Reflections on “Being Queer” in Kolkata

On May 2, 2011 by admin

Niharika Banerjea

“To speak of sexuality, and of same-sex love in particular, in India today is simultaneously an act of political assertion, of celebration, of defiance and of fear” (Narrain and Bhan 2005, 2).

Recent work exploring same-sex experiences in India emphasizes that lesbian and feminist causes must work together to respond to ‘compulsory heterosexuality’. This position raises several issues, among which the tenuous nature of same-sex experiences and the ongoing need seek a collective, critical community are abiding concerns. There is little published writing around queer middle-class women from India that takes reflexivity seriously as a method. Therefore my short essay takes the form of a series of self-reflective fragments that illustratethose moments of communitythat I experienced with women who self-identify as ‘samakami’. ‘Samakami’ is a Bengali term meaning same-sex desiring person.

Rather than conceiving of community as a monolithic empirical unit of analysis “as points of arrival for our research agendas” (Green 2002, 521), I approach the term as emerging within the lived context of my interaction with same-sex desiring women in Kolkata.

Kolkata

The sights and sounds of the Eastern Metropolitan Bypass-the main thoroughfare in the city-on a June morning in 2009 does indeed have clarity. As the taxi speeds down the road, the dense summer air envelopes the weather beaten and the freshly painted residential apartments, the one manned retail store, the mall and gently pushes the masses of people – sweaty, crisply dressed, – onto their daily destinations. The public transportation is once again so conspicuous by its packed compartments. The newly designed buses are a reminder of economic liberalization, of hope for a once dying city and fear for its future. In this tropical city there is indeed an air of expectancy. Kolkata today is the juxtaposition of a pre and post liberalized economy, in its physical structure as well as social fabric. For someone like me whose personal history is entangled with the city’s pre and post liberalization history, it may be rather difficult to recognize all the signs of degradation and rejuvenation. But one change is unmistakable. There is an air of affluence in the place and a pride about the affluence. It shows itself in a plethora of various types of cars on the roads, of new buildings, restaurants, and the neighborhood stores packed with goods meant for personal grooming and household improvement-previously unavailable to the inhabitants of this place and the nation. The happy middle-class heterosexual couples staring down from the billboards are the new drivers of this economy. In a largely Hindu nation where the ideal “Hindu-nationalist citizen-body rests on the exclusion of Others who embody, albeit differentially, improper gendering, sexuality, and nationalization” (Bacchetta 1999: 151), what meaning does community hold for same-sex desiring women in the city?

I cannot take Kolkata for granted. The city is too complex, too dense to be entirely familiar. Then again the tenuous nature of same-sex relationships (Vanita and Kidwai 2001) makes it hard to imagine a gay space in the city, unlike many cities in the global north. Thus, I am not in search for an enclave, but for a meaningful community at the very heart of the city.

Academy of Fine Arts

2nd  July 2009. A large group of people outside the Academy complex, the cultural hub of Kolkata, carrying various banners and posters celebrating the de-criminalization of homosexuality in India. Something changed that day. The High Court of Delhi ruled that the provision in Section 377 of India’s Penal Code that criminalises private consensual sex between same-sex adults violates the country’s Constitution and international human rights conventions.

A group of people long considered a moral hazard and previously deemed shameful in public discourse was on its way to become an object of public discussion about human rights in the world’s largest democracy. Was this that moment where same-sex desiring people could officially reach out to the contemporary Indian public without discrimination or was it just the beginning of a new phase in the struggle to de-stigmatize same-sex relationships in the nation?

The gathering at the Academy was an appeal to community, or rather the promise of a community that refuses to remain non-existent within the folds of the city, loving, laughing and seeking to change the norms of social interaction right at its heart. This collective was not a fiction, but a reality that with all its territoriality and face-to-face interaction became a site for political re-imagining.

But many of us were careful not to conceive of it as an essential foundation. For those who do not live their sexuality as a fixed form of identity, community as a foundational entity is meaningless. The appeal to community therefore was an appeal for living with difference. Living with difference is “another way of thinking how it is that ‘the more than oneness’ of sociality requires new ways of living” (Ahmed and Fortier 2003: 256).

Sappho

Sappho is part of a long history of same-sex, particularly, lesbian activism in India. It formed in 1999 to claim recognition for lesbians in Kolkata.The first floor of a two-storied modest house in a middle-class neighborhoodin southeast Kolkata serves as its office. This location had indeed surprised me the first day I visited it. As the taxi slowly but surely made its last turn and stopped short of my destination, I asked myself: “how has Sappho managed to survive in this neighborhood for such a long time”? The taxi could not enter the small by-lane, so I got down and walked the last few minutes. There were no signs to indicate the presence of the organization. Was it possible to exist in a modest middle class neighborhood such as this? Didn’t the neighbors say or ask anything? What did the neighbors think that the office was about?

The nebulous character of same-sex experiences in the Indian context is well documented (Khanna 2005; Vanita 2001). There is often an absence of explicit words in Indian languages to denote same-sex desires and relationships. Same sex-sexualities are possible in India “without necessarily fostering discretely identifying same-sex sexual subjectivities” (Boyce 2008: 111). Sappho is a collective of same-sex desiring women that exists within patriarchal structures and not as a discrete identity at the margins of a heteronormative city.

