The Queer Bookshelf is your fortnightly date with books about queer lives and loves from India and elsewhere
What does it mean to be queer and Hindu, or Hindu and queer? I have been thinking about this question ever since I heard about the formation of an entity called the Queer Hindu Alliance, which describes itself as “one gentle step toward acceptance of the queer community within Hinduism” and as “an advocacy and support group that will promote a more inclusive Hinduism through creating safe spaces for LGBTQI+ Hindus and allies to engage, share and support each other without fear or discrimination”.
I was happy to hear that a group had been created for queer people who identify as Hindu, and draw sustenance from their faith. It sounded like a wonderful initiative to me because it checked all the boxes that are important: acceptance, support, inclusion, safety, and absence of fear or discrimination. However, my enthusiasm was short-lived as the alliance began to use its Facebook page to endorse the communications blockade in Kashmir under the guise of championing queer liberation, and openly indicated its support of the Howdy Modi tamasha in Texas.
Since I do not identify as Hindu, it is not my place to prescribe how queer Hindus should fashion a progressive politics that is nourished by their faith. But I do want to know if, alongside challenging normative ideas around gender and sexuality, they also oppose caste discrimination, state-sponsored violence, and lynching of Muslims. I am interested in a dialogue, not a confrontation. In my view, shouting matches can help with momentary release but they do not bring any clarity or understanding.
I am aware that, for a large number of people — particularly Dalits and adivasis — the lived experience of Hinduism is deeply connected to historical oppression. They have suffered physical violence, verbal abuse, and sexual exploitation. They have been deprived of access to clean drinking water, land ownership, entry to temples, educational opportunities, and decision making roles in organisations. As a result, there is a tremendous amount of intergenerational trauma that is unaddressed.
Do queer folx who identify as Hindu also uphold the caste system? If they speak out against caste atrocities on social media, does that diminish their career prospects or their standing in the marriage market? Is it possible to be Hindu, and exist outside the caste system? These are open questions, not rhetorical ones. I held them in my mind as I began to read Lord of the Senses, an unputdownable collection of short stories written by Vikram Kolmannskog and published by the London-based Team Angelica.
The author is a gay man raised by an Indian mother and a Norwegian father. He cherishes his Hindu upbringing as well as his Christian heritage. Though he lives in Oslo, he travels to India quite frequently. I picked this book to help me think about the possibility and predicament of being queer and Hindu because fiction expands our capacity to imagine, envision, redefine. Also, I thought that Kolmannskog’s insider-outsider position might throw up some fresh insights.
The book has a striking cover image shot by Ahmed Umar, alluding to the first story in the anthology, which is also titled ‘Lord of the Senses’. The model here is Kolmannskog himself, dressed up as Krishna in an act of worshipping the beloved by embodying his persona. These words from the story describe not only Krishna but also the image on the cover: “His pose was so elegant, one foot firmly on the ground, the other crossed over and only lightly touching it. His head slightly tilted to one side. His eyes wide open. In his hands: a flute...You could barely distinguish where his body ended and the surrounding night began, both were so dark. But his eyes were shining like two moons, almost frighteningly white.”
In this story, the unnamed narrator finds kinship with the 16th century Rajasthani poet Meera whose bhajans are sung even today because they are drenched with love and devotion for Krishna. The highlight of this story is a queering of the concept of darshan — the glimpse of a deity, which is a blessing for the devotee. This is how Kolmannskog’s narrator describes the act of beholding Krishna: “You could spend forever looking at him. You would study each detail of his beautiful body, his large eyes, sweet lips, smooth chest and stomach, his nipples, his navel, the curves of his body, the dhoti in folds over his legs, the naked feet on the ground, one across the other, so gracious, so sensual. Sometimes he caught you looking and he knew what you were thinking and he knew about the tingling you felt. You would blush and cast your eyes down for a moment but soon be looking up at him again.”
What is the gender of the narrator? I do not assume that Kolmannskog’s narrator is a cis-man just because Kolmannskog is. His dedication to the book reads: “To lovers of all kinds!” By the way, does gender even matter when the deity and the devotee have become one? Does our political vocabulary have the words to describe states of spiritual ecstasy? I do not think so. In conversation with Meera, the narrator says, “It felt like he was the air entering you and moving your body, your very own breath, your blood and muscles: that intimate...You danced to the sound of your fingers snapping, hands clapping, ankle bells tinkling. You danced like a little girl, clumsily, bursting with joy. You danced like a young woman, seductively, teasing him with deliberate movements, loosening your hair, swaying your hips, slowly removing your clothes, catching his gaze.”
Another story from this collection, which explores what it means to be queer and Hindu, is titled ‘Growing up Queer’. The protagonist is a child of Indian heritage living in Oslo. He likes to take care of the Hindu idols that his aunt has given him. He keeps them in a cave-like space underneath his left bed. Sometimes, he invites his friend Tina to visit this cave that becomes a holy place for him when he rings the bill. Tina’s mother asks him to stop telling her stories about “Ravan, a demon king, who kidnapped the innocent Sita and held her captive” because it is scary. This mythological lore is of great cultural importance to the child but he is shamed for it.
