Friday, November 01, 2013

Missives of loneliness

From the Archives, Nov '13
Zaid Al Baset delves into the Counsel Club archives again. These series of articles intend to create an archive of the queer movement in Bengal and India – not a chronological narrative of the movement, rather anecdotal histories capturing the little voices that are often lost in general historical accounts – voices from thousands of letters received by Counsel Club, eastern India’s first queer support group (1993 to 2002), and from the group’s house journal Naya Pravartak.

The 9th issue of Naya Pravartak published in August 1997, Counsel Club’s house journal, featured an article titled Seasons of Loneliness by one of the youngest members of the group. Beginning on a generic note on how loneliness is a common affliction, he asks “Is it related to one’s sexuality?” This young man, who loves writing, talking, watching TV and cooking, had a much older friend. He committed suicide when he was 46 years old, leaving behind a terse note: “Ultimate escape from loneliness”.

Puppee writes: “I think he had started feeling frustrated. He was aging and he realized that he had never had a steady partner. Maybe he would not have committed suicide if he had a nice partner.” He adds, “Loneliness can’t be wish away easily . . . and to us gay people it is like a ‘close friend’.”

A letter received by Counsel Club on September 18, 1995 wears loneliness on its sleeves. Abhishek (name changed to maintain confidentiality) writes, “I am a lonely boy of 24 years of age. I am gay. I have no friends with whom I can share my joys or sorrows of my life. Our society is very rigid. I did not see any hope in my life till I found your magazine.”

Abhishek was writing from Chandannagar. He writes how it is difficult for him to receive replies from the group members at his home – a difficulty common to many letter writers who are scared of being ‘caught’, of their ‘perversions’ being ‘discovered’ by the family members. He requests Counsel Club for an ‘exact address’ so that he can meet members personally. Abhishek says he is a creative person and claims to sketch beautifully. He writes, “If you need any artist for your magazine, I will be at your service.”

Abhishek adds, “I want to lead my life according to my own desire. Please save me friend. Please reply as soon as possible.” He too, it seems, needed saving from that loyal ‘close friend’ called loneliness.

Photo credit: Pawan Dhall

Counsel Club received a heart-rending letter written in Bengali in 1999. The letter had no sender’s address and was not dated. The translated letter is a part of Humjinsi: A Resource Book on Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual Rights in India (India Centre for Human Rights and Law, Mumbai, 2002). The translated letter had the names changed. Let me change names again. There is a vicarious pleasure in changing names. It distances the narrator from his / her own story and the protagonist from his / her own experience. Maybe, if names are fictionalized over and over again, the stories become fictional too. Somehow, history packaged as literature makes it more bearable.

So here’s the story / reality. Radha writes: “She turned my monotonous gloomy life to a vivacious, colorful, genial and sprightly active life. I am not hesitant to acknowledge that Sultana awakened me, not only mentally but physically also.” Sultana was a 21-year old, who was employed as a governess for Radha’s youngest daughter. Radha claims in her letter that “the contentment which I never enjoyed in the sexual intercourse with my husband night after night for 12 years of my married life, that contentment was bestowed upon me in abundance by Sultana”.

Radha invites the reader to notice how accounts of Sultana are rendered in the past tense. She then reveals that “Sultana was stabbed to death by some miscreants hired by her husband”. Radha contemplated going to the police but the thought of her children prevented her from doing so. “That fateful night that Sultana was killed . . . my husband raped me. Yes, I address it as ‘rape’. Even if there is anything worse than that, it was that. At the time of putting force on me for sexual intercourse, my husband depicted to me how Sultana was killed,” confesses Radha.

Sultana had wanted to flee with Radha, being motivated by the film Fire. Directed by Deepa Mehta, Fire was released in India in November 1998. Deepa Mehta’s film portrays a homoerotic relationship between two lonely housewives driven to the ‘brink’ by difficult husbands and their antics – one of them is having an affair with an Americanized Chinese while the other subjects himself to Gandhian (s)experiments to transcend the realm of worldly desires.

The film engendered a national furore with the Sainiks of the Bajrang Dal, and Mahila Azadi, the women’s wing of the militant Hindu right wing political party Shiv Sena, vandalizing cinema halls and halting screening of the film in Maharashtra and Gujarat. The film challenged the ‘sanctity’ of the Indian household and its ‘queer-free culture’. It also dared to taint the image of the Bhartiya Nari by suggesting the possibility of a ‘lesbian’ presence within the four walls of the Indian family, a deliberate attempt at ‘hitting’ the Indian male ‘below the belt’.

The furore precipitated into the forging of battle lines – freedom of speech versus public decency, Indian ‘virgin’ culture versus ‘westernized queer monsters’, patriarchal family morality versus sexual dissidence, even Hinduism versus Islam! Interestingly, the protagonists in the film were named Radha and Sita. Bal Thackeray, the leader of Shiv Sena who had encouraged the vandalism, stated that he would have welcomed the film if the characters were named Shabana and Saira, instead. Again, changing names would have salvaged the women of a community (Hindu) from the truth that some among them may have desired each other.

Radha’s letter to Counsel Club ends on a tragic note: “That day I failed to flee but today I have to bid farewell to my family and society. After bidding farewell to my family and life, I will go to Sultana. Before departing from this world, I make one request to you. I do believe lots of people are in the same state as us. If you can save someone like us in distress, our insatiable souls will be grateful.”

Counsel Club members had no addresses or contact number to reach out to Radha. They made announcements on the radio, urging Radha to get in touch with them. Radha never wrote back. We will never know what happened to her. But the fact remains that many lesbian stories in India still begin when the women have already died.

Photo credit: Vahista Dastoor

Loneliness has been a persistent feature of queer lives. Being outside structures and accepted modes of being, queer individuals have had to confront loneliness as an everyday event. This loneliness stems not just from the possibility of isolation or rejection from society but the sheer lack of a space to name oneself. This loneliness is not simply a resignation to the absence of affirmations from family and significant others for the unacceptable choices one makes, but a violent struggle to continuously render oneself fictional, to hide behind fabricated selves and changed names.

Even today as queer men and women in India are moving away from a narrative of loss and pain to one of pride and celebration, loneliness sometimes still lurks behind the colorful masks queer people wear as they march on during pride walks. Maybe, if these faces are recognized, their names will be revealed. Fiction is still more bearable.

Puppee had wanted that a gay old age home be established. He wrote: “It may be that I am sounding very foolish, talking about a gay old age home in a country where gay people are abused, humiliated and looked down upon.”

Abhishek got a reply from a Counsel Club member. In his second letter, that was received on September 27, 1995, he wrote, “I am feeling very happy. Through your letter I can see a ray of hope now and I hope through Counsel Club, I get real friends in my life.” Abhishek met a Counsel Club member two days later.

One can’t help but wonder what would have happened had Radha accepted Sultana’s proposal to flee. Then again, this wondering would make their brutal history a little more bearable.


Zaid Al Baset is a doctoral student at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Kolkata. He can be contacted at zaidalbaset@gmail.com.

2 comments:

  1. I can still recollect Radha's letter and the sadness we felt.

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  2. Rajib Da, that single letter took the movement to a whole new level. It made us cry and sad, but it also made us think about many new issues and interventions. Pawan, Varta

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