These excerpts from two new books by Akhil Katyal and Akshay Khanna explore the intricacies of same-sex desire and the queer movement in India.
On Queer Pride Day, we publish extracts from the first two books to come out from the new publishing house, New Text. According to Gautam Bhan, part of the editorial collective of New Text, its “core premise is to make books that are legal to photocopy, download, and share.” The website of the organisation states:
Technology as well as the expansion of open-access and open-content models of knowledge production have made possible a serious rethink of the current structures of academic publishing. New Text is located within this moment of possibility. We believe that an independent press that is not motivated solely by commercial profit can create a viable and sustainable alternative that promotes public knowledge, even as it recognizes and rewards the labour of authors and academics.
New Text’s formal launch is on December 10, 2016 at Goethe-Institut/Max Mueller Bhavan, New Delhi at 7 pm. The event will see the launch of the publishing house’s first two titles, Akhil Katyal’s The Doubleness of Sexuality: Idioms of Same-Sex Desire in Modern India and Akshay Khanna’s Sexualness: Law, Epidemiology and the Queer Movement in India – the latter being co-published with Yoda Press.
An excerpt from Katyal’s The Doubleness of Sexuality: Idioms of Same-Sex Desire in Modern India
In November of 1946, summoned for the second hearing by the courts of the colonial state on the charges of obscenity for her Urdu short story ‘Lihaf’ (The Quilt), the writer Ismat Chughtai reached Lahore. It had been about 4 years since ‘Lihaf’ had been published in the Urdu journal Adab-e-Lateef. It told the story of Begum Jan who is married into a rich Muslim household where she begins to find pleasure in her housemaid Rabbu’s service—in her massages, in her recipes, in her touch. Narrated in the un-omniscient voice of a young girl, the story ends with a moment of radical speculation—what the young girl hears at night from the Begum’s bed, what she makes of Rabbu’s palpable presence there, what she sees under the Begum’s quilt. None of this is directly revealed in the story but instead breathed into its air, nourishing the text with exciting inferences. It “was based on my own experience as a child,” Chughtai said years later (Parivaraj 1991, p. 27). Yet ‘Lihaf’, now charged in court, was already a subject of some scandal and concern in Chughtai’s literary circles. She found herself explaining her motivations for writing the story to one older writer M. Aslam in Lahore…
Actually Aslam Sahab, I was never…told by anyone that writing on this particular subject [mauzu] of ‘Lihaf’ was a crime. Neither did I read in any book that one should not write about this…illnes [marz]… or…addiction [lat]. Maybe my mind is not the brush of Abdurrahman Chughtai, it is instead a cheap sort of camera, whatever it sees, it clicks, and my pen becomes helpless in my hand (Chughtai 1998, pp. 32–33).
In a personal conversation, the feminist and lesbian activist Maya Sharma based in Baroda told me that in the early 2000s, as she went about speaking to various working class women to collect stories for what ultimately became her book Loving Women: Being Lesbian in Unprivileged India (2006), most—though not all—women she spoke to spoke of their relationships with other women through the resonant idiom of friendship. “Zyadatar saheli tha, ki ye meri saheli hai,” she told me [mostly, it was saheli, that she is my saheli]. In introducing the book, she had given an expanded terrain of this rich trope of friendship through which women made sense of their relationships with each other—“[m]ost often the same-sex partners referred to each other as dost, saheli, sathin, sakhi”, all of which words congregate to make a highly resonant and fleshy idiom of female friendship.
Excerpts from Khanna’s Sexualness: Law, Epidemiology and the Queer Movement in India
And then Wann threw my way a story that realigned the erotic dimensions of this landscape completely. This was a recurrent story, he said, it happened all the time, and went on to describe in some detail his sexual encounters with soldiers of the Indian armed forces. The first time it happened, Wann had been returning from a night out in Shillong. Men whom he knew to be CRPF soldiers blocked his way as he attempted to hail an autorickshaw. After preliminary pleasantries one of the men whipped out his penis and said “let’s go”. Wann went on to suggest that he didn’t really have a choice in the matter and that he went along with the men to a wooded area on the back road between Shillong and Mawlai. There he had sex with five men at the same time, only to be joined by another two. Even as Wann described his mechanisms of asserting power in these situations, getting the men to stand in line and ridiculing the one with the smallest penis, offering different sexual engagements to the men depending on whether he approved of the size and shape of their genitalia, for instance, I could not help but think of this as gang rape. “How did you feel?” I asked tentatively, a bit uncomfortable that he could describe such a scary situation with such ease.
