Saleem Kidwai Uncovers the Many Faces of Gay India

By Raj Ayyar When I surfaced in India recently, I e-mailed Saleem Kidwai, hoping for a timeless cosmic duet, sipping a latte at a South Delhi cafe, or enjoying a communion of souls at a Sufi tavern in Nowhere, reclining on couches, waited on by exquisite round-faced, dewy-eyed youths. Alas, we had to settle for the unfleshy prosaic medium of e-print for this interview. Saleem is a former Associate Professor of History at Delhi University. He is an Islamic Studies scholar who undermines any straight monolithic view of Islam as homophobic and sex-phobic. Saleem Kidwai is the co-editor of Same-Sex Love in India On the contrary, he shows that there is a tension, sometimes creative and sometimes unbearable, between the censorious Islamic texts and institutions and the open same-sex celebrations of many Islamic poets and others. Saleem Kidwai and Ruth Vanita created gay history when they co-edited and published SameSex Love in India (NY: St. Martin's Press, 2000). It is a ground-breaking work that challenges the cheap stereotype that Indian tradition has always been too conservative-Puritan to allow any homoerotic exploration, forcing the odd exception into gay refugee status in the ghettoes of London, Amsterdam, NYC or San Francisco. Raj Ayyar: Tell us a little about Saleem---the weave of your life, 'the wonder, the wonder' of it as well as 'the horror, the horror.' Saleem Kidwai: I do not want to untangle the weave, so can only offer bio-strands. I was born in Lucknow where I went to school. I came to Delhi to study History in 1968 when I was 17. I started teaching at Delhi University in 1973 and took leave to study at McGill from 1976-80. I chose to retire from Delhi University in 1993. Since then I have been researching and writing for myself. I would not want to rate the wonders. Each is precious and there are many. A supportive family and friends, moments of discovery, time with lovers, the well sung ghazal or thumri, and on and on. The horrors: I'll make it brief. The loss of loved ones, AIDS, the killing of innocents developing into a spectator sport. And yes, a minor one was being in the Truxx in Montreal when it was busted , twenty-five years ago this fall. Raj Ayyar: You know, there are many in the West as well as in India and elsewhere who see homoeroticism as a 'Western import.' This false cliche held by colonialists and post-colonial ultra-nationalists, by right-wingers and leftists of whatever stripe, is powerfully challenged in Same-Sex Love in India. You and Ruth Vanita have done a great job of uncovering gay texts throughout Indian history, from the ancient Hindu Shastras to the present. Do you think this has created any change in the view that gayness is a Western monopoly? Saleem Kidwai: Yes, the deliberate ignoring of homoeroticism, even by academia, was something that angered both Ruth and myself. Has the book changed anything? It's too early to tell since the it's been out for less than a year. I think it has made some change. I have had men who I did not know come up to thank me for doing the book.

