Ruth Vanita’s ‘On The Edge: 100 Years of Hindi Fiction on Same-Sex Desire’ explores the changing depiction of homoeroticism in Hindi literature, from 1927 to 2022

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There have always been questions about the Hindi cultural milieu and the literature that has emerged out of unsaid censorship. The representation of same-sex desire in Hindi literature has been influenced by these constraints. In 1922, a significant event in the history of Hindi literature occurred with the publication of a story collection titled Chocolate by Pandit Pandey Bechan Sharma ‘Ugra’ (1900-1967), which included a story about same-sex desire, also titled ‘Chocolate.’

The story became highly controversial, leading to the emergence of a movement against ‘Ugra,’ led by Banarsidas Chaturvedi (1892-1985). Ugra’s story was pejoratively labelled as ‘ghasleti sahitya’, a term that loosely translates to ‘worthless literature’. “It was the first public debate on homosexuality in the Raj,” writes Ruth Vanita, an author and an academic, in her translation of Ugra’s Chocolate and Other Writings on Male Homoeroticism (2009). The controversy — which foreshadowed the 1944 obscenity trial of Urdu writer Ismat Chughtai for her story, Lihaf (The Quilt) — even reached Mahatma Gandhi, who, as per recent writings of literary historians, did not deem Ugra’s story obscene.

The arcs of desire

Despite this episode, a few writers continued to explore same-sex desire in literature. For instance, Asha Sahay’s Ekakini (Recluse, 1948) is considered one of the first lesbian novels; its republication in December 2022 triggered excitement in the Hindi world. Ekakini, which revolves around the lives of two women, Arati and Kala, who are deeply in love with each other, is told in a straightforward manner, leaving no room for ambiguity. Though there is no explicit sexual depiction, the romance and longing between the two women makes it an epochal work. However, homosexuality in Hindi literature has been consistently frowned upon, with prominent critics viewing it as ‘foreign’ and as ‘a corruption of literature’.

Therefore, there was always a need to explore the evolution of the portrayal of same-sex desire in Hindi literature. Vanita has taken up this mantle in a recent anthology that she has edited and translated. On The Edge: 100 Years of Hindi Fiction on Same-Sex Desire (Penguin) is a collection of 16 provocative short stories, and excerpts from novels by Hindi authors, centered on the theme. The anthology spans from the era of Ugra to contemporary times, and includes stories by Premchand, Rajendra Yadav, Rajkamal Chaudhuri, Geetanjali Shree and Sara Rai, among others. It documents how Hindi authors have treated this subject over the years (from 1927 to 2022), and how it has evolved over time. The sensitive translation, with footnotes, makes it an interesting and insightful read.

Hindi critics and writers have, until recently, expressed unease in accepting depictions of same-sex desires, considering them unnatural. Marxist critic of Hindi literature, Namvar Singh (1926-2019), known as the ‘face of Hindi literature,’ made a statement in 2010 that Vanita quotes in her book. He said, “...homosexuality is an exception, not a widespread practice. Whether it is between men or women, it is unnatural….” Similarly, Hindi critic Madhuresh (84), in his book Hindi Kahani Ka Vikas (The Evolution of Hindi Short Stories, 2021), commented on Rajkamal Chaudhari’s short story ‘Bhugol Ka Prarambhik Gyan’ (Fundamentals of Geography), published in the late 1950s: “This story is the best example of taking interest in sexual frustrations and expressing them in a very sloppy way. It is an example of how experienced reality can be in its final outcome.”

Doors close, and open

‘Bhugol Ka Prarambhik Gyan’ is about two adolescent boys, Ramaa and Phool-Babu, and their longing for each other, as well the sexual attraction of Ramaa’s mother towards her son’s friend. This story, among the pioneering works on homosexual relationships between teenage boys, is part of Vanita’s collection. The reluctance of critics to acknowledge the display of desires and sexuality, and their inclination to present it as ‘a disease,’ merely illustrates how Hindi prose writing was shaped by existing social values, and has undergone a transformation over time.

Today, we have more stories in Hindi about same-sex desire, which are direct, politically conscious and chronicle the challenges faced by the LGBTQI+ community. For instance, ‘Mrs Raizada ki Korona Diary,’ an interesting story from Kinshuk Gupta’s anthology, Yeh Dil Hai Ki Chor Darwaza (2023), depicts the psyche of a gay man’s mother and how she started accepting his son and his partner during Covid, when she fell sick.

Earlier, stories about homoeroticism were mostly suggestive, metaphorical and rare in Hindi literature, but interesting. Often, the idea of homosexuality was also quite “regressive” and “unwoke,” if analysed from contemporary lens, but worth noting. This is why Vanita’s collection — which offers a valuable perspective on the history of Hindi literature — is an important addition to your bookshelf.

For instance, in Shamshan Champa, the 1972 novel by Shivani, a Hindu woman falls in love with a Muslim man and marries him, but he later turns out to be homosexual. He reflects that he became effeminate due to dressing up like girls since childhood in the company of homosexual friends. Here, one can deduce that homosexuality is seen as contagious. Vanita underlines that young writer Rashmi Sharma’s Band Kothri Ka Darwaja (2018) follows a similar storyline.

Beyond the ambiguities

Interestingly, a lot of writers, as Vanita describes, employed the framework of lesbianism resulting from unavailability of heterosexual sex. In Usha Priyamvada’s novel Antarvanshi (2000), an Indian woman gets involved in a love affair with an American woman after her sexual relations with her husband cools off. For a considerable period, Hindi literature was overwhelmingly characterised by the view that homosexuality was an aberration, and even a malady. Expressions of such feelings were often met with scepticism, condemnation, or outright rejection.

Ugra’s narrator calls homosexuality “unnatural vices and a disease”, writes Vanita. But, Ugra’s homosexual men are not effeminate. They are manly, and quite open about their sexual desire. Despite the disquiet it caused, Ugra’s work dared to explore and illuminate aspects of same-sex desire, challenging the prevailing narrative and paving the way for a more nuanced understanding of human sexuality within the realm of Hindi literature.

In recent years, there has been a wave of Hindi writers who do not shy away from exploring new themes. After 2018, as a result of the scrapping of Section 377 of the IPC, which considered consensual same-sex relationships as unconstitutional, there has been greater acceptance — and a relatively more open-minded reader in Hindi. The inclusion of authors like Madhu Kankaria, Shubham Negi and Kinshuk Gupta in this anthology underscores this very well: both the profusion of writers tackling the once-taboo subject and the shift in readership, marked by inclusivity.

Vanita also includes Premchand’s Laanchhan, which she translates as ‘Stigma’; it “tantalizes with the delight of ambiguity.” It is about two highly educated women, Miss Khurshid and Leela, who pretend to be heterosexual lovers as part of a prank. The story does not reveal anything about their sexual orientation or romance; it’s impossible to find out how conscious Premchand was of the ambiguity in his narrative. Cross-dressing and pretending to be heterosexual lovers is quite common in Indian small towns and hinterlands, like the enactment of songs for the groom and bride during wedding celebrations. It is tough to draw a conclusive connection between this pretence and same-sex desire. Perhaps the rationale behind Vanita’s choice has to do with the very ambiguity the story contains, which is crucial in understanding the changing narrative around homosexual desire.

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