Raj Rao’s book is a collection of essays that straddle the personal and the political as they narrate the evolving LGBT movement in India. The book is rewarding once the reader acknowledges its genre-bending ambitions. The introduction by Thomas Waugh, who claims intimate acquaintance with the author for a ‘quarter of a century’, sets the mood for the rest of the text. Waugh establishes Raj Rao as a pioneering novelist, theoretician and activist. He also provides a caveat to the readers and notes, ‘There are occasional overlaps and repetitions, a reminder both that essays should not be read from start to finish in one sitting and that a good teacher always repeats the points to be learned in the exam’ (p. xvi). Since I did not heed his counsel and read the book from start to finish, my review may read as that befitting a truant student. Given the transgressive politics that Rao espouses in the book, I think it is rather apposite to do so.
The author in the course of nine chapters rehearses western queer theory rendering it relevant to the postcolonial Indian context. He demystifies prevalent approaches to the study of sexuality and provides the readers with a radical approach to sexual politics and desire.
In the first chapter, ‘Sex, Sexuality, Gender and Culture’, the author answers the provocative question ‘Is sexuality performative?’ For Rao, the performative aspect of sexuality applies to men more than women, and he details how this hinges on the ‘penetrative organ’. An opportunity for a rather interesting discussion on sexual perfomativity is lost since Rao unwittingly appears to conflate performativity with sexual performance. The chapter veers towards a discussion of heterosexism and homosociality (non-sexual, gender specific bonding) which the author discusses as an alibi to homosexuality. He also introduces sexual politics and its heroic flag-bearers—Foucault, Oscar Wilde, and Terry Goldie among others. His anti-essentialist, creative stance towards sexuality that he labels ‘de-stereotyping the body’ is a war-cry against any emergent form of sexual normativity, be it heteronormativity or homonormativity. Rao argues that homosexual oppression is sustained by religion, law and medicine and closes his chapter with a discussion on pink money and the consumptive gay identity.
In ‘Identities’, he explores the queerness of the MSM (men who have sex with men) category. Even as it militates against the hetero-homo binary, Rao suggests that MSM’s sexual practice involves a strict adherence to gender codes and breeds normativity. Although, he provides narratives to substantiate his claims, I feel that experiential narratives may also challenge such a claim. More nuanced ethnographies of sexuality are necessary in such instances. Rao, following queer theorists like Eve Sedgewick, disentangles sexuality from its intimate imbrications with gender. An important point he makes in this chapter is the need to explore the relationship between sexuality and other vectors of power such as age, class and caste, which are equally significant determinants of sexual identity and desire.
Rao endorses a politics of transgression in ‘Normativities’, akin to Oscar Wilde’s ‘trangressive aesthetic’ and Foucault’s prescription that ‘one must be set on being gay’, as a way to destabilize normative sexuality. Rao is extremely critical of any form of sexual normativity including gay marriages. He explores anti-normativity in his own novel Boyfriend. He ends the chapter claiming that homosexual men who are compelled to marry get a ‘rawer’ deal compared to married homosexual women, because feminists tend to side with the (married) women in such situations. This is a simplistic reading, if not misogynistic. Gay men’s victimhood is a social reality but could benefit from a more nuanced understanding of strategies that gay men employ to survive hetero-patriarchy and how being an asexed male may enable this.
In ‘Homosociality’, Rao explores cultural differences between the West and the East on matters of men’s public display of affection towards other men. He notes that the existence of gender-segregated homosocial space offers a sanctuary for homosexual play. Rao declares Bollywood actor Amitabh Bachchan to be the ‘prince of homosociality’ and recreates the cinema halls in the 1970s as homoerotic spaces of thrilling sexual possibilities. Detailed descriptions of his sensual experiences in these spaces, including a few instances of violence, make for an engaging read. While ‘queering’ films has been a rather common scholarly exercise among scholars of Indian sexuality, Rao’s experience as an audience elevates the brief chapter.
Rao tries to argue that homophobia exists ‘in a cosmetic and not a technical sense’ in the chapter ‘Homophobia’. Characterizing India as a shame culture, Rao contends that moral policing is pervasive and not only directed at homosexuals but heterosexuals as well. He also suggests that a heterosexist environment may put a lid on homosexual behaviour. It is difficult to completely agree with his counter-intuitive claims. Rao’s weakest chapter, however, is on ‘Lesbianism’. He claims that lesbians are better at challenging normativity than gay men, through a reading of an anthology of lesbian writing Facing the Mirror as a queer text. One of his arguments is that since lesbians tend to use pseudonyms and gay men don’t, lesbians resist identity fixing. It doesn’t strike Rao that they may experience greater censure! Elsewhere in the chapter, he makes statements such as, ‘When lesbians live together the world becomes for them a sort of ideal place. The physical and psychological violence inflicted on women in conventional marriage vanishes. There are no dominating mothers-in-law to deal with here and the relationship is free from encumbrances like children. Lesbians are free to live for each other. This is how gender ceases to be a social construct.’ It is advisable to skip this chapter.
In ‘Perversions’, Rao reiterates his advocacy of queer sexual politics that celebrates those acts deemed as perverted by a heterosexist culture. In fact, he endorses the 2013 judgement that reinstates Section 377 for it allows him to remain a sexual outlaw and resist heteronormativity! The chapter titled ‘Historiography’ accounts for the politics behind the elisions of queer authors from standard histories of Indian Literature in English. He emphasizes the need for a literary history of LGBT writers in India, and highlights recent attempts to write it. The last chapter, ‘The Politics of Section 377, IPC’ details the politics of the contemporary moment post decriminalization of homosexuality in India. Against escalating Right-Wing hegemony, Rao espouses a politics of hope and a renewed struggle for LGBT rights in the country. The book was published prior to the decriminalization of homosexuality in 2018, and given Rao’s temperament, he may be dismayed at the remarkable normalization of homosexual desire that the text of the judgment strives to achieve. Yet, the kind of politics that the book endorses is a reminder that the struggle for sexual freedom has only begun.
Rao’s book is repetitive, but never too cumbersome. It should be read as a personal and sometimes eccentric recounting of the contemporary queer scene in India. The book is most engaging when it employs the (auto) biographical mode. It does not cover new ground in queer theory or sexual politics; rather it reiterates the need for persistent queering of sexual politics in India.
Zaid Al Baset is Assistant Professor of Sociology at St. Xavier’s College (Autonomous), Kolkata. He has recently co-edited a book titled Men and Feminism in India.