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Reclaiming Gay India with Ruth Vanita

Interview by Raj Ayyar

I called Ruth Vanita on a lazy winter afternoon about a month ago. I had just finished reading Same-Sex Love in India, a book that she co-authored with Saleem Kidwai. Our conversation was less of an interview and more of a cozy, timeless cosmic chat of the kind that's called 'adda' in Bengali, which covers everything from cabbages to kings and spans centuries.
Ruth Vanita

Since she used to teach at an elite women's college attached to Delhi University, a college that was a sister college to my own alma mater St. Stephen's, we discovered many common acquaintances and friends. I felt transported back in time to the courtyard of the Delhi University coffeehouse where, in the comforting shade of an ancient banyan tree, I would engage in passionate political, literary, and philosophical discussions with teachers and fellow students.

For me, as for many other South Asians, the book is a real eye-opener. Same-Sex Love in India cracks open the clichéd stereotype, held in both India and the West that sees homoeroticism as a foreign import and that India has always gone back and forth between arranged heterosexual marriages and ascetic celibacy.

This stereotype has fueled the pseudo-postcolonial argument that homosexuality is a decadent Western colonial imposition that is alien to Indian ways. On the other hand, it has also encouraged a patronizing 'let's teach you about Stonewall' attitude on the part of those Western gay activists who see Indian gayness as a fragile, recent shoot that needs to be watered by the springs of post-Stonewall gay lib.

On the contrary, Vanita and Kidwai show that same-sex relationships have been affirmed and celebrated in poetry and prose, in mythology, literature and medical treatises throughout the lengthy span of Indian history.

For instance, the book explores the concept of 'swayamvara sakhi', a word found in the 11th century story cycle the Kathasaritsagara that refers to deep love between women and also refers to a self-chosen relationship. This concept forms part of the basis of Ruth's own marriage to her partner Mona Bachman.

mosquelight.jpg - 16.12 K Her gay marriage comes, not out of recent developments in Vermont law, let's say, but from venerable roots that go deep in Hindu traditions not often publicized, that endorse and even sanctify same-sex relationships and unions between men and between women. The book delves into stories of sages 'born of two wombs', and of goddesses and gods that give birth without a cross-sex partner. The book enabled me to discover and re-discover ancient, medieval, modern, and post-modern homoerotic Indian texts, Hindu, Buddhist, Jain, Islamic, and Indian Christian texts that have been suppressed, sanitized or minimized in mainstream Indian history.

How many Hindus, for example, acknowledge that the god Harihara/Ayyappa was the son of two of the major deities of the Hindu pantheon, Vishnu and Shiva, the former in drag, the latter pursuing 'her', "as a lordly elephant would a she-elephant"? (p.71), or that one of Shiva's sons (Skandha: literally 'jet of sperm') was born after a convoluted process that involved the fire god Agni swallowing the mighty Shiva's semen, which was literally too hot for him?! (p.79).

Many Indians and Westerners, accustomed to a very straight interpretation of the Krishna-Arjuna relationship in the Bhagavad-Gita (that influenced Max Muller and Thoreau so profoundly), would be shocked to discover Arjuna aroused by Krishna's beautiful waist, his penis visible through his yellow garments, "lips red like the bimba fruit" and his "knees like a good tree, rounded, and not too far apart" and who as 'Arjuni' has wild sex with Krishna (pp. 92-93).  

Saleem Kidwai, who has done a masterly job of reclaiming homoerotic themes and texts in Indian Islam, edits the medieval Islamic part of the work. Despite the repressive homophobic provisions of sharia law with its heavy-duty anti-sodomy penalties, there has been a long-standing tradition of homoerotic celebration in Islam, particularly in the Sufi tradition.

