Queerness is not a new thing in India, no matter the conservatives who tell you how it’s a modern invention caused by Western influence that goes against our traditions and cultural values. In fact, there is a rich history of literature about homosexuality, transgenderism, and gender fluidity. From ancient epics to scriptures, to medieval prose and poetry, to art and architecture, queerness is present.
Section 377, which made “sexual acts against nature” illegal, was added by the British during colonial rule. Still, queer literature was written and read, even if the writers were prosecuted for obscenity. Chocolate, a 1924 short story by Hindi writer Pandey Bechan Sharma, examined homoerotic desires while Lihaaf, a 1942 short story by Urdu writer Ismat Chugtai, subtly explored lesbianism. The law was finally overturned in September 2018 after a lot of hard work.
One of the reasons behind making this list was to highlight queer Indian literature for a global audience. The publishing industry is overshadowed by books published in and about the Global West. It is rare from books from other parts of the world to receive the same amount of recognition. Reading about cultures not our own is always an enriching experience. So this Pride Month, let this eclectic mix of fiction, short stories, nonfiction, and memoirs change your life.
A Life in Trans Activism by A. Revathi
Revathi is an activist, theatre-person, and author who works at Sangama, a Bangalore-based human rights organization dedicated towards helping individuals who belong to sexual minorities. She became well-known when her sensational memoir, The Truth About Me: A Hijra Life Story, was released in 2011. It narrated her own life experiences as a transwoman. This book, published in 2016, explores the changes in her life after becoming a recognized authority on trans issues due to the success of her memoir. Revathi describes her life, her fight for the rights of transpeople, and she rose in the ranks at Sangama. She also talks at length about the experiences of transmen, whose stories perhaps don’t get discussed much compared to those of transwomen. The book provides a glimpse into the life of an extraordinary person and the reader is challenged to think beyond simplistic gender and sex binaries.
A Married Woman by Manju Kapur
Manju Kapur is known for her slow and subtle domestic dramas. A few of her books have been widely adapted for television soap operas throughout India. This 2003 novel charts the life of Asha, an educated middle-class woman who had a traditional arranged marriage. Even though she has everything she could possibly want, she is dissatisfied and unhappy. In her search for new meaning, she tries her hand at activism, working on the issue of the Babri Masjid. Soon her paths cross Pipee, another activist, which leads to her sexual re-awakening and liberation. Astha begins an extramarital affair with her but her quest for love will have dangerous consequences for her marriage and family. Kapur’s novel is a nuanced exploration of familial power dynamics in an Indian context and she sensitively writes about the Hindu/Muslim communal tangles.
Babyji by Abha Dawesar
Abha Dawesar is an Indian novelist and visual artist who lives in New York City. Her works explore sexuality and relationships. Babyji, her landmark 2005 book, won numerous literary awards including the Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Fiction and the Stonewall Book Award. It is a controversial sexual coming-of-age novel about a sixteen year old girl living in Delhi. Anamika loves quantum physics and frequently engages in various acts of parental rebellion, like sneaking off to the garage to read the Kamasutra. She is a precocious child, and not an ideal protagonist. Her actions are imbued with teenage recklessness and irrational thinking, even as she stands at the cusp of adulthood. The book comes with a lot of trigger warnings and even though it might not have aged well over the years, it remains an important read today.
Cobalt Blue by Sachin Kundalkar
Sachin Kundalkar is a Marathi film director and screenplay writer. Recipient of two National Film Awards, he has also written for theatre. Cobalt Blue, originally published in 2006 and translated into English in 2013, was his debut novel which he started writing at the age of 20 and finished at the age of 22. It narrates the story of two siblings, a brother and sister, who fall in love with the mysterious young man staying at their home as a paying guest. Both of them develop feelings for him individually, without the other being aware. Kundalkar has wonderfully explored middle-class aspirations and the blurred nature of human transgressions. Told from the sibling’s perspectives as a set of monologues, it is an engrossingly tender story of longing and heartbreak which amply displays the wildly transformative power of love.
Kari by Amruta Patil
Amruta Patil was born in Goa and holds the distinction of perhaps being the first ever Indian female graphic novelist. Kari, her 2008 debut, begins with the eponymous protagonist and her lover, Ruth, attempting suicide by drowning. Both of them survive but the incident leads to their parting, resulting in a profound sense of loss in Kari’s psyche. Her sexual orientation is kept hazy and pitted against the hyper-heterosexual visage of the city she inhabits. It is an exploration of a feminine subjectivity, and how society shackles unbridled gender expression in women by promoting heteronormativity. The artwork is visually arresting and the predominantly monochromatic palette complements the story magnificently. Kari is a brilliant graphic novel about heartbreak and friendship that will be vividly remembered long after the last page is turned.
My Father’s Garden by Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar
Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar is a medical officer and writer from Jharkhand. He belongs to the Santhal tribe, one of India’s Adivasi (indigenous) groups, and his works are inspired from his rich heritage. My Father’s Garden, published in 2018, is his fourth book and it was shortlisted for the JCB Prize for Literature in 2019. Divided into three distinct sections, it tells the story of an unnamed narrator, a young doctor, as he attempts to navigate through various turmoils in his life. The unadorned prose explores the interstices of desire, sexuality and masculinity, especially in small semi-urban communities. Shekhar also sheds light on class and caste divides that affect Santhal life. Through its raw and evocative yet emotionally intense writing, the book examines outdated gender roles and expectations in the light of strained parental relationships.
