Facing the Mirror: 20 years after the lesbian anthology was first published, it remains a riveting read

Facing the Mirror takes us back in time to give us an unfiltered part of lesbian history, with some of the earliest articulations of lesbian experience in independent India.

Partha P Chakrabartty September 23, 2019 09:11:33 IST
Facing the Mirror: 20 years after the lesbian anthology was first published, it remains a riveting read
  • Facing the Mirror takes us back in time to give us an unfiltered part of lesbian history, with some of the earliest articulations of lesbian experience in independent India.

  • The joy of the book is that it leaves nothing out, letting lesbian experience emerge in all its contradictions, and welcoming pieces by both new writers and practiced ones.

  • Since the ability to break through centuries of silence is itself to be lauded, and since many of the pieces combine this with literary ingenuity, this anthology remains a riveting read.

A year after the decriminalisation of Article 377, Penguin has decided to reprint its 1999 anthology of Indian lesbian writing, Facing the Mirror. 20 years on, its personal, intimate pieces continue to illuminate the tendrils and corners of an experience that is still poorly understood.

Two writers in the anthology use the adjective ‘mod’ to describe the fashion and hairstyle of the girl they had a crush on in high school. This word conjures the 90s, with an India grappling with the influx of new, ‘western’ cultural experiments. It also captures the charm and value of reading this book, not just as testimonies to lesbian experience in independent India, but also as a piece of queer history.

Shals Mahajan, in a wonderful foreword to the new edition, speaks of the book’s place in history, pointing out how undefined the vocabulary was in the time, just as it remains contentious today, with words always only roughly capturing the range of human gender and sexuality, and attempting to pin down that which is fluid and in motion. Shals appears in this book credited as Shalini, and writes about the name, ‘I had not yet articulated my discomfort with [it] as I hadn’t about my gender either’.

Facing the Mirror 20 years after the lesbian anthology was first published it remains a riveting read

Facing the Mirror: Lesbian Writing from India

We can also see this history in the original Introduction by Ashwini Sukthankar. In it, she speaks of the fear many lesbians had about this anthology: that a key space would be destroyed if lesbians became visible, ‘the sakhi space where, in the gender-segregated Indian world, women can live and be together in relative freedom. Liberation is far away; until then, surely, the existing, makeshift territories should not be surrendered.’

Ashwini responds cogently to this, saying ‘muteness is an option only for women who can pass as heterosexual’, and that even these women are unable to ‘pass a day without having a co-worker or casual acquaintance ask about boyfriend prospects or weekend engagements.’ She concludes, ‘It is not enough, today, to remain silent in order to avail of that traditional space — we are forced to lie.’

That this was a matter of debate just 20 years ago, while logical in hindsight, still shows just how new our attempts at understanding this entire world of human experience — an experience shared by such a vast number of people through time. It shows us just how deep and suffocating the silence has been, and it gives us an inkling of what it must have taken to break it with a book like this one.

Much of what is there here is raw and unfiltered, and in the book’s spirit of honesty, has been kept untouched. To contemporary eyes, Ashwini’s gloss on a contributor’s desire for a sex-change operation shows the extent of transphobia back then, something we are only beginning to come to terms with. Ashwini writes that the sex change ‘issue is a painful one, given … all the stories we hear of lesbians who think they must have themselves surgically sculpted into men because there seems to be no other way to love a woman and be loved in return’.

She does follow this with a brief introduction to the idea that sexuality and gender interact in complex ways, but the best gesture the book makes is to allow this voice, too, to speak its truth, however much it challenges the ideas and preconceptions of lesbians themselves.

There are other kinds of rawness too. Our more careful standards of speech today — which the Right denigrates as excessive PC bullsh*t, but is actually mostly about basic dignity and respect — would edit or at least editorialise some sentences. Here’s one: ‘When I was about eleven, we had a maidservant, a very wild, very sexual, and — although this is not politically correct — a very cheap woman’. Another hints at abuse, but does not contend with it, when it says, ‘I made my fifteen-year-old maidservant [perform a sex act].’

Boundaries are blurred, and contradictions retained

Other features of the anthology include a refusal to demarcate the fictional from the nonfictional, and the real names from the nom de plumes. The choice is conscious, with the editor arguing that privileging ‘real’ names would valorise being out in a way that is unhelpful. As for fiction, in a world where lesbians are ‘accustomed to having our lives be a myth’, is it a surprise that the boundaries between the two are meaningless?

The sex, and there is a substantial amount of it, is also left raw and unfiltered. The editors had to consider whether this played into straight male fantasies, and rightly concluded that even if it did, it was no reason to leave out pieces on lesbian sexuality. Sure, there will be men who will read themselves into these accounts of lesbian sex, either as voyeurs or fantasists. It is equally obvious that such men are inserting themselves in scenes where they are less relevant than the furniture, or the paint on the walls.

When I studied the poetry of Cheryl Clarke, a black lesbian-feminist, for a graduate research paper, I found in her poetry just this willingness to ‘leave-in’ elements. The Natya Shastra advocated nothing in excess, nothing deficient, and nothing contradictory, but the queer aesthetic seems to welcome the contradictory. It is that spirit that I see replicated in this work.

The first section itself provides an example. Titled ‘Passages’, it describes transitions and awakenings. In it are tender memories of the thrills of first loves in adolescence, and bold assertions of lesbian pride, including a piece that ends with, ‘No man with his swollen penis can give me as much pleasure as a woman’s lips, mouth, breasts, fingers.’

The same section has another piece with a very different narrative of lesbian awakening. It begins, ‘At the age of forty, to awaken is painful because the eyes have become accustomed to darkness, and sudden light hurts. The pain is like glass smashing inside the skull.’ It ends with:

This life of strange mixes. I sometimes wish only that it could be over. Then this body could be poured out into the dry earth with everything else—gushing rivers which never find the sea, flowing past fields which poison their own harvest, under skies in which the birds suddenly find that they cannot fly and fall screaming to earth.

Part of the contradictions include a wide variety of styles and registers. Halting accounts of childhood experiences jostle with seasoned and articulate stories and critiques. If one piece employs the short, direct sentences of a school essay, another, ‘With Respect to Marriage’, has a sophisticated plot that has Tushar, madly in love with his wife, Shirley, and having every kind of sex with her except penetrative sex, because he finds this last utterly distasteful.

It is the careful weave of this story that allows this to just be a difference, a unique part of a very happy marriage, instead of a deficiency. It is a great move to have a biologically male person dismantle our culture’s obsession with penetrative sex. To make the move in a lesbian anthology, as an argument for expanding our ideas of pleasure, is masterful.

Reading this book in the spirit in which it was put together — as a way to survey the nooks and crannies of unarticulated lesbian experience, without filtering or censorship — shows that all its pieces are important, irrespective of their polish. Some books are important because they are clever in their use of words. They can arrest with a startling image, or a turn of phrase, taking a familiar experience and casting it in a new light.

But some books are important because they bring to readers efforts to articulate experiences that have gone entirely unarticulated. How much more intelligence, effort and talent is required to break a silence that has stretched across centuries? That a great number of these pieces combine literary ingenuity with the ability to penetrate this veil makes it a riveting read.

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