Growing Up Gay in India author Vivek Tejuja: 'Isn't enough queer literature in Indian context'

  • Releasing on the first anniversary of the repealing of Section 377, Vivek Tejuja's book is a recollection of navigating the nineties as a gay man in Mumbai.

  • Tejuja's book was rejected by a leading publisher who labelled it too sensational for young adults, shortly after the 6 September 2018 verdict.

  • Tejuja thinks it'll be foolish of publishers to not focus on bringing diverse queer voices to the literary stage now.

The Mumbai that Vivek Tejuja grew up in was the Bombay of zero dating apps. Chat rooms were the norm, especially for people who were growing up gay or queer. There were no budget lodging services where one could just 'get a room' if one wanted. Gay clubs and pride parades had not been conceived yet. In addition to that, for Tejuja (who shared a room with his sister in their family's home in Worli) there were Sindhi relatives who took him to a therapist the day he came out to them. Some things, of course, stood the test of time — scrambling for a seat to have a beer at Cafe Mondegar, hurriedly going over books in Crossword stores, catching films in south Mumbai, the sea, and the heat.

In his memoir, So Now You Know: Growing Up Gay in India, Tejuja looks back on navigating the nineties in a Mumbai where heteronormativity was the order of the day. The book hits the stands on the first anniversary of the historic Supreme Court ruling that struck down parts of Section 377. Ironically, it was previously dropped by a leading publisher for being "too sensational" for young adults, shortly after the 6 September 2018 verdict.

In an interview with Firstpost, Tejuja opens up on the lack of queer voices in the Indian literary scene, why queer individuals must write more, and why publishers must change their modus operandi in view of the scrapping of Section 377. Edited excerpts follow:

When did you decide you wanted to write a book?

I used to feel there wasn't enough queer literature in India. So I thought I should write a book on what I went through when I realised I was gay. I wrote my first chapter 10 years ago about a trip I took to Gorai with six others. It wasn't even written as a chapter; it was just a recollection of the time I felt such strong love towards a guy in that group. I wrote a couple of chapters from time to time after that but they were disjointed. Eventually, I worked on the other chapters, and here we are today.

 Growing Up Gay in India author Vivek Tejuja: Isnt enough queer literature in Indian context

Cover of Now You Know: Growing Up Gay in India; Vivek Tejuja. Image via Twitter/@vivekisms

Did you think your recollection of growing up gay would help expand the canon of queer literature in India?

I hope it does, as the book is not even literary. It's a readable, 150-page memoir. But I do think that if someone had written a book like Now You Know when I was growing up, it would have perhaps given a voice to my own feelings. I did have access to western literature and pop culture, but there was hardly any Indian perspective, and that's just what I needed. Decades later, there still isn't enough queer literature in the Indian context. I mean, there is, but no one speaks of it. I think more people on the LGBTQIA+ spectrum should write so that the myth and stereotype breaks. I'm no activist, but it will just be a nice helping hand to others.

Did the repeal of Section 377 embolden your writing or impact the chances of getting published?

This book comes from a place of huge privilege which I've never denied in my text. Honestly, I am still figuring out whether my privilege was affected due to the verdict. Are our lives any better or worse now that there is no Section 377? The very fact that we are educated gives us so much power in comparison to someone who is gay and uneducated. I think the impact of the repealing has been great. It has encouraged people to explore different sexual identities. From that perspective, yes, the judgement has propelled the book and enabled it to reach a certain high.

It'll be foolish of publishers to not focus on bringing diverse queer voices to the literary stage now. They have to explore that space because for how long will you tell the same girl-boy story?

On Firstpost — The Queer Take: The awful hollowness of being asked 'How’s life post-Section 377?'

Do you think conversations about being queer are limited to the English-speaking population which also pushes an urban narrative in literature as well?

Funnily, one of the first Indian gay novels I read was Cobalt Blue, originally written in Marathi by Sachin Kundalkar, and translated into English by Jerry Pinto. There is literature out there, but if you turn a blind eye and don't know what to do with it, the industry and the reader is lost. It's not like the publishing sector isn't making progress but the examples are few and far between. So, if as a gay man who consumes gay literature, I cannot think of enough Indian voices in the scene, it definitely sounds problematic.

In your book, you speak of your repulsion for Hindi cinema's portrayal of homosexuality. Would you say bad representation is worse than no representation at all?

I think bad representation pushes people further into the closet, not giving them the voice they deserve. It becomes the standard for all representations till they grow up and know better. For people who cannot engage with queer communities directly, what they see on screen is real. For them, that is who we are — people who speak in a certain pitch, walk in a certain way and only care about sleeping with each other. There aren't enough queer romances in our country's books or movies. There has to be an angle of tragedy where the gay character gets AIDS or is an outcast. Get done with it! If you want to tell an urban story of a privileged gay couple in 2019, I'm sorry, I'm not a victim. I know better; I know how to use a condom. If anything, we know how to put our safety first.

Did you always want to keep the tone of the book so personal, almost diary entry-like?

I wanted it to be personal because if it wouldn't be personal, it wouldn't be honest. If it wasn't personal I would not have been able to write about G and Ali...That experience was deeply emotional because I finally realised that I had outgrown the victim phase way back; I don't even know if it ever existed for me, and that was extremely liberating.

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Updated Date: Sep 08, 2019 14:12:52 IST