The most compelling was the young man who tried to touch my feet and with folded hands thanked me for helping him understand his religion. (I conveyed the compliment to where it should have been directed, namely to Ruth) I hope it will make a change. As for gayness being a western monopoly, I have never seen the argument framed in this way. I hope the change will be towards making gayness as an option in the choice of lifestyle. The over-all change in any case, is going to be slow. Rural and small town India will stay unchanged for longer. Even among the educated urbanites, the discourse is going to reach a very small section. I also must stress that our work is not an isolated achievement. There is exciting activity elsewhere too. Our book is a part of this development. I see the change in the brief history of our book. In 1998 we were peddling our 'work in progress' in India and most publishers liked the work but found an excuse not to publish the book. Today the book is in the bookshops and is being sold without any problems. Publishers now approach me to do a 'popular' book on the subject. Yes, there have been changes. Raj Ayyar: Do you feel that the greater openness of alternative sexualities in India over the past 20 years or so, could lead to a dramatic change in societal acceptance of LGBT people in India? Or, are we stuck in the parks-and-latrines syndrome of furtively pleasurable sex acts that may not and cannot be named? Saleem Kidwai: No. I don't see dramatic changes unless there is state-backed persecution like we are seeing in Egypt which I remember as surprisingly swingy in the late 80's. Over the twenty years I have seen major changes and anticipate more, but hopefully no dramatic ones. 20 years ago I would not have believed that I would be around to go out for a drink to a gay bar in Delhi, even if it was one night a week. When the first few 'gay-nights' were held, people would not be allowed in for lack of space .Yes, the changes have led to greater acceptance, greater awareness and no surprising increase in reported homophobic incidents. However, I am apprehensive of a backlash. The timing will be decided by the Right which has increasingly begun to set the political agenda in India. Here again, the example of Egypt comes to mind. It is a mistake to link social acceptance of alternative sexualities to the parks-and-latrines syndrome. They coexist every where. What was George Michael doing in that latrine? People might prefer different things and the choice should be theirs. The wonderful change that I have seen has seen is the creation of alternatives to latrines and parks. Now there are barely-underground bars and pay-parties for people to cruise in. That some still prefer the L&Ps is their choice. Some people get their rocks off talking to unknown people on the telephone! Why grudge people their pleasures? Raj Ayyar: Do you agree with psychoanalyst Sudhir Kakar and others that India is a culture of 'shame' rather than 'guilt?' In other words, sexual acts of whatever kind are okay, provided you're not caught or humiliated socially? Saleem Kidwai: To a point, because Indian culture did not stop 200 years ago. Guilt has become very much a part of the Indian psyche and it would be foolish to dismiss it. For Heaven's sake, Gandhi felt guilty for having sex with his wife. I worked on a gay helpline for a year in 2000 and answered more calls from males who felt guilt for masturbating than from those who find who felt guilty of finding men sexually attractive. I can bet there are many millions of Indians, homo and Raj Ayyar heterosexual who associate guilt with sex. Make what you want out of this. Raj Ayyar: Don't you think it's ironic that post-colonial India should cling to outworn colonial laws set in place by old ideologues of Empire like Macaulay? I'm thinking of the infamous Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code--our anti-sodomy you see any changes happening as a result of Naz Foundation and other groups challenging this dinosaur law in high court? Saleem Kidwai: Ironic yes, but surprising, no. There are many antiquated laws that would make a great spoof.

