The Rainbow Hues of South Asian Literature
By – Anura
Back in 1942, acclaimed writer and ardent feminist Ismat Chugtai was at the epicentre of a massive controversy that ruffled the feathers of the ”upright, polite” society, when she penned one of her best-known stories till date, Lihaaf. A tale of a young girl, a lonely wife in a feudal society and her trusted aide, it was charged with obscenity for incorporating themes of lesbianism and touching the forbidden topic of women’s sexuality, and led to some major courtroom drama, which Chugtai would later recount in detail in her memoir, Kaghazi Hai Pairahan.
She won the case on the grounds of her subtle and simply suggestive narrative and set the path for generations of writers to weave stories around homoerotic themes. While Ismat Chugtai is certainly one of the pioneers and better known stalwarts who wrote about homosexuality in the modern South Asian literature, literary texts from the region have been tinged with the rainbow hues since times ancient.
From Vyasa’s Mahabharat to 21st Century Queer Literature
Perhaps the best known chronicle of sex change found in ancient texts is that of Shikhandi, the one prophesized to kill Grandsire Bhishma. Born Shikhandini, a female, he grows up to perform penance in the forests to become a man in order to join the military. One might wonder if more texts from the time dealt with such themes. We have stories of miraculous babies conceived to same sex parents, of Shiva becoming female during love-play in a forest (as a result of which everything in the forest turns female as well), of Yakshas, gods, goddesses and humans being gender fluid. A quick look at the expansive index of Same Sex Love in India: Readings from Literature and History, by Ruth Vanita and Saleem Kidwai would quench your curiosity and leave you several stories richer.
Launched in 2000, the book attempts to anthologise narratives centred around queer themes throughout the history of South Asian literature and spans from the ancient through medieval texts (both of Sanskritic and Perso-Urdu tradition) to reach the modern Indian materials. Despite bearing an extensive collection, according to the authors’ own admission, numerous texts of similar nature remain unrecorded due to language barriers. And mind you, this anthology is one amongst the numerous that seek to launch an inquiry into queer literature of South Asia.
Suffice to say, one can firmly conclude that homosexual themes in South Asian society are anything but a modern phenomena, the outcome of the “bad influence” of the West. In fact, on the contrary, scholars contend that the stigma around homosexuality is something that we have borrowed from the Western society in modern times.
The Bhakti Movement and Medieval Material
With the onset of Bhakti movement, homosexuality in literature became more common place. A major change that accompanied the spread of the movement was the gradual shift to devotion towards Puranic Gods and Goddesses as opposed to Vedic deities of the ancient times. The salient feature of the pantheon of deities of the Puranic times was their variability of form, to appear to their devotees as man, woman or transgender, even as the nature or animals. Consequently, such devotional practices allowed for fluid intimacies between devotees, which reflect in the literature of that time. Thus, we find The Embrace of Vishnu and Shiva in Bhagwat Purana and the story of Arjuni, chronicling the time when Arjun transforms into a young woman, in the Padma Purana, and a number of other such accounts with homosexual tones.
Parallel to text written in Sanskrit, northern and southern languages, the Perso-Urdu literature was also developing. With the establishment of the Mughal Empire, Sufi traditions permeated throughout the region, and we observed a rise in visibility of homoeroticism. Thus, we come across Khusro and Nizamuddin, buried next to each other, their eternal love transcending time and read about Babur and his intense attraction towards a boy despite his affection for his wife, touching upon bisexuality.
We can also trace the development of Ghazal back to the 17th century, in which the singer assumes a man’s voice to address a male beloved. A distinction between a married partner and lover is made, regardless of the latter’s sexuality and is seen as a celebration of same-sex relationships between men.
Rise in Homophobia and Modern Literature
Quite unlike its predecessors, the 19th century bore witness to rise in homophobia, only for it to continue in the next century. Thus homoerotic literature assumed an even more important and rebellious nature in those times. While homosexuality was staunchly decreed a taboo, South Asian writers still wielded the pen and wrote of characters living in denial and struggling to come to terms with their sexuality. There was a surge in representation of sexual love between women in literature. From Amrita Sher-Gill (Letters), Suryakant Tripathi “Nirala” (Kulli Bhaat) to Vijay Tendulkar (Mitra’s Story), Suniti Namjoshi, Vikram Seth and Mahesh Dattani, several writers merit a mention for depicting homosexual characters at a time when “gay” was an insult and nobody really know what “lesbian” meant (that country you mean?) or how to pronounce it (Lisbon? Lebanese?).
Even a surface reading of the topic would reveal a rich and diverse history of homosexual and queer literature in the South Asian region. In such unenlightened and homophobic times like the one we are living in, where opening about and discussing sexuality is claimed to be “the bad influence of pashchatya sanskriti” and the undoing of Gen Z, one can contend that a step towards reclaiming our cultural roots would be to embrace and accept all sexualities, move away from strict codes of binary and acknowledge the fluidity of gender, because evidently, that’s what our historic texts preach.