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India: Gay but not quite happy

by Jawed Naqvi, 9 July 2009

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Dawn, 9 July 2009

An apocryphal story told by the late Prof A.M. Khusro when he was vice chancellor of Aligarh Muslim University goes thus: in 1603 James VI of Scotland became England’s first Stuart monarch.

Within 10 days of arriving in London, he demanded that Shakespeare’s troupe come under his own patronage. So they were granted a royal patent and changed their names to the King’s Men, in honour of King James.

One day, waiting for The Merchant of Venice to begin, the king asked his senior aide to inquire into the inordinate delay in the show. ‘Sire,’ said the official after a visit to the green room. ‘Portia is being shaved.’ Good-looking boys played female roles in Shakespeare’s England. In India, upper-crust women in Maharashtra would, as recently as the early 20th century, choose their exotic nav-waari saris according to the fashion of the day.

The legendary Bal Gandharva, who depicted many famous female characters from Marathi stage plays, set the standards. Bal Gandharva is still deified as an essential cultural grooming in upper-crust homes. He was of course a handsome man who sang beautifully in the Natya Sangeet format of old Maharashtrian theatre.

It may be legitimately asked why in India, where the tradition of women dancers was so common, and folk theatre forms like the nautanki of Uttar Pradesh had ample talent to tap among women performers, men began to play female roles. My hunch is that some of the rigid mores came to India with Islam and they were consolidated under colonial rule. The double whammy is palpable even today.

In most middle-class homes in South Asia, at any party or family gathering, men and women are almost always made to sit separately. Visiting cousins, distant aunts and uncles are assigned rooms by their gender: the uncle could share a room with the nephew, the aunt with the niece. The focus is and was on maintaining a dignified demeanour with a discreet segregation of the sexes. There was no great fear harboured, or a Freudian assumption factored in, to the possibility of a gay relationship occurring in the ikebana-like domestic arrangement.

In the wider public sphere, in our region, gay relationships were more openly practised, even lauded. Ismat Chughtai, the 20th-century Urdu writer, did not discover lesbianism as a prevalent social more in Avadh. She merely made an interesting observation in her short story The Quilt about a nocturnal but merry relationship between two women of unequal social status. Indian men, if Urdu literature is credible witness, were even more openly gay. The homosexual relationships of poet Firaaq Gorakhpuri are legendary. Josh Malihabadi confessed to his affair with an Anglo-Indian boy, which was not the only one he had.

In older Urdu and Persian poetry, was there any dearth of examples of men pining for their beloved who were often of their own gender? Allama Iqbal’s celebration of the beauty of Ayaz, the handsome slave of Mahmud Ghaznavi is only matched by Mir Taqi Mir’s highly brazen confession of his obsession for the son of a perfumer:

Mir kya saade hai’n beemaar hue jiske sabab
- Usee attaar ke launday se davaa lete hai’

The problem arose, as far as India was concerned, when the British rulers injected their Victorian mindsets into colonial statute books in 1860. However, to be fair to the colonial masters, they were even more zealous in implementing anti-homosexual laws in England than in India or anywhere else. In 1895, at the height of his popularity, Oscar Wilde’s relationship with the young poet Lord Alfred Douglas was declared inappropriately intimate by Douglas’s father, the Marquess of Queensberry. Wilde sued for libel, but was rebuffed when enough evidence was found to charge him with ‘gross indecency’ for his homosexual relationships. He was convicted and spent two years in jail, after which he went into self-imposed exile in France, bankrupt and in ill health.

A quick search of convictions for homosexuality in post-independence India threw up no evidence to suggest that anyone in the country had to even remotely undergo Oscar Wilde-like retribution. A website posted the following information: in New Delhi, police arrested 18 men in 1992 from a park on the suspicion that they were homosexuals. After protest by international human rights groups, they were released after police filed a petty case against them.

Another incident was reported in a small village in Gujarat state two decades ago, where Tarulata underwent a female-to-male sex change operation and changed her name to Tarun Kumar. ‘He’ later married Lila in 1989. But Lila’s father filed a petition in the provincial high court stating that two women could not live as a couple so the marriage must be annulled – the petition called for criminal action under Section 377 (from the British statute books).

Much as the Delhi High Court judges who ‘decriminalised’ homosexuality recently have a point in issuing their verdict, they are missing the real malaise stalking socially backward countries like India. Several times more than gays have problems with society and law, it is the poor run-of-the-mill seekers of common heterosexual relationships who are at great peril. The Hindu right as well as Muslim zealots have both ganged up against what is considered the world over a common boy-and-girl relationship.

Is there a Valentine’s Day when these bigots do not pick up a fight and harass women or beat up men for professing simple love? Is there a village or a city where some or many young men and women do not count the heavy social costs if they meet in a public park? (Or in the case of Mangalore, in a restaurant?) Gay relationships do not invite the barbaric lynchings that a man-woman relationship so often does in remote and nondescript regions of India and Pakistan. Therefore, if some people are gay but still not quite happy, there is a good reason for it.