My informed-gut feeling tells me that changes are around the corner. They will come through judicial action rather that legislative action which is for the best for the moment. There is no place for public debate in the current din and any legislative change would bring out the fundamentalists and give them a platform. And sex as a soap box has been proved very effective. Can you imagine all the guilty, sexually repressed crowds that would collect around them? Groups have been lobbying for change in rape, prostituion and child abuse laws. I think sec 377 will be replaced by a larger law dealing with sexual crimes. I don't believe there will be a change that will satisfy all. Sec 377 will be go along with a lot of other junk Your reference to 'Naz Foundation and 'other groups' is a good example of the point I made earlier. The challenge to sec 144 of the Indian Penal Code is now associated with the Naz Foundation of India (NFI). ABVA (Coalition to End Discrimination against AIDS), a nongovernment organization had asked the Delhi Hight Court to declare the sec unconstitutional as far back as 1994. The case has been followed up by volunteer activists. This case had been wait-listed for so long and the court clubbed the NFI petition along with it. Hence the early hearing of the NFI plea. NFI, a funded organization, was also better equipped to generate publicity around the case. It would be unfair to sideline ABVA, a non-gay/lesbian group, from this history. Raj Ayyar: Do you think that greater awareness of gay discourses via MTV, different soaps etc., has created more self-consciousness and bashfulness in young middle-class Indians? I don't see the same degree of publicly affectionate same-sex bonding on the streets today as there was a few decades ago. In an almost Foucauldian sense, once the same sex relationship becomes the site of forbidden sex discourse, there are new taboos. What do you think? Saleem Kidwai: Awareness has naturally led to a self consciousness. Talking of cable tv, I wonder if the change has only been in this change in public body language. Who knows what is what is changing in private? If the sitcoms with their constant homesexual innuendoes, if Joey and Ross admit that they like to sleep together on a couch, and if gay men can have sexy women friends, it must be considered hip to be gay. When the only public gay role models in India are associated with the glamour industry, that too, is bound to change perceptions. I believe that more and more homosexual men are out to more and more heterosexual friends who consider it 'cool' and many are discovering that they want to 'try it out'. Yes, new taboos are bound to appear. And they will have to be dealt with the way earlier taboos were. It will also be a chance to test theories. Raj Ayyar: Don't you think that an Indian/South Asian gay awareness needs to draw upon the richness of its own homoerotic texts and practices rather than simply borrowing the gay bar, the inevitable coming-out group, the trappings of Western gay 'McWorld?' And if so, isn't the clinging, tender, physically expressive same-sex yaari/sakhyani bonding critical to more authentic S. Asian LGBT lifestyles? Don't we need to recover and embellish it, rather than hide it like a bad smell? Of course, we can always incorporate the positives of Western gay traditions….bits of Sappho, Plato, Walt Whitman's love of the 'camerado' in his many forms etc. Saleem Kidwai: Being familiar with our book, you should not be asking me whether I think that our history should be hidden like a bad smell. For me it as intoxicating as the scent of jasmine in summer. As a historian who is gay, recovery of our homo-erotic texts is very important to me. It was also one of the purposes of our book. As for embellishing it, I think creative gay people have already begun doing that. I do not think that finding a nourishing history is in any way contradictory to gay bars. Cultural borrowings have happened across history are far more complex and are not isolated decisions. Bars and 'coming-out groups' are not an alternative to the yaar/sakhi tradition which is too deeply entrenched to need intellectual protection. Both can co-exist. In a McWorld, where else would gay

men meet? Isnt it important that they are meeting? The gay liberation movement in the West gave many homosexual Indians hope. The trappings had to come with it. But then, trappings are only trappings. Personally, I identify myself as a gay man and yet celebrate and derive sustenance from our history. I don't see why the gay lifestyle in a Western sense cannot be accepted along with the yaar/sakhi concept. I do not like wasting time on discussing what term we use to refer to our selves. I will go with the most widely recognized and accepted one. I would just as happy to be called a homosexual man, or rangeen mizaaj. Or a husn parast. Raj Ayyar: As an Indian, a gay intellectual and a Muslim, any comments about the demonization of Islam by the West, especially by the US, since 9/11? Also, about the shameful attempt of rightwing politicians world-wide from Sharon's Israel to the hawks in the BJP leadership in India to jump on the Islam-bashing bandwagon? Saleem Kidwai: I don't think I could say anything about what is happening in the West that hasn't already been said. And are you surprised that Sharon and the BJP are on the same bandwagon? Raj Ayyar: Given the negative stereotypes of Islam, your selection of gay and sex-positive Indian Islamic texts in Same Sex is a refreshing counterpoise. You mention Sufism as a powerful influence on gay Islam. Is the Sufi discourse of Lover/Beloved with its delicious trembling romantic ambivalence between the mystical and the fleshly largely responsible for the vast array of same-sex practices and texts in Islam? There are so many boundary-crossings in these texts, even between the Hinduism of the conquered and the Islam of the conquerors in the medieval period of Indian history. Consider the passion of Hussayn and his Hindu beloved Madho, celebrated in Lahore, Pakistan to this day. Saleem Kidwai: Sufism was the pre-dominant influence on Islam in India and a major reason for the fairly general acceptance of Islam in India. It influenced almost every aspect of life including, obviously, same-sex 'practices'. Boundaries were crossed all the time and therefore the presumption of a conquering religion and a conquered religion needs to be re-examined. Yes, the passion of Husayn lives. Last year I was at his urs and I have never been in the vicinity of such male energy - both devotional and erotic. Raj Ayyar: Could one argue that the great mystical traditions (not the ones that are wholly Puritan-celibate) are expansive and inclusive and therefore less judgmental of sex and sexuality than the 'lower aspects' of religion--the dogma, the fundamentalism and so on? Salem Kidwai: I think one could easily argue that. Raj Ayyar: Is it fair to say that there is a tug-of-war between orthodox Islamic homophobia, going back to the Koran and the hadith, and a spirit of same-sex celebration or at least tolerance? Saleem Kidwai: Yes. The Sufis were attacked by the orthodoxy and not just for their attitude towards same sex love but for most of their beliefs. The orthodox, despite the backing of the state, could not win that battle. Sufism has left its impact which cannot be completely erased in spite of the discomfort of many Muslims today. Those attitudes might be on the retreat for nearly two centuries, but there is no reason why they should be drawn upon to imagine a future. Raj Ayyar: One of your many research passions is Begum Akhtar. Can you tell us a little about her? And about that wonderful Lucknow tawaif (courtesan) tradition? Saleem Kidwai: She was a legend not just for her singing but also as a heart breaker. I was lucky to see why. I was privileged to spend a lot of time with her in the five years before she died in 1974, aged 61. She was intelligent, charming, dignified, gracious, funny, generous and yes, extremely seductive. She wanted to live in a world of romance, fun, liquor and cigarettes of which she smoked over fifty a day. She sang those love lyrics spontaneously and so movingly. She had did not have much patience for rehearsing or regular practice. If I were a poet, she would have been the only woman I would have written love poetry for. The courtesan tradition was not entirely a wonderful tradition. Yes, it provided the opportunities for some exceptionally talented women to become legends in their own life times. Raj Ayyar: How does the tawaif tradition in places like Lucknow tie in with the genre of writing known as 'Rekhti?' What do you make of the criticism leveled against Rekhti by some feminists that it was written by males, however feminized these males were and that as such, its depictions of feminine culture (including lesbianism) are male-biased or, worse yet, written as a form of male pornographic titillation?

