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A century of queerness in Hindi fiction

'On The Edge’ is a one-of-a-kind attempt at consolidating a selection of Hindi texts on same sex relationships

The book's timing and ambition, even after the recent disappointment of the same-sex unions verdict in the Supreme Court in October, is significant.
The book's timing and ambition, even after the recent disappointment of the same-sex unions verdict in the Supreme Court in October, is significant. (Representational image. Credit: AFP)

The eminent literary historian and translator Ruth Vanita has an impressive body of scholarly work on same sex love, desire and relationships in Indian literature and culture. Her works have been widely quoted in the historic case to repeal section 377 of the Indian Penal Code back in 2018. Now, with On The Edge: 100 Years Of Hindi Fiction On Same-Sex Desire, Vanita turns specifically to queer love in Hindi fiction.

Published soon after the Supreme Court’s hearings on petitions to legalise same sex marriages earlier this year, Vanita’s anthology comprises short stories and excerpts from longer works, all translated and edited by her. Its timing and ambition, even after the recent disappointment of the same sex unions verdict in October, is important.

The chronology that On the Edge spans—from Discussing Chocolate, Pandey Bechan Sharma “Ugra’s” 1924 short story, which first appeared in the magazine Matvala, to post-covid works from contemporary Hindi publications and the spectrum of relationships it displays, from tentative friendships to intense and sexual experiences—all speak to Vanita’s depth of knowledge of modern Hindi literature and are an urgent reminder to know and understand the subcontinent’s own stories of non-heteronormative desires in modern history.

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The sequencing shows a striking evolution in the representation of same sex relationships and sexual identity in Hindi literature. In Discussing Chocolate, Ugra’s controversial short story, homosexuality is presented variously as depravity, an illness, a societal evil. Read alongside his autobiography, the equally controversial Apni Khabar (2006), the story appears to derive from his own experiences through the early to mid-20th century, of child abuse and predation in travelling drama companies.

In contrast, excerpts from Asha Sahaya’s novel Ekakini (1947) attempt to sublimate the relationship between its two protagonists and cloak it in the florid metaphors of a union of souls and melding of two lives for spiritual uplift. Arti and Kala from Ekakini also compel a re-examining of the sakhi or behnapa traditions in the Hindi heartland that allowed women unconnected by familial ties to form close and deep, and perhaps romantic or even sexual bonds.

As the reader moves from the idealist-realism of early 20th century Hindi literature, dominated by the prose works of stalwarts such as Munshi Premchand, Acharya Hazariprasad Dwivedi and Jainendra Kumar, towards the post-1960s, a period referred to as “Sathottar”—important as an interregnum of greater experimentation and exploring of interiority in Hindi literature—the stories begin shedding the singular and superficial, and therefore problematic view, of same sex relationships. The narratives start becoming deeper, with more complex experiences of perceiving, interrogating and accepting sexual identities.

Rajendra Yadav’s Pratiksha, a short story first published in 1962 in Hindi and translated in English as Waiting, stands out for its sensitive, layered and frank handling of a same sex relationship between two women. The rending conclusion of the story, that despite lavishing love and care, offering protection and comfort, Geeta, the older protagonist, is the one left waiting is a pithy critique of the society that accords greater sanction to the adulterous heterosexual relationship between Nanda and her married male lover than to the same sex one with the single and unattached Geeta.

'On The Edge: 100 Years Of Hindi Fiction On Same-sex Desire', edited and translated from the Hindi by Ruth Vanita. 272 pages,  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>378
'On The Edge: 100 Years Of Hindi Fiction On Same-sex Desire', edited and translated from the Hindi by Ruth Vanita. 272 pages, 378

Importantly though, what remains unchanged and repeats through work after work in this anthology is the anguish of hiding one’s true sexuality. The denial of identity leads the protagonists of both Shobhana Bhutani Siddique’s rather graphic story, Lip To Lip, and Akanksha Pare’s brief but punchy Girlfriend-Beloved, to choose sham marriages over acknowledging their true sexual selves. It also results in the conflicted narrator of Rajkamal Choudhary’s Bukowskian story, A Primary Knowledge Of Self, to look upon sexual relations with fear and loathing, and for Vikram from Pankaj Bisht’s Winged Boat to indulge in pop-psychology and sanctimonious lecturing at the expense of Anupam, who accepts his homosexuality.

Sara Rai’s subtle On The Edge, the story that lends its name to the anthology, presents both inner conflict and societal constraints. Full of her signature detailing and objective handling, Rai’s story has characters who keep their mutual attraction nameless and unconsummated. Even when one of them secretly accepts his sexual orientation, in a poignant metaphor for the conflict between a need to express oneself while contending with societal taboo, he only does so in a letter that’s never posted.

A few works, however, defy the overarching melancholy caused by the very real stress of denial and censure. An excerpt from Tirohit, a novel by Geetanjali Shree, for example, points to a joyous and fulfilled long-term same sex relationship. The play and cadence of Shree’s language is intriguing, especially as employed in the story’s non-linear narrative.

Another memorable and remarkable work is A Double Life by Vijaydan Detha. Lush and complex, it is a rollicking mix of folk tale, allegory and satire: The story is about two women, but with one raised as a boy. Spoken for in marriage to each other by their fathers, who themselves perhaps harbour feelings more complex than friendship, it addresses the idea of gender as a social construct, and of male power in a deeply patriarchal society.

Also in the mix are works that do not seem to belong, or, at best, have a tangential relationship with the subject. Munshi Premchand’s Stigma is one such. The story, titled Laanchhan in Hindi, a word closer in meaning to accusation than stigma, is about a gossip-monger tricked by her target. It is an unnuanced and misogynistic narrative of women pulling down each other in a time when women’s independence was equated with wantonness. The story does no credit to Premchand, who otherwise wrote sensitively about the state of women in early 20th century India, and, in my opinion, belongs more in erstwhile publications like Stree Prabodhini, which aimed at admonishing and berating women into conformity.

Nonetheless, On The Edge provides a first-of-its-kind attempt at consolidating a selection of Hindi texts on same sex desire and will only pave the way for more. Vanita deserves high credit for dipping into the depths of Hindi literature’s history and bringing out a much needed and exhaustive look at queerness as represented in the canon.

Anukrti Upadhyay is a writer of Hindi and English prose and poetry. Her latest work, The Blue Women, a collection of short stories in English, came out in January.

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