Review: Cockatoo by Yashraj Goswami
A collection of interconnected short stories about desire, deception and disaster set in different parts of India
Cockatoo by Yashraj Goswami is a collection of interconnected short stories about desire, deception and disaster. Many of them feature gay characters who live in the closet. They take place in different parts of India including Hyderabad, Delhi, Pahalgam, Jaipur, and Mumbai. What binds them is the recurrence of certain characters in multiple stories. The author does not make these links explicit. He encourages the reader to connect the dots.
A woman who feels guilty about wanting to cheat on her husband on their second wedding anniversary with a handsome hotel manager is shocked to find the same manager in her husband’s bed one morning. Her husband appears in a couple of other stories as well but under a different name, which he uses for dating apps that allow him to hook up with a range of men without any strings attached. His identity is revealed towards the end of the book. The author succeeds at keeping up the sense of mystery. The disclosure comes as a surprise.
Another woman who is devoted to her husband finds that they cannot have a child because of the man’s low sperm motility. He tries to convince her to consider artificial insemination but she argues that it would be like sleeping with another man. This sounds bizarre to him. He pleads with her to be open to getting a sperm donor as he cannot bear taunts from his cousins for being childless. He confesses that he is gay, and needs to become a father in order to avoid any talk about his not being man enough. She is shocked to hear this but decides to stay in the marriage because he has been good to her – a woman whom no other man was willing to marry because of her dark complexion. She puts forth a non-negotiable condition. He will have to find a sperm donor who is fair. She does not want her child to be dark-skinned.
This man invites other gay men home when his wife is not around. After having sex, he tells one of them – who is fair-skinned – that he and his wife are looking for a sperm donor. The wife, of course, has no clue that their house is being used in her absence to screen candidates.
These stories offer a hard-hitting glimpse of the dual lives led by gay men who keep up the pretence of heterosexuality by marrying women but also pursue sexual encounters with men whenever possible. These are not open relationships. The wives are deliberately kept in the dark about their husband’s sexual orientation. These men do not seem to have any qualms about hurting their wives’ feelings or being dishonest with them. They fear the implications of coming out. They want to reap the benefits of passing off as heterosexual and also enjoy sleeping with men. Their reluctance to take responsibility for who they are ruins not only their lives but also the lives of the women who are trapped into marriages with these men.
The dating apps offer momentary pleasures but they also bring immense frustration because they encourage users to constantly be on the lookout for someone new. Individuals are also forced to live with the fear of being caught, blackmailed and outed to family and friends. The comfort associated with being in a stable relationship is absent, and everyone grapples with the possibility of being ghosted, dumped, or blocked without even a semblance of an apology.
Goswami’s book also examines the heavy emotional toll that internalized homophobia can take on gay men. A few stories explore the relationship between two men who are housemates during their college years but end up developing romantic and sexual feelings for each other. They try hard to conceal these feelings but eventually admit what they want. One of them is more intensely committed to this relationship, and dreams of a future together that the other does not quite sign up for. The fact that they are not out of the closet puts their relationship under pressure. They are unable to seek support from friends or family when things get difficult. One of them ends his life. His partner does not show up for the funeral.
In another story, a woman who sells flower garlands has a clandestine liaison with a saree salesman who later becomes a taxi driver. She offers to keep him as a tenant because she needs extra money. Her husband is a drunkard, who often beats her. She yearns for the loving touch of a man, so one day she seduces her tenant. He used to think of her as a mother figure earlier but gives in to temptation. The relationship does not last but he remembers the time they spent together, and narrates those memories to passengers. Once in a while, he also tries to get female passengers to invite him home so that they can have sex.
Cockatoo is a quick and easy read that’s largely enjoyable. Some passages, especially one that compared a character’s breasts to a deep fried snack made of rice and urad dal made this reviewer balk: “Those waves of uncanny pleasure, arising from below her navel and radiating outwards, made her breasts puff up like perfectly round punugulus that Karthik was deftly draining out of hot oil.”
Elsewhere, Rishabh’s desire for Pranav is described as having “first sprouted as a tiny, irritating nubble in Rishabh’s throat”. It subsequently “expanded into a shapeless vapour that filled his broad chest” and eventually “turned into a warm fluid that gushed to his loins, firing them up.” A promising writer like Goswami would have benefited from editorial inputs in certain portions. He handles subjects like trauma and longing confidently but seems to withhold his creativity when it comes to writing about pleasure.
The lovers in his fictional universe often get mixed signals, meet with disappointment, fake interest in their partners, get bullied, struggle with shame, or get interrupted in bed. They are rarely given a chance to lie back and delight in each other’s company, without being held hostage by the demons of the past and the uncertainties of the future. Like the bird mentioned in the book title, they seem to be in need of an opportunity to break free and fly.
Chintan Girish Modi is a freelance writer, journalist and book reviewer.