Saleem Kidwai: The simple reason is that Rekhti appeared formally in Lucknow in the heyday of the tawaifs. It also conveniently fitted in with the critics dismissal of rekhti (and critics do not include only feminists) as a language of women of 'ill-repute'. Yes, the courtesans must have contributed to this new genre. We also must keep in mind that these women of 'ill-repute' were also reputed to be masters of language and conversation. As for the interpretations of Rekhti, we have questioned each of those assumptions in our book. Ruth has insightfully elaborated on this in a soon to be published paper. Her response to these criticisms will, I think, raise the level of the discourse from the simplistic level it is stuck in at the moment. Raj Ayyar: In my various e-exchanges with Ruth Vanita, trying to make sense of Sept. 11 and its horrific aftermath of civil rights suppression, racial profiling and war against a nebulous enemy called 'terror', I have been grappling with the issue: is Islam, even at its androgynous, mystical, inclusive Sufi best, much more androcentric and male-privileging than the mystical traditions of e.g. Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism? Fewer women mystics and writers? What do you think? Saleem Kidwai: Can I skip this one please. My responses are already too long. Raj Ayyar: Is there anything else you would like to share with readers of GayToday, with the South Asian readers and the others? Saleem Kidwai: Well, I have shared so much already. Why not let the readers share something with me. J Reactions to our book would be particularly welcome. They can write to me at Raj Ayyar: Thank you, Saleem. I have enjoyed this duet.... Saleem Kidwai: Its been my pleasure. Thank you, Raj.