Through its various workshops, conferences, film festivals, Sappho consciously distances itself from entering into an oppositional logic of “us versus them”, which many in the global north may be familiar with as a framework of collective identity construction during the closet and coming out eras (Ghaziani 2011). But neither is Sappho excited about operating within a framework of “us and them”. It strives to reach out and educate about same-sex experiences in repressive contexts, for example in those where social actors may not even label a same-sex experience as such.

Ayesha

Ayesha is in her mid 20s, medium built, born in a Muslim middle-class family. Akanksha-one of the founding members of Sappho-introduced her to me. To celebrate the reading down of section 377, several of us, including Ayesha went out for a drink on the evening of July 2nd. Ayesha at present works for a media outlet in London.I present an excerpt of a conversation with her.

[10.25] Q: How did you come to know about Sappho and why did you join it?

[10.28] A: I think that was when I finished school and there was this thing that I need to connect with people who are like me and I need to go out there and see if there’s anybody out there, so obviously I started research then. At that time, we did not have a website. We had some peer lists which were just they would give you the name of the organization and the city so I thought fine there’s something in Calcutta as well.

[11.36] Q: Did you want a network more than support?

[11.41] A: No, actually no. When I came to Sappho more than network, I was looking for support I think.

[11.50] Q: In what sense?

[11.51] A: community feeling, coz I was tired of being around [sigh]. Not that people weren’t sensitive to me and they didn’t want to listen to me but I wanted to be around people who did think like me and who saw life maybe to a certain extent the way I did. It’s all right to be around friends and talk about their boyfriends and stuff but I was like I just wanted to connect with people who were more like me. I was looking for a sense of belonging I think.

[12.30] Q: When you think of community then, do you think only of Sappho, or do you also think outside of it? Let me explain. There could be two aspects to it, a political and an emotional aspect. When you think of a sense of belonging, if you do, in these contexts, how do you see yourself?

[13.22]A: When I think of the term community, the first word that comes to my head is Sappho, because it’s just a place where I am accepted regardless of what I am and what I do, so it doesn’t really matter.

[13.38] Q: So, are you saying that community is where ever you are accepted as you are?

[13.52] A: I think so yes, definitely because otherwise it will become a situation where you have a society where either you pretend or if you don’t they are hostile to you…Emotionally [I think of] Sappho as a group coz it comes almost like a family. You have drama, everything happens here, is just amazing. But people will support you, if you do something wrong, people will still talk to you it doesn’t matter.

[14.36] And there’s a lot of friendship and everything. Might sound odd but we also have these somebody somebody’s brother and somebody somebody’s mother [to connect with] and I don’t know I think maybe because in everyday life something is missing somewhere that we try to find or make relationships over here, not necessarily just friendships and finding a partner and stuff. But you will always find someone calling each other by your, some sort of a term which you would be like some sort of a family member thing.

[15.56] And if you talk about the larger political community I would say the other not only the other LGBT organizations but also women’s movements and everything else that I identify with, I would say that that’s the larger community. And networking between these communities is very important. If we give them space in our movement for representation of their issues, you know, we will also have representation in their issues. Because I can’t say that I am just an LGBT activist. I mean if I go out then I see maybe a housewife or a woman is being discriminated against in her workplace, I would definitely also say that this is something I don’t agree to, so there is always this I think all the movements are interspersed, because one person has different aspects.

Concluding thoughts

The interconnections between Kolkata, Academy, Sappho, Ayesha and me is central to our understanding of how same-sex sexualities create contingent, collective and relational kinds of community that do not necessarily depend upon essential ideas of same-sex identity politics. Community takes the form of queer resistance that while moving away from the primacy of heterosexual and patriarchal family is also a bridge to that world; it is a kind of everyday lived resistance that “protests the hypocrisy of silence around the desires and needs” (Narrain and Bhan 2005: 4) of same-sex sexualities.

References

Ahmed, Sara & Fortier, Anne-Marie. (2003) Re-Imagining Communities, International Journal of Cultural Studies. No. 6, 3: 251-259.

Bacchetta, Paola. (1999) When the (Hindu) Nation Exiles Its Queers, Social Text, No. 61: 141-166

Boyce, Paul (2008) Truths and (mis) representations: Adrienne Rich, Michel Foucault and sexual subjectivities in India, Sexualities, 11 (1-2): 110-

Ghaziani, Amin (2011) Post-Gay Collective Identity Construction, Social Problems, 58(1): 99-125

Green, A. I. (2002)Gay but not queer: Toward a post-queer study of sexuality, Theory and Society, 31: 521-545

Khanna, Akshay (2005) Beyond Sexuality(?), in Bhan, Gautam and Arvind Narrain,(eds.) Because I Have a Voice, Yoda Press, New Delhi

Narrain, A. and Bhan, G. (eds) (2005) Because I Have a Voice: Queer Politics in India, New Delhi: Yoda Press

Vanita, Ruth and Kidwai, Saleem (Eds.) (2001) Same-Sex Love in India: Readings from Literature and History.New York: Palgrave

Vanita, Ruth, (ed) (2002) Queering India: Same-sex Love and Eroticism in Indian Culture and Society. New York, Routledge

Niharika Banerjea is Assistant Professor, Department of Sociology, University of  Southern Indiana, Evansville.

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