Hot off the Press: Review of 'Because I Have a Voice - Queer Politics in India' - Sumit Baudh

by Arvind Narrain and Gautam Bhan (Eds.), Yoda Press, New Delhi, 2005.

Sumit Baudh

India as such offers enough challenge to the discipline of social science. More so, when it comes to sexuality which is engulfed by silence. Appropriately titled, Because I have a Voice attempts to break that silence. It lends voice to 27 writers, as they articulate their thoughts, and share their unique personal experience of activism and of being queer.

The introduction to the book admits that, in India the word ‘queer’ is not yet commonly used. It offers a preliminary understanding and an open-ended illustrative list of who queer people might be: Hijras, Kothis, Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) persons, and more.

Each essay could be read as a stand-alone piece – randomly – minus the sequential order. But there is a clear pattern to the book. The 278 pages long book is divided into 27 essays, arranged in three different parts. The first sets out conceptual approaches to sexuality as a form of politics. A lot of which later resurfaces as illustrations in stories of struggle– in the second part. The third part is a collection of personal narratives.

In the first part, of particular significance is Nivedita Menon’s explanation of compulsory heterosexuality. A term that finds repeated reference in the book. Other essays in this part critically analyze law, psychiatry, cinema, and sexuality itself, all from a queer perspective.

There are 10 essays in the second part. Each in its own way illustrates the intersectionality of sexuality with a spectrum of issues, and at varying locations. Elavarthi Manohar narrates his struggle, coming to terms with his homosexuality, and discovering his bisexuality to his own surprise later. Pawan Dhall shares his struggle as an openly out gay man and an activist in Kolkata. Deepa V.N. reflects on her experiences with Sahayatrika, in support of women-loving-women, in Kerala. Alok Gupta talks about class dynamics, of same-sex desiring men, based on his own observations in Mumbai, and on interviews with activists in Delhi and Kolkata. Chayanika Shah reflects on her experience with the Lesbians and Bisexuals in Action (LABIA) in Mumbai, and critiques the responses from within the women’s movements and the gay community. Bina Fernandez and Gomathi N.B. share their empirical research on violence faced by lesbian women, in one essay; and in another essay they critically examine the civil society/ activists’ response to the right-wing opposition to Fire (a film that depicts a sexual relationship between two women). Based on her conversations with a female-to-male (FTM) transsexual and a hijra, Ashwini Sukhthankar talks about the rights of transsexuals. Mario D’Penha and Tarun, share their experience of activism as students on campus, at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), Delhi and National Law School of India University (NLSIU), Bangalore, respectively.

The style of writing is significantly different in the third part. Free from the academic rigour of the conceptual approaches, or the complexity of collective expe-riences, each of the personal narratives bears unique and creative expression. Much like the second part, a spectrum of queer people share their personal lives. Beyond sexuality, the narratives illustrate intersectionality. Mario as a Catholic, Ali as a Muslim, Vaibhav as a Hindu Marwari – each tells their story of being gay and fabulous. They tell their stories with flair, humour and joy. In contrast, Sandip and Devdutt tell melancholic and moving stories: one as a non-resident Indian (NRI) gay man, returning to San Francisco; and the other, of closeted gay men in Mumbai. Revathi narrates many a challenges of her life as a hijra; Pratibha Sixer Rani as a Christian kothi. Satya Rai Nagpaul as a transman, reminisces about a poignant moment. Maya Sharma tells the tale of a loving relationship between two Muslim women, in Allahabad. Sheba expresses apprehension over the likely response of her family to her lesbian relationship. Sonali proposes a poetic, political and caustic matrimonial – as a lesbian (and more).

As with any collection of writings, the major challenge before the editors might have been to maintain consistency and a coherent flow of ideas. For example, the critique of sexual identity by Akshay Khanna is contrasted by the repeated suggestion of a homosexual/gay/queer ‘community’ by Alok Gupta. What is this community? Where is it? And who are its members? Does it prescribe a code of conduct? And does it have rules for entry and exit? What does the queer discourse have to say about perceived communities? Are the two compatible? Questions as these could perhaps have been addressed by a sociological study, akin to an older publication – Seabrook’s, Love in a Different Climate (1999). A whole piece on sociological aspects, with a critique on ‘community’ was in order, but is missing.

The book lacks graphic illustrations, where it could have used some. For example, an essay on cinema in Kerala interalia refers to and analyzes a publicity poster, which is well described, but could have benefited from a miniature reproduction of the poster. There are other spots where an opportunity for a graphic could have been more creatively imagined and provided for. The book ends with notes on editors and contributors, some of which have been written with panache, and gives a bonus glimpse of the authors. Here again, an opportunity to supplement the notes with individual photos is missed. Graphics do engage a reader of every taste and inclination, more so when the subject is sexuality!

Minor quibbles aside, the book reads well. It constantly engages, inspires and stimulates the mind. Each piece is remarkable in its originality. What comes through is the sheer passion, sincerity and earnestness of the authors. Through this collection, the book succeeds in locating the intersectionality of sexuality not only with class, gender, sex, and religion, but also with politics – left and right. Each link bears an immense potential as an independent discourse in itself. Hopefully, Because I have a Voice will inspire many more voices – soon.

Sumit Baudh is a non-practicing Solicitor, the Law Society, England & Wales (2004). An alumnus of the London School of Economics, London (LLM, 2002) and the National Law School, Bangalore (BA LLB, 1998), Sumit is currently a consultant to the AMAN Trust, New Delhi, and a keen supporter of the Voices Against 377.