Beginning in the late 1960s, sociological and historical interest in homosexuality in Britain and the United States began by academics questioning the validity of using culturally specific terms like gay or homosexual to describe desire and sexuality across time and space. Social constructionist researchers often suggested the instability of such terms across cultures, or demonstrated the weakness of sexualized definitions altogether in understanding samesex relationships. Much of this research predated Michel Foucaults influential work critiquing the assumed naturalness of sexuality and reviewing the complex interconnections between sexuality and power. Lodged uncomfortably within these broader intellectual conventions, Hoshang Merchant, a professor of Poetry and Surrealism at Hyderabad University considers the space of yaarana -that amorphous Hindustani term signifying deep friendship and fraternal bonding between men in South Asiawithin the diverse modern literatures of the subcontinent.
Yet, Yaarana: Gay Writing from South Asia, an anthology edited by him and republished with a few additions, moves beyond just the platonic connotations usually associated with such camaraderie, to a notion of yaarana that isnt removed from sexual desire and fulfillment.
When it first appeared in 1999, Yaarana responded to an intellectual and literary vacuum, characterized by the dearth of gay literature in the subcontinent that wasnt an ethnographic view from the outside, or only an appraisal of the experiences of South Asian queers in the diaspora. It required Merchant to scour through the vast swathes of contemporary Indian literature to grab onto fleeting moments within longer narratives where the desire of a man for another was explored, though often not explained, or understood. In the Sahitya Akademi Awardwinning Kamleshwars translated piece, Shivraj, a young brahmachari orphan finds himself the object of affection for a variety of men. In the extract from Belinder Dhanoas novel Waiting for Winter, the fields of Punjab lit by the strong afternoon sun, become the setting for adolescent male lovers exploration of their bodies. And in the extract from Vikram Seths sonnetnovel The Golden Gate set amongst the world of Reaganera California yuppies, Ed plagued by mainstream Christianitys condemnation of his homosexuality, battles his desire for Phil.
However, Yaarana contains more than just extracts evoking male samesex desire from novels within which samesex desire and sexuality may not be the main themes. Several of the firstperson narratives in this collection express a fundamental dissatisfaction that gay authors of the time felt with their momentary interactionsthose fleeting sexual encounterswith other men who didnt necessarily identify themselves as exclusively desiring men. The encounters that result from these transitory trysts seem essentially distant, detached and disengaged. In these cases, yaarana seems to be a longing for love, for a relationship that exceeds the boundaries of temporary adolescent carnality. In The Slaves, Merchant recounts his precarious, itinerant existence moving between several homes as he nurtures a relationship with Mazhar, who invites other men and women back to these homes for sex. In R. Raja Raos Moonlight Tandoori, a Hindu students termlong flirtation with a Bangladeshi Muslim restaurant kitchen novice in Coventry results in much sexual tension, silent standoffs, banter about religious and sexual differences, and occasional stolen intimacies. And in Frank Krishners The Sweetest of All, the debonair, bourgeois, musicloving Mark is incessantly disappointed by his male suitors, who turn eventually to the love of women, and to marriages and heteronormative families.
Several of these narratives (like the extract by Dhanoa) conjure up the kernel of adolescent male sexuality in South Asia, a time when social conventions occasionally allow for temporary concessions to lax or fluid sexuality. But as adolescence gives way to adulthood, these concessions are withdrawn, and our gay male authors find themselves the victims of disillusionment and despondency. Merchant captures that familiar feeling all too well, when in a diary piece from Sharjah, he discusses a proposal of eternal friendship he has just received from Yunus: Yunus is nineteen. He wants to be my friend forever. What is the concept of eternity for a nineteen year old? Yet, on occasion, as in Mahesh Dattanis play Night Queen, these depressing moments, damp with the silent tears of our authors may also be transformed into spectacular instances of hope.