Memory of Light by Ruth Vanita
Ruth Vanita is an Indian academician, scholar, translator and activist. Her specialization is in British and Indian literary history, with a special emphasis on gender and sexuality studies. She has written extensively on the long history of same-sex relations and has edited numerous excellent anthologies of queer writing from India. Memory of Light, published in 2020, is her first work of fiction. Set in Lucknow against the backdrop of King George III’s fiftieth birthday celebrations, it is a queer romance and historical fiction novel that takes place in 18th century India. In a world of royal palaces and glitzy courts, a courtesan and a female poet fall in love with each other. Supported by their friends, they carry out their dalliances in a clandestine manner. The book uses history and wonderfully transforms it into a lush tale about female desire.
Mohanaswamy by Vasudhendra
Vasudhendra is a fiction writer, publisher and queer rights activist who writes in Kannada, one of the many regional languages of India. Mohanaswamy, first published in 2013, is a collection of interconnected short stories which revolve around the eponymous protagonist who is homosexual. The book begins with Mohanaswamy’s long-time partner leaving him for a woman which leads him to wonder about the colourful life he has lived, the array of different choices he has made, and everything else that has brought him to this point. His only desire is to lead a peaceful existence with dignity and at least ignore, if not stop, the rampant homophobia he is faced with frequently since his youth. It also highlights human hypocrisy and how society views gay men. The writing is delicately disarming and the narrative draws you in completely.
No Outlaws in the Gender Galaxy by Various
Zubaan Books is a cutting edge feminist indie publishing house based in India which exclusively puts out books written by women, with an emphasis on South Asian voices. No Outlaws in the Gender Galaxy, published in 2015, is a work of academic non-fiction yet remains accessible. Using first-hand research, it examines the intricacies of gender through the lives of fifty individuals assigned female at birth. Looking at these responses, the authors attempt to come up with ways in which the mainstream discourse around gender can be altered to be more inclusive in nature. The book explores the invasive presence of gender in every arena of human life in public as well as private spheres. It also points out how regressive binary gender norms perpetuate institutional discrimination and oppression. While not an easy read by any means, it is an important glimpse into the inherent complexity of gender.
Red Lipstick: The Men in My Life by Laxmi
Laxmi Narayan Tripathi, known simply as Laxmi, is an activist and classical dancer from Mumbai. Assigned male at birth, she embraces a hijra identity for herself. It is the generic blanket term used for eunuchs, intersex, and transgender people in the Indian subcontinent. They are constitutionally recognized as belonging to the “third gender” in countries of this region. Laxmi is the first transgender person to represent Asia Pacific at the United Nations and she was even a participant on Bigg Boss, the Indian version of Big Brother. In Red Lipstick, written in collaboration with Pooja Pandey and published in 2016, Laxmi provides a no-holds-barred account of her remarkable life with its ups and downs. It is the sensational story of sexual awakening and self-acceptance, charting her journey from a simple child to a living icon.
The Man Who Would Be Queen by Hoshang Merchant
Hoshang Merchant is considered as the first openly gay poet of independent India and Yaraana, edited by him, is perhaps the first gay anthology published in the country. His stunning poetry encapsulates the gay Indian experience in striking imagery and wild shifts of phrase. The Man Who Would Be Queen, published in 2011, is a provocative lyrical autobiography moving from his dysfunctional childhood in Mumbai, to his time abroad in Palestine and Iran, and finally, to his old age in Hyderabad. His many personas intermix in this narrative, among them are Hoshang, the famous homosexual and Hoshang, the celebrated poet. It is the unabashed life of a true bohemian man, full of joie de vivre and heartbreak in unequal measures. Overall, it is a candid account of an eventful existence written with remarkable emotional depth.
It goes without saying that lists like this are always representative, never exhaustive. It is impossible for me to mention each and every work of note within Indian queer literature. So I request you all to treat this as a starter pack, a primer, an introduction. Then using it as a jumping off point, explore further and wade deeper. I would like to leave you with recommendations for a bunch of other queer Indian worth reading.
- Don’t Let Him Know by Sandip Roy
- No Other World by Rahul Mehta
- Quarantine: Stories by Rahul Mehta
- She of the Mountains by Vivek Shraya
- Trying to Grow by Firdaus Kanga
- The Truth About Me: A Hijra Life Story by A. Revathi
- Our Lives, Our Words: Telling Aravani Stories by A. Revathi
- The Devourers by Indra Das
- So Now You Know: Growing Up Gay in India by Vivek Tejuja
- Wish You Were Here: Memoirs of a Gay Life by Sunil Gupta
- Loving Women: Being Lesbian in Underprivileged India by Maya Sharma
- Close, Too Close: The Tranquebar Book of Queer Erotica ed. Meenu and Shruti
- Yaraana: Gay Writing from India ed. Hoshang Merchant