Book Title: On the Edge: 100 Years of Hindi Fiction on Same-Sex Desire
Author: Ruth Vanita
How do the last 100 years of Hindi fiction on same-sex desire look like? This collection of short stories and novel extracts by Ruth Vanita offers an answer that is thankfully not straightforward.
Besides big names like Munshi Premchand, Geetanjali Shree and Rajendra Yadav, ‘On the Edge’ also revives the works of little-known writers, interleaving them with the stories of present generation searching for love through dating apps.
Vanita is well known for her scholarly work on gender and sexuality, including the seminal ‘Same-Sex Love in India’, in which she and Saleem Kidwai leafed through ancient and modern texts to compile the history of queer existence in the subcontinent. ‘On the Edge’ is thus a successor to that book even though confined only to Hindi fiction in the last century.
This collection is a window to the varied depictions of queerness in different eras. It starts with ‘Chocolate Charcha’ — one among the many stories featuring gay men written by Pandey Bechan Sharma ‘Ugra’ in the 1920s — that caused a furore in those times, and ends with a story set in the backdrop of the pandemic. In the introduction, Vanita also emphasises that Hindi literature has mostly looked at same-sex desire with a prejudiced lens, medicalising it, terming it a disorder or a western vice. This collection thus sets the record straight as most of the stories and novel excerpts presented here are unapologetic narratives, drawing on the intensity and interiority of same-sex desire.
One can see a clear distinction between pre- and post-1990s economic liberalisation era in these writings. While in the earlier stories the characters just live their desire without giving it a name or seeking social acceptance, the latter ones focus on self-discovery and assertion.
The stories which shine through are the ones in which the characters either create their own little islands within the mainstream society, or reject it to live on the fringes. It is not a surprise that most of these involve women lovers. Vanita also casts her net wide and fetches a delightful Rajasthani story, ‘Dowari Joon’ (Double Life), which presents a sharp critique of male dominance. Belonging to a clan of traditional storytellers, author Vijaydan Detha brings in the magical realism, colours and satire typically associated with Rajasthani folklores. Similarly, the women in ‘Under Wraps’ by Geetanjali Shree and ‘Ekakini’ by Asha Sahay shortchange social norms by being masters of their destinies.
There are a couple of stories which also look at same-sex relationships through the viewpoint of siblings and parents. ‘Mrs Raizada’s Corona Diary’ by Kinshuk Gupta looks at sexuality through a mother who reassesses her life and comes to accept her son’s preferences. The use of Covid-19 as a disruptor to conventional boundaries adds a new layer to the oft-repeated narrative of parental opposition.
The collection does not read like a translated work, thanks to Vanita’s vast experience with queer text and language, which ensure sensitive handling. However, most of these writings represent upper middle class India, which also highlights the anomaly in the Indian publishing industry. Hindi being a more common language than English was expected to celebrate greater diversity in thought and presentation, offering us experiences from the hinterland, teasing at class and caste divisions, narrating the violence and the grit many queer people have to navigate for love. Here is hoping that future years will bring us more of those writings.