When Vasudhendra published Mohanaswamy (2013), the first collection of gay short stories in Kannada, it created a stir in the literary world. The book came as a cultural shock to many, not only for its subject but also because it revealed the sexual identity of the writer. By then, Vasudhendra had established himself as a popular writer. His earlier works of fiction and non-fiction generally revolved around issues such as globalization and cultural crises, the socio-economic changes the IT industry brought about in the lives of middle-class Brahmins and so on.
While queer fiction in English has picked up in India in the recent decades, there is relatively less noise about it in regional languages, especially in Kannada. Being a pioneer of gay literature in Kannada, Vasudhendra says he spent sleepless nights fearing law and society after he released the book. In this interview with Rashmi Terdal, Vasudhendra talks about his journey as a writer, gender issues in society and literature, the challenges of coming out of the closet, and the confidence and sense of freedom he has been experiencing thereafter. Excerpts:
You had been working as a software engineer for many years. How did writing come about and what made you quit the high-paying job and take up writing full-time?
My writing was perhaps the result of my feeling of loneliness and insecurity. I started writing when I was two years into my job, sometime in 1996. I did not like the rat race in the corporate world though it meant a lot of money and comforts. I wasn’t happy. I was feeling lost as my friends and colleagues were getting married one by one and settling down in life. The horror of the emptiness inside me and the worries about future prompted me to take refuge in writing. I began getting up early in the mornings to write for two hours before going to work. In about two months, I finished my first story collection, Maneeshe.
However, getting it published was a struggle. I had to pay a publisher to print the book. Hardly any copies were sold. Then I went to England as per the demands of my job. The four years in England were one of the creative best. I wrote Yugadi, a short story collection, a couple of essay collections and Mithuna, a translation of Telugu short stories. After coming back to Bangalore, I was keen on publishing my books but again, no publisher came forward. A journalist friend encouraged me to publish the books on my own. That is how my publishing house, Chanda Pustaka, was born. The response from readers was overwhelming. Then there was no looking back. A few years on, I gave up my career as a software engineer as I was confident of earning a living through writing. Soon I began publishing books by young Kannada writers besides my own books.
Mohanaswamy introduced the gay world to Kannada literature. What made you take up the subject?
I was struggling to come out of the closet and found literature the only means to reveal my identity to the world. Though I had begun to understand the language of my body at the age of thirteen, I suffered silently for nearly three decades for the lack of courage to declare it. Finally it became a question of life and death. The British writer E.M. Forster too went through such pain. His novel [Maurice (1971)] dealing with gay issues was not published until after his death. I did not want the world to know the truth about me after my death. That was how Mohanaswamy was born.
‘Kaggantu’ (‘The Gordian Knot’ in this series) was the first story I wrote with Mohanaswamy as the central character, sometime in 2009. It appeared under a pseudonym in a literary magazine. Many readers expressed their liking for the story through letters to the editor. I wrote more gay stories in quick succession and decided to publish them. Some of my friends discouraged me, saying that I risked losing readership. I went ahead despite that and brought out Mohanaswamy under my own name.
And how did your readers receive the book?
There was a mixed response. It did not go down well with a section of readers. The same readers who had liked my first gay story published under a pseudonym did not react when they came to know that the author was me. Critics were silent and the initial response of Kannada media was dull, while some English newspapers wrote about it. However, women readers and bloggers were more forthcoming in expressing their opinion. There were discussions about the book on social media. Gradually, the readers and the media opened up. My interviews began appearing in newspapers and TV channels. And once the book gained popularity, it went into three reprints in no time.
What surprised me was the response from the gay community in Karnataka. Young gays started approaching me, narrating their life stories. Nobody had written about them so far. While English-speaking gays in metro cities are exposed to homosexual literature, those living in smaller towns and villages do not have the advantage. Some called me up, some wrote to me and some met me personally. Many worried mothers also approached me, saying that they had found similar traits in their sons. I empathized and counselled them – I am a trained counsellor and that skill helped me immensely to listen to them. Some young gays told me that I was the first person in whom they confided about their sexual identity. So there I was, reaching out to people of the gay community and becoming their voice in a way.
Who was the first person in your family whom you confided in? What was the reaction of your friends and acquaintances?
I confided in my elder sister. I was over forty at the time. I was extremely tensed before approaching her. I did not know how she would take it. But thankfully, she was cool and receptive. ‘Why did you disclose it so late? You should have told us long before,’ she said. Her kind response came as a big relief to me. I felt liberated. It was a load off my mind and heart. I regained confidence in life. However, I still nurse a regret. My parents had passed away by then. I feel I should have revealed the truth to them when they were alive. They used to pressure me to get married, but I kept postponing it on one pretext or the other. I should have told them the reason. They loved me a lot, so I am sure they would have accepted me even after coming to know my true identity. I wouldn’t have had to live a pretentious life all along.
Mohanaswamy helped me in disclosing the truth to the larger world – my friends, acquaintances and readers. They accepted me and continued to shower the same love on me as before.
Coming out is most important and also is a must. Every gay person must discuss it with their family members as early as possible in life instead of wallowing in fear, guilt and self-pity. It may take some time for the family to digest the fact, but ultimately they will embrace the truth. According to me, your family also has the right to know who you are. Society appreciates honesty and integrity. In fact, our society is far more liberal and advanced than our law.
Did you not fear the law when you released Mohanaswamy?
The Delhi High Court, in 2009, decriminalized homosexuality between consenting adults, bringing much hope to the LGBTQ community. It was only after that I mustered my courage to bring out Mohanaswamy. Then the unimaginable happened. On the book release day, on 11 December 2013, the verdict of the Supreme Court came out. The SC had upheld Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code that criminalized homosexuality, overturning the previous judgement of the Delhi High Court and leaving the matter of amending or repealing the Act to the Parliament.