Later, the narrator makes friends with a boy named Jon at school, and they spend a lot of their time fantasising about a trip they would take to India when they are older. Tina is jealous of the time he spends with Jon, so she spreads the rumour that the narrator “believed in all sorts of weird things”. He is embarrassed, and wants to do some damage control but it does not work. He says, “Others in my class started saying that my family probably even ate monkey brains like in that Indiana Jones film set in India.” This racist stereotyping is disgusting, and inculcates self-hatred in his young mind. Is this what people call Hinduphobia? Such a coinage might make sense in a country where Hindus are a minority. Does it hold relevance in a country where Hindus are the majority? I am still thinking about it.
In another story titled ‘Gold’s Gym, Bandra West’, we learn that the narrator’s grandmother used to tell him stories about Pathans. In his gay imagination, these were men with hairy chests who were worth fantasising about. However, for Dadima, they were just people who could not be trusted. She wanted him to believe that they would come and take away children who misbehaved. The narrator says, “Even though I later dismissed these stories as unfounded, slightly racist rumours from her own childhood, the little bit of irrational fear that remained made the Pathans more exciting and attractive to me. If Dadima had known that a Pathan would be the first man to f*ck me...” Reading this made me wonder whether the Hindu narrator is challenging Islamophobia, or merely exoticising the Muslim male body because of its perceived difference and danger.
It is common knowledge that the term ‘Hindu’ is used to designate people speaking a variety of languages, eating different kinds of food, celebrating a multiplicity of festivals, and observing rituals that are not similar across regions. However, the idea that Hindu equals vegetarian seems to be a persistent one among many communities in India. To what extent is the practice of vegetarianism attached to notions of purity and pollution rooted in the caste system? Do queer Hindus embrace this hegemonic narrative of Hinduism that erases diversity? Can we accept that there are people who choose to be vegetarian not because they are casteist but for health reasons, or to reduce their carbon footprint, or because they believe in animal rights, or simply since vegetarianism is part of their spiritual discipline?
These thoughts occurred to me while reading two of the stories in Kolmannskog’s collection — ‘Shredded Dates’ and ‘Ravan Leela’. The narrator of the story ‘Shredded Dates’ goes on a Grindr date, and the topic of vegetarianism comes up as they are ordering something to eat. He comes across as a desi visiting India while his date is a local. Trying to make polite conversation, he says, “I probably spend more time choosing where and what to drink or eat than it takes the average traditional Indian to choose a spouse out of the alternatives given to them...But you seem to be able to choose quickly.” His date replies, “I know what I want,” and looks directly into his eyes. We are duly informed about an erection that resulted from this quick exchange.
“I like France,” the narrator says. “In restaurants there, they often have only one vegetarian option. I don’t have to choose. But it’s changing there too. More vegetarianism, sadly.” This goes on until the date declares, “I’m pure non-veg. I love my meat.” The narrator is not able to say much other than “Okay” but his date concludes, “Opposites attract, I guess.” Later in the story, as the narrator is trying to figure out whether his date is really a good match for him apart from the great sex, one of the considerations that comes up in his mind is this: “He can’t go a day without eating meat.” Would you call this casteist, or a statement of personal preference?
The story ‘Ravan Leela’ features a grandmother who wants separate crockery and cutlery to be used for guests who are from a ‘lower caste’ background while the grandson — who is also the narrator — tries to gauge whether his prospective date Ahaan is Hindu or Muslim from taking a closer look at naked photographs. He tells us, “According to a group in Tamil Nadu, rather than a demon, Ravan was actually a Southern king who opposed the Aryan aggressor Ram. According to some Dalit groups, Ravan was a wise and compassionate Buddhist.” When the narrator eventually meets the date, he fantasises about Ahaan as Ravan because he is excited about being penetrated by a demon king. This made me a bit uncomfortable. Here’s why:
The narrator writes, “Another part (of me) is attracted to the counter-narrative of Ravan being a good king, and that I am contributing to this reversal by casting my lover in the role of Ravan and giving myself to him. I am not sure where the one starts and the other ends. Our eyes meet as he pushes all the way into me. I wonder what he sees. For a second, I feel guilty about reducing us to these roles. But then I forgive myself: projection and playfulness, a little bit of leela, is important in life after all, not least in attraction in sex.” My first response was to be judgmental, to not see this as role play but as a disturbing enactment of caste privilege. I still think that Ahaan, who we are told is Dalit, is being fetishised as a symbol rather than being seen as a whole person. Is that me reading too much into it?
The book is not framed as a commentary about being queer and Hindu. That is the lens I chose to read some of the stories in this book through, because of the questions that appear urgent to me at the moment. There is a lot in this collection that I found riveting — the lush descriptions of queer intimacy, the relationship between the mother and the son in many of the stories, the fact that the author does not see the spiritual as an escape from the sensual, and his account of the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. I would urge you to read it, and discover how it speaks to you.
Chintan Girish Modi is a writer-researcher working at the intersection of peace education, gender equality and queer rights
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Updated Date: Feb 26, 2020 10:51:31 IST