Friday, March 04, 2005

Gay historians: Ruth Vanita and Saleem Kidwai

To many Indians the idea of same-sex relationships is unknown, even alien. Forget the idea of homosexuality having a history in this country. This has been just one outcome of British imperialism and Victorian prudery; they obliterated our indigenous cultures and histories.

Fortunately, Indians like Ruth Vanita, Saleem Kidwai and Ashok Row Kavi have been helping us rediscover our lost gay heritage. Vanita and Kidwai have together and individually produced seminal works on "same-sex" relationships. At the end of this posting, you'll find a link to a recent interview with Vanita in Ego magazine, USA. Before that, here are brief sketches of Vanita, Kidwai and one of their books, which is the subject of the interview--the sketches were put together by the 'Bombay Dost' team for their traveling poster exhibition on gay Indian icons: "Queers Like Us".

Ruth Vanita

Ruth Vanita was educated in 1955 in Delhi, and taught at Miranda House and the English Department, Delhi University, from 1976 to 1997. Vanita has been professor of Liberal Studies and Women's Studies at the University of Montana since 1997.

She was founding co-editor of 'Manushi: A Journal about Women and Society' from 1979 to 1990. Vanita was also active in the Indian women's movement and human rights movement during those years. She has written widely on Indian women's issues, and has translated many works of fiction, non-fiction and poetry by and about women, from Hindi to English, several of which were published in Manushi. Among her translations are 'Strangers on the Roof' (a Hindi novel by Rajendra Yadav; Penguin India, 1994) and 'Dilemma and Other Stories' (fiction by Vijay Dan Detha; Manushi Prakashan, 1997). Vanita presented papers on same-sex love in Shakespeare's 'As You Like It' at seminars held in Delhi University, which were well received by her peers.

Vanita is author of 'Sappho and the Virgin Mary: Same-Sex Love and the English Literary Imagination' (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996). This book argues that far from being marginalized, lesbian energy and creativity figures centrally in the English literary canon, in works by both men and women, especially in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. With Saleem Kidwai, she co-edited 'Same-sex Love in India: Readings from Literature and History' (NY: Palgrave-St Martin's Press, 2000; New Delhi: Macmillan, 2002) More recently, she has also edited 'Queering India: Same-Sex Love and Eroticism in Indian Culture and Society' (NY: Routledge, 2002), a collection of interdisciplinary essays by different scholars.

Vanita married Mona Bachmann in June 2000 in Jewish and Hindu wedding ceremonies in New York. It was followed by a reception at India International Centre, New Delhi, in July 2000.

Saleem Kidwai

Saleem Kidwai is a scholar of medieval Indian history, and an activist. Born in 1951 in Lucknow, he completed his schooling there, and went to Delhi to study History in 1968. He took up teaching at the Delhi University in 1973 and took leave to study at McGill University between 1976-80.

With Ruth Vanita, he co-edited 'Same-sex Love in India: Readings from Literature and History' (NY: Palgrave-St Martin’s Press, 2000; New Delhi: Macmillan, 2002)

Kidwai is also an Islamic studies scholar who undermines any straight monolithic view of Islam as homophobic and sex-phobic. He shows that there is a tension, sometimes creative and sometimes unbearable, between the censorious Islamic texts and institutions and the open same-sex celebrations of many Islamic poets.

Retiring from Delhi University in 1993, he has since been pursuing individual research and writing in Lucknow.

Same-sex Love in India
Ruth Vanita and Saleem Kidwai have co-edited a momentous book titled 'Same-sex Love in India: Readings from Literature and History' (NY: Palgrave-St Martin's Press, 2000; New Delhi: Macmillan, 2002). This is a collection of translations from texts written in 15 Indian languages over a period of more than 2000 years, accompanied by editorial essays analyzing and contextualizing the texts. This "enchanting collection is a tribute to an ancient civilization which has always cherished love that defies conventional ideas of sanity and normality." (Ashis Nandy). Vanita's and Kidwai's essays in the book have been hailed as works of outstanding scholarship by historians. The book challenges the cheap stereotype that Indian tradition has always been too conservative/puritan to allow any homoerotic exploration. Ruth Vanita and Saleem Kidwai have done an exceptional job in uncovering gay texts throughout Indian history, from the ancient Hindu shastras to the present.

Here's the link to the Ego magazine interview with Ruth Vanita:
EGO Magazine: Love/Friendship/Desire

Thursday, March 03, 2005

People grow up!

This is one of the 'crazy' things I have done in life.

I was about 24 but still going through the tough times that every young adult goes through--career decision, dealing with your sexuality, asserting one's individuality to your family, etc. Only in my case, I was also coping with: the burden of responsibility that comes with being the only child (in terms of being heir to the family business, having progeny, blah, blah...); and my sexual orientation.

