Hoshang Merchant is a senior poetic star in the firmament of Indian poetry. He and his work sparkle bright, like the mischief in his eyes. His Parsi background and early years in Mumbai, coupled with his travels in the Middle East and his engagement with Buddhist philosophy has finally allowed him to drop anchor at a senior academic position in Hyderabad.
It is from here that he broadcasts his work to an entire generation of students and young acolytes through various books and many personal travel diaries that encompass his variegated experiences.
Yaarana: Gay Writing from South Asia is an expanded version of his earlier anthology of the same name but with the addition of voices from Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. When the first book came out, it was a beacon of hope for the gay intelligentsia; it allowed them access to contextualise their individual situations through a variety of the pieces in the anthology. This new version still retains that flavour of the colourful polyphony of gay lives lived, loved and lost.
Hoshang, himself a Ph.D. from Purdue, corresponded with Anais Nin and wrote his thesis on her and helped establish the Gay Liberation in 1975 at Purdue. His selection in the anthology has got all the markers of recent gay history in terms of contributors. Poetry from Ghalib starts us off to work by R. Raja Rao, Ashok Row Kavi, Sultan Padamsee, Mahesh Dattani, Adil Jussawalla, Bhupen Khakhar and Hoshang himself. There are also the vernacular voices from Namdeo Dhasal, Belinder Dhanoa, Vishnu Khandekar, Madhav Gawankar, Kamleshwar and Firaq Gorakhpuri. Also in this melange are sparks from Dinyar Godrej, Manoj Nair, Frank Krishner and Firdaus Kanga, which are effervescent in the manner of their expression.
Ask Hoshang about the need for another expanded version of this work, he explains that things have changed over the past 10 years and newer experiences have allowed for a greater freedom of expression, but warns “The new gay academic mafia, like the feminist or communist academic mafias, tends to fit all literature into a form of their own special pleading.” This and the fact that “what is remarkable is the number of genres homosexual writing encompasses and the easy transition from one genre to another in a single piece of work by taboo-breaking lives. Literature has no sex and poems have no sex organs. There is only good writing or bad writing. India’s homosexuals have produced a lot of good writing over the centuries; a veritable feast”.
Fortunately one can agree to disagree with that. Not all the pieces in the anthology are great. The fact that they came from contributors as different as a young taxi driver in Nepal to certain translations, which are in a liminal space of ambiguity, the reader must sift through at his discretion. The bulk of the pieces are mostly on male same sex experiences or the lack thereof and the angst created thereby. Some of the work touches one deeply and transcends the gay experience, but allows one to resonate an emotion that is purely human and in other pieces one is left wondering – oh, what was that all about? The latter being few and far between.
One of the most moving passages on male bonding or “Yaarana” — the phrase that develops later into same sex relationship in most of our hinterland — is expressed in a piece by Hoshang himself. Talking about his experiences while teaching two brothers in the Middle East, he says, “I do not use the word ‘love’ for friendship. I call it friendship. I do not know what to call my young friends, so I call them friends. I do not know how to say what I feel in words, so I write poetry.
“Poetry is a way out of prose; love is a way out of poetry; friendship is a way of love.
“But an intense friendship is an intense love.
“The young understand this; the old dismiss it as ‘adolescent’. I will never grow old.
“Friendship is the most difficult thing in the world. A friend has no claim as a family does. The body is not involved as in love. It is purely an affectional tie. The only tie binding friend and friend is affection and when that’s gone everything goes. Hence, it is the most sensitive bond in the world and easiest to break. It breaks at the slightest insensitivity. But people feel friendship is only casual and treat it very casually. Not having family, I value friendship. I have seen the young place value on their friendships with me. Of course, they do not last. Perhaps it is a wrong expectation to want friendship to last for ever like marriages. Even marriages do not last forever.
“‘Friendship is the only sweetness in our lives,’ a Palestinian girl once told me.
“Lovers die; love remains.”
It is important to view this anthology in the place it occupies as a historical piece of collective voices when it came out in 1999. The same sex world, LGBT politics and the reclaiming of the body politic by the community is a part of the entire situation of an Indian alternative sexuality that has a huge class of people who are not vociferous or articulate but treat their sexuality as a given — a sense of laissez faire (or as an old joke goes “lazy fairy”) — an acceptance that there is space for all kinds of polarities of sexuality and the entire rainbow of experiences between that, it is important that while globalising winds bring us the sharp compartments of queer western theory,
Indians hold their own in creating, affirming and celebrating their sexual worlds in their own way in whatever works for the individual, community and finally to take an imaginative leap – the nation state. Only then will, as a line from a poem, by Agha Shahid Ali says “The entire map of the lost will be candled”. In some ways Yaarana, edited by Hoshang Merchant, does this and is a fount that needs to be dipped into.
Yaarana: Gay Writing from South Asia; edited by Hoshang Merchant, Penguin, Rs. 350.