“Literature has no sex and poems have no sex organs. There is only good writing or bad writing.”
– Hoshang Merchant
I watched Hoshang Merchant speak for half an hour, and the only thought that kept popping into my mind (more so after I found out he was a professor) is how much I would have loved to have him teach me in University. To me, attending one of his lectures seemed like a revelatory experience, one where you’d walk out of class taking off the rose-tinted glasses through which you used to view the world. This isn’t pessimistic action, but one of a broadened mind absorbing new experiences along with those of others around you. More conscious of yourself, more refined in your thoughts and approach, with a touch of gentleness (not to be mistaken with nativity).
My visualisation isn’t very far fetched. Just hear what his past students have to say and their sentiments would echo my own feelings. That’s just the power that Mr Merchant has, though he may not be fully aware of it. There’s never been a shred of dishonesty in his voice. Laying himself bare to the world through poetry, even though his critical studies and readings his philosophical musings and ideologies seep through.
Listening to him speak is not just a thoroughly enjoyable experience due to his candour, free-flowing mannerism and long white beard that you can’t help but imagine braiding. He’s the kind of person that makes you yearn for knowledge. You hang on his every word, the slight twinkle in his eye as the fluorescent lighting reflecting on his pupils leave a glistening feel that is hard to take your eyes off, but your mind is tuned into his in clarity. He honestly speaks of his life: his turmoils, his family, life in Mumbai as a young queer Parsi. His exploration of sexuality and love have never been a hidden secret. For him, love and the erotic are foundational to poetry – whether it’s a witty limerick about male genitalia or a reading of Ghalib.
A poet, critic, activist and academician, he may be popularly referred to as the first openly queer poet. But pigeonholing him in such a manner based simply on his sexual orientation is a complete oversimplification of who he is and the impact he has had. This is not just in India’s literary world, but culture, society and undeniably the LGBTQ movement over the years.
Penning over 13 books of poetry and critical studies, Mr Merchant also edited Yaraana: Gay Writing from South Asia which grew to become a seminal anthology of queer literature. What this publication did was create a public narrative. It allowed a collective voice, but more so it provided access to individuals to lived realities that they shared with others, letting them know that they weren’t existing in isolation. When we talk about Yaraana we need to keep in mind that this book was published in 1999. This was before our current age of hyper digitisation, which, in a positive, has provided a much larger and global platform for the voicing of opinions and identities. If nothing else, we’re a lot more open-minded now, with a growing number of forms and mediums to express ourselves.
He describes himself as “a male homosexual Parsi by religion, Christian by education, Hindu by culture and Sufi by persuasion.” His studies took him from St. Xavier’s College in Mumbai to Occidental College, Los Angeles, and followed by Purdue University, Indiana, where he also helped establish the Gay Liberation. Having lived and taught in Heidelberg, Iran and Jerusalem, his worldly travel and taking in the mixing of cultures, beliefs and thoughts are evident in his oeuvre. Establishing him in the eyes of many as one of the last true Bards of Indian poetry. Through his work, Mr Merchant takes us through his life – through hell and back, filled with magic, love, longing and blood lost; all through poetic prose.
There is kind of fire that breathes life into each sentence you read, subliminally conjuring feelings and emotions that shine through the darkest part of your soul. He is the kind of professor I wish I had more of in University. The kind that all students need, one that turns an education into a real learning experience, not just of texts but of the world around you and how we perceive it. It’s in the simplest of things that he says and does. It’s in the boyish glint of his eyes that exists even today with a slight hint of naughtiness on his lips as. Bruised, beaten, robbed, loved, hurt, celebrated and side-lined – he has been through them all and more, through Dante’s Inferno, if I may, and sits poised to tell the tale.
However lame or cliched it may sound, Mr Merchant is someone I would have loved to have been friends with. Sit on the balcony, sipping hot chai and smoking a cigarette as the rain falls and we lament our woes of love, loss and desire. More than that, in that setting from him, I would have, and already have to some degree, learnt to speak honestly – to see myself in the raw, bare and broken, and still find a smile of self-acceptance breaking on my face. If this is not the power of a true artist then I don’t know what is.
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