Out of Line and Offline: Personal meets political in Pawan Dhall's book about people outside mainstream Indian queer narrative
In Out of Line and Offline, Pawan Dhall is interested in three main questions: How do things appear in retrospect more than 25 years into the queer movements of eastern India? Where or in what state are the people reached out to in the 1990s and later? What bearing do the activisms of the 1990s and early 2000s have on the lives of those individuals today?
What I like most about Out of Line and Offline is that it chronicles the work of people, groups and organisations who are doing important work but whose stories are not visible when the queer rights movement in India is usually talked about.
In this book, author Pawan Dhall is committed to placing himself in the narrative rather than being aloof.
The Queer Bookshelf is your fortnightly date with books about queer lives and loves from India and elsewhere
Being in Kolkata is an experience I treasure so much that I can hardly stop talking about it. The last time I visited was in November 2019, and the conversations I had there are still fresh in my memory. Apart from the street food, the cadences of Bengali banter, and my old habit of gushing at the simplest things with wonder and amazement, what made the trip extra special this time was learning about the queer rights movement in a part of India that I love to discover little by little.
The credit for much of this goes to Pawan Dhall, co-founder of the Kolkata-based Varta Trust, who shared many anecdotes and insights from over two decades of work in activism, organising and research connected with gender and sexuality. I was moved by his ability to focus consistently on small and heartfelt efforts, rather than being obsessed about scale. This quality is also visible in his new book Out of Line and Offline: Queer Mobilizations in ‘90s Eastern India (2020) published by Seagull Books.
What does the word ‘queer’ mean in this context? Using a footnote, Dhall — who identifies as a gay man — clarifies, “The term ‘queer’ includes lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, hijra, kothi, intersex as well as people who may identify differently, or with no such ‘political’ term at all, though their sense of gender, gender expression, sexual attraction, sexual behaviours or even sexual/romantic relationships are anything but heteronormative.” This explanation is part of a long but useful footnote that encourages readers to avoid using these terms as fixed categories to sort people into.
He writes, “...in the Indian context, using gender or sexual-identity terms with Western roots as blanket expressions can be problematic. For instance, ‘transgender’, ‘trans women’ or ‘trans men’ may not be easy translations for many expressions of and around gender variance in India. Any usage of these terms in this volume is therefore not without qualifications.” Some of these words have gained greater currency over time but, as Dhall rightly indicates, they do not have universal resonance. He writes at length about hijra as a cultural and professional identity — not to be conveniently translated as ‘male-to-female transgender’ — and hijras as a matrilineal community that is historically disadvantaged.
What I like most about Out of Line and Offline is that it chronicles the work of people, groups and organisations who are doing important work but whose stories are not visible when the queer rights movement in India is usually talked about. This could be largely due to the fact that they are located away from Delhi, Mumbai and Bengaluru — which are usually considered to be the hubs of the queer movement — and their main focus is not cis gay men, the most visible face of the queer community in the media. The fact that they work in languages other than English could be another factor.
Some of the initiatives featured in Dhall’s book are: Amitié Trust, a queer support group working in the Howrah and Hooghly districts of West Bengal; Bhawanis, a support group for MSM (a term referring to men who have sex with men) and transgender women in the Kalahandi district of Odisha; Prantik Bongaon, a support forum for transgender women in a town on the India-Bangladesh border; Santi Seva, a support group for hijras and transgender women in the Bhadrak district of Odisha; and Astitva Dakshin, a queer support group in Baruipur, south of Kolkata. He also mentions a queer women’s support forum named Syrngiew in Shillong, and another another queer support group called Xukia in Guwahati.
Dhall has been closely associated with many of these groups, and shares warm personal relationships with the people who have built them with their sweat and blood. He used to work with an organisation called Solidarity and Action Against The HIV Infection in India (SAATHII) from 2002 to 2014 but, more importantly, he is able to empathise with their journeys because he was involved in setting up Counsel Club, a queer support group that five gay and bisexual men, including him, founded in August 1993 in Kolkata. It continued till 2002. Two other queer individuals — married men who chose to remain anonymous — were also involved in the formation of the group.
Counsel Club began to host its monthly meetings in September 1994. They were usually convened on a Sunday in the living room of one of the members. It felt like a safe space, and the group could also stock their books and magazines there. The early meetings did not have more than a dozen people attending. In a year’s time, the number grew to 20. By 1996, over 30 people were present at each meeting. They started meeting every fortnight instead of waiting for a whole month. Unfortunately, the landlord of this Counsel Club member was not happy with the situation. He grew fed up with the ‘anti-social activities’, so another place had to be found.
“Since the main purpose of the group was to befriend and counsel each other, the name Counsel Club caught on,” writes Dhall. Before this, in 1991, he had already started publishing Pravartak, a queer-themed multilingual newsletter/journal. It was revived by Counsel Club as its house journal in 1993. Out of Line and Offline draws extensively on Dhall’s work with Counsel Club and Pravartak. The publication included content in Bengali, Hindi and English, and was in existence until 2000. The blog of the Varta Trust now fulfills that function.
