As one less famous homosexual complained about another recently, “He does no justice to the adjective gay!” If a grievance can be leveled against this memoir by India’s most famous homosexual (and that happens to be the preferred self-descriptive noun in this book), it is that it is rather lacking in gaiety indeed. Hoshang Merchant’s The Man Who Would Be Queen: Autobiographical Fictions is romantic, lyrical, vivid, but also, above all, sad.
In an almost stream-of-conscious style, Merchant chronicles some of the highlights of sixty years of his resolutely interesting life: beginning with his first memory of his mother (“I believe Mother-rule is the root of male homosexuality,” a small literary journal quoted him as saying last year) and ending with his current situation as a professor who “fathers” – as the author bio says – “his books, his students and a young friend”. The almost staccato impressionism with which he renders his childhood and adolescence does not belie their darknesses. His wealthy family is rife with dysfunction: his father’s infidelity, his parents’ eventual divorce, a sister who tries to shoot herself, and even an almost unspeakable incident in which the author shakes his mother, causing her to fall and break her hip, after which he attempts suicide. Merchant left India at the age of twenty, a year before his mother died, and it’s impossible not to sense the mourning in the two decades he spent abroad.
But those decades, in the USA and in particular in the Middle East, are the stuff of legend. “Sex is a way to sainthood,” he quotes his icon and penpal Anaïs Nin more than once – and Merchant certainly attempts canonization. In California, “a retired army man bent again and again to kiss a herpes sore on my inner thigh”. In Netanya, he enjoys a sexual encounter on a nude beach with a “Venus with a penis”, cheered on by onlookers. In a cemetery near the Dead Sea, which he notes as the site of the ancient Sodom, he watches as “people made love athwart graves”. Ironically, it’s in details like these that the pigeonholing of this book as the autobiography of a gay man is overshadowed by its importance as the autobiography of a poet.
Merchant is the author of twenty books of poems and the editor of a seminal anthology of gay Indian literature, and while the trajectory of his literary career finds surprisingly little mention in these pages, the celebrity accrued through it precedes this memoir. For those seeking arty scandals and name-dropping, however, this book contains quite little of either. “Gossip had become aesthetic,” he writes of a time in his life during which he is accused by a lover of using their affair for the poetry it inspires. Perhaps the experience chastised the author just a little too much.
Although the vast majority of other people who populate this book are barely sketches (with the exception of his vicious stepmother and perhaps some other relatives, it’s difficult to imagine anyone taking umbrage at what is revealed), what emerges is a well-rounded, often searingly honest image of Merchant himself as a person, rather than as a persona. Demanding diva? Homosexual paragon? His time in Palestine nuances both perceptions. At one point, he worked as a toilet cleaner and garbage picker. At another, he converted to Islam to marry his sweetheart, a woman named Yasmin.
His difficult time in Iraq, where he faced an especially rough amount of discrimination, is covered in the memoir through a series of letters; it is as though the experience was too painful to revisit in new writings. But it is where the book ends, in the author’s present-day life in Hyderabad, which is most depressing. Merchant eschewed his inheritance, gave away numerous personal items, and chose to live in an attic costing only Rs700 in monthly rent, with few belongings. Are these the choices of someone in the pursuit of austerity, or of attention? There’s a vulnerability in these pages that is deeply convincing of the former, yet also results in the latter. Either which way, the image of a celebrated artist living in relative penury in his old age is discomfiting.
But then, The Man Who Would Be Queen is the memoir of a true bohème, and perhaps a poet must be indulged his melancholies. In the end, as much as one wishes for more delicious wickedness in the recounting of the past, or a less sombre depiction of the present, the author is brave enough to feign neither. Merchant writes that (Tennessee) “Williams’ autobiography catalogues the decay of an aging queen. It is a sad spectacle”. Merchant’s own is sad, but at least it is no spectacle.
An edited version appeared in The Sunday Guardian.