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Book Review: Close, Too Close: The Tranquebar Book of Queer Erotica

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We’ve come a long way since those anthologies from a dozen years ago, as groundbreaking as they were, consisting mostly of anonymous personal narratives of queer living and loving and very little creative writing of notable quality. That what we are seeing more and more of are stories that are not content to rest on the fact of their queerness alone reflects not only changing societal mores and a greater ease with that fact itself but also an attention to craft. While some of the pieces in Close, Too Close: The Tranquebar Book of Queer Erotica imply autobiographical inspiration, many are pseudonymous and most use the first-person narrator, every single one successfully makes the leap from being testimony to becoming fiction, allowing the reader in through an artistic aperture.

The term “queer”, though hotly contested, is an expansive one, the least descriptive and therefore most open of sexuality and gender identification categories, and this anthology certainly cuts across the spectrum, featuring everything from sex between two transmen in different stages of transitioning to sex between a gay man and his straight female friend.

These stories trade not in definitions but in desires, and offer a large array of them. Anirban Ghosh’s “Ark Erotica Endpapers”, which fill the inside covers of the collection, kick things off with a fantastic visual: the animals may have gone in two by two, but humans do it a little differently. Yes, there are pairings, like two mermaids coiled around each other (busty, though lacking in genitalia), but there also those content to watch, like a toothy chef with a hardly-subtle fish fetish, and a team of indeterminate dynamics. Midway through the book, Nilofar’s “Shadowboxer”, the only other visual offering, is powerful sequential art: a woman takes her own pleasure, her fat, blemished, oddly-tattooed body a locus of sensuality.

Compiled by Meenu and Shruti, first-name-only editors from an NGO background, a collection like this could be a self-conscious one, but self-consciousness and erotica hardly make a fiery marriage, and the anthology does well to avoid it. Its most political story works because the politics are not the point. Iravi’s “All In The Game” has a blindfolded participant being kissed and nuzzled by a succession of friends and made to guess who’s who. In guessing their identities, a mix not only of orientations and biological situations come up, but also ponderings on monogamy and other arrangements. There’s a twist in this story that is perfectly delivered, and drives home a message about bodies that pushes the inclusivity of this anthology past a new margin.

On the subject of bodies and back to the main premise of the anthology, there is much that titillates. Annie Dykstra’s women spy each other underwater and slip into a locker room shower together in “Pity That Blush”. D’Lo’s transman falls for the woman he has been assigned to board with on an exchange program and makes love to her – the verb deliberately chosen, for in contrast to the emotional cruelty of some of the casual sex stories this one is quite romantic. As for emotional cruelty and casual sex, Dykstra’s takes the lead, but L.R. Ellen’s “Conference Sex”, Nikhil Yadav’s “Upstairs, Downstairs” and Doabi’s “The Half Day” quickly follow – all are fun, but the last could have done without the rather forced recipe for rajma chawal. The biggest name in the collection, Devdutt Patnaik, spins a new myth about two young men who disguise themselves as newlyweds in order to collect a reward, only to have the gods take their artifice further than expected.  Michael Malik G. weaves a “meditation on [the] cock” of a gorgeous man on a houseboat in Kashmir, and Vinaya Nayak’s “Screwing With Excess” pokes a little fun at the adoring faghag – but ensures she is also pleasured.

There is an urgency to the best of these passages that illustrates quite perfectly the difference between beautiful writing about sex and sheer erotica. In the former, it is the way the phrase turns that matters. In the latter, if you’ll forgive my crudeness, it all comes down to whether or not the wrist turns away from turning the pages.

For proclivities that test the comfort zone a little, Satya’s “I Hate Wet Tissues” lightly brushes the subject of necrophilia, and Chicu’s “Soliloquy” attempts to both eroticize and find empowerment in the nasty experience of being molested on a bus. A couple of the stories fall short – Abeer Hoque’s “Jewel and the Boy” and Msbehave’s “Give Her A Shot” play with structures that suggest creativity but leave one stumped as to their purpose – but by and large, the book excites.

Close, Too Close is inclusive without losing sight of its purpose. It’s surprisingly well-written for a collection peppered with pseudonyms. It feels offbeat but not obscure. And most of all, when it’s hot, it’s very hot.

An edited version appeared in The Sunday Guardian.

The Venus Flytrap: Not A Private Matter

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When I became involved with Chennai’s first LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender – or in broad terms, queer) Pride Month, I fully expected to encounter disapproval from openly intolerant people and organizations. But more disturbing were the less transparent remonstrations, from individuals who seemed far more open-minded than the average Chennaiite. The most lingering of these impressions was when I was told that the rights of sexual minorities are less important than other causes, and that they are, and should stay, “a private issue”.

Whether or not an issue is more or less important than others is a highly subjective matter – we always fight against or for what hurts or matters to us most, based on what we are exposed to by virtue of our circumstances. But the underlying contention was that queer rights only affect some people, whereas issues like education, clean sewage and pollution affect everybody.

And this is where I beg to differ.

Fact is that sexuality and sexual agency are extremely public issues. The entire so-called moral bedrock of society is based on forcing people to behave in certain sanctioned ways, regardless of whether or not these ways are in tune with their biological, psychological and emotional orientations. If this wasn’t the case, arranged marriages – which organize people’s sexual behaviour within a regimented, strictly heterosexual social framework – would not exist. Vast swathes of misogynistic behaviour would all but disappear, because much such behaviour comes as reaction to the threat perceived in fully self-possessed female sexuality. Count honour killings, eve-teasing and molestations – any act of “punishment” based on gender and sexuality – among them. Women would have complete autonomy over their uteruses. People could marry out of caste or culture freely. Divorce would be destigmatized. Asexuality, too, would be accepted as part of the continuum of possible sexualities.

And of course, if sexuality was a private issue, archaic Penal Code laws that criminalize private adult sexual behaviours (such as consensual anal sex between men) would not exist. The law would stay out of bedrooms (and yes, bathrooms and brothels), as long as consent is present. Did you know that under Section 377 of the Code, oral sex between consenting heterosexual adults is technically illegal? Does all this still seem like a minorities’ problem?

I see the Pride movement as paving the way for a society that is better for everybody in it, not just queer people. An environment which is accepting of diverse sexualities is one in which everyone, including straight people and people who “don’t make a big deal about their orientation”, is freer. Perhaps then sexuality will truly be a private matter.

Freer to do what, you may ask? To me, the answer is simple – to love who they love, and be who they are. And if that’s not an issue that matters to every person there is, so universal that no one – bar no one – is unaffected by it, I don’t know what is. Ultimately, I don’t think this is about sex nearly as much as it is about freedom, identity – and love.

So this June, as supporters take to the streets in a fabulous parade, raise awareness (and the roof!) with panel discussions, performances and film screenings, bear in mind just how many people we’re fighting for. All with open hearts will be welcomed with open arms.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my column in the Zeitgeist supplement. Previous columns can be found here.

For more details about Chennai Pride 2009, check out the Facebook group.