Essay: Queering translation: Locating queerness in Indian languages

Updated on Sep 29, 2022 06:03 PM IST

India’s queer community carries within it several social, cultural, political and economical identities apart from that of sexuality and gender. Writing in their mother tongue will help queer writers express themselves freely and educate people about different and localised perspectives on queerness

Members of the LGBTQIA community in Kolkata celebrating on September 6, 2018 after the Supreme Court of India struck down Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code that criminalised gay sex. (Samir Jana/HT PHOTO) PREMIUM
Members of the LGBTQIA community in Kolkata celebrating on September 6, 2018 after the Supreme Court of India struck down Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code that criminalised gay sex. (Samir Jana/HT PHOTO)
ByChittajit Mitra

As we celebrate four years of the decriminalization of consensual queer sex by the Supreme Court of India, I’m reminded of a segment from the speech that then Chief Justice of India, Dipak Misra gave while delivering the judgment: “It’s their momentous walk to freedom to an ethos of dignity, equality and liberty. This freedom can only be fulfilled in its truest sense when each of us realise that LGBT people possess equal rights as any other citizen under the magnificent charter of rights – our Constitution”. Today, in 2022, as a community, we need to revisit these words and question whether we have been able to claim what our Constitution promises us. One of the key parameters to judge this is whether we have located ourselves and found affirming representation in different forms of art. While thinking about that, I’m immediately pulled towards literature and I struggle to find a strong base which could have been made in the post-377 era ultimately helping the community express itself in its own words and language.

The story is about a sharp turn the life of an elderly woman takes when she loses her husband, and how she picks herself up and tries to reinvent herself. In the process of doing so, she befriends a transgender woman. (Book cover)
The story is about a sharp turn the life of an elderly woman takes when she loses her husband, and how she picks herself up and tries to reinvent herself. In the process of doing so, she befriends a transgender woman. (Book cover)

This year, Geetanjali Shree’s Tomb of Sand, translated into English by Daisy Rockwell, became the first Indian book originally written in Hindi to be awarded the International Booker prize. The story is about a sharp turn the life of an elderly woman takes when she loses her husband, and how she picks herself up and tries to reinvent herself. In the process of doing so, she befriends a transgender woman. This, apparently, was enough to confuse her daughter, who considered herself to be the more “modern” one. An important question to ask here then is whether the queer character has their own narrative arc or if they are just a plot point to enhance the main character’s story. This makes me think about two specific aspects of storytelling: first, the need to share queer stories and the importance of queer people having that space to share them as they want. The second would be to emphasize the importance of sharing such unique stories in native Indian languages and then getting them translated. In India, there’s a wide perception that the queer community’s existence is limited to metro cities and is dominated by the English-speaking elite. Writing in their mother tongue would not just help queer writers express themselves freely but also enable people to educate themselves and understand different and localised perspectives.

Bangla translator Arunava Sinha emphasizes the importance of queer writers getting published as these are stories that needn’t necessarily be told by others. Santa Khurai, secretary of All Manipur Nupi Maanbi Association (AMANA), an indigenous Manipuri Nupi Maanbi activist and scholar adds that promoting queer literature in native languages helps explore diversity within queer identity and culture as the languages emerge from their own sociocultural and lived experiences. Apart from broadening people’s understanding of queer culture and identity, it would also help minimise the glorification, misrepresentation and stereotypes created by the perception of queer homogeneity.

It is important to understand that, like any other community, India’s queer community does not exist in a vacuum and carries several social, cultural, political and economical identities apart from that of sexuality and gender. Sharing their stories in their native languages would help individuals, who are generally silenced due to lack of accessibility to the English publishing industry, to share their truth.

Ritwik Das, a non-binary political feminist activist from Lucknow, believes it is important for people from vulnerable communities to present their realities through writing or other art forms. Not doing so allows people from privileged backgrounds to occupy that space. To break the shackles of heteronormativity, we queer people need to tell our stories of love, protest, history and resistance in our language. Free thinking requires free literature and free queer literature has the potential to bring about a revolution. It is time we write our own truth and not be limited to being worshipped as Ardhnarishwar even as our stories of separation, lynching and oppression are swept under the carpet.

Translation as an art helps diverse narratives written in various languages to reach people who otherwise wouldn’t have access to such literature. But within this debate of accessibility lies a crucial aspect of whether queer people are even getting the space to share their stories in traditional publishing spaces.

In her new book, Maya Sharma mentions some of the queer stories published in the past in Indian languages (Book cover)
In her new book, Maya Sharma mentions some of the queer stories published in the past in Indian languages (Book cover)

In her latest book, Footprints of a Queer History: Life Stories from Gujarat, Maya Sharma mentions some of the queer stories published in the past in Indian languages. Hindi author Pandey Bechan Sharma “Ugra”’s Chocolate, which openly talked about homoerotic love and physical attraction between men, appeared in 1924. Ugra was strongly advised against publishing the work; yet, he went ahead. Close to a century later, has the situation got any better?

Lesbian and gay studies scholar and author Ruth Vanita, whose translation of Chocolate was brought out by Duke University Press in 2009, says Hindi publishers are generally quite keen to pick up queer stories. She believes that it might be the same for publishers of other Indian languages as well. It is then up to the author to choose the best translator for their work, regardless of their identity.

Lesbian and gay studies scholar and author Ruth Vanita says Hindi publishers are generally quite keen to pick up queer stories. (Book cover)
Lesbian and gay studies scholar and author Ruth Vanita says Hindi publishers are generally quite keen to pick up queer stories. (Book cover)

Queer publisher and diversity, equity and inclusion strategist C Moulee from Chennai, however, says many “mainstream” publications don’t see business in literature that doesn’t fit into cis-het norms. He believes there is not enough understanding about the diversity of queer experiences to even commission and identify writers. While we still do not have a society where people can be “out” and write freely, it is also true that people who commission books have a limited knowledge of queer lives, queer writers and even of what constitutes queer literature. In such a situation, it is perhaps unfair to state that we don’t have writers who have come “out”.

Given the diversity of the Indian queer community, it is important to look into their varied experiences in the publishing world, and focus on its multiple aspects. There may be some regional as well as general difficulties that queer writers face and making a comparative observation of these would help us reach a solution. During my conversation with queer persons across the literary and publishing spectrum, I was able to identify some problems we face while accessing certain institutions and opportunities. However, there is a need to expand this discussion further.

At an event last month, Justice DY Chandrachud of the Supreme Court of India beautifully summarised that just getting rid of Section 377 won’t achieve equality. Its spirit needs to be extended to all spheres of life including the home, the workplace and public places. We need to remember that the landmark judgement of 2018 isn’t supposed to be a full stop to the queer movement, but rather a new beginning. There’s much to do to ensure that we are recognised as equal citizens of the country, and that the promise that the Constitution of India makes to us is fulfilled. 

Chittajit Mitra (he/him) is a queer writer, translator and editor from Allahabad. He is co-founder of RAQS, an organization working on gender, sexuality and mental health

The views expressed are personal

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