Recalling memories from a pre-Internet era, Dhall writes, “When the first lot of queer support groups such as Counsel Club moved towards organised mobilisation, one of their biggest challenges was to achieve large-scale outreach. Most of these groups were based in only a handful of urban centres. Beyond word of mouth, or striking lucky in cruising areas (frequented by men interested in men primarily for sexual pick-ups), and opportunities provided by a homosocial environment in familial, friendship and community networks, what worked best was if the groups’ post-bag numbers were mentioned in newspaper and magazine articles.”
Thanks to his passion for documentation, the Varta Trust is now in possession of approximately 2500 to 3000 of the letters written to Counsel Club as well as Pravartak. Most of these are in Bengali or English; some use Hindi and Gujarati as their medium of expression. The letters represent the feelings of writers across age groups — from teenagers to individuals in their early 20s, to queer folx in their 40s and 50s. Given the legitimate concerns that arise around privacy, the book does not reproduce any of these letters but offers fleeting glimpses through Bishan Samaddar’s creative use of design elements that create the impression of time travel.
“The letters received by the Counsel Club formed a rich repository of not only the lives of lonely, isolated or confused queer individuals but also of a society struggling to come to terms with its desires, fears and aspirations,” writes Dhall. These letter writers were not restricted to one particular social group. Though most of them came from middle class homes, they constituted a mix of college and university students, homemakers, lawyers, teachers, doctors, artists, journalists, and researchers. Since Counsel Club was run by gay and bisexual men, most of the letters were received from “men, or, more accurately, persons assigned male at birth,” he says.
This was happening at a time when representation of queer identities in Indian popular culture was quite rare. It was not easy for queer folx to meet people like themselves or even see images of themselves in fictional narratives. The opportunity to write letters to someone who would read, hopefully understand what they were going through, and probably respond, was considered a blessing. The letters contained “animated queries about access to sexual partners and spaces for having sex, to personal outpourings of loneliness, grief, oppression, unhappy marriages, sexual experiences and love stories...a microcosm of an India that was sexually active, liberal, inquisitive, orthodox and repressed, all at the same time.”
Dhall blends this archival research with in-depth interviews that bring us stories of queer folx associated with Counsel Club and Pravartak, and from allies who have been his peers in advocating for the rights of the community in various formal and informal spaces. Reading them in succession is a bit like watching a few engaging short films strung together. He is interested in three main questions, which guide his interviews with the people featured in the book. “How do things appear in retrospect more than 25 years into the queer movements of eastern India? Where or in what state are the people reached out to in the 1990s and later? What bearing do the activisms of the 1990s and early 2000s have on the lives of those individuals today?”
These questions are not coming from an aloof ‘monitoring and evaluation’ exercise designed by a researcher who has no personal stake in the subject of his research. Dhall is committed to placing himself in the narrative, acknowledging that his storytelling is tied to the peculiarities of how he views things.
He admits to feeling defensive while hearing what some of the interviewees said, especially when they pointed out failures in the movement. However, the act of writing also helped him make peace with some of his feelings. This book is his story, as well as a broader story, and neither of the two aspects is compromised in the bargain.
Writing has helped Dhall overcome many disappointments in his own life, and this includes heartbreak. I could relate to that, and I am sure that many who are reading this can. He remarks, “Rejection in love would so easily be overcome by the next lot of letters from people writing in for information, support, friendship, or to find sexual and romantic partners. Reading their stories and getting engrossed in responding to them acted like a balm for a bruised heart.” Those words express so succinctly what it means to be woven into a community where helping others heal is also a way of healing yourself.
The reading down of Section 377 is a milestone, not the end of the journey as far as Dhall is concerned. He commends the Supreme Court of India for upholding constitutional morality over social morality in that verdict, but also draws attention to laws around sex work, vagrancy, decency and obscenity that still criminalise queer people. In addition to this, he highlights the discrimination that is coded into family, property, housing, insurance and labour laws. He does not condemn queer folx who choose to stay in the closet or step back into it — for whatever reason — but also invites us to question why marriage continues to occupy such a centrality in our imagination as a survival strategy or some kind of social security.
Dhall concludes the book on a wistful note. “When I flip through the files of letters received by Counsel Club, I too wonder where their authors are today — somewhere in India, in a different country or just around the corner from where I live. Perhaps some of them never went anywhere but cannot be ‘seen’ anymore because they have chosen to withdraw into the isolation they had emerged from, or into the ‘security’ that social norms seem to offer. Or should one blame it on Facebook and our capitulation to its charms? If you are not on it, do you not exist?”
I was startled when I read this because I have been thinking of deleting my Facebook account. I fear losing contact with a large community of queer folx that I know primarily through this platform. Interacting with them has been a huge source of joy, solidarity, humour and hope. And I can say, with some amount of certainty, that being online is a nourishing choice for many who step out of line. Their physical surroundings might not allow the kind of freedom they are looking for, and the Internet offers to them a world of possibilities — including friendship, self-acceptance, and a way out of their misery.
Chintan Girish Modi is a writer-researcher working at the intersection of peace education, gender equality and queer rights.
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