Saturday, March 17, 2001
T H I S  A B O V E  A L L

World’s changing morals
By Khushwant Singh

DURING 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.

A Chinese Nobel Laureate living in exile
March 10, 2001
Tagore’s offerings of love
March 3, 2001
Where has one come from?
February 24, 2001
Most educated Indians are bores
February 17, 2001
Sensing disasters before they strike
February 10, 2001
Mystery behind mystic numbers
February 3, 2001
Of time-wasting rituals
January 20, 2001
Dying flame burns bright
January 13, 2001
Honouring Gurudev
January 6, 2001
Assamese are the friendliest Indians
December 23, 2000
The Father Teresa of Punjab
December 16, 2000
Metros bursting at the seams
December 9, 2000
Going for Ganga darshan
December 2, 2000
To be among celebrities
November 25, 2000
The dawn chorus at Santiniketan
November 18, 2000
A priceless Divali gift
November 11, 2000

The world has moved at a faster pace than anyone could have foreseen. In many western countries marriages between members of the same sex have been validated. Writing on sex has become explicit. Even straight-laced papers like The Times of London print four-letter words. Tabloids go much further.

ChandralekhaYou 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".

Woman iconoclast

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

city soil,

hot and thirsty

stirred and heaved.

On the roads everywhere

puddles filled with sky.

And out came children



fiercely ecstatic

they leapt in the air

black and bare

their skinny bodies wildly elemental

in the muddy puddles

but men

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

and shivered

the firewood was wet

it wouldn’t burn

the lungs were tired

breath grew short

from blowing

in the pouring rain.

Mounting deficit

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!

(Contributed by M.G.Narasimha Murthy, Hyderabad)