Kannada writer Vasudhendra’s book Mohanaswamy is an account of the difficulties of being gay in present-day India
Stories of gay and lesbian Indians tend to be slick urban affairs – struggles in Connaught Place, love in Bandra and heartbreak on Marina Beach. A shower of such tales has flooded bookstores in the past decade and almost all steer clear of the countryside and questions of caste and class.
Kannada author Vasudhendra’s Mohanaswamy is different. Laborious descriptions of love and occasionally clunky translation notwithstanding, this book about a man’s struggles with life, dignity and loneliness is searing and unflinching in its exploration of our myriad identities and how they fuse into the individual.
Mohanaswamy is a young man in Bengaluru who loses his long-time partner and roommate to marriage and a series of short stories take snapshots of his journey through life, flashbacks and stumbling in and out of beds.
When it came out three years ago in its original Kannada, the book caused an uproar and much infamy for its luminous author, Vasudhendra, and it’s not difficult to see why. Mohanaswamy is strewn with unapologetic descriptions of same-sex love – men pushing up men against walls, clasping private parts in communal bathrooms and caught cheating with a father of two.
The chapters aren’t chronological and one moment one sees a young Mohana in raptures over a young car mechanic when three pages ago, he was lonely or struggling to climb a mountain – but the jaggedness somehow adds to the stories.
I suspect much of the book’s cult following comes from its sentimental telling of same-sex love and loss – the first few stories read like a long monologue from the protagonist on, “Krishna, how will I live without him”.
But the book’s real strength lies when the scene shifts from love and the city completely, and delves into the everyday struggle for dignity and company. Mohanaswamy grows old, grows bored of sex and even love, is fearful of dying alone, struggles to buy a flat despite being rich – one can almost reach out and touch the ennui.
The strongest story of the collection is where he is completely absent and the centre stage is taken by the tragic but heroic story of Shankar Gowda. After being humiliated for years, Gowda returns to his village after a sex-change, proud and fabulous, and challenges both masculinity and his patriarchal family. He is killed by his brothers but not before making the reader understand that gender is about challenging power, not just pining for a lover.
Much of this magic is often lost in diffident translation. “God you’re impossible to view because of your limitless form. My vision is too feeble to behold this vast, unalloyed beauty. Having seen these infinite and formidable landscapes, I can no longer be egoistic, I can no longer be vainglorious.” How I cursed myself for not having picked up even basic Kannada in school.
But Mohanaswamy endures, mainly because unlike recent queer fiction, Vasudhendra doesn’t try to pluck same-sex love out of the complex mesh of real lives. In a searing narrative of assertion, the Brahmin Mohana is rejected by a Dalit man who doesn’t want to sleep with his oppressors. Read it in Kannada, if you can, but if you’re unlucky like me, pick up the English translation. It is well worth the money.
Translated by Rashmi Terdal
Price: Rs 399
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