A Queer – Travel Through Time: Sunil Gupta’s Visual Memoir

“Attention is vitality,” said Susan Sontag. Photographing someone is beyond an act of documenting lives; it’s arresting someone —  the period they lived and their histories, in one frame. Sunil Gupta’s photo-memoir “Wish You Were Here” (published by Yoda Press) does precisely that. It captures the life of a gay man, and with it, the life of people around him.

Sunil Gupta as a Gay Teenager in Montreal | Courtesy: Wish You Were Here

In the words of Gautam Bhan, the editor of this series, “there was no other way to fully introduce Sunil’s work than to become part of its visual language. To be seen, not just read.” It’s that feeling which I had when I finished reading, oops, seeing Sunil’s life through this memoir. Which, to me, looks like a very private catalogue of moments one keeps with oneself. It’s this private-ness, intimacy of this work that exudes the warmth that I don’t find reading the “read only” memoirs too often.

It’s visual. It’s poetic. It’s political. These photographs capture in them a world, to understand which you’ve to see a queer body lingering when Stonewall happened. To understand this you’ve to feel that nervousness of an individual that boarded an aeroplane for another continent, in his teens and worried about making sense of his life. It’s a memoir where a 20-something person like me is fascinated to see Aruna Roy as a young, vivacious lady; Saleem Kidwai, who co-authored “Same-Sex Love in India: A Literary History” along with Ruth Vanita, in blue trousers and donning a mustache. I’d have to agree with Sunil when he captions this in one of the photographs of Saleem: “this Indian boy is gay but he doesn’t seem to know it.” It’s gay thing, if a heterosexual is reading this: Ah, I’m sorry there’s certain thing called gaze. And I can’t explain it here as Virginia Woolf said, “too much, and not the mood.”

Those Queer Eyes Piercing Into the Camera (Sunil, left; Saleem, right) | Courtesy: Wish You Were Here

Visual Grammar

When I finished browsing through this heavy pink-covered hardcover book that has Paolo Sergio de Castro’s image on the front – who died of AIDS and the book is dedicated to him – with “wish you were here” in golden color, I was overwhelmed with emotions. These 128 pages, cover to cover, carries the making of someone; multiple landscapes that change as abruptly as does the subjects of assessment of Sunil. It carries in it the embryo of queer politics that’d become a full-grown child – the fight against criminalization of homosexuality that people like Sunil, Gautam and Saleem have been fighting for since forever.

Our Hazy Queer Life | Courtesy: Wish You Were Here

I wonder how he, or the editor Gautam, came to terms with the arrangement of this memoir, which gives it its visual grammar. It flows freely. There is no such thing as “Contents,” there isn’t any “Categorization” of photographs. In every sense, it’s as queer as fuck. (Can’t help being gay enough even while writing this review.) And it’s a grammar where rules don’t define its making or unmaking; where the passive is active; where the visuals seize your attention, and you feel you’ve read over a thousand words of queer literature going through the painful accounts of being a queer in some cases through these pictures; and, in some cases, you get a boner.

Paolo in “Gay Pose” | Courtesy: Wish You Were Here

Some Call it Home, Some Call it Family

Besides the intimacies in Sunil’s work that many have discussed no one has ever pointed out the maturity of Sunil in photographing different families. This album sifts through that; beginning with Shalini, his sister, and followed by a photograph of his parents — Ram and Penny, you’d see what we often unsee in an album: the “Chosen Family.” It’s that aspect in his subjects of photography that I found charming in particular.

Sunil’s Parents: Ram and Penny | Courtesy: Wish You Were Here
Charles Fisch | Courtesy: Wish You Were Here

One always feels that one’s real home is in the people one loves. Usually, for heterosexuals, those people are the immediate family members. I have a feeling that Sunil’s family were a bunch of lovely people who loved him, too. But that’s sort of not the case with me, being gay sometimes doesn’t go well with some families. And that’s fine, too. Therefore, for many people like me – I don’t want to play a victim here, our trans* folks face the worst almost every second of their life; I’m still in a much better position – chosen family is the one that we can call “home.”

I’m still not very convinced of this concept, but I feel the first one to make Sunil feel home, in the way he was – identifying and exploring himself abroad, was Charles Fisch, who in Sunil’s own words was “the first person I met at the entrance to Dawson (Junior College) who took one look at me and said, ‘Hello, Darling!’ There was no going back into the closet after that.”

This album is full of those people, who have helped Sunil, in what I see and make sense of it, navigate through the thick and thins of life.

Even if You’re in a Closet, Smile Reading This | Courtesy: Wish You Were Here

Final Remark

This book refuses to end. It’d be sounding ironic to you as I’ve already mentioned above that it’s a 128-pages long book; however, what I mean is that it doesn’t “end” in the sense a thing, a life should. It fuels queer generations yet to come with its closure. The last image in this memoir is of Delhi Pride 2008, where we can see Sunil is marching enthusiastically. It actually made me feel like I’m at Barakhamba Road and recording an old, gay man marching toward, taking a step one at a time, toward equality. It’s in this sense that I say that this book goes on. For those who’d want to queer-travel through time, embark on this visual journey and pick this book up!

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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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