Hot off the Press: Review of ‘Chocolate and other Writings on Male-male Desire’ - Gautam Bhan
Pandey Bechan Sharma ‘Ugra’
Translated and with an Introduction by Ruth Vanita. Oxford. 2006.
In 1927, Pandey Bechan Sharma (1900-1960; his pen name, which I shall use to refer to him, was Ugra, literally the Hindi word for extreme) wrote a series of short stories in Hindi called Chocolate. The stories were unambiguous in their depictions of male-male desire – euphemised by the term chocolate – and, on their release were so immensely popular (Vanita describes ‘lines stretching out from book stores in Calcutta’) that a second edition was printed within weeks. That stories on male-male desire sold so widely and publicly is perhaps explained by the fact that Ugra, a known nationalist and Gandhian, claimed that he wrote them simply to ‘expose and eradicate homosexuality’ (p 4). In each of the stories, therefore, the intent was to condemn the protagonists for their same-sex desire. Despite this explicit declaration, however, a national debate erupted on the issue. Ugra’s detractors claimed that his fiction ‘attracted readers to the vice rather than repulsing them’, arguing that speaking of homosexuality – even to condemn it – gave the issue an importance and a presence that was dangerous and immoral.
Almost eighty years later, one has to ask: can words written explicitly to condemn same-sex desire constitute a history worth claiming? In the context of contemporary India, where non-heterosexualities (and, indeed, non-normative heterosexualities) are so pervasively silenced, and where homophobic readings of texts (let alone texts that offer and seemingly endorse such readings) do we want stories that demonise same-sex desire to re-emerge? Would the reactions be any different? In translating Chocolate from Hindi, Ruth Vanita argues that to see Ugra’s stories simply as denouncements of male same-sex desire misses the importance of their temporal, cultural, and social location, and overlooks the fact that we perhaps have much to learn from a text that sparked what was probably one of the first modern debates about homosexuality in India and one of the rare ones in the Hindi press.
How are we to understand the impact of Ugra’s work today? How are we to receive the text as readers located in a context that both resembles and differs significantly from that in which the stories were set? Vanita argues that ‘writing the history of homophobia is as important as writing the history of same-sex relationships’, (p 1) for it enables us to understand not only how those that attack homosexuality do so, but also allows us to find language and ideas that can effectively counter these assertions. The complexity of Ugra’s stories, therefore, is that they often contained homophobic and moral messages, but also were replete with possibilities of countering these very messages.
Take Ugra’s depictions of male-male desire. At a time when homosexuals were barely even acknowledged and simply not spoken about, Ugra’s stories created character after character who spoke of his desire for boys and other men. In his writing, as Vanita argues, there emerged a picture, however distorted, of ‘the urban Indian homosexual and bisexual men’s social life and language in the early twentieth century, and even of their self-view and self-defense.’ (p 5) As she states, ‘except for one story set in jail, none of Ugra’s protagonists belong to the underworld. They are respectable members of society – teachers, college students, writers, who carry on their affairs both in public and in private. Nor is their homo-sexuality pre marital and thus explicable by a lack of options. Many of them are even married.’
None of the characters in the stories ever think of themselves to be diseased or immoral. In fact, many offer arguments in the defense of their desire, which are also, on occasion, accepted by their friends and other characters in the story. So in Kept Boy, Mahashayji defends his attraction to a boy by saying to his friend, ‘the world cannot run only according to your own thinking. Truth must be respected wherever it is. Beauty alone is truth. So whether the beauty is a woman’s or a man’s, I am a slave to love.’ Many of the protagonists in the other stories offer similar arguments and, more importantly, create a certain language that same-sex desiring men and those not disposed against such desire, could use in order to counter homophobia. The argument has echoes of all the same slogans that one would hear at a contemporary queer rights event: that there is not one ‘truth’ or type of desire, and that no one desire has the right to stake its claim as being ‘better’ than any other.
Vanita points out in her excellent introduction that, for all his claims to denounce homosexuality, Ugra chose to call the book Chocolate (it was called choklat in the original Hindi as well, using a common Hindi transliteration of the English word widely understood even by those who only speak Hindi), a reference to, as one of the characters explains, ‘those innocent, tender, and beautiful boys of the country, whom society’s demons push into the mouth of ruin to quench their own thirsts.’ (p. 14) Yet amidst this clearly acerbic and moralistic definition, Vanita argues that chocolate also refers to an object that was, and is, desired almost universally across India. By calling it chocolate, Ugra almost negates his own denunciations of homosexuality by indirectly acknowledging the natural inclination to, well, have some. More than a semantic difference, this is an important aspect of the stories. Putting aside the moralistic end that always condemns male-male desire in each of the stories, the natural inclination to desire boys is not debated in the stories. Restraint is advised, loss of reputation and status are threatened, and consequences are extreme, but the fact that the desire should exist at all is rarely, if at all, questioned by Ugra. In fact, in their own way, the texts implicitly acknowledge the near universal presence of such desire, something that, ironically, the contemporary queer movement in India has long been trying to do.
Vanita guards against simplistic readings of the text with a detailed introduction that complicates and contextualises Ugra’s writings, and also lets the reader know about the debates surrounding the texts that argue not just about sexuality, but about caste, religion, nationalism, and morality. Her introduction balances the actual texts of Ugra’s stories at the end, and carefully, though thankfully not pedantically, it addresses each of the possibly simplistic and negative readings that the text could have been subjected to given the current conservative and homophobic climate in India. She points out, importantly, for example, that though the word ‘boy’ is used often in the text, and boys of age twelve and thirteen are the objects of desire, it is important to remember that these stories were written at a time when the debate in Indian politics was whether to keep the age of consent for girls to eight or ten, and that seeing Ugra’s writing as being about child abuse (as some have done) is a simplistic and incorrect gauge of the author’s intention.
She also reminds us that history never teaches us just one lesson, and that fiction can never have merely one meaning. At a time when same-sex desire could only be written and read between the lines, perhaps queer readers of Chocolate found echoes of their own lives and desires in the stories, could see others like them, and were able to overcome the inevitable gruesome and moral-reinforcing end. As readers, perhaps in empathy for those readers, we should make the effort to read beyond Ugra’s words as well, and reclaim and subvert the language of homophobia from within.
Gautam Bhan is a queer rights activist and Series Editor of Sexualities, a publishing list on sexuality based at Yoda Press, New Delhi.