Will Metropolitan, Urban, Savarna Queers Acknowledge The ‘Other’?
LGBTQ - The movement should be about Inclusivity And Intersectionality
Recently, social media was abuzz with photos and videos capturing the vibrant spirit of the “Queer Made Weekend” organised by Tinder and Gaysi Family Delhi. the event brought together individuals from different parts of the city to celebrate queerness.
It was an occasion for the urban queer to celebrate, embrace and flaunt their sexuality with their extravagant clothes. Queer entrepreneurs also showcased and sold some expensive products they had made.
It is in this context that one needs to acknowledge its role in making queer identity exclusive to ‘upper-class’ urban people. These events potentially intimidate many and make them question their own queerness. As my friend, Ipsita, said, “for them, you need to act and be queer in a certain way, they explicitly ask for a marker to set apart, which is closely entwined with the question of class.”
In a complex society like India, where caste and class biases are prevalent, the imitation of Western gay bar culture by Indian queer circles can be seen as a futile endeavour. These circles, intended to challenge heteronormative binaries and differences, end up creating new divisions based on class, clothing, and comfortability with a specific way of speaking and living. The recent "Queer Made Weekend" exemplified this trend.
Although it provided a space for ‘affluent metropolitan queers’ to rejoice, it inadvertently promoted exclusivity, potentially alienating and deterring others who do not conform to their established norms.
Homosexuality in India can not be understood through a single interpretation. It is intertwined with various structures of society and privileges enjoyed by different sections throughout their lives.
There exist different idioms of same-sex desires which are often neglected by today’s generation who primarily considers homosexuality within the framework of theorised notion of identity. “These different idioms manifest in the form of habits (‘aadat, lat, baazi’) of friendship (‘dost, saheli, yaar’), of play (‘masti, shauk’) of love (‘ishq, dil, pyaar) can not be incorporated within the notion of homosexuality which is itself a part of the larger spectrum of same-sex desires” wrote scholar Akhil Katyal.
Today’s generation tends to emphasise the notion of ‘coming out’ and identifying oneself with these labels of queerness, these idioms exist in the common discourse without forming a sense of identity or isolability. Here the question arises, whether this generation will ever acknowledge these intersecting idioms?
Will they attempt to be more inclusive in their understanding as well as while creating queer space? or will they remain in their own bubble of extravagance, prone to 'cancel culture' when confronted with different notions of same-sex desires?
Khabar Lahariya, a media platform, recently posted a story on a same-sex couple from Hamirpur, Ritesh and her wife. In the story, Ritesh's wife mentioned that she has never considered Ritesh as a woman; instead, she thinks of her as a man.
Many people on social media criticised her statement, arguing that she is in denial and denying her relationship with a woman due to societal pressure. However, this argument stems from our limited metropolitan understanding of queerness.
While acceptance is important, we also need to acknowledge that queer identities in our country are complex and intricate, our generation must make effort to understand these intricacies without seeking to erase their existence entirely
With this concern, considering the notion of homosexuality and these other idioms of same-sex desire, I analyse how differently the theme of homosexuality is being explored in Ismat Chughtai’s story ‘Lihaaf’ and Hansal Mehta's film ‘Aligarh’. My argument lies in the acknowledgment of different idioms in these two fictional narratives, how these idioms are different from the theoretical notion of homosexuality, and why today’s generation needs to know about them.
In the film ‘Aligarh’ homosexuality is explored in the context of identity. Chughtai’s ‘Lihaaf’ mentions same-sex desire as part of these other forms of idioms, particularly ‘baazi’.
To understand this argument better, let us first examine the connection between the notion of "baazi" and Chughtai's narration. In ‘The Doubleness of Sexuality’ Akhil Katyal mentions how in the stories of Ismat Chugtai there was prevalence of the notion of ‘baazi’.
Ashish Sahni, the Hindi editor of Chughtai’s transliterated text, talking about her memoir ‘Kagazi Hai Pairhan’, said how Chughtai repeats the idiom of ‘baazi’ in different contexts. She mentions her habitual conversation, jumlabaazi (phrase-playing) with the Urdu poet Sardar Jafri.
The suffix baazi always brings the element of play, performance, and familiar excess to that to which it is joined (Katyal 2016: 72). It also indicates a habit for something, a habit that could also be in surplus which also could be bad habits like darubaazi (alcohol), sustibaazi (laziness) (ibid: 74).
