During the Supreme Court hearings against IPC Section 377 in July 2018, Advocate Menaka Guruswamy had asked the five-judge bench: “How strongly must we love knowing we are unconvicted felons under Section 377?”. In Danish Sheikh’s two plays, ‘Contempt’ and ‘Pride’, collected in a single volume titled Love and Reparation, the central idea is of a people who have lived their lives and loved their lovers under the shadow of a law – one that polices a free-fledged authentic expression of their queerness, and now they are done waiting and staging resistance against their lives and loves being the subject matter of restrictive out-dated legislation.
While ‘Contempt’ is based on the 2013 Suresh Kumar Kaushal v. Naz Foundation hearings which resulted in the Supreme Court overturning the 2009 Delhi High Court verdict and upholding Sec 377’s constitutional validity, ‘Pride’ takes its cue from the 2018 Navtej Singh Johar v. Union of India case where Sec 377 was finally repealed. In both plays, Sheikh makes liberal use of court transcripts, more so in ‘Contempt’, which is structured as four courtroom scenes, than in the latter where it is present only in key moments. It is a unique device which roots the plays in reality, yet allows the dramatic tension of the narrative to rise above it.
Setting plays an important role in both of them. In ‘Contempt’, there are five chairs on the stage for the witnesses. The lawyer remains standing while the two judges are seated within the audience. In ‘Pride’, the audience is split into two sections, facing each other. The stage is the place in between, with two chairs facing each other and perpendicular to the audience groups on either side. This is where A and T sit. Persons 1-5 are seated in the audience: two on one side, three on the other. The plays, while not directly involving the audience, still give the impression of their direct involvement by projecting a facsimile of participation.
Tarun Khaitan points out the law’s simultaneous ability to “be a vehicle for power’s oppression as well as a tool that has the potential to be wielded against such oppression” in his Foreword and Sheikh seeks to highlight this duality. His view of the law is necessarily pragmatic, even optimistic, and he seeks to look at “coming to terms with the law… trying to craft a relationship of repair with it.” I am reluctant to share this outlook as I look at the law’s increasingly cruel, disproportionate use towards disenfranchising minoritized people as an extension of the ruling status quo. I am also hesitant to put my faith in the promise of constitutional morality.
But then again, perhaps the law, no matter how imperfect, is the only tool in our arsenal capable enough to enact change, even if temporary. Khaitan goes on to admit later: “Its victories over power are sometimes illusory, usually modest and incremental, often reversible, and never complete.” Still, it holds within itself a firm potential, lying dormant and waiting to be utilised. This is where the love in the volume’s title gains significance for how does one love when that love is castigated, when your concerns are dismissed as those of a ‘minuscule minority’ demanding ‘so-called rights’? And then, as the dust settles, “how to love in the aftermath of legality”?
‘Contempt’ addresses that question. Those courtroom scenes are interweaved with personal stories that Sheikh labels as affidavits but they “resist the neatness of the conventional legal affidavits”. They all take off with “one foot planted in reality” then wander on invented paths, sprawl and resist attempts to be boxed in, replicating in essence the mess of real (queer) existence. It is an attempt to visibilize the person behind the story who recedes into the background in typical affidavits, a precise documentation of dry facts which “leach out the magic of everyday life”. Moreover, they individualize the queer community, give faces to the struggle for recognition, and provide relatable human stories that generate compassion.
The dialogues of the judges are generously culled from court transcripts and while they may appear exaggerated, especially when they devolve into a farcical argument with respect to what counts as “carnal intercourse against the order of nature”, it is sobering to discover they are factual utterances. ‘Pride’, as mentioned before, is not similarly dependent on legal documents but even though the action does not really take place in a courtroom, it is just as much rooted in reality as ‘Contempt’. The therapy sessions form a substitute for the affidavits and the interludes foreground inner politics and hierarchies within the liberation movement(s), marked by distinction of caste, class, and gender identities.
For a lot of individuals, especially those coming from higher socio-economic backgrounds, illegality was not a deterrent. As A says in ‘Pride’, he was not affected by it in any material way. It did not stop queer people from loving but it did force them to hide, to consider their love as less and inferior, to live with self-hatred and shame, enabling “the tolerance of casual indignities in public, of casual cruelties in private.” It paved the way for accepting mistreatment because that constant sense of shame told them that it was what they deserved. Moreover, minoritized people without resources were not spared its cruelties.
The repeal of Sec 377 might not mitigate this sense of shame, at least not all at once, and it does not signify an overnight change in people’s opinions but as A admits, “In that moment I didn’t have to apologise for being who I was, for loving as fiercely as I do, for wanting everyone else to know.” It reinforced the rights of queer individuals as equal citizens of India, equal in the eyes of the law compared to their heterosexual counterparts, and a proclamation by the highest court of the land that they are “not an aberration but a variation”.
Love and Reparation is the celebration of a landmark litigation that spanned decades. It is Sheikh showing us that while state violence might mark the defining moment of legal change but also within the shadow of law are “stories of people resisting, recrafting, reforging law into something nourishing.” It is the distillation of two defining moments of queer history in India, one of despair and the other of hope. In the closing dialogue of ‘Contempt’, a character asks: “Can you see why beauty is important? Can you see why it is crucial?” That moment is stretched, realised, and the future lies as an anticipative mystery.