Of Lesbithians & mandakinis
L ike queen Victoria and the existing law of the land in this country, I was completely unaware of the existence of Lesbos. I mean, I love almost every song sung by that fabulous chanteuse, K.D. Lang, and have in my youth vociferously cheered on every forehand volley delivered by the sinewy, muscled Martina Navratilova. But until I came across the information that it was located at the latitude of 39°10’N and longitude of 26°20’E, I was naively ignorant of the Greek island in the Aegean Sea. Call it the result of social engineering or blame it on the kind of men I discuss what kind of curtain material should go with what kind of furniture, but it was only last week that I not only realised that I was a victim of identity stereotyping, but that I wasn’t the only one.
Being a Bengali who learnt when to keep an article in a sentence and when to drop one the hard way, I know the perils of being ‘short-handed’ into a representation of a community. Like a few days ago when someone, in a very matter of fact way, told me that writers like me — “You know, Indo-Anglian writers” — have a particular kind of writing style and readership. I stopped her in her tracks and told her that I had no idea what she meant by “Indo-Anglian writers like me”. Why, it was only a few days before that someone had complained that my fiction writing was “too Bengali”. (The constant complaint that my journalistic writing is “totally unintelligible” has been duly noted and awaits action by a higher authority.) In the case of the person who tagged me as an ‘Indo-Anglian writer’ (whom I tried to convince that I’m a Bengali writing in English), just because I wrote in English, I had to be... In the case of the other one who saw me as a ‘Bengali writer’ (whom I tried to convince that I’m an Indian writer writing in English), since all my novels were steeped in ‘Bengaliness’, I must be... The funny thing is that both of them were right. And sort of wrong too.
And that’s when I heard about the Lesbians. Three Lesbians — two women and one man — had taken a Greek lesbian rights group to court for calling women who like each other much, much more than my mother likes Jayalalithaa lesbians. I understood their pain. While the lesbian group argued that ‘lesbos’ took their name from the island home of Sappho, that fine poetess from around 600 BC who wrote about the love of one good woman for another good woman, the irate (but not necessarily homophobic) Lesbians insisted that they were all being painted with the wrong brush. Now imagine if all Sardarjis were consigned to being stupid thanks to ‘Santa-Banta’ jokes. Don’t you think intellectual giants like Manmohan Singh, Montek Singh Ahluwalia and Daler Mehndi would have gone to court to correct that bigoted perception? (Don’t answer that if you’re Navjot Singh Sidhu.)
There must be so many others who face such humiliation on a daily basis. The cultured Mozart-loving Philistine (the late Edward Said developed such a complex that he had to invent Orientalism to protect himself and other ‘Palestinians’); the comfort-seeking, champagne-swilling Spartan; the gentle, addicted-to-Sound of Music Hun; the non-identical twins from Siam (okay, so they changed the name of the place to Thailand); the gigolo from Babylon (modern day Iraq); and, of course, the heterosexual Lesbian.
One way out of the islanders’ anguish could be to rename their island Mytilene, after its Capital. After all, it’s not that big and if New Yorkers and Delhiites can be comfortable about having a state and a city of the same name, so can the Lesbians. But then, why should Lesbians change the name of their island? After all, they are the minority who need a strong sense of identity more than the lesbians who can easily call themselves something else. Okay, so how about a compromise? The Lesbians can call themselves Lesbithians (a few jokes about ruffled collars and virgin queens won’t last as long as the prevailing one). The lesbians, on their part, can call themselves mandakinis. It has a certain Greekish ring to it, no? And no islanders are offended.