Katyal suggests that baazi does not solely reside within a person, which is why it does not lead to the formation of a fixed identity.
Considering these insights, when we examine ‘Lihaaf’, we see that Begum Jaan and Rabbu share a similar habitual relationship that resembles ‘laundebaazi’, which implies same-sex desire. However, this desire is never explicitly acknowledged by the characters involved.
Their physical intimacy is characterised by fun and playfulness, without the need for them to identify as lesbians. It is simply an activity they engage in to please each other. At the time when Chughtai was writing this story, there may not be any need of identifying themselves as something, and these desires existed independently of established queer labels.
As Foucault mentions in Volume I of ‘The History of Sexuality’, sexual practices required little secrecy; words were spoken without reticence, and acts were performed without concealment. There was a tolerant familiarity with the illicit—a period of shameless discourse and open transgressions, when bodies were openly displayed and intermingled.
Then we started to produce the idea that who we have sex with produces a certain sense of identity of who we are and gradually society restricted, and prioritised heterosexuality over homosexuality and same-sex desires became an interdiction.
Although in the context of 'Lihaaf,' the relationship between Begum Jaan and Rabbu doesn't form any kind of identity, it is important to recognize and acknowledge the validity of their desires. Today, in many parts of our country, these idiosyncrasies still exist and are prominent in rural areas. They should not be cancelled by today's generation; instead, we should make an effort to include them in our understanding of homosexuality.
My friend, Roop, who lives in a village in middle Assam, once said that he loves to read my poems, which are based on queer experiences. When I asked what captivated him about my poems, he replied that they are ‘different’. However, when I mentioned the word 'homosexuality,' he seemed taken aback.
He told me that he had recently discovered the term and realised that there is a word for whatever he was feeling for the man he calls his ‘best friend’. In their friendship, there is both physical and emotional intimacy.
They perceive it as different, but are not ready to identify themselves as homosexuals. Instead, they prefer to call it something ‘different’ and live with that feeling. I never sense any denial from Dhon or his partner, they accept the feeling they have for each other, and if there is certain denial, I am not trying to defend it.
What requires attention here is the continued existence of expressions of same-sex desire that are often categorised as ‘yaar’ (friend), ‘dosti’ (bond), and do not necessarily align with the identity of homosexuality. This could be because some individuals are still unaware of these identities, and in certain cases, even if they are aware, they choose to remain the same.
The question then arises: Will metropolitan, urban, savarna queers ever acknowledge these existing idioms of same-sex desires? In Hansal Mehta’s ‘Aligarh’ (2015) the character ‘Prof. Siras’ (played by Manoj Bajpayee) expresses his discomfort through explicit facial expressions when he hears ‘Deepu Sebastian’ (played by Rajkumar Rao) associate him with the term ‘gay’.
In response, he asks, “How can someone describe my feelings in three letters?” and then he goes on to compare it with poetry. Although the film is based on the notion of identity, Mehta has evidently portrayed the journey of accepting and embracing one’s sexuality
This makes this narrative different from Chugtai’s portrayal of same-sex desire. The film also shows how there are people who may not identify as ‘gay’, but their desires and relationships still exist. Prof. Siras admits his love for a man, even though he initially refuses to accept the term ‘gay.’
Thus, beyond the realm of homosexuality, various idioms exist in our country, rooted in class and access to specific forms of knowledge. We have the courage to identify with these labels because of our privilege and access to education and social media.
However, not everyone comes from the same socio-economic background, emphasising the need of acknowledging and creating spaces that recognise diverse forms of same-sex desire, rather than restricting queer spaces to the upper-class urban population. Although these urban spaces appear to be inclusive from a distance, they primarily attract people from similar socio-economic backgrounds.
For instance, this January, during the Delhi Pride Parade, I witnessed a lively procession of queer people marching towards Jantar Mantar, dancing and singing in their extravagant attire. At the same time, I noticed people from the hijra community watching the crowd from the opposite side of the road, looking perplexed.
They didn’t join the parade because they could clearly see the ‘social difference’ between themselves and the crowd. I didn't see anyone from the parade inviting them, nor did I see any clear limitations placed on them.
The prevailing ambiance of the space, though, seemed to discourage their inclusion. Therefore, these spaces are required to reflect and reevaluate their culture; otherwise, the solidarity they promote will be limited only to social media and exclude the interconnected facets of homosexuality, caste, and class dynamics.
SANJIB KALITA is a student pursuing MA History, at the University of Delhi. views expressed are the writer’s own.