Also, as Kidwai stresses, even orthodox Islam is not without its quota of same-sex love references. For instance, the Koran promises beautiful boys and houris to the faithful in Heaven (p.111). The ultra-conservative hadith (sayings attributed to the prophet Mohammed) claims that Mohammed saw God as a beautiful youth with "long hair and cap awry." Same-Sex Love in India is a slap in the face of 'compulsory heterosexuality', whether it comes from the Left or the Right. It is a powerful challenge to the fundamentalist re-writing of history, whether Hindu, Muslim or Christian.

rayyar.jpg - 5.81 K Interviewer Raj Ayyar Saleem Kidwai is a medieval historian who taught at Ramjas College, Delhi University for 20 years. He is working on multiple projects now: homoerotic subtexts in Hindi cinema, a biography of singer Begum Akhtar and many others. Ruth Vanita, formerly an Associate professor at Delhi University is now Associate Professor at the University of Montana.

I remembered the varied intensities of conversation and relating that I shared with men and women in the shade of that banyan tree. The tenderness, the respect and the long hours of just being-with . . . Back to the banyan tree and the courtyard with Ruth Vanita.
Raj Ayyar: Ruth, it's wonderful connecting with someone who shares memories of Delhi University in the 70s with me. What brought you to the University of Montana?

 tajmahal2.jpg - 9.87 K Ruth Vanita: Well, I applied to a whole bunch of places and landed this job. Technically, I'm with the Liberal Studies program, which is a broad-based multi-disciplinary program. I teach a lot of Literature courses and bring in Women's Studies and Gender Theory perspectives. I taught a course on Oscar Wilde, and am planning to teach a comparative course on 'same-sex love in Indian and British Literature.'

Raj Ayyar: You were an Associate Professor in the British Literature Department at Delhi University, were you not?

Ruth Vanita: That's right. I do want to say that my courses here have been very well received. Missoula is a liberal pocket of Montana. Many of the students are from rural and working class backgrounds. I think it makes many of them humble and willing to learn.

Raj Ayyar: As opposed to, let's say, someone from an Ivy League college here, or from St. Stephen's, Miranda House, or some other elitist institution in India?

Ruth Vanita: Yes. My students at UM don't have that know-it-all attitude.  

Raj Ayyar: It's refreshing to find my negative stereotypes about places like Montana challenged! (laughs). The University of Montana did give you a grant for 'same-sex love'?

Ruth Vanita: Yes, I did get a grant from UM to work on the book. We also got donations from friends in India, both money and space to write the book. We ended up hiring and paying for research assistants out of our own pockets.

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Raj Ayyar: When you were working on the book at the Delhi University, was there any homophobic resistance to the project from the administration? What about colleagues and students? I seem to remember that there was a good deal of homophobia at DU in the 70s. It wasn't a 'bashing' homophobia, but a 'tolerant' one that winked at same-sex relationships, provided one was discreet and 'grew out' of them into a heterosexual marriage.

Ruth Vanita: I wouldn't say that there was an active homophobic resistance, as much as a taken-for-granted heterosexism, where alternatives to hetero married normswere not even perceived or given any reality status. But the administration did not object to the publication of the book. Permission was granted smilingly.

In fact, I presented papers on same-sex love in Shakespeare's As You Like It at seminars held at Delhi University, papers that were very well-received by my straight colleagues. I don't know quite how to explain this, other than to say that the liberalism of a certain kind of academic Indian intellectual is truly remarkable. Of course, both at DU and here in Montana, I refrain from any personal disclosures in class. I don't see personal disclosure as appropriate in the classroom. But, that does not keep me from a full and free discussion of gay themes, when a specific text or author demands it, e.g. Shakespeare, Oscar Wilde or E.M. Forster. fire4.jpg - 15.28 K

Raj Ayyar: Same-Sex Love opened my eyes to so much that's been repressed or sanitized in mainstream India.

  Ruth Vanita: The repression and sanitization are not just problems with the Indian political and religious Right. For example, Leftists, liberals, and right-wingers joined hands in publicly attacking the controversial lesbian art film Fire when it was released in India.


Raj Ayyar: So, there's a paradoxical homophobic meeting ground between some elements of the Left and some elements of the Right?

