The portrayal of same—sex relationships in 20th century Indian literature has been characterized, most frequently, by ambiguity or by an incipient homophobia. Critical responses to Ismat Chugtai’s Lihaaf and Ugra’s collection of short stories Chocolate, in the past, indicate the extent of cultural resistance to the acceptance of a reality which was generally relegated to a subterranean level of consciousness or represented as being perverse and unnatural. However, gay, bisexual and transgender communities in India are no longer invisible. They are emerging from the closet and asserting their rights to an individual, alternate sexual and literary space. The evolution of gay print media in the past few decades, the existence of magazines like Bombay Dost and Pravartak and the works of writers such as Firdaus Kanga, point to an increasingly confident assertion of identity and readiness to acknowledge an alternate sexuality. R. Raj Rao’s short stories, plays and, most recently,; his novel The Boyfriend represent a significant contribution to the nascent genre of gay writing in India. The novel initially attracts attention because of its unusual thematic content and its portrayal of the thriving gay culture which exists on the fringes of life in a metropolis like Bombay.
Its uninhibited representation of the physical relationship between the journalist Yudi and the young dalit, Milind, has shock value but also holds the readers’ attention because of the laconic and self deprecating attitude of the main protagonist. The association between the two totally dissimilar men reveals the manner in which such bonds frequently transgress boundaries of caste, class and even culture.
Thus despite Yudi’s evident infatuation with his young acquaintance, there are a significant number of moments when Milind’s origins impinge on his consciousness and offend his upper class sensibilities. As the two prepare to leave for a holiday Yudi notices the frayed, edges of Milind’s rucksack and tells him rather brusquely, ‘They betray your lower middle-class origins’. Milind’s unabashed response, ‘Come, buy me a brand new VIP suitcase. Hurry up, hurry up’ reveals his innate resilience as well an unapologetic readiness to derive financial benefit from the association. The depiction of the relationship constitutes a candid and ironic acknowledgement of those physical and emotional compulsions which necessarily dictate individual choices and impact relationships which differ from the social norm.
Milind’s rather confused awareness of his own sexuality and Yudi’s evident emotional reliance on him are depicted without sentimentality. Even their growing attachment is acknowledged with a refreshing degree of wry humour. ‘The mutiny in the gay bar had instilled a new trust in both their hearts. Both felt that the other was his, over whom he had a right, towards whom he had a duty. No mean achievement for a couple who had met in the Churchgate loo.’ Despite this feeling of solidarity and affection it is, however, apparent that Milind’s response to Yudi is loo deeply impacted by economic considerations and by his fear of transgressing recognized parameters of masculinity to represent any significant commitment.
Rao’s portrayal of the little ironies and subterfuges which form a part of Yudi’s existence is excellent and his dry and ironic style prevents Yudi’s one sided obsession from descending to the level of bathos. However, there is a certain superficiality in the delineation of peripheral relationships and characters and Gauri, who is rather inexplicably enamoured of Yudi, remains a flat and uninteresting figure. Her incursions into Yudi’s life appear forced and irrelevant and this inevitably detracts from the impact of a novel which represents a significant attempt to portray alternative sexuality without romanticism or apology.
Ranjana Kaul teaches English at the College of Vocational Studies, Delhi University, Delhi.