India’s Queer Literature Persists Despite Political Controversy Over Gays

Laura’s Team Pick:

“…The story of Teeja and Beeja still resonates in Rajasthan folklore. In a beautifully crafted version by Vijaidan Detha, Teeja and Beeja, two women, are inadvertently promised to one another in marriage by their fathers. Beeja is brought up as a boy, married as a “man” to Teeja; they are happy together until Teeja suggests that she return to dressing as a woman. Driven out by the villagers, they pray to benevolent ghosts, and Beeja is turned into a man. But while this transformation is more socially acceptable, Teeja hates her new husband’s bullying and runs away. The story ends with the two living together as women, in the forest with the ghosts, safely away from the villagers.”

While homosexuality is still a taboo subject in much of Indian society, it weaves a rich legacy throughout the South Asia’s literary history. Nilanjana S. Roy traces the queer experience from the Mahabharata–a Sanskrit epic written around 400 BCE–to Minal Hajratwala’s 2010 memoir/report Leaving India. 

Her post is timely. Just this week, the Indian government was forced to clarify its stance on homosexuality when a lawyer from the Ministry of Home Affairs, Additional Solicitor General PP Malhotra, argued that homosexuality is unnatural and is damaging to India’s social fabric. After spending 3 hours submitting evidence and opinions to the Supreme Court, Malhotra was quickly renounced by his ministry, who said that he had mistakenly read from a file from before 2009. The hearing was held in response to groups who have challenged the 2009 repeal of section 277 of the Indian Penal Code which decriminalized gay sex.

In response to Malhotra’s statements, the Indian government announced that they “had not taken any position on homosexuality as is being reported in the media.” While not exactly a heartwarming nod of approval, it does signal that the government stands by its previous decision, despite evidence that the majority of Indians disagree. The Ministry of Heath is backing the repeal of the colonial-era law, pointing out that ignoring the existence of LGB people only perpetuates the spread of HIV and other diseases.

Roy’s travel into the literary past reveals the complexities of politics and identity for Indian queers. From stories, we get a version of the truth that is simultaneously distilled and distorted, universal and personal. We come to understand some things that our own tiny worlds can’t teach us. Books can be burned and banned but somehow their stories still reach those of us who need to hear them. They bring lonely islands of of people into communion with each other. In Leaving India, Minal Hajratwala writes that she has “come to understand that queerness is a migration as momentous as any other, a journey from one world to the next …” Let’s hope there’s a place for queerness to stay in India.

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Laura is a tiny girl who wishes she were a superhero. She likes talking to her grandma on the phone and making things with her hands. Strengths include an impressive knowledge of Harry Potter, the ability to apply sociology to everything under the sun, and a knack for haggling for groceries in Spanish. Weaknesses: Chick-fil-a, her triceps, girls in glasses, and the subjunctive mood. Follow the vagabond adventures of Laura and her bike on twitter [@laurrrrita].

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    I love this from Roy’s article (an excerpt from Vikram Seth’s “Dubious”):

    “Some men like Jack/ and some like Jill; / I’m glad I like them both; but still…/ In the strict ranks/ of Gay and Straight/ What is my status?/ Stray? or Great?”

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    so thankful for this, laura. with so little (nothing) in the way of gay indian culture/literature/community growing up, i’m always hungry for material…evidence? that others like me exist. can’t wait to read it!

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      i’m the same way- without news articles and such like this, i’d feel terribly alone. i honestly thought there were only a few other queer indians out there before autostraddle started introducing articles about us every now and then. it means a whole lot, so thanks, laura!

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      There’s a group in the Bay Area (Northern California) called Trikone. South Asian queer folk, nice people. They have a publication (or had, not sure) called Trikone as well.
      Also the magazine Indian Currents is owned by a gay man. Also my Indian wife is a lesbian…
      Have you read “Babyji”? by Abha Dawesar? Highly recommended.

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