Tag Archives: queer

The Venus Flytrap: I Want To See People Kissing On The Streets

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I want to see people kissing in the streets.

Impulsively. Without stopping to check all sides for traffic. Without waiting for the light to change. Without nervousness. Without fear.

I want to see people kissing in the streets, kissing as slowly as dust motes in a slab of sunlight. As slowly as water leaking from an air-conditioner into a bucket on the side of a building with balconies on which other people also kiss (and kiss) – as though kisses, like plants, need bright light and open air and time to grow.

Languidly. Without wanting to be invisible. Kissing instead of speaking with the eyes.  Kissing without having to keep it briefer than a blink, so infinitesimal that even the kissers can’t be sure it happened later, licking their lips to try and remember. Kissing and disappearing into pedestrian crowds, only to turn around and come back for another one, to linger sweetly on the lips in a smile for the separate journeys home.

Kissing even though the breeze is immodest with their dresses, because no one will break stride to shame them, or stare too long, or try to destroy them. Kissing with their eyes closed tight, because there is no need to be vigilant. Kissing with their eyes wide open to the possibilities of a better world.

Kissing passionately. Or tenderly.

Kissing because they want to. Kissing because they can. Kissing because they forgot – even if only in the way that a kiss can contain and keep out the world at once – a time when they could not. When kisses had to be acts of subterfuge, when moments had to be stolen, when whole lives had to be operations of secrets and silences, and sometimes even lies.

There are rainbows everywhere – have you seen them? And we’ve no need to speak in codes anymore, but what would rambling through these streets be if we couldn’t pause to enjoy a metaphor? (And a kiss fills a pause like no words can).

There are still so many who cannot cross that street – let alone kiss there – without danger, even loss of life. Still so many loves that are not equal. Still so many who must draw the curtains, even though the walls are always thin – except when someone being battered is screaming. Still so many violations, upheld by the bed of the law or protected by the umbrella of society.

But let’s begin. I want to see them – whoever they are – be who they are. Kissing, with abandon, in the streets. I hope that one day we won’t be voyeurs anymore, won’t be stunned (even with joy) at the sight. Because love will be something we take pride in, and we’ll celebrate it by simply letting it be.

Because the human heart, homed in the hot-blooded human body, is ancient and dependable. The law, in comparison, is capricious. It speaks, sometimes poorly, only for a time. I want to see people kissing in the streets now, because here we are in an era – and may it last forever – when the language of the law has finally begun to speak with love’s own mouth, love’s own tongue.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on September 13th 2018. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

 

The Venus Flytrap: After Orlando

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“What does it mean, though, gay bar?”

I’ll tell you. Some of the best times of my life involved dancing on tables and painting other people’s eyelids in unisex bathrooms and reading my poetry out loud in gay bars, in countries where the right to love and to wholly exist are not guaranteed. Queer allies don’t do a service to queer people by offering their support; we are here because of their generosity and trust.

Someone wrote that a massacre like the one at Pulse in Orlando couldn’t happen in India because we have no gay bars, but we do. Some just don’t advertise. Others occur like flash mobs, with seeming spontaneity: a random afternoon when the “Private Event” sign is placed in front of the door, an evening at the end of June when the décor, the music, the drinks are the same, but there are discreet rainbows on the flyer and flagrant ones on people’s bandanas.

Gay bars are not about sex. They’re about safety. They’re about selfhood, community, solidarity and fun. They are not divisive, compulsory, or automatically elitist. They are not (just) about partying and revelry; they are equally about resistance, defiance and speaking truth to power.

And sex with complete strangers? Wait, that’s not gay bars you’re thinking of, but your average heterosexual arranged marriage, in which all of Indian culture’s precious glory is banked (honour, of course, is stockpiled inside female bodies).

In gay bars you will hear the word family. Among those who have been disowned, those who had to create their own tribes, it means “s/he is also queer.” It means people among whom you belong.

In the holy month of Ramzan, in the heartfelt month of Pride, on Latin night in a club full of – mainly – young men of ethnic minorities, a hateful person opened fire and committed a massacre.

As I write this, I have deliberately not looked at the lists of names of the dead. What little I stumbled on regardless – one man who texted “I love you mommy” as the gunman drew near, another who helped build a Harry Potter ride in a theme park – undid me. I do not think I knew any of them, but in another way, I know every single one of them, that disparate group of dreams and flaws and kindredships and would-never-have-gotten-along-withs.

Most were queer. Many were men. Some had to have been women. (Trans, cis, non-binary? Human.) Some might have had children. Some must have been allies. Some could have been outed for the first time, in death.

We’re watching Pulse from the outside, we’re watching it in retrospect. You may never have stepped into a gay bar, intentionally, and you may say you never will. “What’s a gay bar, really? What do they do?” you ask again. But you already know.

Because if you’ve ever sought love out – filial love, sexual love, companionable love, love that knows you – and if you’ve ever believed it to be a radical force, then you know what the inside of a gay bar looks like. It looks, under any light, just like the inside of your heart, your hope.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on June 16th. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: A Candlelight Dinner With A Difference

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“No, I won’t write about Valentine’s Day!” I texted my friend back, when he suggested the topic. I’d barely hit Send on my next line – “V-Day is vaandi-day only” when I remembered that for several years as a politically-aware young adult, I had refused to acknowledge the romantic festival because I believed so strongly in another V-Day.