“You know…I…really wanted to know what it would…feel like,” he said, his voice quivering with an erotic intensity that immediately brought me back to the moment when we had been interrogated by the police man in Delhi months earlier. I was forced in that moment to acknowledge the difficulty in separating out power and aggression from the erotic, the complexity of desire and its conditions of articulation. I also realised then that in our hurry to make sense of Bin’s murder, as though relating to a dialogue internal to the Khasi identity, we had forgotten the presence of an aggressive Indian state, and further, the possibilities of homoerotic desires of its soldiers.
As I left Wann that evening he extracted a promise. “Tell my story well, ok?” he said. And those words were to haunt me on my long journey back to mainland India. How was I to tell his story to the activists in Delhi and elsewhere in India, who were waiting to hear my report on the homophobic hate crime? How was I to relate these stories of intense eroticism, stories whose narrative structure cried out rape, but whose inner dimensions refused me the disavowal of the erotic? While activism around sexuality has invigorated ‘pleasure’ as an essential aspect of what it means to be human, that reference to passion is always cut neatly away from the appreciation of violence as an experience.
It had been a long humid Calcutta day of HIV/AIDS talk with a sprinkling of heated debates, uneasy negotiations and some dramatic calls to accountability at a consultation on HIV/AIDS and MSM. Present in the audience were bureaucrats from the UN, from the governments of India and Britain as well as a large number of personnel from non-governmental and community-based organisations. A post-lunch drowsiness and the sheer fatigue at hearing the same words, acronyms, numbers and alphabet strings circulating, seemingly meaninglessly, was suddenly shaken up. Reuben del Prado, then chief of the UNAIDS for India had a startling announcement to make.
“It is time,” he said emphatically, “for the government of India to recognise the anus!”
After an effective pause, he added, “…as an instrument of transmission.”
A charge had been made by activists at the meeting that HIV/AIDS interventions had, on the one hand, reduced complex articulations of Queerness to the fact of epidemiological risk—“as though we are just about anal sex, as though we are an anus, and the anus is us”—and, on the other, had failed to address the risk of HIV infection in heterosexual anal sex. In response, del Prado, perhaps inadvertently, was making a rather Queer demand.
This is not the first time that the anus has articulated in the discursive space of the subject of the Indian state. The credit for that glorious moment belongs to the courts. Around the same time when medical professionals in Europe and North America tussled around the ‘truth’ of desire and finally settled on the idea that people could be categorised as homosexual and heterosexual, law courts in British India brought the sodomite into existence as a juridical person. The anus lay at the very centre of this person. In an 1884 judgement of the Allahabad High Court in the case of the Queen Empress vs Khairati, for instance, a person described as a “eunuch” and who was kept under constant “supervision” by the police, was arrested upon being “found singing dressed as a woman”. The only incriminating evidence to convict this person under Section 377 was that her anus was found to be “flared like a trumpet”. This was seen to be the mark of a ‘habitual sodomite’. The anus, albeit flared, had by the end of the 19th century already found its place in the juridical body of the non-citizen.
More than a century later, on that hotel rooftop in Calcutta, the anus tried again. This time it was not to be satisfied with being located somewhere on the body of the MSM, a body that in being produced as distinct was bearing the burden of disavowed desires. This time the anus was demanding its rightful place in the body of the general population, the normative heterosexual subject of the Indian state. A particularly sharp bureaucrat later commented, “It is almost like suddenly the citizens of India have an anus.” Absurd as it may sound, this is exactly what del Prado was suggesting.