It was a crazy, painful coincidence. I lost my mind after releasing the book. I spent sleepless nights worrying about the consequences. I ran to some lawyer friends. However, they told me not to worry much. It took a few months for me to come out of the anxiety. But the efforts were worthwhile. I must say Mohanaswamy was my rebirth. I am not leading a pseudo life any more. I am being honest to myself and to the society.
Certain religious leaders are openly opposed to homosexuality. According to them, the ‘tendency’ is something against nature, it is like a bad addiction. Some even offer a ‘cure’ for homosexuality through yoga and naturopathy. What is your take on this?
Who are they to decide that homosexuality is against nature? It is not a disorder that there exists a cure for it. I can only laugh at such biased, ill-informed views. When a man is attracted towards a woman or when a woman chooses to have sex with a man, it is considered natural. But if physical attraction develops between two same-sex people, how does it become unnatural? How can you call it an acquired habit? Who has given the right to people to pass such judgements?
Some of my acquaintances, on coming to know that I am gay, said, ‘Well, we respect your choice’. What I want to tell such people is that don’t call homosexuality a choice. It is not something related to lifestyle. It is natural to a person.
Historical and religious literary evidence indicates that homosexuality has been prevalent in India since ages. Ironically, the Indian government is still clinging to the laws made by the British for us way back in 1861, whereas, in Britain, homosexuality has been already decriminalized. LGBTQ rights in the United Kingdom have evolved remarkably over time and the community enjoys one of the highest degrees of liberty in the world. It is high time India repealed Section 377 of IPC and decriminalized homosexuality. There should be a provision for homosexuals to get married and have children through surrogacy. In fact, the civil society in India has become much more modern in recent years and is way ahead of its law. Now our law must follow our society.
Even as we talk about surrogacy, we hear the news that the Union government has cleared the Surrogacy Regulation Bill, proposing a complete ban on the rent-a-womb trade, barring single persons and homosexuals from opting for surrogacy. What do you have to say about it?
It is a very ugly decision. It comes as a big blow to homosexuals who want to live together and settle down with children. The government must re-look into the decision.
Let’s talk about the stories. ‘Bed Bug’ is a very poignant one in this collection. Did you ever know a person like Shankar, the protagonist of the story?
Yes. A boy like him was my childhood friend. I was very attached to him. He was killed by his own family members as he turned out to be a transgender. ‘Bed Bug’ though has elements of fiction in it. While gays have their own share of sorrows, the life of transgenders is even more difficult and complicated.
In an interview to Outlook magazine in August 2015, Arundhati Roy said that she doesn’t believe that there are only two genders. She said gender is a spectrum. Do you agree with her?
I completely agree with her. In fact, in my opinion, gender is not only a spectrum, it is multi-dimensional. Nobody has the complete knowledge about it. As I said before, if you try to penetrate into the world of transgenders, you will find that their problems are completely different. Hardly anybody has written about them. We need to have more literature on the LGBTQ community as a whole and discussions on the socio-legal issues affecting them.
You are the first writer in Kannada to write exclusively about homosexuality. Have other writers touched upon this issue before in the history of Kannada literature?
In Kannada literature, some writers have made references to homosexuality but not with a healthy outlook. Most of them perceive gay love as something which is frightening, ridden with guilt, done under inevitable circumstances and against nature. A case in point is the Jnanpith award-winning 1968 epic novel Mookajjiya Kanasugalu (Dreams of Silent Granny) by K. Shivaram Karanth. The wise old woman in this novel views a physical relationship between man and woman as holy. However, she considers lovemaking between two men vile and disgusting, and concludes that it is a behaviour that needs to be corrected. The depiction of gays is even worse in Kuduremotte (Egg of a Horse), a 1971 Kannada Sahitya Academy Award-winning novel by Kamaroopi. A degenerate character in this novel is gay and on him, the novelist has imposed all wickedness and perversion, portraying homosexuals in a highly prejudiced light. We can see similar homophobia in ‘Bettadache’ (‘Beyond the Mountain’), a short story by Kum Veerabhadrappa, published in 1995. In his 1980 short story titled ‘Beega mattu Beegada kai’ (‘Lock and Key’), author Yeshwant Chittal pities the protagonist because of his inability to be physically attracted towards women. The writer goes on to the extent of suggesting that death is the only solution for this ‘abnormality’. Then, another short story ‘Angla Nauka Captain’ (‘English Captain’), written in the 1950s comes to mind. Its writer, Masti Venkatesh Iyengar, ‘forgives’ the gay character for his ‘folly’ committed due to non-availability of women. In U.R. Ananthamurthy’s story ‘Clip Joint’ (1964), there is a mention of homosexuality. Stuart, a character in the story says that he was gay when he studied in a public school in London. But later when he joined university, he found a ‘solution’ to this problem in the company of women. These are wrong conceptions about homosexuality.
However, things have changed for the better in the recent past. Contemporary writers like Mitra Venkat Raj, M.R. Dattatri, Guruprakash Kaginele, Sudesh Shetty, Chidananda Sali, Nagraj Vastare, and K.V. Akshara have attempted to portray gays in their fiction with a humane touch. However, sometimes, when writers other than gays portray homosexual characters, we can see that it is more out of sympathy, curiosity and the need to bring in diversity. There should be more attempts to give a larger picture of the lives of the homosexual communities.
Mohanaswamy, translated from the Kannada to English by Rashmi Terdal, is now available in paperback in bookstores. To buy it online, click here: http://amzn.to/2gDogZK
The above interview appears in the P.S. section of the book. Watch the book trailer below: