Queer Literature

Queer literature from India you haven’t read, but probably should

To read queer literature from India is, to a large extent, to read between the lines. Since the augment of notions of colonial morality in the subcontinent, there has been a systemic erasure of queer voices. What remain today are largely texts that merely hint at the love and relationship shared between same-sex companions. Talking about this systemic erasure Ashwini Sukthankar, in her Introduction to Facing the Mirror: Lesbian Writing from India says ‘terms historically used to describe women who love women – such as sakhi and saheli – have been purged of their eroticism over time and reshaped into harmless descriptions of female friendship, so that today we find ourselves banished from language itself, literally at a loss for words.’ Still, some texts remain preserved in our history that not only vaguely allude to, but rather openly declare, the pervasiveness of desires other than normative heterosexual ones.

This listicle aims to bring to light a few of these groundbreaking and provocative works of Indian language literature. It explores chronologically works of literature from India’s past, written by people who might or might not themselves have been queer. We then delve into two contemporary translated works written by LGBTQ+ individuals. These texts become important because they call attention to this country’s journey into queer selfhood, and highlight the importance of reclaiming queer literature as our own.

 

Bankim Chandra Chatterjee
Indira (1873)

Indira is a novella written by Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, who considered to be Bengal’s greatest novelist of the nineteenth century. The story of Indira revolves around the protagonist’s passionate and intense friendship with Subhashini. Although Indira is a married woman; she maintains a lifelong love for her friend. The novella is rife with subtext regarding the attraction the women feel for one another, as well as unflinching descriptions of their physical proximity. Indira, through the course of the narrative, finds herself wondering, ‘Can there ever be love like this? Can anyone ever love like Subhashini?’.

 

Suryakant Tripathi Nirala
Kulli Bhaat (1939)

Regarded as one of India’s best known Hindi language writers, Suryakant Tripathi Nirala wrote novels, poetry as well as essays. In Kulli Bhaat, Nirala chronicles his lifelong friendship with Kulli, who’s attraction to the poet as well as his sexuality are alluded to but never explicitly stated. Throughout the novel Nirala humanizes and empathizes with Kulli, despite other people’s reservations about him.

 

Ismat Chugtai
Terhi Lakeer (1945)

Chugtai is most popularly known for her short story ‘Lihaaf’, where a young narrator witnesses a relationship between two women. The story caused an uproar, and Chugtai was charged with obscenity and was forced to face a court trial. Terhi Lakeer follows the life of its middle-class Muslim protagonist called Shamman as she navigates the trials of life, female spaces and the politics of India’s Independence movement. In the novel, Chugtai alludes to the fluidity of female sexuality, especially in the chapters wherein Shamman finds herself attracted to her young female teacher, Miss Charan.

 

Sachin Kundalkar
Cobalt Blue (2006)

Originally written in Marathi, Kundalkar’s novel Cobalt Blue was translated into English by Jerry Pinto in 2013. The novel is about Tanay and Anuja ¬– siblings living in Pune who fall in love with the same man. The coming-of-age novel beautifully casts a sympathetic gaze at homosexuality in an oppressive and hostile society. Kundalkar, who himself identifies as part of the LGBTQ+ community, lends to the narrative a keen understanding of what it means to be a gay man in India.

 

Vasudhendhra
Mohanaswamy (2016)

Vasudhendhra’s Mohanaswamy is a Kannada novel translated into English by Rashmi Terdal. It is regarded as the first work of gay fiction written in Kannada. A collection of short stories, Mohanaswamy talks about the lives of gay man in India, chronicling their trials and tribulations. Vasudhendhra unflinchingly records the experiences the queer community in India who do not have the privilege of having access to English as a language.

Contemporary works of queer writing in India have largely been confined to the space of Indian writing in English, set only in urban metropolitan spaces. However, queer voices in India have existed across time periods, regions and languages. These novels attempt to bring to light these voices which have so often been relegated to the margins of Indian literature.

Rabindranath Tagore in Translation

Remembering the Bard of Bengal

“Where the mind is without fear
and the head is held high,
where knowledge is free.
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls.
In to that heaven of freedom, my father,
Let my country awake!”