  Ruth Vanita: Yes. And there is a common bias against any kind of sex discourse in India, not just same-sex discourse. The language of condemnation might vary, depending on who's making a statement. Thus, a Hindu Rightist might use the language of 'homosexuality was never a part of our glorious tradition' while someone from the Left might say 'it's a decadent capitalist/colonial phenomenon' but both are homophobic and sex-phobic. Puritanism and homophobia were certainly a part of the Victorian British colonial tradition in India and elsewhere. But, you can't lay all the blame at colonialism's door.

Raj Ayyar: It's strange that in countries like India or Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe, many so-called 'post-colonialists' invoke sodomy laws that were put in place by British colonialism! It's also strange that these laws have been largely repealed in many Western colonial nations including the U.K., but still flourish in their ex-colonies to the drumbeat of 'post-colonial' identity.

Ruth Vanita: Absolutely. It's self-contradictory.

Raj Ayyar: You know, one thing that struck me about Same-Sex Love is that although you and Saleem are sympathetic to 'constructivism', in that you quote Foucault and Halperin, you seem to resist at least one interpretation of Foucault: that the word 'homosexual' was a construct that did not emerge till the medical discourses of the 19th century, and that 'homosexuality' became a medicalized identity in the 19th century and thereafter.

  Ruth Vanita: Of course, the word 'homosexual' was not used before the 19th century. I agree with Foucault there. However, other words for same-sex love have been around since the beginning of documented written history. Another interesting point: there are Hindu medical texts that date back to the medieval period, e.g. the Charaka Samhita and the Sushruta Samhita that do categorize and medicalize same-sex desire.

  Raj Ayyar: That means the medicalization goes back centuries before the 19th century texts that caught Foucault's eye?

 samesexloveindia.jpg - 17.77 K Ruth Vanita: Yes. And, even in the West, medical and other categorizations were known since at least the 10th century. Words like 'tribade', 'sapphist' etc. were in use long before 'lesbian' or 'homosexual'.  

Raj Ayyar: Tell us a little about your involvement with the pioneering Indian feminist journal Manushi. Were you the co-founder?

  Ruth Vanita: Yes. Madhu Kishwar and I co-founded Manushi way back in 1978. It came out of a women's group that used to meet in my dorm room at Miranda House, DU, during my student years. The group developed the concept of the magazine.

  Raj Ayyar: I notice that many straight Indian women who identify with feminist causes have a great respect for Manushi.

  Ruth Vanita: Yes, well, the journal was never explicit about lesbian issues. It addressed gender oppression without getting too explicit about sexual orientation. This was typical of the Indian women's movement in the 70s, which carefully refrained from any discussion of sexuality and sexual issues and focused almost exclusively on violence against women------spousal abuse, dowry deaths etc. I think that tendency is changing now. A lot of younger Indian feminists are starting to explore other issues, including lesbian issues. There were many lesbians within the Indian women's movement even in the 70s, but we never discussed our sexuality openly.

  Raj Ayyar: I remember that there were many young gay Indian males in the 70s who, likewise, never addressed or discussed their sexuality openly. So, there was no support system, no forum for airing gay-political ideas and certainly no political base.

  Ruth Vanita: You know, this is part of that phobia of sex-discourse that we discussed earlier. But it's not even-handed. After all, there is a lot of talk about heterosexual marriage in India and this IS a way of talking about sex, at least about heterosexuality.

  Raj Ayyar: But, isn't this another sanitized way of talking about heterosexuality.... minus the sex? And, when we consider those passionate Indian same-sex relationships, be it 'sakhyani', 'dosti' or 'yaari', once again these relationships are socially approved because they are considered non-sexual. Yet, in your book you point out that many such 'friendships' are strongly charged with the erotic and the romantic, even if there's no sexual 'acting out'.

Ruth Vanita: I think it's important to remember that Indian cultures place a tremendous value on friendship, in a way that has been largely forgotten in the West and certainly in America. In India, because everyone (till recently) was so oblivious of homosexuality, it was considered perfectly normal for a same-sex friend to come over to your house, hold hands, hug, and even sleep in your bed. That would be unthinkable in contemporary America!

  Raj Ayyar: Some of that is due to the very deep-seated homophobia in the U.S. It was not that uncommon in 19th century America, Whitman's America. But there is such self-consciousness about sexual identity in the U.S. today that all same-sex closeness is seen as suspect. Deep emotional bonding has all but disappeared even in heterosexual discourses and practices.  