Dattanis play explores the noir, mysterious, menacing edges of a world known to few outside the gay public: the public park where men cruise for sex. For Ash, Dattanis selfhating homosexual character, this space truly reveals the underbelly and essential ugliness of the gay world: Walking alone at night in a park eyeing strange men. Waiting at corners for someone to stop and stare. Following a man into the bushes. Unloading my burden as quickly as possible. Pulling up my pants and walking away before I could feel the shame. For Bhupen Khakhar, the celebrated Gujarati artist and writer, the public park rendezvous brings no joy or excitement, but only weariness and monotony. There is something epically depressing about the public park. In Gandu Bagicha, the distinguished Dalit poet and late activist of the Shiv Sena, Namdeo Dhasal speaks of a deep pathos to the soulless settings where men bury their sorrows in sex. The gandu bagicha exists on the edges of the city: men copulate among the vagrants, the street whores, the drug addicts, the pickpockets and thieves. And yet, occasionally, here within the muck and filth of the city, there exists the slightest sliver of redemption: the experience of being touched by a first touch, of being stirred enough by one encounter that ones transfiguration tempers a soulless street. Gay men also carve their own landscapes over, and encounter cities in fascinating ways: Ashok Row Kavis autobiographical essay maps the multiple gay spaces within 1980s Bombay: the underground parties off Marine Drive and Ghatkopar, the last train at 1 AM nicknamed the Queens Special, and the Cooperage Bandstand where gay men cruise sailors from the navy. For Khakhar, theres the public park near the Acharya Book Depot in Baroda; for Merchant, Hyderabad comes alive as he leads Mazhar across the railway tracks from the public park to Red Hills.
Perhaps the most frank, unapologetic, and refreshing gay encounter in this anthology comes by way of an extract from Firdaus Kangas semiautobiographical novel, Trying to Grow, comparable with Quentin Crisps The Naked Civil Servant for its charm, wit and nonchalance. Kanga was born in Bombay in 1960 with osteogenesis imperfecta, a condition that rendered his bones brittle, stunted his growth and left him with several painful fractures. He writes as a Brit the boy with brittle bones, whose Anglophile Parsi parents venerated the British Rajcoming to terms not just with his sexuality, but also with his disability and falling in love with the heterosexual Cyrus. The experience of being imperfect as human beings with imperfect physical bodiesa guilt that gay men thrust upon themselves with remarkable alacrity and frequencyalso dominates the poems of Owais Khan. In this anthology, one also feels the flavor of the transnational South Asian gay experience through the poems of Ian Iqbal Rashid, Rakesh Ratti, and R Raj Rao.
One of the new additions to this anthology, which only partially allows for its classification as South Asian and not just Indian literature, is an extract from the Sri Lankanborn Shyam Selvadurais beautiful novel, Funny Boy. Curiously, while Selvadurai discusses the range of experiences gay children and adolescents might face in the novel: from the innocent exploration of crossdressing, to being taunted at school for being different, to a first infatuation, and a first sexual experience, Merchants choice of extract for the anthology remains the passage about the sexual experience. The same is also true for the extract from Trying to Grow. While these are both remarkable passages, perhaps the understanding of being gay, of experiencing yaarana, demands a certain multiplicity of narrative, beyond just sexual desire and fulfillment. Further, several of the pieces in the original anthology (including Merchants maundering Introduction) were severely substandard, or used an incredible opportunity to launch rather cynical, partisan and illargued diatribes against their critics, or made unsubstantiated, overarching comments about the relationship between homosexuality, Islam and Christianity. These might have been easily substituted to make way for better, newer queer literatures from South Asia that widen and democratize the experience of yaarana to those outside Merchants purview, especially women, and hijras; or to query whether such an experience holds true for those outside the privileged set of urban gay men. We might see some differences, but, as most of us experience desire in some fundamental way, I suspect we might encounter several similarities. As Dinyar Godrej remarks in a poem from the anthology: love and lust/though terribly troublesome/are certainly not/without flavour.
Mario DPenha was educated at St. Xaviers College, Mumbai and Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, where he was involved in queer campus activism. He is presently a doctoral candidate in History at Rutgers University, New Jersey, where he researches the third gender and queer histories of South Asia.