― Rabindranath Tagore, Gitanjali: Song Offerings

Rabindranath Tagore, author of the ‘profoundly sensitive, fresh and beautiful verse’ of Gitanjali became the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize in Literature (1913). The prolific artist enticed the Bengali audience with his wide-ranging poetry, stories, paintings which overturned the conventional ideas and practices in the society. Tagore’s assertive viewpoints on nationalism and his understanding of the feelings and emotions of the Indian woman and the attitude towards them in his works were remarkable. The tendency to question and contest ways of the world lead to the discontent with the formal education system. Thus, In 1901 he founded an experimental school in rural West Bengal at Shantiniketan, where he sought to blend the best in the Indian and Western traditions, which became Visva-Bharati University in 1921.

Tagore is also referred to as ‘The Bard of Bengal’. He modernised Bengali art by rejecting rigid classical forms and resisting linguistic limits. It was not just the structural alterations that Tagore initiated but also the thematic concerns. His works moved towards a stronger sense of realism by liberating the Bengali novel from its bondage of historical romance. His novels, stories, songs, dance-dramas, and essays spoke of topics, political and personal, and were popularly known for their lyricism, naturalism, and unnatural contemplation. Tagore’s novels are a radical statement of his unusual viewpoint which were ahead of the conservative times of 19th and 20th century India. Gora (1909), Ghare-Baire (1916), Choker Bali (1903) are some of his best-known novels. There have been several attempts to translate Tagore’s body of work into English, making it accessible to non-Bengali readers. In fact, Tagore himself translated many of his works into English.

Here’s a quick glance into some of Gurudev’s most popular novels:

CHOKHER BALI (1903)

Chokher Bali was truly a norm-defying novel with a narrative shaped through passion, desires and an intricate network of relationships. Tagore’s novels condemned many taboos and unjust customs which deprived widows of their rightful existence; confined to live a mournful colourless life. Chokher Bali presents the woeful conditions of Hindu widows and the emergence of a new type of woman in quest of self-fulfillment through Binodini, the protagonist of the novel. An extra-marital affair with a widow and the closer depiction of female friendship in the novel created a ripple in the society by shattering the conventional identity of a widow as well as unsettling the idea of a successful married life.

GORA (1909)

Tagore’s longest novel, Gora, is a complex narrative with a rich philosophical debate on religion and politics. The concerns raised in the novel about the imagination of a nation seem very contemporary and compels one to question their concrete beliefs about a nation. The protagonists in the novel portray through their personal principles, a struggle for values in one’s own tradition. The novel accommodates questioning of various binaries like tradition and modernity, elite and the poor and presents an intersection of caste, religion, gender with nationalism.

GHARE BAIRE (1916)

The novel standing true to its title literally captures the concerns of the home, the outer world and the inter-relationship of both these spaces. The power dynamics within a household and the conflict between true and false patriotism within the nation form the prominent thematic thread of the novel. Influence of Western culture, as well as the revolution against it particularly in Bengal owing to the Swadeshi movement and the Partition of Bengal, comes across through personal narratives of the characters in the novel. The position of women in the Indian freedom struggle is examined through the woman protagonist who through the development of the novel undergoes a transformation. Tagore negotiates the various ideas of a ‘modern woman’ within a nationalistic scenario.

SHESHER KABITA (1929)

Shesher Kabita is considered a landmark in Bengali literature. The novel primarily is about man-woman relationships and the institution of marriage. Tagore yet again shows a masterly command of the trysts of human relationships. The themes of love, trust, passion, lust, and companionship keep the narrative intact. Tagore has brilliantly weaved poetry with prose in this novel. The fusion of the two forms adds to the creative beauty in exploring the ideas of platonic love. Tagore’s choice of ending the novel in an unconventional manner suggested a new way of looking at relationships.

As we celebrate the birth of this multifaceted and revolutionary artist today, let us revisit and cherish the timeless contributions which altered the way our society and world thinks. Remembering the literary genius who weaved beauty and purpose in the most beautiful way.