At a recent literary event in the city, writer, poet, professor and one of India’s leading gay-rights activists R Raj Rao discussed various issues related to the homosexual and LGBT community.
At the session tittled ‘LGBT Literature’, Rao spoke about his book Criminal Love?: Queer Theory, Culture, and Politics in India. His 2003 novel The Boyfriend is one of the first gay novels in India. His current book takes up the challenge of studying the wide gamut of lived reality of the Indian queer community, against the backdrop of a set of theories. It picks up issues, concepts, and theories within the realm of queer studies and dissects them against the day-to-day experiences of Indian queers. Digging deep into his own experiences and those of the people with whom he has come into contact, Rao highlights incidents of transgression within a seemingly monosexual society and analyses all aspects of the struggles of being queer in a repressive atmosphere. Here are highlights from the session:
Definition of love
“The title is ironic. The publishers decided to put a question mark after Criminal Love, which was their way of saying that they do not entirely agree with anti-gay or anti-homosexual laws that exist in India right from the 19th century... My work tends to be extremely explicit, erotic, and even pornography. For me, personally, that is a part of my aesthetics, so I do not draw a fine line between what is pornography and what is not,” said Rao about his book who feels that love and sex are deeply related.
He confessed, “For me, the definition of love and sex has always been same sex love for men and not cross sex love for women and that’s what my work contains and it is a representation of the same. My point is that the representation of something and the actual sexual act are two sides of the same coin. So technically I am a criminal and I am writing about same sex love which is seen as criminal love. I am happier being an outlaw and a criminal.”
He calls Section 377 ‘strange’. “According to Section 377, only vaginal sex is excluded from the definition of unnatural sex, hence the act of a man having anal sex with his wife is considered an offence. That is the strange section of the Indian Penal Code. This idea is inspired from British India, so my question is: Should the state decide for us what is natural and what is unnatural? You can’t generalise what is natural and what is not but sadly the state generalises it. So it is a strange law! That said, the law has been harsher for gay men as compared to lesbians. Most of the arrests and assaults have been on homosexual men,” he elaborated.
Indian culture and homosexuality
It has often been argued that homosexuality is against Indian culture and that the West has to be blamed for it. But Rao disagrees.
“There are contradictions!” he exclaimed adding, “We have the Kamasutra and Khajuraho. If you go to Khajuraho and look at the sculptures, you’ll realise that they show homosexuality.
Kamasutra also depicted the third sex and third gender. We see a lot of pluralism in love and we have to celebrate that.
Homosexuality was never criminalised before the British came to India, it was seen as an alternative form of love.”
Indians, Rao said, are a classic case of amnesia who have forgotten their history and legacy and believe that their history begins with the British. “Hence we often say that homosexuality is against Indian culture. Even a person as educated as Subramanian Swamy has been saying that homosexuality is against Indian culture. But people like Shashi Tharoor has openly pointed out that those who think that they are true Hindus should legalise same sex love,” Rao insisted.
So how do homosexuals find their space? “There have been several instances of homosexual suicides over the years.
Sometimes lovers end their lives together because their families insist on separating them or they want them to get married to the opposite sex. The question is do you succumb to societal pressures or choose to live the way you want? The answer is too complicated and full of challenges,” lamented Rao.