“When I was 13, during a pre-social media age, queer lives (seemed to) exist in a hidden parallel universe,” says 25-year-old Indian queer poet Aditya Tiwari. Now based in the UK, Tiwari grew up in Jabalpur in Madhya Pradesh. This was a time when small towns did not offer much support for a young gay boy, and he recalls being bullied repeatedly at school, once even beaten up and left bleeding after a homophobic attack. “At home I used to pretend nothing had happened so no one knew what I was going through,” he says.
Creative expression became an outlet, and eventially, in 2019, Tiwari self-published a book of his poems, April is Lush. The title even found mention by the Lambda Literary, a three decade organisation based in the US that champions LGBTQ books and authors . The writer and activist’s latest book Over the Rainbow: India’s Queer Heroes, published last month by Juggernaut, sets out to honour and make accessible the lives and stories of India’s queer icons—just what Tiwari had needed when he was younger.
Divided into 15 short chapters and arranged so as to form a timeline of the history of queer rights movements in India, it covers the stories of 19 important figures who propelled the queer rights movements in India over 25 years. This includes academics Ruth Vanita and Saleem Kidwai; the mayor of Raigarh, Chhattisgarh, Madhu Bai Kinnar; film director Rituparno Ghosh; and singer and matchmaker Reshma—all of whom contributed to asserting the demand for equal rights for LGBTQ people in India. “I wrote this book for people to learn about queer history and to educate others about it…,” says Tiwari.
At its heart, Over the Rainbow is a light, approachable introduction to stories from the Indian queer community. In the otherwise accepting tone of the book, however, some of the turns-of-phrase—for example, the repeated emphasis on people from the hijra community ‘rising above’ their traditional occupations— strike a discordant note.
Over a phone call, Tiwari talks to Lounge about some notable misses in his book, the inspiration to get started, and the difficulties of getting published as a queer person in India. Edited excerpts.
It was after the death of Arvey Malhotra, a student of Delhi Public School Faridabad (the student reportedly took his own life in 2022 due to homophobic bullying). This happened with me, too, and it continues to happen. We are failing young, queer kids! I started talking about it last year but had never imagined a book coming out of it. My publisher Chiki Sarkar reached out to me about writing a book during the conversation about marriage equality in India.
I handpicked the names, making sure to include lesser-known people like Madhu Bai Kinnar and Reshm. I wanted them to reflect the complexity of queer lives in India. All are equally important, and they are all heroes in own ways—pride comes in diverse colours. To me, a hero is also a hijra on a train, or a 17-year-old kothi who wants to live his life authentically. There are also countless people that I wanted to see in the book–Sushant Divgikar, Bobby Darling, Akkai Padmashali, and Hoshang Merchant, for example. I would like to apologise that we couldn’t.
I think the main thing I wanted to highlight to young readers was that our queer movement was very different from the one in the West. I also wanted to portray the complexity of queer and trans lives. So, it involved a lot of research of documentaries, like the Indian LGBT oral history archive Project Bolo’s interviews of various activists, and news reports. (There is also a lot of) bad reporting on queer and trans subjects and…(this) gave me a broader perspective on why it’s important to write the book.
Over the Rainbow: India’s Queer Heroes, Juggernaut, 163 pages, ₹350
Rush Mukherjee is a writer based in Kolkata.