Ruth Vanita: Some of it is due to the rushed quality of life here. Most Americans meet to 'do' something together, seldom to just be together. And these deep bonds need patience, a lot of time, and a lot of just 'hanging out' together for no particular reason. On the other hand, some American women both gay and straight seem to find it easier to develop emotional closeness, than many American men do.

  Raj Ayyar: Could you tell us a little your book Sappho and the Virgin Mary?

  Ruth Vanita: Well, I argue that even in the straight white male patriarchal tradition, the Creatrix has always influenced the literary imagination. The Romantics, Meredith, Forster etc. were deeply influenced by her.  india3.jpg - 21.08 K

Raj Ayyar: Is this Virgin Mary cult a backdoor resurgence of the Goddess archetype in the patriarchal West?

  Ruth Vanita: Absolutely. There's been a lot of research on this theme. Not only the Virgin but Catholic female saints in the Middle Ages can be seen as the re-writing of goddesses such as Demeter, Persephone, Isis and so on. However, my book focuses not on the medieval period but on the modern period from the Renaissance onwards.

  Raj Ayyar: Don't you think that Protestantism can be seen as a desperate attempt to stamp out the feminine in Christianity?

Ruth Vanita: In a sense, yes. You can see this trend as early as Martin Luther's attempt to purge the church of Mary and all female icons. I don't think that the female presence has disappeared from Protestantism, however.

  Raj Ayyar: What about the connection between Sappho and the Virgin?

  Ruth Vanita: Sappho has been regarded as the ultimate female lyric writer, whose style was a model for many writers, including the Romantic Movement. Her lesbianism was a hovering presence surrounding this influence. I've reproduced paintings in the book that show the Virgin surrounded by female saints and feminized males, be they angels or saints. She is a mentor, guardian and teacher to them. Sappho too was surrounded by young female protégées; she played teacher and mentor to them...two different ways of approaching the same thing. Of course, Sappho represents the more sexualized form, while the Virgin clearly does not. And yet, convents and nunneries were refuges for same-sex communities. Hostile Victorian puritans, wherein the connection between the two was stated in a negative manner, saw them as “hotbeds of Sapphism”.

  Raj Ayyar: In Same-Sex Love, you argue against the view that gender-segregated monastic communities were always oppressive to women. You point out wryly that the privileging of procreative sex is not necessarily of advantage to women.

  Ruth Vanita: Uh-huh. I think it's healthy to have alternatives to procreative sex and heterosexual marriage. I'm not denying that some women were oppressed in these monastic communities, but in many cases it was based on a free choice. You see that clearly in the writings of some Buddhist nuns as also in the writings of some women in the West like Hildegard of Bingen. For these women, it is obvious that the monastic lifestyle was an active, autonomous choice.

Raj Ayyar: Do you think that the Western 'coming out' model applies to all cultures? Ever since Stonewall in the late 60s, many Western gay activists have a fixed model of the coming-out process in their heads, and speak and act as if it's the sole paradigm for lesbians and gay men everywhere.

  Ruth Vanita: Well, I don't think you can make a blanket recommendation for India, given the great diversity of cultures there. However, I do think that the gay person has to make some kind of statement in saying 'no' to the standard arranged heterosexual marriage, whether you frame that as 'coming out' or not.  

akovi.jpg - 19.72 K Ashok Kavi Raj Ayyar: What do you think of Ashok Kavi? As you know, there are many gay movements popping up all over the Indian urban scene, thanks to the pioneering efforts of Ashok and a few others.

  Ruth Vanita: I respect Ashok greatly. In fact, when he came out in a popular Indian magazine many years ago, I thought 'great!' I grew up with many of the classic gay feelings of loneliness, feeling different from others, cut-offness and so on. Ashok's openness has encouraged many gay Indians to come to terms with their sexuality.

  Raj Ayyar: Ruth, it's been a joy talking with you.

  Ruth Vanita: Likewise, Raj. I've enjoyed our conversation.

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