It has been half a decade since the Supreme Court of India read down Section 377, a colonial-era law that criminalised sex between same-sex persons. But the belief that same-sex desire is an aberration, illness, or perversion continues to have a strong grip on Indian society.
Ruth Vanita’s book On the Edge: 100 Years of Hindi Fiction on Same-Sex Desire is a useful resource to understand the relationship that Hindi literature has had with these homophobic attitudes over the years.
Published by Hamish Hamilton, an imprint of Penguin Random House India, the book is a collection of 16 short stories and extracts from novels that explore same-sex desire. They were first published in Hindi over the past hundred years. Vanita has translated them into English in On the Edge.
“Fiction is not a mirror of life; it does not reveal exactly what happens in life but rather the ideas in circulation about what happens and, more important, a writer’s vision about what could happen,” writes Vanita in her introduction to this volume, which contextualises her selection of texts for On the Edge and offers broad critical commentary on the stories and extracts.
She calls out Hindi writers who portray homosexuality as a Western import, suggest that gay men are necessarily effeminate, insinuate that lesbian love is caused by neglectful husbands, and punish homosexual characters through plot devices such as a road accident or rape.
According to her, the representation of same-sex desire in Hindi literature prior to the 1960s was “strangely stunted” but things got better after that. She is being generous in this characterisation – some of the fiction featured in the book, even from more recent times, is homophobic.
The word “chocolate-love” is used as a euphemism for homosexual desire in the story titled Discussing Chocolate (Chocolate Charcha in Hindi) written by Pandey Bechan Sharma ‘Ugra’, which was first published in the magazine Matvala in 1924. We meet an unnamed man aboard a moving train, who tells fellow passengers that “chocolate-love” is openly practised in schools, colleges, theatre companies, and Ramlila groups, and it is an “illness” that preys upon several poets, writers, as well as great leaders. He goes on to say that the wicked ones who practise it are “predatory tigers by nature but appear to be mild cows”.
Though Ugra’s story acknowledges the presence of same-sex desire in large sections of the population, it does not give it respect or speak of it in the same breath as heterosexual desire. Homosexuality is called a "weakness", thus suggesting a deficit or a form of inferiority.
In the extract from Pankaj Bisht’s novel Winged Boat (Pankhwali Naav in Hindi), which was serialised in Hans magazine in 2007, and published as a volume in 2009, a gay character named Anupam who is the creative director of an advertising agency pleads with his colleague Vikram – a commercial artist who is married to a woman, and has children with her – for a kiss. The story is told through the voice of Vikram, who recalls, “I felt as if a violent animal had pounced on me.” The analogy suggests that a gay man is less than human.
Anupam is desperate to have an extra-marital affair. When Vikram rejects his advances, Anupam hugs him forcibly. Vikram recalls, “I became lifeless like a statue…His embrace filled with me a strange revulsion…Never before had I been disgusted by the smell of a man’s body. This was not the sweat of labour but the stink of lust and perversion.”
From these prejudiced portraits of homosexuality, it is difficult to conclude whether the writers are as homophobic as their characters. What seems clear is the damaging characterization of gay men as people who do not prioritise consent when they pursue sexual desire, as people who must be reviled because they are seen as threats to the heteronormative order.
Such negative depictions are not limited to same-sex desire between men in this collection. In the extract from Surendra Verma’s novel I Want the Moon (Mujhe Chand Chahiye in Hindi), first published in 1993, Varsha – a college student from Shahjahanpur in Uttar Pradesh – is attracted to her new professor, Divya, who has relocated recently from Lucknow. Before a play that they are collaborating on, Divya puts her arms around Varsha, and kisses her forehead. Later, while waiting in the wings, Divya hugs Varsha and kisses her cheek. When these kisses become a subject of gossip, a philosophy professor in the college staff room says, “When women teachers from the big city come here, they always bring germs of some dangerous disease with them.” The philosophy professor’s character reinforces the flawed, and still used, notion that homosexuality is an urban phenomenon.
Vanita’s book Love’s Rite: Same-Sex Marriage in India and the West (2005), documented accounts of numerous same-sex couples in rural areas and small towns who have married each other by exchanging vows, devising ceremonies, and seeking community support in the absence of legal provisions recognizing marriage equality.
It is useful to remember that writers of fiction do not create narratives in a vacuum. They probably pathologised homosexuality because it was criminalised in India until very recently. There has also been a long history of medical doctors and mental health professionals – apart from religious leaders – who have peddled cures for homosexuality.
On the Edge also includes an extract from Asha Sahay’s novel Ekakini, which was first published in 1947. Kala and Arati, the two women in the book are, in Vanita’s words, “described in the florid language of romance”. Whether they are sexual partners or not is left ambiguous. Sahay terms them “ekakini” (single woman) – not lesbian – as Arati’s husband refuses to have sex with her and Kala does not marry her suitor, calling herself an unmarried spiritual widow after he dies.
Compare this with a more recent short story titled Shadow (Parchhai in Hindi), written by Shubham Negi and first published in Hans magazine in 2022. Negi does not employ euphemisms to talk about sexual orientation and identity, he instead uses clear terms such as ‘gay,’ ‘straight,’ ‘bisexual,’ and ‘homophobic’. The author refers to the 2018 Supreme Court verdict and Tinder. Unlike Negi, Sahay wrote in an era when there was no Internet, let alone dating apps.
“Gay people all over the world have looked to history and literature to find others like themselves,” writes Vanita. The stories and extracts she has collected, spanning over 100 years, serve as a testament of how far we have come. The book gives readers a chance to sample diverse voices, and it strikes a balance between veterans from the literary world and younger talent.
Vanita’s commitment to recovering, studying and curating narratives of same-sex desire is evident through the large body of work that she has built as a scholar and translator. Apart from co-editing Same-Sex Love in India: Readings from Literature and History with Saleem Kidwai, and editing Queering India: Same-Sex Love and Eroticism in Indian Culture and Society, she has written Gender, Sex and the City: Urdu Rekhti Poetry in India 1780-1870.
Like the rest of Vanita’s work, her latest offering will be remembered by readers, literary scholars, activists, and perhaps courts, for years to come. It might come as a revelation especially to urban Indians working in the development sector who speak and read predominantly in English, and complain about the lack of published material on same-sex desire in Hindi that can be readily used to advocate for diversity, equity and inclusion. Besides, it is a useful resource for academics who want to study how literary representation of same-sex desire has evolved over time in relation to socio-political changes in India.
Vanita’s painstaking research shows that though the representation of same-sex desire in Hindi literature has not always been favourable, it has certainly not been absent. While Hindi films have attracted a lot of critical attention for their stereotypical and misleading portrayals of homosexuality, there is a dire need for more analysis of Hindi literature with a critical gaze. As a language used by millions of Indians, Hindi holds the power to influence how many of us think.
Publisher: Penguin Viking
Price: Rs 599