When the man with a long white Dumbledorish beard, twinkling eyes and soothing voice, surrounded by books, speaks, one is drawn by the humour and the inherent life wisdom in his voice. One of the most important contemporary poets in India, Hoshang Merchant is the first poet to publicly acknowledge himself as a homosexual. Describing himself as a rebel and a gender Dalit, he is comfortable in his own skin both in his poems and in real life. Currently professor of Poetry and Gay Studies at the University of Hyderabad, Merchant has published various collections of poetry and also edited Yaraana: Gay Stories from India. His book Indian Homosexuality was published recently.
When did you start writing poetry?
I was 16 but I was always a literary creature. I was gay but of course I didn’t come out then. I started writing again at 23 because I was beaten up and left for dead on the streets at Purdue. When I was a student, I used to cruise the streets to pick up men. I think the person who beat me up could not have an orgasm. That was his way of having an orgasm. I had to go for therapy and I started writing poetry as a way of coping. I was not writing gay poetry then. My first poem was To Subbalakshmi. I used to write about things which were not really about my life.
When did your poetry become about yourself and your sexuality?
On returning to Mumbai, I saw that Ashok Row Kavi had started the Bombay Gay Liberation Group. I thought I had to write about my issues. And I found a way that was not very open but not veiled either. My parents had a very sensational divorce and they knew that I was gay. I had to make sense of all that and poetry was a way of doing it, telling without really telling. When I first wrote, Trikone Magazine in California started by NRI gays would print the poems. But later on when my first book came out they said that I was censored. It wasn’t my publisher who had censored me; I had censored myself for India. There is always a censor in us unless you want to be sensational.
But don’t you think censoring yourself comes in the way of creativity?
It does but what can you do? You want people to read you. It’s not a compromise but it’s just a kind of sales gimmick. Even Indian Homosexuality faced a lot of trouble. They censored a lot about the Hindu Gods. They don’t understand that we are trying to reinterpret culture. I am not a Hindu, to me this is mythology. I believe that ok, Shiva is a God but when he couples with Vishnu who is
Mohini and I am a gay man, of course I am going to pounce on this and say what was Vishnu doing as Mohini and if Shiva wanted a lady why didn’t he find another apsara. As a gay writer and a gay interpreter, I am going to have a gay take on it. I am not going to
become a historian of religion because that’s not my job. And my job is not to make the Hindus angry, it’s just to make Hindu people who are gay comfortable by saying if Vishnu can do it, they can too.
You have studied Buddhism in Dharmsala. Why did you want to be a monk?
Because I wanted to put an end to my sexual problems. I wanted to castrate myself mentally since I couldn’t castrate myself physically. My gay friends in America had castrated themselves and had got vaginas put in place of their penises and one day they came for me and said Hoshang, it’s your turn now. (Laughs) And that night was the scariest night of my life.
What was their reasoning behind this?
See I have SIP students (Study India Programme under which foreign students study for a semester at the University of Hyderabad) who come and want to have operations. And I teach them that in India we have a god called Ardhanareshwar and you can be man and woman at the same time in your body. You don’t have to go chopping off parts of your body. American culture is materialistic. They don’t think that the mind is tangible; the body has to be there.
But isn’t India backward with regard to homosexuality in legal terms?
This is because of the British interlude. In my new book I say that we have to undo that damage from the times of Macaulay. The
Indian Penal Code 377 was against homosexuals. And this was not a law in Britain. Later on when the Oscar Wilde trial happened, they put 377 provisions in England also. The word homosexual is 150 years old. It was coined in Germany by a sociologist called Kurt Benny. Kurt Benny was told by Bismarck to make a new kind of human being for the new Germany that they were making. After all the defeats, Bismarck wanted to re-establish a masculine, virile Germany. And then they had these people who they thought couldn’t fight or couldn’t keep secrets and this creature called homosexual was created. And he could not go to the army; he could not be trusted in any all-male department like the police force or the football team. Not that they weren’t there. They were all there having fun anyway and were being used by the same people who would publicly say that they didn’t want any fags around.
You’ve been a teacher for a long time…
It’s the last resort of a scoundrel. But you have to have some control over your mouth. These days I don’t. The other day a boy, who’s a sweet boy and tries to understand gay people said, “You people, do you have an initiation ceremony?” I asked, “What do you mean by ‘you people’? Am I a chakka? And I clapped my hands and said ok, I am a chakka, what are you going to do about it? There is no ‘tum log’ here, there is Hoshang. I am a poet, an English teacher. Words are very important to me. You can’t misuse words. I misuse words but I am a poet I am supposed to misuse words.” (Laughs).
Which is the favourite of your poems?
It’s a funny poem about a Parsi in the Secunderbad of 1890 who had become a yogi and is sitting on a bed of nails. It’s called The Parsi yogi of Secunderabad:
“When I upon my bed I lie And make the kundalini rise…” (Laughs) Unfortunately it’s not in any collection.
— Deepti is a student of journalism at the University of Hyderabad.
Hoshang, I went to St Xavier with you in 1964-1969? Narendra Matalia. Remember? Remember Ashit from Malabar Hill? Never thought I’d ever find you. Don’t know what made me think you. Love to hear back from you!
I always thought you’d end up big somewhere.