Reclaiming Gay India with Ruth Vanita
Interview by Raj Ayyar I called Ruth Vanita on a lazy winter afternoon about a month ago. I had just finished reading Same-Sex Love in India, a book that she co-authored with Saleem Kidwai. Our conversation was less of an interview and more of a cozy, timeless cosmic chat of the kind that's called 'adda' in Ruth Bengali, which covers everything Vanita from cabbages to kings and spans centuries. Since she used to teach at an elite women's college attached to Delhi University, a college that was a sister college to my own alma mater St. Stephen's, we discovered many common acquaintances and friends. I felt transported back in time to the courtyard of the Delhi University coffeehouse where, in the comforting shade of an ancient banyan tree, I would engage in passionate political, literary, and philosophical discussions with teachers and fellow students. For me, as for many other South Asians, the book is a real eyeopener. Same-Sex Love in India cracks open the clichéd stereotype, held in both India and the West that sees homoeroticism as a foreign import and that India has always gone back and forth between arranged heterosexual marriages and ascetic celibacy. This stereotype has fueled the pseudo-postcolonial argument that homosexuality is a decadent Western colonial imposition that is alien to Indian ways. On the other hand, it has also encouraged a patronizing 'let's teach you about Stonewall'

attitude on the part of those Western gay activists who see Indian gayness as a fragile, recent shoot that needs to be watered by the springs of post-Stonewall gay lib. On the contrary, Vanita and Kidwai show that same-sex relationships have been affirmed and celebrated in poetry and prose, in mythology, literature and medical treatises throughout the lengthy span of Indian history. For instance, the book explores the concept of 'swayamvara sakhi', a word found in the 11th century story cycle the Kathasaritsagara that refers to deep love between women and also refers to a self-chosen relationship. This concept forms part of the basis of Ruth's own marriage to her partner Mona Bachman. Her gay marriage comes, not out of recent developments in Vermont law, let's say, but from venerable roots that go deep in Hindu traditions not often publicized, that endorse and even sanctify same-sex relationships and unions between men and between women. The book delves into stories of sages 'born of two wombs', and of goddesses and gods that give birth without a crosssex partner. The book enabled me to discover and re-discover ancient, medieval, modern, and post-modern homoerotic Indian texts, Hindu, Buddhist, Jain, Islamic, and Indian Christian texts that have been suppressed, sanitized or minimized in mainstream Indian history. How many Hindus, for example, acknowledge that the god Harihara/Ayyappa was the son of two of the major deities of the Hindu pantheon, Vishnu and Shiva, the former in drag, the latter pursuing 'her', "as a lordly elephant would a she-elephant"? (p.71), or that one of Shiva's sons (Skandha: literally 'jet of sperm') was born after a convoluted process that involved the fire god Agni swallowing the mighty Shiva's semen, which was literally too hot for him?! (p.79). Many Indians and Westerners, accustomed to a very straight interpretation of the Krishna-Arjuna relationship in the Bhagavad-Gita (that influenced Max Muller and Thoreau so profoundly), would be shocked to discover Arjuna aroused by Krishna's beautiful waist, his penis visible through his yellow garments, "lips red like the bimba fruit" and his "knees like a

good tree, rounded, and not too far apart" and who as 'Arjuni' has wild sex with Krishna (pp. 92-93). Saleem Kidwai, who has done a masterly job of reclaiming homoerotic themes and texts in Indian Islam, edits the medieval Islamic part of the work. Despite the repressive homophobic provisions of sharia law with its heavy-duty anti-sodomy penalties, there has been a long-standing tradition of homoerotic celebration in Islam, particularly in the Sufi tradition. Also, as Kidwai stresses, even orthodox Islam is not without its quota of same-sex love references. For instance, the Koran promises beautiful boys and houris to the faithful in Heaven (p.111). The ultra-conservative hadith (sayings attributed to the prophet Mohammed) claims that Mohammed saw God as a beautiful youth with "long hair and cap awry." Same-Sex Love in India is a slap in the face of 'compulsory heterosexuality', whether it comes from the Left or the Right. It is a powerful challenge to the fundamentalist re-writing of history, whether Hindu, Muslim or Christian. Saleem Kidwai is a medieval historian who taught at Ramjas College, Delhi University for 20 years. He is working on multiple projects now: homoerotic subtexts in Hindi cinema, a biography of singer Begum Akhtar and many others. Ruth Vanita, formerly an Associate professor at Delhi University is now Associate Professor at the University of Montana.

