A love without a name: Identifying homosexuality in Indian language and literature
In 1927, a most curious book was published, and sent the Hindi literary world in a moral tizzy. Tited “Chocolate”, it was a collection of short stories in Hindi, written by the famous nationalist writer Pandey Bechain Sharma ‘Ugra’, that chronicled stories of desire between men -- a man brings his lover home, a teen becomes the object of desire in his school, an illicit relationship blooms between two men. The stories always end badly but the portrayal of the relationship is kind, and the description of sexual tension, and act, lurid. Nowhere in the book is the relationship referred to by name, but no reader is left in doubt about what is being alluded to.
“Men seduce each other, read poems to each other, give kisses, lie in each others’ laps, see movie together, gift each other clothes and chocolate, and catch habits from each others. The words used are laundebazi, chakletpanthi, masti, mitr, dost. These words become both celebration and crisis, erotic and phobic,” explains Akhil Katyal, a professor at Delhi’s Ambedkar University.
The Supreme Court’s landmark decision this week decriminalising homosexuality has pushed the words Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) into the mainstream, but same-sex desire has blossomed for far longer than activism around Section 377. People of diverse gender and sexual expressions have thrived in public, sometimes away from prying eyes, forming bonds that mirror friendship, adjusting to the pace of small towns and villages -- and despite the endemic abuse and humiliation that is the everyday reality for queer people, refused to give up on love.
Maya Sharma, a 68-year-old Vadodara-based activist recalls speaking to women who loved women in Gujarat and Rajasthan, explaining their relationships with words such as saheli, sakhi, saathin, dost.
“They made a commitment to each other, said we will stay together forever, and share happiness and sorrow. Babu is a word for transmen and Rangali for women,” she says, elaborating on “friendship bonds” or Maitri Karar, which weren’t legally recognised but widely used by women to signal their relationship.
In the 90s, some women in Delhi came together to form a “Single women’s Club”; there was also, the “Red Rose Society”, signifying the flower that was often used to hint at one’s sexual orientation.
In Urdu and Hindu literature, Katyal explains, words such as “aadat, rangeen shauk, nawabi shauk, lat, masti, dosti” were often used to describe same-sex desire. Many of these, such as masti, continue to find widespread prevalence today, especially in smaller towns.
“In Urdu or Hindi, writers such as Ismat Chughtai, Ugra, Amar Kant, Firaq Gorakhpuri showed same sex desire as excess, beauty, habit and addiction. In the 1940s, Chughtai could not decide whether to call it lat or marz, a habit or an illness. She knew her Freud and she knew the world around her and the jury was out on what to call ‘it’,” Katyal explains.
In the cramped bylanes of old Lucknow and Delhi’s walled city, for example, the word “laundeybazi” might mean more than “gay”. In the parks of Kolkata that have played home to generations of queer people, “kothi” or “dhurani” is a far more likely term to be used. A generation of Mumbai would swear by “masti”. And in Tamil Nadu, the words thirunambi (transmen) and thirunangai (transwomen) are all products of the Periyarite self-respect movement.
“In Karnataka, people replaced the word Hijra with mangalamukhi. Likewise, aravani is a term in Tamil that refers to the legend of Aravan, but Periyarite transwomen prefer thirunangai,” said Karthik Bittu, a professor at Ashoka University.
None of these words are calcified in time, they grow and evolve and change, mirroring the thriving culture of cruising among these communities -- where people seek out others for companionship, gossip, conversation, intimacy or sex at the most public of places -- a bus stand, a public toilet, a park in the evening.
As India’s LGBT movement grows in popularity and public exposure, it is important to recognise these histories because a vast majority of queer people live outside metropolitan cities and do not watch the 9’o clock news.
“I came across the term gay in a teen magazine in the late 90s. It was easy for me to associate with the description: Male - attracted sexually towards other men. Simple. But over the years as I met people I learnt not many people were comfortable identifying themselves with the term. One reason might be because they had lived most part of their adult life desiring men without a label. And a sudden label made them uncomfortable,” explains Moulee, a Chennai-based professional and writer.
Raina Roy, a Kolkata-based activist, remembers how she was unfamiliar with the term “transgender” or “rupantorkami” when she came into activism, and that she drew inspiration from the sex-workers movement. “Even today, we use words such as Kothi or Dhurani.”
And, there is another danger in pivoting too much to using English words. Dhiren Borisa, a professor at Delhi University, says all terms hold caste, class and gender anxieties, and are shaped by that background. “When I was growing up in a small town, I heard many more terms, which we now hear of less and less. So Kothi is now used for effeminate men who are poor, but gay and queer are aspirational categories. It is as if there is something wrong in being kothi,” he adds.
Same-sex desire is around us everywhere. It is dripping out of suggestive youtube home videos, stories of clandestine exploring in hostels, of women leaving houses to stay together, of working class folk in rural areas struggling to make a living but not compromising on their gender expression, of dark cinema halls, private hotel rooms and the comfort of south Delhi bedrooms. For this diversity, we need an ocean of words. “Each word gives its own world of possibilities and constraints.Same-sex desire has many words in our part of the world. Gay or lesbian is just two of them,” Katyal says.