Beyond borders
Rumina Sethi

Same-Sex Love in India: A Literary History
Eds. Ruth Vanita and Saleem Kidwai.
Pages 479. Rs 450.

PURITANISM does not allow us to talk about the subject of same sex love in a country where homosexuality is often blamed on "foreign invaders". Yet, the shastras are replete with instances of celebration of same-sex pairs, be they twins, sisters, co-mothers, rivers or friends. Few of us know that Agni, to whom most of the hymns of the Rig Veda are dedicated, is born of two sticks which are its two mothers. In the Jataka tales, there always exists an intimate relationship between boys or monks who are without fear of betrayal or infidelity. That love between women was cherished is clear from the concept of swyamvara sakhi in the 11th-century Kathasaritsagara.

Our 2000 years’ literature also contains many instances of sex change where men-turned-women marry men, exhibiting the innate attraction that exists between the same species. King Ila of the Matsya Purana is turned by Shiva into a woman who then marries Budha, the son of the moon. In the Mahabharata, Sikhandini changes her sex to become a man, has children with his wife and is full of "manly" valour.

The Panchatantra, again, is an excellent example where same-sex friendship exists among a mole, a crow, a deer and a tortoise whose ‘skin tingles’ and ‘limbs thrill’ in one another’s company. All four are male, unmarried and without domestic commitments. Loyalty to the opposite sex never comes in the way of risking their lives for one another. At the root of these ancient texts is the idea of complementarity which same-sex pairs experience more deeply than heterosexual couples.

Vanita and Kidwai attempt to bring respectability into one’s sexual preference by giving evidence through literature that homoeroticism has existed in Indian society right through the ages. As such, their book has an incredible breadth: it includes translations from many ancient texts on the subject of homoerotica. Apart from drawing on an ancient Indian literary tradition from the Puranas to the Ramayana, there is a wide spectrum of narration from the Perso-Urdu tradition ranging from Amir Khusro to Mir Taqi ‘Mir’ as much as from more modern Indian literature, where we find Amrita Sher-Gil, ‘Firaq’ Gorakhpuri, Josh Malihabadi, Ismat Chugtai and even Vikram Seth and Ambai, all of whom have written on the subject.

Homoerotic love has definitely been part of medieval poetry. The tradition of the ghazal sung or recited in all-male gatherings, the custom of wine drinking among men in taverns and even at celebrations around tombs and shrines of religious men, the oft-mentioned "maikhana", "saqi", "jaam" and "mina" in muslim poetry, where men and not women are the wine-servers and entertainers, the very practice of keeping slaves and eunuchs demonstrate that homo erotica was very much a part of mainstream society and not always punishable. It was in Sufi literature that the relationship between the human and the divine was also articulated in "homoerotic metaphors" which alone could be pure and spiritual.

As one moves closer to the 19th century, the inward male gaze becomes more self-conscious. Love between women enters literary representation whereas that between men virtually fades. The female counterpart of the ghazal now emerges in the form of "Rekhti" poetry, often referred to as "chatpatbaz", which is usually dismissed as a debased form of love between women. Not surprisingly, Rekhti poetry was written by male poets—a prominent example being Amir Khusro—in the female voice and may have never been heard or read by women. The reason why men assumed a female voice may be linked to the British law of anti-sodomy that was passed in 1860.

Although the sections on Sufi poetry are among the best, it is the 20th century that would interest the readers more owing to their closeness to the milieu and a corresponding familiarity with the writer. Chugtai’s Lihaf, Siddiqa Begum’s Urdu story Taare Laraz Rahe Hain and Kamala Das’s autobiographical My Story belong to this period. In these and many other narratives, lesbianism appears to be the result of neglect of women (also cited as a reason in Deepa Mehta’s film, Fire). Clearly, lesbianism as a form of female sexuality remains largely unexplored if it is explained away through circumstantial reasons.

In spite of the use of choice epithets such as "Ghasleti" literature, as used by the Hindi writer Pandit Banarsidas Chaturvedi for describing, what Gandhi called "unnatural vice", Ruth Vanita and Saleem Kidwai have produced a revolutionary book. They have done remarkable research in bringing to light gay and lesbian writing as well as new interpretations about non-sexual male and female bonding in film and literature. The separate introductions to each section expose common misconceptions and aversions, and sensitively bring out hitherto hidden aspects of male and female sexuality.