Interviewer Raj Ayyar I remembered the varied intensities of conversation and relating that I shared with men and women in the shade of that banyan tree. The tenderness, the respect and the long hours of just being-with . . . Back to the banyan tree and the courtyard with Ruth Vanita. Raj Ayyar: Ruth, it's wonderful connecting with someone who shares memories of Delhi University in the 70s with me. What brought you to the University of Montana? Ruth Vanita: Well, I applied to a whole bunch of places and landed this job. Technically, I'm with the Liberal Studies program, which is a broad-based multi-disciplinary program. I teach a lot of Literature courses and bring in Women's Studies and Gender Theory perspectives. I taught a course on Oscar Wilde, and am planning to teach a comparative course on 'same-sex love in Indian and British Literature.' Raj Ayyar: You were an Associate Professor in the British Literature Department at Delhi University, were you not? Ruth Vanita: That's right. I do want to say that my courses here have been very well received. Missoula is a liberal pocket of Montana. Many of the students are from rural and working class backgrounds. I think it makes many of them humble and willing to learn.

Raj Ayyar: As opposed to, let's say, someone from an Ivy League college here, or from St. Stephen's, Miranda House, or some other elitist institution in India? Ruth Vanita: Yes. My students at UM don't have that know-it-all attitude. Raj Ayyar: It's refreshing to find my negative Related Articles from the GayToday stereotypes about places like Montana Archive: challenged! (laughs). The University of Review: Same-Sex Love in Inida Montana did give you a grant for 'same-sex love'? India's Pioneer: Ashok Ruth Vanita: Yes, I did get a grant from UM Row Kavi to work on the book. We also got donations India's Lesbians from friends in India, both money and space Organize to write the book. We ended up hiring and Related Sites: paying for research assistants out of our Namaste-Bazaar own pockets. GayToday does not
endorse related sites.

Raj Ayyar: When you were working on the book at the Delhi University, was there any homophobic resistance to the project from the administration? What about colleagues and students? I seem to remember that there was a good deal of homophobia at DU in the 70s. It wasn't a 'bashing' homophobia, but a 'tolerant' one that winked at same-sex relationships, provided one was discreet and 'grew out' of them into a heterosexual marriage. Ruth Vanita: I wouldn't say that there was an active homophobic resistance, as much as a taken-for-granted heterosexism, where alternatives to hetero married normswere not even perceived or given any reality status. But the administration did not object to the publication of the book. Permission was granted smilingly. In fact, I presented papers on same-sex love in Shakespeare's As You Like It at seminars held at Delhi University, papers that were very well-received by my straight colleagues. I don't know quite how to explain this, other than to say that the liberalism of a certain kind of academic Indian intellectual is truly remarkable. Of course, both at DU and here in Montana, I refrain from any personal disclosures in class. I don't see personal disclosure as appropriate in the classroom. But, that does not keep me from a full and free discussion of gay themes, when a specific text or author demands it, e.g. Shakespeare, Oscar Wilde or E.M. Forster. Raj Ayyar: Same-Sex Love opened my eyes to so much that's been repressed or sanitized in mainstream India. Ruth Vanita: The repression and sanitization are not just problems with the Indian political and religious Right. For example, Leftists, liberals, and right-wingers joined hands in publicly attacking the

controversial lesbian art film Fire when it was released in India.

