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November 12, 2018

Reading Between the Lines

Illustration by Gaurav Vikalp

Facing bullying, confusion and loneliness as a young gay man in India had become a routine occurrence for him. But Vivek Tejuja found comfort in the pages of books — many of which formed the foundation of his relationships. He looks back at the literature that gave him the courage to embrace his identity

When you are different and need to know more about who you are, what do you do? Where do you find solace and comfort? And who decides you are different? Actually, I never felt ‘different’ until the world around me started making me feel that way. Gay. Homo. Faggot. Sissy. These terms were used liberally when I would walk into my school playground, when I would eat lunch alone, when I was simply living, like any other teenager. And then I discovered one place where I felt safe — the school library. That’s where is all began.

Thankfully, my mother introduced us to books at a very early age. Five, in my case and I knew I would not be alone for a single day in my life, as long as I read. But as I became older, I learnt that there were very few books about the ‘Indian LGBTQIA scene’ so to say. Yes, there was literature around it but most of it came from outside of India.

Internet came later and with it, of course horizons widened, and we got around to reading about us — the ‘other’ placed in a culture we recognised, a place we were born and raised in — and it was the most gratifying thing to be aware and to know that there are people such as yourself in the world — to acknowledge other dentities and learn to be welcoming of all, no matter what.

The first Indian LGBTQIA literature I chanced upon at that time — I think it was 1999 — was Lihaaf by Ismat Chughtai. It was one of the most monumental reads of my life — even though it spoke of two women. But knowing that she wrote it in 1942 — a time when one couldn’t imagine two people of the same sex being together, Lihaaf was an introduction like no other. The story compelled and propelled me to read more. The search began.

I think it was around the third year of college that a college crush took me to watch the play On a Muggy Night in Bombay by Mahesh Dattani. I remember holding his hand and watching the play with him. Funnily enough, he didn’t mind, and oddly enough I had the courage to do that. The play was about different sexual orientations and the politics of sexuality. All the while, I kept wondering what my crush thought of it. I just had to read the play the next day. The college library was a haven. No one knew I was gay (at least I think they didn’t) and no one cared about what I read. I devoured books — page by page.

I would see him in the canteen. Every single day. There would be stolen glances and nothing else. I guess he knew. So did I. Our ‘gaydars’ weren’t far off. We just read. Looked at each other and read. Our books were the greatest hints of who we were — from A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth (which had so much, but it was so hidden that we had to rummage through it) to Vijay Tendulkar’s Marathi play Mitrachi Goshta centred around a lesbian relationship. There was an electric energy in the air and we dared not do anything about it. We were too scared of what would happen to us in college. Our friends (so-called) would not understand and neither of us wanted to be alienated. It ended right there. In stolen glances.

There was that one time when, unknowingly, way after finishing college I picked up a book called The Boyfriend by R. Raj Rao. There were no websites then and I didn’t have the time to read the synopsis. I bought it going just on the title. It spoke to me in ways no other book had. It wasn’t great writing, but it was about gay sex across classes in 1990s’ India. It managed to get me quite curious and, in a way, also helped me ask my first boyfriend out. Somehow, literature emboldens you like no other. It gives you the courage to speak your heart and not remain in the shadows.

It is also then, not at all surprising that most men I dated or was in relationships with also shared my love of reading. They introduced me to some fantastic queer literature and vice versa. A give and take of books — and in between were our hearts, souls and ideas. Delhi by Khushwant Singh came into my life when I thought I’d met the love of my life, and aptly enough in the capital city. It is the story of a narrator who loves Delhi as much as he loves the eunuch Bhagmati, half-man, half-woman. The book is about Delhi and Bhagmati. It taught me how to be a little more accepting and a little less biased. He and I read the book together. We spoke about it, discussed, debated, argued even, and then we drifted apart. Our love wasn’t meant to be, but the book still is on my bookshelf.

Coming out for me wasn’t easy. I was 18 and it happened at my birthday dinner, surrounded by family and extended family. I was pushed into a corner. I was told that something was terribly wrong with me. I wept. I protested. I knew I had to live life on my terms. I did not, and could not, give up. The usual drama unfolded: therapist, doctor, medication, threats of being beaten up and anything at all to get me to “change”.

Thankfully, I had literature by my side. I added more of Dattani’s books to my growing collection — Dance Like A Man and Seven Steps around the Fire consoled and gave me a lot of strength. The Golden Gate by Vikram Seth, though not set in India, spoke to me of a love that could be for both — a man and a woman — it doesn’t really matter, as long as it is love.

Years passed. I ended up working — breaking myself away from the shackles of dependency on my folks and life was to be explored and cherished anew. The 2000s were a very exciting time for LGBTQIA literature in the country. With the internet bubble giving us security and anonymity, it became easier to meet men through websites. It also became as dangerous. Yet, there was the joy of discussing those books with people who understood.

I met a man at Prithvi Café at Juhu and we kept meeting there throughout 2000 to 2010 and only spoke of books. Our very own special book club. We shared our lives, besides books. We read The Last Song of Dusk by Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi and how we bawled while discussing it. The sheer poetry that flowed through the lines broke our hearts and then healed some. Trying to Grow by Firdaus Kanga made us realise our limitations and at the same time we came to know of love — the kind that lets go and persists at the same time. The homosexual kind of love — sometimes angry, sometimes patient and mostly restless kind of love — mainly because Section 377 was still around. We quite greedily devoured and then dissected Valmiki’s Daughter by Shani Mootoo. A story of a father and his daughter both struggling with their sexual identities was quite refreshing. We couldn’t get over the idea. After work, every Friday, he was my only solace and the books, of course, that came with him. And then he left. Without a word. We haven’t spoken since.

Cobalt Blue by Sachin Kundalkar taught me that the heart heals. Always. Not as easily as it breaks, but it heals nonetheless. The quiet and melancholic novel set in Pune, about a brother and his sister falling for the same man — a tenant in their house — broke me in places I didn’t know existed. I wanted a spot, just to cry and do nothing else after reading it — it was too close to home. It hit a nerve like no other book had.

There are books and then there are books. The ones that are always sort of smiling from the sidelines because they are aware that they will be there for you, when you do not feel like yourself. When the days aren’t what you think they will be.

With Section 377 gone (good riddance to bad rubbish really), I hope more LGBTQIA voices emerge. Voices that help people discover a world that they have suppressed. Voices that make people realise and see and know, voices that say: look, you aren’t alone. We are there for you. We are like you and it is alright. The point is to always be inclusive. To show that kindness, empathy, and love know no gender or sexual orientation. It is simply there. This is the only truth that literature spells out for us. The only truth it ought to.

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