The Bigger Picture: Researching Same-Sex Love In Indian Texts And Traditions - Ruth Vanita

The trajectory of my work on samesex relationships has, over the years, shifted from looking for what is different or absent to realizing that the marginal is more central than I had imagined. In my first book, Sappho and the Virgin Mary, which has just been reprinted in India under the title Same Sex Love and The English Literary Imagination (Pearson, 2007), I argued that the female dyad is a creative presence in the work of mainstream British literature and art from the early modern period onwards.

In Same Sex Love in India (St Martin’s 2000; Macmillan India 2001), which will be reprinted this year by Penguin India, Saleem Kidwai and I brought together and analysed texts written in fifteen Indian languages over a period of more than 2000 years. We were educated at Delhi University at a time when there was near-complete silence around the issue of same-sex relationships. It was generally believed that homosexuality was a Western import; although less widespread, this myth persists today. We demonstrated that same sex relationships figure prominently in Indian literary canons, and we argued that modern homophobia, today well entrenched in India, is a product of 19th century colonialism, and internalised by Indian nationalists.

My recent work has attempted to explore continuities in the representation of gender and sexuality. My recent book, Gandhi’s Tiger and Sita’s Smile: Essays on Gender Sexuality and Culture examines texts, ranging from the Kamasutra and medieval devotional poems to Hindi films and modern fiction. I recently translated Chocolate a 1927 collection of stories on male homosexuality by Hindi writer ‘Ugra,’ which sparked off the first public controversy on homosexuality in modern India. 

Gandhi too was dragged into this controversy which has been forgotten today.

My argument in Love’s Rite: Same-Sex Marriage in India and the West, is that patterns of representing cross-sex and same-sex couples have been and are more alike than different. For example, I found remarkably similar patterns in reports of cross-sex and same-sex love marriages and couple suicides in rural and small town India over the last three decades, as well as in literary texts, both pre-modern and modern, that figure the dynamics of love marriage and love suicide. Furthermore, two institutions that appear to be strongholds of normative heterosexuality – the conventional family and the courtesan household, have been the most hospitable sites in literary texts for the representation of femalefemale eroticism in particular.

Let me take the example of a set of devotional narratives, composed in fourteenth-century Bengal, in Sanskrit and Bengali. Among these are versions of the Krittivasa Ramayana and the Bengal recension of the Padma Purana. I consider the exploration of these narratives perhaps my most significant work, because to the best of my knowledge, no other medieval text so far found anywhere in the world represents female-female intercourse resulting in childbirth.

These texts tell the story of king Bhagiratha’s birth to two women, co-widows of King Dilipa.a The miraculous birth is made possible by the blessing of the Gods. The idea that intercourse between two women can result in pregnancy is drawn from a firstcentury Sanskrit medical text, where it is said that such a pregnancy will result in a boneless child because the father contributes the bones. In one of the Bengal texts, the boneless child is healed by the sage Ashtavakra; in another, the child is born healthy. The naming of the child is also significant, as all three texts explain his name through a folk etymology that connects ‘Bhagiratha’ to ‘bhaga’ or vulva: 

‘The sage called the two queens, who took their son and returned home, delighted. The sage came too and performed all the sacred rituals. Because he was born of two vulvas (bhagas) he was named Bhagiratha’.b Based on a close reading of these devotional narratives, I have suggested that female-female reproduction, constructed as monstrous in the ancient medical text, is rewritten as miraculous by medieval devotional texts, in the context of a divinely planned and harmonious universe, in which loving and unselfish relationships of different kinds are seen as virtuous. Unselfish relationships are those that are generously loving; they do not necessarily exclude pleasure. These stories encapsulate the paradox of the female couple and the conventional family. Being cowidows links the two women for life in a way akin to marriage; in one text, the family priest performs a ritual for them both to obtain a son that is even today performed by married couples.

In a very different vein, a number of erotic texts written by male poets in Urdu in the first half of the nineteenth century represent female couples flourishing in the interstices of three overlapping institutions, one, the conventional family, second, courtesan households, and third, networks amongst women throughout the town who enjoy amours with other women.