Raj Ayyar: So, there's a paradoxical homophobic meeting ground between some elements of the Left and some elements of the Right? Ruth Vanita: Yes. And there is a common bias against any kind of sex discourse in India, not just same-sex discourse. The language of condemnation might vary, depending on who's making a statement. Thus, a Hindu Rightist might use the language of 'homosexuality was never a part of our glorious tradition' while someone from the Left might say 'it's a decadent capitalist/colonial phenomenon' but both are homophobic and sex-phobic. Puritanism and homophobia were certainly a part of the Victorian British colonial tradition in India and elsewhere. But, you can't lay all the blame at colonialism's door. Raj Ayyar: It's strange that in countries like India or Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe, many so-called 'post-colonialists' invoke sodomy laws that were put in place by British colonialism! It's also strange that these laws have been largely repealed in many Western colonial nations including the U.K., but still flourish in their ex-colonies to the drumbeat of 'post-colonial' identity. Ruth Vanita: Absolutely. It's self-contradictory. Raj Ayyar: You know, one thing that struck me about Same-Sex Love is that although you and Saleem are sympathetic to 'constructivism', in that you quote Foucault and Halperin, you seem to resist at least one interpretation of Foucault: that the word 'homosexual' was a construct that did not emerge till the medical discourses of the 19th century, and that 'homosexuality' became a medicalized identity in the 19th century and thereafter. Ruth Vanita: Of course, the word 'homosexual' was not used before the 19th century. I agree with Foucault there. However, other words for same-sex love have been around since the beginning of documented written history. Another interesting point: there are Hindu medical texts that date back to the medieval period, e.g. the Charaka Samhita and the Sushruta Samhita that do categorize and medicalize same-sex desire. Raj Ayyar: That means the medicalization goes back centuries before the 19th century texts that caught Foucault's eye? Ruth Vanita: Yes. And, even in the West, medical and other categorizations were known since at least the 10th century. Words like 'tribade', 'sapphist' etc. were in use long before 'lesbian' or 'homosexual'. Raj Ayyar: Tell us a little about your involvement with the pioneering Indian feminist journal Manushi. Were you

the co-founder? Ruth Vanita: Yes. Madhu Kishwar and I co-founded Manushi way back in 1978. It came out of a women's group that used to meet in my dorm room at Miranda House, DU, during my student years. The group developed the concept of the magazine. Raj Ayyar: I notice that many straight Indian women who identify with feminist causes have a great respect for Manushi. Ruth Vanita: Yes, well, the journal was never explicit about lesbian issues. It addressed gender oppression without getting too explicit about sexual orientation. This was typical of the Indian women's movement in the 70s, which carefully refrained from any discussion of sexuality and sexual issues and focused almost exclusively on violence against women------spousal abuse, dowry deaths etc. I think that tendency is changing now. A lot of younger Indian feminists are starting to explore other issues, including lesbian issues. There were many lesbians within the Indian women's movement even in the 70s, but we never discussed our sexuality openly. Raj Ayyar: I remember that there were many young gay Indian males in the 70s who, likewise, never addressed or discussed their sexuality openly. So, there was no support system, no forum for airing gay-political ideas and certainly no political base. Ruth Vanita: You know, this is part of that phobia of sexdiscourse that we discussed earlier. But it's not even-handed. After all, there is a lot of talk about heterosexual marriage in India and this IS a way of talking about sex, at least about heterosexuality. Raj Ayyar: But, isn't this another sanitized way of talking about heterosexuality.... minus the sex? And, when we consider those passionate Indian same-sex relationships, be it 'sakhyani', 'dosti' or 'yaari', once again these relationships are socially approved because they are considered non-sexual. Yet, in your book you point out that many such 'friendships' are strongly charged with the erotic and the romantic, even if there's no sexual 'acting out'. Ruth Vanita: I think it's important to remember that Indian cultures place a tremendous value on friendship, in a way that has been largely forgotten in the West and certainly in America. In India, because everyone (till recently) was so oblivious of homosexuality, it was considered perfectly normal for a samesex friend to come over to your house, hold hands, hug, and even sleep in your bed. That would be unthinkable in contemporary America! Raj Ayyar: Some of that is due to the very deep-seated homophobia in the U.S. It was not that uncommon in 19th century America, Whitman's America. But there is such selfconsciousness about sexual identity in the U.S. today that all same-sex closeness is seen as suspect. Deep emotional bonding has all but disappeared even in heterosexual discourses and practices. Ruth Vanita: Some of it is due to the rushed quality of life here. Most Americans meet to 'do' something together, seldom to just be together. And these deep bonds need patience, a lot of time, and a lot of just 'hanging out' together for no particular reason. On the other hand, some American women both gay and straight seem to find it easier to develop emotional closeness, than

