Rejection of the self remains central to queer experience. Before coming out to the world, one has to fight the moorings of a deeply ingrained heterosexual conditioning. The desire to negate norms can be further accentuated by parents who turn a blind eye (and perhaps a deaf ear too) to a person's nagging need for acceptance. The exploration of this fraught parent-child relationship — in addition to the usual strands of inter-generational tension — is a recurring theme in queer coming-of-age novels. While the son makes an honest, gut-wrenching confession to his mother in Armistead Maupin's More Tales of the City, the inability to do so takes a toll on Jehan's life in My World Without Jehan. A recent exploration can also be found in the much applauded season two of Made in Heaven where lack of acceptance pushes the son to resort to all means of self-destruction.
Shashtri Akella — an MFA in Creative Writing and the winner of 2018's Bridging the Gap Fiction Award — touches on this theme, along with others like consent, intimacy, love, acceptance, chosen families, and queer joy in his glowing debut The Sea Elephants. Written in resplendent prose and published by Penguin in India, it is a coming-of-age story of a mediocre-looking, middle-class boy, Shagun, who has a knack for telling stories.
The novel starts with Shagun’s father (who likes to be called not papa, not dad, but pita-jee) returning home for the grieving ceremony of his daughters Mud and Milk, who drowned in the Bay of Bengal. A home that allowed freedom and flamboyance to Shagun suddenly turns restrictive with the entry of a patriarch whom he has never met before. The tension escalates with a series of events that reach a tipping point when Pita-jee clicks Shagun's pictures squatting down while peeing.
An angry, embarrassed Shagun runs away from the clutches of his civil engineer father who will go to any extent to shape and structure his son’s sexuality. He applies for and gets a scholarship at an all-boys boarding school, Magpies. He imagines it to be a place where he can live uncensored — drooling over his school friend and crush, Rusty. But the illusion soon shatters as he becomes a target of mockery and snide remarks in the boys' washroom for not peeing in the urinal and for his “man's breasts.” Later, he finds himself on the run again as his father enrols him in the Hanuman Male Fixing Centre, a conversion facility.
The search for a safe and secure place, where one can be accepted unconditionally, remains one of the recurring themes of the novel. Shagun's hunt for a safe home takes him first to a giant, black cauldron in the school's backyard where he spends his leisure time thinking of stories and talking to his “cauldron friend” — and later to the travelling troupe where, immersed in the inclusivity of myths and true friendships with other troupe members, he begins to find true belonging.
The titular story of sea elephants is from the first volume of the book The Dravidian Book of Seas and Stargazing, which is given to Shagun by his mother. It harks back to the mythological event of ocean churning, the Samudra Manthan. The elephant that emerged from the churning, Iravant, was claimed by the Gods. Unable to forget the pain of losing Iravat, the sea elephants emerged on land to claim a human baby in exchange. The baby “awakens to another kind of life in the same body — its nose turns to gills and it loses its gender.” This story, appearing in various reiterations throughout the book, helps us gain a deeper understanding of Shagun's emotional moorings and psychological underpinnings.
Akella subverts quite a few narratives from the Mahabharata and Bhakti poetry, imbuing ancient characters with fluidity. A character Akella seems to be particularly interested in is Chitrangada — the second wife of Arjuna, whom he marries while in exile. Shagun's carving of a homosexual story from Chitrangada’s tale earns him censure, but it is one of the most riveting scenes in the book and a subtle yet undeniable hint of his self-acceptance.
Shagun's search for a home ends with meeting a handsome 27-year-old Jew from Kerala, Marc, whom he falls for at first sight. Marc introduces him to his parents, his past, and to Judeo-Malayalam — a fast-dying language, whose presence in the narrative also serves as a comment on the hybridity of cultures and languages.
Tender and passionate, the most interesting sections of the book follow these starry-eyed lovers as they navigate boundaries, acting through the stranglehold of traumatic pasts to build their lives together. Take, for example, the part that deals with intimacy and love-making. Owing to an abusive past and a self-blaming attitude toward his sisters' death, Shagun finds it difficult to be fully intimate. Marc, however, craves it. Shagun’s senses cloud as soon as Marc initiates. A curious Shagun puts his body in a variety of situations to understand how it reacts to pleasure. After a few pages though, the excessive detailing begins to feel redundant. Even Shagun's over-simplified explanation of his body's reactions, supported by past incidents, feels too straightforward, even boring.
Even though Akella has given this love story interesting strokes, it could have appealed more had both of these characters been given contrasting, morally grey cores. Their personalities feel too similar, and after a point, their conversations, restricted to personal affairs and never foraying much into the larger socio-political LGBT debates of the 90s, feel tiring.
The real highlight of the novel, for me at least, lay in the portrayal of the inner workings of the Hanuman Male Fixing Centre. What struck me with great urgency was the strength that such practices derive from unbridled Hindutva chauvinism. The profound sense of right and wrong, evil and virtuous that prevails there can cause any sane person to pull their hair out. Shagun feels bad for the woman in the centre who is pimped out for men to prove their masculinity at the end of the course. He talks to the woman, who laughs it off, saying that she is serving God. The kesari fluttering flags, the saffron robes, the orange idol of Hanuman, the chants, and the ash-smudging ceremony make me wonder if conversion therapy, which is currently banned in India, might resurface in full force in the future, finding its roots in the tilled, manured soil of Hindu supremacy.
Akella gives room for characters to exist in all their shades and textures. Take, for example, Pita-jee, whose brutish acts turn him into an unlikable character initially, but the slight hints of tenderness, his all-consuming fears, and his devout faith in Lord Hanuman in later sections make him shine through despite the antagonism. Or even the sensitive sketch of the Senior, who appears as a bully at a superficial glance, but is nursing multiple festering, untended scars inside of him.
For a debut novel, The Sea Elephants accomplishes a lot. For connoisseurs of LGBT fiction who feel that there is a scarcity of characters rooted in the Indian socio-cultural milieu, and especially for those who never forget to complain about sad endings, Akella’s book can be an interesting addition to their bookshelf.
Publisher: Penguin Viking
Price: Rs 415