In these charming and flirtatious poems, women refer to their female lovers by some very specific terms, such as Dogana (double) Zanakhi (derived from Zanakh, wish-bone, which the pair used to divide among themselves), Ilaichi (cardamom), and female-female sexual relationships are termed chapti (flat, stuck together) or chapatbazi, a term that historian Veena Oldenburg found Lucknow courtesans still using in the 1970s. In his glossary to his poems, poet Sa’adat Yar Khan Rangin (175-1835), gives several accounts of rituals whereby women established themselves as couples. One that I translated for the first time refers to marriage between women:

Ilaichi (lit. Cardamom): Two women each take a cardamom and break it open. The one in whose cardamom there is an even number of seeds becomes the male and the one in whose cardamom there is an odd number of seeds is compelled to become the female. If both get identical orders of seeds, they repeat the ritual until odd and even numbers emerge. Then they get married among their (female) companions, and these are called Ilaichic 

The poems represent these relations being established among courtesans and also among married women in conventional families. They represent romantic and explicitly sexual love in a variety of registers – ecstatic, complaining, lamenting, jealous, calm and happy, separated, and anxious about being discovered: 

Oh heart, she takes no account of you 

Your wretched desire has no effect. 

Why do I not complain and lament? 

Because she gives no thought to my state. If she ever does say “yes” one moment, 

She follows it up with “No” for two watches more, When I said, I am fainting, that fairy Replied, 

Don’t worry, you won’t. 

I would like to fly away as the wild ducks do. 

Alas, Insha, I have no wings. d

When we move from literary texts to texts that report on real-life couples in India over the last thirty years, we find that family response is crucial to the way these love stories culminate. Love’s Rite is the first systematic book length analysis of these phenomena in modern India. Newspaper reports that I have been collecting since 1980 recount the stories of couples, both male-female and female-female (very few male-male) who either elope and get married by Hindu rites in temples or in some cases with family support, and others who commit joint suicide, leaving behind letters stating that since they cannot bear separation, they prefer to die and be reunited in the next life, and often asking to be cremated or buried together. These reports have been appearing with increasing frequency in the last few years. Almost none of the female couples had contact with any movement when they decided to marry. Recently, some have made such contact after their stories appeared in the media.

The remarkable range and spectrum of responses by Indian families prove the saying that whatever one says about India, the opposite is also true. On the one hand, there are families who actively participate in arranging marriages. In July 2005, two tribal girls Nitima Biruwa and Laxmi Bari, both from very poor families, got married in Bharbaria village, West Singhbhum, in Jharkhand. The wedding was arranged by the families, and approved by the village, after Nitima’s brother Birsa intervened on his sister’s behalf (Hindustan Times, July 27, 2005). In the case of male-female couples, disapproving families often come around and accept the runaway marriage as a fait accompli or even compromise and arrange a marriage for the lovers. Equally frequent, though, are stories of couples being forcibly separated, driven to suicide or murdered. Here, the pattern that prevails is remarkably similar for heterosexual and homosexual couples.

So far, the few queer-authored reports on violence against female couples in India have characterised these suicides as evidence of homophobia or lesbophobia; I argue that they reveal a generalised sex phobia rather than specific homophobia. Whereas in the West, sex phobia, although present, is not so visible vis-a-vis heterosexual relations, in India it is still clearly evident.

For instance, in August 2008 Ramesh Patel, a 30-yearold man from Salla village, Gujarat, was tied to a tractor by twelve members of his female lover’s family, dragged round the village and then beaten to death in full public view. Similarly, in June 2007, two Sikh women, Baljit, 21, and Rajwinder, 20, belonging to neighboring villages in Punjab, eloped to Vaishno Devi, and got married there. Their families threatened to kill them. One of the rare cases of a male couple was in Dihibagnan village, West Bengal, in July 2007 when Jayanta Ghosh, 26, a farmer, and Swapan Manna 26, owner of a hair salon, were found dead, lying in an embrace, next to a freedom fighter’s monument, with a bottle of poison nearby. The two were married to women and had faced increasing pressure, ridicule and threats from their families and other villagers. The local communist party leaders of the village panchayat (council) had tried to get them to break off the relationship, without success.

Although police routinely collude with families to inflict violence on young people, one hopeful sign is that whenever couples have approached the court or been taken to court by police at the behest of their families, courts have always upheld their Constitutional right to live with whomever they want. The other positive aspect of Indian democracy is that the press and media have consistently supported these couples and reported very sympathetically. Of late, couples have begun to approach the media in order to use publicity as a protection against familial and police violence. On TV, several female couples have declared that they will commit suicide if they are forcibly separated.

