Kannada writer Vasudhendra’s bestselling book Mohanaswamy, which was recently translated into English, explores life as a gay person is contemporary India and has been inspired by his own life experiences
Five years ago, Desha Kala, the Kannada literary magazine edited by writer Vivek Shanbhag, ran a 6,500-word story titled Mohanaswamy. It was about a gay character by the same name and the author took on the pseudonym ‘Shanmukha S’.
Shanbhag says the story was fascinating, and not because it spoke of gay love. “The central aspect of ‘love and longing’ was well beyond the social and anatomical construct in the story. Its emotional energy was very high because it was deeply autobiographical,” he says.
Two years later, the real ‘Shanmukha S’ came out of the closet: he was Vasudhendra, a celebrated Kannada author and high-ranking techie who had just stepped down from the position of a vice-president at the UK-based Genisys Software the same year when Mohanaswamy was published. By then, Vasudhendra had already published 12 books and was being hailed as the next Masti Venkatesha Iyengar of Kannada literature.
Vasudhendra released a full collection of Mohanaswamy stories in 2013 and it was clear that the stories were autobiographical. He spoke in them as the one who made the journeys described in the writings. The cover showed a naked man crouching against a dark massive tree trunk. Ironically, the book was released on December 11, 2013, the same day the Supreme Court upheld Section 377 that criminalises gay sex.
The verdict sent him into some panic: could the admission of homosexuality through a book be actionable? But the support he got from friends and well-wishers was simply overwhelming, he recalls, and this allayed some of his fears. “When I look back at the challenges, I feel happy that I faced them instead of cowering down,” says Vasudhendra.
An overwhelming response
Initially, the book was greeted with shocked silence and it did seem for a while that Vasudhendra may have put at stake his hard-earned reputation as a litterateur whose books had sold as many as 80,000 copies. But soon the buzz around the book grew and it became the most widely discussed publication across Karnataka, especially over online forums. Vasudhendra’s fan base now extended to its small towns as well. Before long, Mohanaswamy had turned into a bestseller.
“I gained new friends all over. The response was so overwhelming that Mohanaswamy suddenly became omnipresent. The book had lost (me) a few readers but it also created a new genre of readers,” he says.
This week, the English translation of Mohanaswamy was launched by Harper Perennial India, giving his writing a far wider base of readers.
The writing life
Vasudhendra, 47, has given up his corporate career to become a full-time writer. (He does teach a few hours in an engineering college. Looking back at the furore his book caused, he says that he had no option but to open up on the question of his sexual identity through the book.
“It took me more than four years to put out all the stories of the Mohanaswamy collection together since it was painful in the beginning to confront my own sexuality. Did it hurt some? Did it offend them? I don’t know. No matter what, Mohanaswamy unburdened me and gave me the wings. I would never trade that feeling with anything else,” he says.
Vasudhendra’s literary career had a dream start. His first book, Nammamma Andre Nangishta, a collection of short stories, had sold 18,000 copies and an additional 5,000 audio books and won him the Sahitya Akademi award in 2006. His early works were built on his own life experiences – they dealt with his growing-up years in the small town of Sandur, near Bellary, and the urbanization of the mining town where rapacious commerce was bringing in wealth but also drastically changing human relationships. His later works came during his stints abroad.
When Mohanaswamy was published as a single story in Desha Kala, it had elicited a rather curious response. “Most questions revolved around the identity of the writer,” says Shanbag, who kept the writer’s identity confidential even as he discussed the story at literary forums.
Vasudhendra admits that coming out of the closet was an easier task for him than many others – he is ‘upper’ caste, affluent and a global citizen in many ways (he spent a couple of decades as a coder in the UK). “I am aware of my privilege. But being gay is just one part of my identity. It isn’t my entire being,” he says.
The author does not see himself as an activist in the conventional sense. “I am adequately political in my writings. This is my activism. If I take the other roads that do not support my writings and choose to walk a path that’s not mine integrally, I’ll be finished,” he says.
Same-sex love in Kannada literature
Vasudhendra is not the first or the only writer to deal with homosexuality in Kannada literature. Writer and critic SR Vijayshankar talks of Punarapi, a Kannada novel on lesbian relationships by young writer Kavya Kadame that was published after Mohanaswamy. What Mohanaswamy achieved was something unique, it created space for an alternate literary genre. “Vasundhendra’s narrative encouraged an ecosphere of plurality and also tolerance to a personal norm that the majority may have objection to. He has set a new order of experiences to be narrated from,” says Vijayshankar.
During his journey from Sandur to Bengaluru, and then to the west, Vasudhendra often struggled with the question of his identity and the question of keeping it quiet or going public with it. His father was a state government employee and his mother a traditional homemaker. Vasudhendra was the youngest of three siblings and the lone son. But by the time Mohanaswamy was published his parents had passed away. His sisters however empathised with him. “They have been compassionate about this. One of my sisters said ‘you suffered so much for so long’,” he says.
Traditionally, homosexuality was viewed as an eccentricity in Kannada literature. “Being gay was considered curable. It was also seen as a behavioural issue that only the rich faced, or something that men without access to female company felt,” Vasudhendra says.
Works of Kannada authors such as Yashawanta Chittala, Shivarama Karanth and Dr U R Ananthamurthy, among others, did explore the idea of alternate sexuality. But it was the always the outsider’s perspective and a telling judgment of sorts about the issue without dealing with the intricacies.
“Writing, or narrating in the written form is a positively labyrinthine process. There are thoughts that get transformed into words, and then there are human experiences that get articulated. Good literature needs both,” points out Shanbhag.
After Mohanaswamy, one can make an argument there has been a marginal increase in the openness in Karnataka about depicting the LGBT community. Kannada film Naanu Avananlla Avalu (I am ‘she’, not ‘he’) based on the Kannada translation of the Tamil autobiography of transgender artiste, Living Smile Vidya, won many accolades. It also brought home a national award for acting to Kannada film industry after nearly three decades.
Vasudhendra is also a publisher who encourages writers from small corners of Karnataka, especially first timers who have unconventional ideas. In 2004, he set up a publishing house, Chanda Pustaka, that has published 63 books so far. Even today it is a one-man operation and produces six books a year. One of its young writers, Padmanabha Bhat Shevkar, for instance, has received numerous awards for his work.
With the publishing of Mohanaswamy, Vasudhendra says his literary life has acquired a new dimension. “It gave me a worldview that I hadn’t been able to access till then,” he says. Can he imagine a future in which it wouldn’t be such an event for a writer to unburden his sexuality through his writings? “That’s possible too. A few years down the line, we could train our eyes on the focus alone. But for that to happen, Mohanaswamy is a curve in your path you’ll have to meet, make peace with, leave behind, and continue your march,” he adds.
(In arrangement with Grist Media)
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