|Saturday, March 17, 2001||
my college years in the 1930s it was considered ‘bad’ to even
mention the names of red-light areas in different cities: Sonagachi
(Calcutta), Kamatipura (Bombay), Heera Mandi (Lahore), Chawri (Delhi),
Mehboob Ki Mehndi (Hyderabad). Talk of prostitution was a taboo. No
papers published four-letter words: even fart was regarded as odious.
Male homesexuality was severely censured and punished as an act of
criminality. Lesbianism was not heard of. The first lesbian novel I came
across was The Well of Loneliness published by the Obelisk Press
in Paris. That and other books like Lady Chatterley’s Lover and
Arthur Miller’s books were banned in English and only available in
France. Till the mid 1970s Ismat Chughtai’s Lihaaf (coverlet),
a story of a Begum’s affair with her maid-servant, was banned. Even I,
who claimed to be a non-conformist, refused to publish it in The
Illustrated Weekly of India. Ismat and Saddat Hassan Manto brought
revolutionary changes in Urdu literature but their works translated into
English were unacceptable.
You can see changes in the western direction in our newspapers and TV channels. Sushma Swaraj has imposed her prissy, school marmish views on TV channels but most newspapers publish pictures of scantily-dressed models and starlets because if they did not, their circulation would drop. All our fiction writers put in dollops of sex to make their works saleable.
The Islamic world is more puritanical and confused. Iran under the Ayatullahs has rigorous censorship imposed on writers and TV channels. Talibans have taken Afghanistan a few centuries backwards. Prostitution like adultery is punishable with death but as should have been anticipated in a severely segregated society, sodomy which is rampant is overlooked. The situation in Pakistan is full of contradictions. Despite General Zia-ul-Haq’s draconian imposition of Shariat laws, the red-light district of Lahore Heera Mandi flourishes as ever before, while adultery and blasphemy are punishable with death and imbibing alcohol (easily available) punished by flogging. For a realistic picture of Lahore today, read Mohsin Hamid’s Moth Smoke (Penguin). Pakistani newspapers, journals and TV channels are duller than their Indian counterparts. As in India, male homosexuality is a crime. Nevertheless in both countries, there are gay clubs and gay literature openly sold.
Ifti Khar Nasim is Pakistan’s best known champion of rights of male homosexuality. He writes in English, Urdu and Punjabi. He was in India a couple of years ago to attend a conference on Urdu literature. He read a paper on Ghalib quoting couplets to prove that the poet was not averse to homosexual relations. None of the members attending the seminar could find fault with what he had to say. Nasim now lives in Chicago. He is one of the founders of Sangat, a society of South Asian lesbians, homosexuals and gays. He delivers lectures on sexual diversity in different US universities; the World Peace Academy of Delaware gave him an honorary Doctorate of Literature.
Nasim sent me his latest publication Myrmecophile: Selected Poems, 1980-2000. I had to look up the dictionary to find the meaning of the word: it means ant-eating. The poems are good but explicitly homosexual: I will refrain from quoting them. Perhaps the acknowledgment will suffice. It reads: "Special Thanks to Robert Klien Engler, Viru Joshi, Altaf Khan, Prem Chopra and all the people I slept with".
I have yet to meet an Indian woman as outrageously outspoken, a smasher of middle-class conventions, as Chandralekha. And at the same time a talented Bharatanatyam dancer during her younger days, choreographer, poet, essayist and active in Indian women’s struggle for equal rights. No other woman even looks like her: fair with a monstrously large red bindi on her forehead. In one of her books you can see her photographs: doing yoga exercises, including the sheesh asana (head stand). I once interviewed her for a TV programme and was quite bowled over by her transparent honesty. Chandralekha’s latest offering is a long prose poem she wrote in the 1960s: Rainbow on the Roadside, Montages of Madras (Earth-worm books). When she composed it, Madras was a dreamy middle-sized town with a string of fishing villages along what is now Marina Beach. The villagers were among the poorest of the poor, given to hard liquor, wife-bashing and impregnating them year after year. She chose her maid servant, Kamala, a full-bosomed Keralite, to tell the lives of the people: extremely poor yet chronically cheerful. She tells them in staccato one word lines which drive the lesson home as hammers drive nails into soft wood. The passage I have chosen is not about Kamala but what she and her kin had to go through during the monsoons:
The rains came
and the first smell of earth,
harmony of all things fragrant
hot and thirsty
stirred and heaved.
On the roads everywhere
puddles filled with sky.
And out came children
they leapt in the air
black and bare
their skinny bodies wildly elemental
in the muddy puddles
they looked at the sky and sighed
no sun, meant no work.
And women kept watch
at the roof, at the floor
as the drops fell fast.
They set tins and pans
and pots and buckets
all over the floor
to contain the leaking sky,
the leaking roof
but water seeped from under, usurping all.
All clothes were drenched
walls went damp
huddled they sat
the firewood was wet
it wouldn’t burn
the lungs were tired
breath grew short
in the pouring rain.
Why worry about the State’s mounting deficit?
Our IT savvy CM can deal with it
The World Bank will generously lend;
Our rulers can liberally spend
And present a "zero-based" Budget and bury us under it!
M.G.Narasimha Murthy, Hyderabad)