In all of these cases, the family is the frame within which the couples either marry or die. One more case reverts to the traditional pattern of co-wifehood as a site for female female relationships. A report appeared in December 2004, about Venu, a 40-year-old man in Kerala, whose wife, 26- year-old Mangala, persuaded him to marry 23-year-old Ramlath, who was her colleague at work, and had been her lover for ten years. Mangala threatened to commit suicide if Venu did not marry Ramlath, so he agreed. The marriage took place at Guruvayoor temple, a site for many love marriages in Kerala, where Lalitha and Mallika, the first female couple, whose suicide attempt was reported in 1980, had also worshiped.

Even though all the same-sex couples whose cases are reported in the press are semi-educated, and from poor or rural backgrounds, with no awareness of the LGBT movement, the stereotype persists that homosexuality is an elite phenomenon imported from the West or inculcated by Western education. Not only homophobic policemen, bureaucrats and journalists but also activists, leftwing as well as right-wing, incline to this view. Homosexuality among poor women tends to be dismissed as a reaction to male oppression, and distinguished from that of middle-class women who are viewed as selfish and self-indulgent. An example is found in Sahara Time’s review of Love’s Rite, where reviewer N. Prabha remarks: ‘There is some basis for taking up cudgels for women from the poorer sections of society who show a deviant sexual orientation. … Living alone is more difficult for women from low income families since hoodlums in slums see single women as easy prey. But if two women living together can be accepted as a family by the neighbors, they may be slightly safer. …’ After acknowledging the evidence and the sources, she goes on, ‘Vanita’s tantrums have been nurtured on the pliant couches of the West. … After wading through reams of the text, it is painful to see that Vanita is so obsessed with tribady and so purblind as to ignore other gender areas which need to be more urgently addressed at the national level. To a more compassionate Indian observer, these would include female foeticide, malnourishment…’ This tired argument was vociferously voiced in the 1970s women’s movement in India and continues to resurface. I just came across an article on the internet by a lecturer at Hawaii University who argues that the LGBT rights-based movement is entirely the product of foreign funding and has no indigenous roots in India.

To return to the point I began with, the couple, for better or for worse, in its many different forms and variations, is a unit or institution that crosses boundaries of various kinds, between cultures, countries, and genders. In India, where heterosexual relations are often as heavily policed as homosexual ones, in very visible and often violent ways, there is potential, despite rampant heterosexism, for people to unite around the right to freedom of choice in love and sex, and some groups, such as AALI, have already begun to work in this direction.

There is also, I think, immense potential, especially in India as well as in sexuality studies in general, to research continuities and connections between apparently dissimilar things. Thus, apart from the family, the other site for female coupledom is the world of courtesans, which appears to be the family’s diametrical opposite. A 1957 Hindi film Naya Daur gestures toward this dying world in a female duet ‘Reshmi salwar, kurta jaali ka’ sung by two women singers (Shamshad and Lata Mangeshkar), one from a Muslim courtesan background and the other from a Hindu devdasi lineage. I have suggested elsewhere that the Hindi film song keeps alive the playful female eroticism of Rekhti poetry when that genre was cleaned up. As in rekhti, the singer details the effect on her of the other girl’s beauty in tones of comic hyperbole: ‘A salwar of silk and a kurta of net, /The delicate one’s beauty is too much to bear/Whenever I look at you,/Fireworks go off in my breast.’ Compare a rekhti poem: ‘Why should my heart not throb in my breast? (literally, life throb in my liver)/Your beauty is like gold.’e 

Such are the reverberations through literature, culture and history that make researching sexuality such a rewarding process. a Nandakumar Awasthi ed. Krittivasa Ramayana (Bengali text with Hindi translation) (Lucknow: Bhuvan Vani, 1966), 62. b Ibid 63. c Sabir Ali Khan, Sa’adat Yar Khan Rangeen (Karachi: Anjuman-e Taraqqi-e Urdu, 1956), 412 d Kalam-e-Insha (section Diwan-e Rekhti) ed. Mirza Mohammad Askari and Mohammad Rafi Fazal Deoband (Allahabad: Hindustani Akademi Uttar Pradesh, 1952), ghazal 61. Translation by Ruth Vanita. e Kalam-e-Insha, 403: 13.

Ruth Vanita, Professor at the University of Montana, former Reader at Delhi University, founding co-editor of Manushi (1978-1990), is the author of several books, including Same- Sex Love and the English Literary Imagination (Pearson, 2007); Same-Sex Love in India (with Saleem Kidwai), which will be reprinted this year by Penguin; Love’s Rite: Same-Sex Marriage in India and the West and Gandhi’s Tiger and Sita’s Smile: Essays on Gender, Sexuality and Culture..