It’s safe to say the LGBTQ activism in India is on the rise. Apart from the obvious Supreme Court ruling on the third gender, an increasing number of Indians are beginning to shift the way Indian society perceives the LGBTQ community. We’ve already spoken about the first transgender beauty pageant in Kerala, Pride Marches across the country, the Indian family that hosted a traditional Hindu wedding for their gay son and the web series that aims to educate India about the trans community. Now, we’ve turned our gaze to another form of art that offers new, real and powerful perspectives about this community; an art form that is a vital aspect of so many of our lives - literature.
Like so many other artistic mediums, Indian literature too has played an incredibly important role in documenting stories about the LGBTQ community and using fiction to discuss sexuality. We’ve put down 11 of our favourite books of Indian LGBTQ literature, below:
I. Cobalt Blue by Sachin Kundalkar
A brother and a sister fall in love with the same person – a man who comes to their house as a guest. This is the premise of Kundalkar’s first novel, which he took 2 years to write, completing it at 22. Translated from Marathi by Jerry Pinto, this book traces the experiences of Anuja and Tanay, the siblings, and tells it through both points of view. It speaks about how this event shatters their conservative Marathi family. “Thankfully, no one calls it a gay novel anymore. That term is so passé. Now about 12 years later, I feel the brother and the sister are not two people but masculine and feminine sides of the same person. And the book is thus, in turns, a feminine and a masculine monologue,” says the author.
II. The Boyfriend by R. Raj Rao
Set in 1992 Mumbai, this book tells the story of a middle-aged gay journalist, Yudi, who, after having sex with multiple strangers, finds love amidst the chaos of Churchgate station. Through this plotline of Yudi falling in love with Milind Mahadik, a Dalit and an office peon, the author makes powerful statements not only on sexuality, but also caste and class that are more relevant today than ever. Further, the setting of the book portrays Mumbai in an entirely new, detailed, descriptive manner, covering areas across the city’s extremes.
III. The Man Who Was A Woman and Other Queer Tales from Hindu Lore by Devdutt Pattanaik
Pattanaik never fails to bring to his audience the most unusual, wonderful aspects of Indian mythology, and in this book as well, he enraptures us with a compilation of traditional stories that share the theme of gender metamorphosis. It focusses on the third gender, that, in Hindu lore, still seem to be fairly conformist because they set down the rules of masculinity and femininity – “feminine imagery continues to represent material reality while male biology provides the wherewithal for spiritual prowess.”
IV. The Truth About Me: A Hijra Life Story by A Revathi
With the simple idea of a girl who felt out of place in the male body she was born into, this book beautifully discusses the opposition Indian society has to the transgender community. Translated from Tamil by V Geetha, the setting is in a tiny village in Tamil Nadu. Revathi, born as Doraisamy, struggles to conceal the discomfort she felt as a boy, until she meets a group of hijras in her teenage years. However, Doraisamy could only be Revathi in certain areas, to hide the ‘flaw,’ that is her third gender, from the claws of Indian society. Revathi struggles to find herself, her true self, and to find love.
V. Shikhandi and Other Stories They Don’t Tell You by Devdutt Pattanaik
“Patriarchy asserts men are superior to women,
Feminism clarifies women and men are equal,
Queerness questions what constitutes male and female.”
Yes, we can’t get enough of Pattanaik and his incredible power of storytelling. This book tells the tales of Shikhandi, Mahadeva and Samavan, all of who transform into different genders for different reasons that popular Indian mythology tends to ignore. These stories also include those of the most prominent Hindu gods changing their gender for the purpose of restoring order in chaos. It highlights how deep-rooted queerness is in Hindu mythology.
VI. Talking of Muskaan by Himanjali Sankar
This book is a tale of three complex, yet wholesome teenagers, Aaliya, Subhojoy and Prateek, talking about their friend Muskaan, and a tale of homosexuality. Here, homosexuality is looked at through a new, refreshing lens – that of adolescence. Making the primary characters teenagers gives the book the ability to make a powerful statement on how cruelly and immediately anyone who is remotely ‘different’ from the norm is dismissed. By unravelling the mysteries of Muskaan, the young characters unravel mysteries about themselves.
VII. Vivek and I by Mayur Patel
A bold tale of love between two men, Kaushik and Vivek, this story is a strong, first-person commentary on a relationship considered almost blasphemous in a conservative India. Indian society, represented especially by the characters’ families, has an obvious, very complex relationship with homosexuality, as is discussed in this book. The protagonist, Vivek, weaves through a number of seemingly unavoidable obstacles that perhaps reflects the struggles of homosexuals across India, before learning to let go.
VIII. Quarantine by Rahul Mehta
Quarantine traces the journey of a gay Indian-American man who visits his family in West Virginia with his boyfriend, Jeremy. He meets his incredibly conservative, traditional grandfather there, and reveals his sexual orientation to him for the first time. He uses his sexuality to spite his grandfather, adding, “You are the worst person I know. You have caused nothing but pain in my family.” Mehta is casual in his discussions about sexuality, almost too open for a rigid Indian society, and this candidness is what makes Mehta’s story so unique.
IX. The Exiles by Ghalib Shiraz Dhalla
Desire and despair come together in this book, about an extra-marital affair between Rahul Kapoor, and Indian from Kenya falls in love with a young Muslim illegal immigrant, Atif. The resulting conflicts between the two men and Rahul’s wife, Pooja, introduces the topic of betrayal, posing the question of whether it would have been any less if the affair had been with a woman rather than with a man. Apart from the sexuality that the book addresses, the title also points to the oppression of Indians in Kenya, that introduces an even stronger sense of complexity within each of the book’s characters. As if the characters aren’t interesting enough already, they also quote generously from Rumi’s poetry, thanks to Dhalla’s love for Sufi lore.
X. The Man Who Would Be Queen by Hoshang Merchant
Through one lyric essay after another, The Man Who Would Be Queen is, in Merchant’s own words, none other than an autobiography. He speaks about the people, the sexual encounters and the love that he has experienced, as well as the fear, disappointment and dismissal he has faced as a homosexual, all through poetry. We find Merchant, who is confused about himself and the world he lives in, struggling to make sense of it all. Delve into his world of poetry and homosexuality as he poses vital questions ranging from guilt and betrayal to femininity and masculinity.
XI. Myself Mona Ahmed by Dayanita Singh
Singh met Mona Ahmed, a eunuch from Delhi, in 1989, and began photographing her, not knowing it would culminate into this. The very personal and emotional aspect linked with this visual novel because of the immensely close relationship Singh shares with Ahmed allows a view into a community that is still so marginalized in India, despite the Supreme Court ruling on the third gender. “The whole world calls me a eunuch. You call me unique, which is true. I am very confused,” she told Singh when asked about the book. “Mona is one of the most precious gifts photography has given me,” the author says. This very perspective that Singh has of Ahmed is what makes this book so powerful and so beautiful - you can read more about this beautiful visual novel in our previous feature.
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