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'Nobody can be totally in the closet or totally out of it'
Born in Mumbai in 1947, Hoshang Merchant grew up at a time when awareness about homosexuality was virtually nonexistent in the country. After graduating from St Xavier’s College in Mumbai, he went to the US for higher studies, doing his dissertation on writer and diarist Anais Nin. He later travelled to Iran, Israel and Palestine, taking up an assortment of teaching jobs. In 1999 he edited ‘Yaraana’ , the first anthology of gay writing from India. Merchant currently teaches English at Hyderabad University. His latest work ‘The Man Who Would Be Queen’ is a work of ‘autobiographical fiction’ . The 65-year-old tells TOI-Crest why he wouldn’t write a gay story that looks like a straight story and much more.
You've said The Man Who Would Be Queen is about liberation. Was writing the book liberating?
Yes, it was. Any speaking is liberating. A woman telling her domestic woe to her neighbour finds it a great relief. To write and publish is a revolution. I think liberation happens not for the liberator but for his followers.
What is gay literature?
Gay literature is literature written by gays, for gays about gays. When I edited Yaarana there was very little gay literature so I had to include stories with gay characters written by straight men. But in the 10 intervening years, new writers have come, including lesbians and NRI gay men.
How would you compare gay literature in India and the West?
The West has a long tradition of gay literature since Walt Whitman who wrote 150 years ago in the United States. There has been Oscar Wilde in England, Andrê Gide in France. We have no such modern tradition. In contemporary times, British author Alan Hollinghurst writes a straight novel with gay characters.
In India, Kalpana Sharma has written a story about two girls who have boyfriends, but are also girlfriends. So now they are no longer weird people who go to gay bars and hide in dark corners and smoke if they are butch women. My students say that the love scenes between the two women sound like love scenes between a man and a woman. Sharma's point, I'm told, is that she wants to show heterosexism is not so different from homosexism. We can be chauvinistic and proprietorial too. We can be doing all the same things we accuse other people of doing! We have no prerogative on sanity and radicalism. These are all perceptions of people.
You've also started a gay literature course in the university where you teach. How is it received?
The first course in gay literature was started in Delhi University. About a year later I took that course and transplanted it in my own university and made it a bigger course. Most of the students who take this course are straight women. And I found out that most of my women students want me as a gay man to talk about the sexual harassment I suffer because they have had similar experiences as women in the Indian streets, which is a very male chauvinistic place.
How difficult was it to start the course?
It wasn't difficult at all. The academy is a safe place. And south India, in spite of the bad name it has of being conservative, has very ecumenical, tolerant and broadminded people. In north India it is very difficult for a gay teacher to stay. I have stayed in Hyderabad for 25 years. We have both accommodated each other. I work in a straight society, I am not living in a gay utopia, so I have to tailor myself to their needs and they have to tailor themselves to mine.
So, is the gay literature scene in India more vibrant now?
More and more people are coming out and writing gay literature but the literature is moving in a different direction. I wouldn't write a gay story that looks like a straight story in my generation. My generation is angry;the new generation is less angry. They can blur the differences. Having said that, we really don't want a category called gay literature, we want a literature of love that tells you the true story of human instincts. And I think it will come, I don't know in how many years, may be in 50 years.
The book talks about your growing up years in the '50s and '60s. Is being gay easier today?
Of course it is. When I was a kid I could not even tell my friends, leave alone my parents. I'd had sex when I was in Class VI, but I could only tell my elder sister I was gay when I was in Class XI. That's a gap of five years.
Has the reading down of Section 377 by the courts made a difference?
The Section 377 judgment is not applicable all over India. It was given by the Delhi high court. There is no evidence of the judgment making life easier for gays on the ground. Policemen still trouble gays for money. For this to stop, policemen have to be sensitised.
Was coming out difficult for you?
I came out in the open only when I went abroad to study, and that too after I was beaten up and my photograph came out in the newspapers. I was forced back into the closet after I returned to India. After all, my father was a Parsi man of some standing in Mumbai. Of course, I wasn't totally in the closet and the people I worked with knew. Nobody can be totally in the closet or totally out of it.
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