I chose to take a big risk--I decided to leave dad's practice (I had worked part-time through college and the journalism course until I took up my first journalism job). I quit studying for the Chartered Accountancy qualification, even though I had already cleared one group of subjects at the Inter. CA level. And choose a career 'not-as-respected-as-CA'--journalism.

After much agonising over these decisions, going through an aptitude test (at 24!!), talking to a vocation counsellor and shocking my parents, I finally decided to place my bet on a career in mass communication. I enrolled into the part-time course at Xavier Institute of Communications. This is not the 'crazy' decision I referrred to at the start. The setting for that was a 2-day workshop at Lonavla for XIC students on media and ethics. I suspect it was more of a bonding workshop for students. What Aradhana Sethi nee Jyoti recalls below happened on the second day (if memory serves me right). A few thoughts on Aradhan's description of the events after you have read this, but just a little more essential background: In one of the sessions, the students were divided into groups of 5-6 and were given two (hypothetical?) cases to discuss and state their stand on the question posed. The second question was on the death of a few well-known men from the 'respectable' class who had died in a fire at a theatre infamous for playing gay porn. While one newspaper decided not to publish the names of the victims for fear of bringing disrepute to them and their families, another decided to follow the usual practice of publishing names of victims in such accidents. A student from each group was asked to come forward and state whose decision they supported--newspaper A or B. And I was one of the students...
“I am gay,” – I clearly remember those words you uttered in presence of all the journalism and public relation students of Xavier Institute of Communications. Not just your words, but even the impact they had on our lecturers and some of the fellow students.

Silence followed by hushed ‘Did you know?’s and ‘Really?’ A puzzled lecturer of media and ethics (Nitin, I forget his name now!) dispersed the entire batch for a tea break. As we moved out of the room, I said to a fellow student, “I think he ‘IF’.” “No Aradhna, he said, ‘I AM’,” she responded. That was it for me. I heard. I didn’t believe my ears. A friend confirmed. And a quick thought flashed through my mind, “He’s a nice guy. Being gay doesn’t matter. Had he not told us, we wouldn’t have figured it out. And now that we know, it doesn’t matter to me – it’s not as if he was my boyfriend!” I had it settled in my head, but suddenly I realised there was a low toned buzz going on.

You were walking towards the tea tables set aside for the students. One lecturer was looking at you intently. I wondered what he thought. Then, I noticed many of the guys were moving away. Some wondered whether the other guy who used to sit next to you was your partner. In our group, he said, he wasn’t. Another friend of ours questioned as to whether you may have just said it to create a buzz. No, that couldn’t be true. The thought was dismissed. The hushed whispers of disbelief then led to talk about how brave you had been to come out of the closet in presence of all your fellow students and teachers. They gave you credit for your honesty and your courage.

Finally, most of us came to one conclusion. Being gay was not a communicable disease. Gays or heterosexuals – none of us carried our sexualities on our sleeve. Within a few minutes, I can confidently say, we all accepted the fact and it didn’t bother us.

For me, it was fun to work with you in our group – doing the photo essay, radio programme, etc. Your being gay never did bother me or even cross my mind.

Through my tenure of working as a journalist in India, I did come across a few gay men. It didn’t seem to bother me, though. But yes, had I been going out with a man, who were to suddenly tell me he was gay, I would have certainly blown a fuse. Then, that would have bothered me. That would’ve been my business!

At times when we spoke about your relationship on the phone, I wondered how many people – men and women – had ever really given a true thought to their preferences in life. I wondered if society was just moving with the norm of heterosexuality because that’s what the way of life had been, and that’s what was acceptable.

And when you shared your worry about your family wanting you to marry a girl, your concern about how your dad may react to knowing about your sexual identity, and the fact that you couldn’t be untrue to yourself or to another girl by bonding her in matrimony for the sake of your family – your thoughts, your concern for the others, and your firm conviction to being certain of who you are and what you want, led to a new sense of awe and respect for you.

I thought, “Here’s one guy who’s more a man than many others I have known. He believes in himself, respects others’ sentiments and stands up for himself .”

Aradhna says this is straight from the heart. I believe she has been somewhat generous in the appreciation of her XIC classmates--including me.

However, I did not feel the negative vibes around me probably because 1) I can be naieve and 2) I was still feeling the rush of blood in my head at what I had done, but trying not to show it and pretending nothing unusal had happened. Later, I did feel upset with the students as a whole for supporting newspaper A's homphobia--which I felt reflected their own phobia--and wrote about it in 'Bombay Dost'.

The wonderful piece of news is that people change. One classmate whom Aradhna remembers as being very uncomfortable with my gayness (I like the word--rhymes with 'royal highness'!), has now become a good chat friend (he stays in the US). People grow, they change--for the better. There's hope for more understanding, tolerance, even acceptance.