many American men do. Raj Ayyar: Could you tell us a little your book Sappho and the Virgin Mary? Ruth Vanita: Well, I argue that even in the straight white male patriarchal tradition, the Creatrix has always influenced the literary imagination. The Romantics, Meredith, Forster etc. were deeply influenced by her. Raj Ayyar: Is this Virgin Mary cult a backdoor resurgence of the Goddess archetype in the patriarchal West? Ruth Vanita: Absolutely. There's been a lot of research on this theme. Not only the Virgin but Catholic female saints in the Middle Ages can be seen as the re-writing of goddesses such as Demeter, Persephone, Isis and so on. However, my book focuses not on the medieval period but on the modern period from the Renaissance onwards. Raj Ayyar: Don't you think that Protestantism can be seen as a desperate attempt to stamp out the feminine in Christianity? Ruth Vanita: In a sense, yes. You can see this trend as early as Martin Luther's attempt to purge the church of Mary and all female icons. I don't think that the female presence has disappeared from Protestantism, however. Raj Ayyar: What about the connection between Sappho and the Virgin? Ruth Vanita: Sappho has been regarded as the ultimate female lyric writer, whose style was a model for many writers, including the Romantic Movement. Her lesbianism was a hovering presence surrounding this influence. I've reproduced paintings in the book that show the Virgin surrounded by female saints and feminized males, be they angels or saints. She is a mentor, guardian and teacher to them. Sappho too was surrounded by young female protégées; she played teacher and mentor to them...two different ways of approaching the same thing. Of course, Sappho represents the more sexualized form, while the Virgin clearly does not. And yet, convents and nunneries were refuges for same-sex communities. Hostile Victorian puritans, wherein the connection between the two was stated in a negative manner, saw them as “hotbeds of Sapphism”. Raj Ayyar: In Same-Sex Love, you argue against the view that gender-segregated monastic communities were always oppressive to women. You point out wryly that the privileging of procreative sex is not necessarily of advantage to women. Ruth Vanita: Uh-huh. I think it's healthy to have alternatives to procreative sex and heterosexual marriage. I'm not denying that some women were oppressed in these monastic communities, but in many cases it was based on a free choice. You see that clearly in the writings of some Buddhist nuns as also in the writings of some women in the West like Hildegard of Bingen. For these women, it is obvious that the monastic lifestyle was an active, autonomous choice. Raj Ayyar: Do you think that the Western 'coming out' model

applies to all cultures? Ever since Stonewall in the late 60s, many Western gay activists have a fixed model of the comingout process in their heads, and speak and act as if it's the sole paradigm for lesbians and gay men everywhere. Ruth Vanita: Well, I don't think you can make a blanket recommendation for India, given the great diversity of cultures there. However, I do think that the gay person has to make some kind of statement in saying 'no' to the standard arranged heterosexual marriage, whether you frame that as 'coming out' or not. Raj Ayyar: What do you think of Ashok Kavi? As you know, there are many gay movements popping up all over the Indian urban scene, thanks to the pioneering efforts of Ashok and a few others. Ruth Vanita: I respect Ashok greatly. In fact, when he came out in a popular Indian magazine many years ago, I thought 'great!' I grew up with many of the classic gay feelings of loneliness, feeling different from others, cutoffness and so on. Ashok's openness has encouraged many gay Indians to come to terms Ashok Kavi with their sexuality. Raj Ayyar: Ruth, it's been a joy talking with you. Ruth Vanita: Likewise, Raj. I've enjoyed our conversation.

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