of Shashi, Amtiben, Mansa, Dalphina, and Bittu, to name a few, Maya extracts insightful information about the sense of relationships queer people carry in the absence of legal recognition and in facing societal ostracization. Maya details aspects like ‘Maitri Karaar’ [friendship contract] though legal isn’t a binding or recognized contract compared to a marital one.

While Shashi’s story in this book is about how structures that queer people uphold tend to become oppressive, through the story of Amtiben, Maya argues that people willing to be part of the sex industry are always thought of as victims of human trafficking. It’s interesting that Maya establishes how the society at large started visualising sex work narrowly and “stripped [it] of all emotional and intellectual functions” and how “ideals on marriage, monogamy, and the wife as the ‘true multifaceted companion’ became popular”, as a result making “the [word] prostitute … dirty and immoral.”

Similarly, in telling every story, Maya comes across as an astute listener because not only does she skilfully document what she’s told but is also able to read silences. Naturally, not all things can be said. And not everything that’s ever said is always true.

But most of all, what becomes crystal clear reading Maya’s work is (a) how effectively caste continues to play a major role in marital associations, (b) how patriarchal setups continue to determine the boundaries of freedom for women, and (c) how a deeply moral society is constructed on the bodies of marginalised people. From Ankit’s “sex verification” at a barber’s shop, Mansa’s gory murder, to a trans man being unable to find love because this person isn’t a “normal girl” or how Mataji continues to charmingly cross gender borders as they feel like or as opportunity presents itself, each chapter of this book meticulously sifts through conversations on bodies, our rights on them, law, law’s authority to write rules and regulations on our desires, and intervening authorities’ role in ensuring the thriving success of an oppressive system like heteropatriarchy. Its situational awareness and prioritising of intersectionality over binary understanding make this book a delight to read.

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Saurabh is working as a writer in a research and advisory IT consultancy firm. He frequently writes about gender and sexuality, and book reviews on an array of platforms.
Saurabh Sharma

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