No matter what the conservatives say about queerness. It is not a new thing in India. The rich literature about homosexuality, transgenderism, and gender fluidity, from ancient epics to scriptures, to medieval prose and poetry, to art and architecture are evidence of their existence.
Even before the Supreme Court scraped the criminalisaton of consensual sexual conduct between adults of the same sex, queer literature was being written and actively read.
'Lihaaf', a 1942 short story by Urdu writer Ismat Chugtai, subtly explored lesbianism while 'Chocolate', a 1924 short story by Hindi writer Pandey Bechan Sharma, examined homoerotic desires.
Here’s a list that highlights queer Indian literature for both Indian and global audience:
'A Married Woman' by Manju Kapur
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. Kapur is known for her subtle and slow daily soaps. A few of her books have been widely adapted for television soap operas throughout the subcontinent.
This 2003 novel narrates the life of Astha, an educated middle-class woman who had a traditional arranged marriage. Even though Astha has everything she could possibly want, she is unhappy and dissatisfied. 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 liberation and re-awakening. Astha begins an extramarital affair with her but her quest for love will have dangerous consequences for her marriage and family.
'Cobalt Blue' by Sachin Kundalkar
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 the blurred nature of human transgressions and middle-class aspirations. The story is narrated from the sibling’s perspectives as a set of monologues.
'Cobalt Blue' is an engrossingly tender story of heartbreak and longing which amply displays the wildly transformative power of love.
'Cobalt Blue' was originally published in 2006 and translated into English in 2013. It was Kundalkar’s debut novel which he started writing at the age of 20 and finished at the age of 22. He is a Marathi screenplay writer and film director. He received two National Film Awards, and has also written for theatre.
'A Life in Trans Activism' by A. Revathi
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. This book, published in 2016, explores the changes in Revathi’s life after becoming a recognised authority on trans issues due to the success of her memoir 'The Truth About Me: A Hijra Life Story'.
Revathi describes her life, her fight for the rights of trans people, and how she rose. She also talks at length about the experiences of transmen, whose stories perhaps don’t get discussed much compared to those of transwomen.
She is a theatre-person, an author and a trans activist who works with a Bangalore-based human rights organisation 'Sangama', dedicated towards helping individuals who belong to sexual minorities.
Revathi became well-known in 2011 when her sensational memoir was released. It narrated her own life experiences as a transwoman.
'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.
'Red Lipstick: The Men in My Life' by Laxmi
'Red Lipstick', written in collaboration with Pooja Pandey and published in 2016, 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. 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 country. They are constitutionally recognised 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'.
'Mohanaswamy' by Vasudhendra
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. 'Mohanaswamy', first published in 2013, is a collection of interconnected short stories which revolve around the eponymous protagonist who is homosexual.
Vasudhendra is a fiction writer, publisher and queer rights activist who writes in Kannada, one of the many regional languages of India.
'Memory of Light' by Ruth Vanita
'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. Ruth Vanita is an Indian scholar, academician, activist and translator and activist. Her specialisation 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.
Babyji by Abha Dawesar
Babyji, was Dawesar’s landmark 2005 book that 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 16-year-old girl living in Delhi.
Anamika enjoys 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.
Abha Dawesar is an Indian novelist and visual artist who lives in New York City. Her works explore relationships and sexuality.