V was for Vagina. V was for Violence. V-Day was the global movement founded in 1998 by playwright Eve Ensler (who created The Vagina Monologues) to fight violence against women. February 14th is where you’ll find it on the calendar, and it began as a series of fundraising performances of the play, and expanded to include a variety of artistic and political forms of grassroots engagements worldwide, all of which confront and try to change the disgraceful UN statistic that 1 in 3 women will be beaten or raped in her lifetime.

I couldn’t ever observe Valentine’s Day, knowing that it is in intimate relationships that this abuse is most pervasive.

“Do I write too much about women?” I started texting my friend, and once again I corrected myself: I realised that when we talk of violence against women, or any form of gender-based violence, we need to stop calling it a ‘women’s issue’. If anything, it’s more of men’s issue. It’s an issue of toxic masculinity, of what happens to men in any society that demands that they be unemotional, aggressive and authoritative. Women aren’t the problem. Men aren’t the problem. Patriarchy is.

I had never stopped believing in its principles, so why had I somehow forgotten about this other V-Day? It was probably because once I moved to India, I discovered that Valentine’s Day itself is subversive. To declare romantic interest or sexual involvement under the hostile watch of right-wing ideologies and discriminatory constraints is itself a radical, and therefore dangerous, act. Every year, couples are attacked, forcibly married or forcibly separated, by powers-that-be that do not recognise the power of love.

Don’t get me wrong – it’s probably healthy to crinkle one’s nose at least a little at saccharine hormonal garblings and socially-pressured exhibitions of rosy veneers. But let’s not forget that to feel love and not be ashamed of it is a human right. And before we celebrate it, let us first demand and exercise that right. It belongs to people of all genders, across all castes and communities, and of any sexual orientation.

So if you’ve got a candlelight dinner planned this weekend, why not bring that awareness to the table? Light at least one candle in memory of someone killed for falling in love with someone of a different religion, or someone driven to suicide because they were bullied for being gay, or even an ancestor of your own who was forced into an arranged marriage while the heart longed for deeper companionship. And maybe light another candle for the other V-Day: in memory of a woman lost to violence in a bond where there should have been love. Bring the revolution to the table, let it illuminate the conversation, and see if it doesn’t change your relationship for the better too.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on February 11th. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

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.

NXG on Mozhiudal

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There’s a nice write-up in NXG, The Hindu today about last weekend’s queer poetry reading. You can read it here.

I like how the writer begins the article by noting how the reading seemed to be a safe space – the same thought occurred to me while I was there, and in the days since I have also pondered over whether to write about it too. It was more than just the fact that I know the organizers and the Pride movement in Chennai well — the vast majority of the audience were new faces. Still, there was a good underlying energy, a welcoming one, that I rarely sense at readings here.

Perhaps I should explain my context. Somewhere early in my publishing career, I got stuck with the tag of being a writer of “erotic” poetry, a label I view with discomfort. Now, I have nothing against erotica. I love it. I have nothing against sex either. What I do have a problem with is reductionism. Erotica by its nature is intended to titillate. My work, by and large, isn’t. Anyone with a little sensitivity who looks over my body of supposedly erotic work should see neuroses, longing, loss. If they see  a horny woman poking at her keyboard with sticky fingers, that’s their own oversight. A woman can be horny, complicated, desireless, wounded, surrendering, conquering in different lights.  So can a man. If you choose only to see her in one light, then you’re missing out on a whole lot.

What this has come to mean is that I have become defensive (as you may have gathered from the paragraph above, even). In India, or at least in Chennai, I limit what I share at readings. Look, I don’t mean to come off like a snob, but we’re an awfully perverted bunch, don’t you think? So, so as to avoid various unpleasantries, I limit what I share. It frustrates me. I like to have fun at readings. I like to feel free, to play with the audience, to laugh. I like, above all, to be honest.

In this sense, Mozhiudal was one of the safest spaces I’ve read at in Chennai. To me, the very notion of a queer reading is based on the acceptance that sexuality is complex and varied, and is vital to our experience of the world – exactly the sort of basis that removes all need for apologies and excuses. Remember this: sexuality as opposed to sex alone. I opened with what I think of as my lightest piece,  and without question the most beloved among my fans, “Poem”, and moved on to more risque work, pieces like “Possession” and “Holding The Man”. Reading the last one in particular, I was struck by how its motifs of arrest and secrecy were, perhaps, rather reminiscent of the queer experience, even though the people in my poem are a heterosexual couple. And also my explicitly queer work – “Hibiscus”, “Linea Negra” – and then looping back to my other much-misconstrued crowd-pleaser, “How To Eat A Wolf”. Not once did I feel like I had gone too far, or become too vulnerable. The last poem I shared, in two voices with Aniruddhan Vasudevan, was my translation of Subramanya Bharati’s “Suttum Vizhi”. How was this a queer work, or a sexual one? Maybe because Bharati would certainly have been no homophobe; in death he certainly has lent his voice to the Pride movement. Maybe because from the tongue and pen of another woman, my transcreated lines – “woman precious as the eye, my love fills me with turbulence” – turn vaguely subversive. Or maybe because this is what it comes down to in the end — love, loss and longing. The human heart. The body and its blood.

Mozhiudal: Queer Poetry Reading

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Pride month is well underway, and you can see a full list of events happening in Chennai through June here.

Among them is “Mozhiudal”, a poetry reading and open mic at Madras Terrace House on June 12, featuring Salma and myself. All are welcome – you can share either your original poetry, or poetry that you love which fits the theme. More about “Mozhiudal”  is on the flyer below (click to enlarge).

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.