Parmesh Shahani’s latest book, Queeristan is fashioned as a business book but chooses a distinct genre — memoir meets manifesto–to tell its story. Through this personal route, he outlines a step-by-step guide to address and change the office culture in India where homosexuality is reduced to taunts and jokes borne out of ignorance if not ill-feeling. He uses anecdotes and personal narratives to both gently chastise and guide.
Founder of Godrej India Culture Lab, Shahani has been a constant voice even as the landscape of queer writin g changed in India post-2018 and the decriminalisation of section 377. In a way, he is still pursuing a similar question he had in 2008 in Gay Bombay: Globalization, Love and (Be)Longing in Contemporary India: What it means to be a gay man? Except, this time it is no longer in Bombay but in office spaces and cubicles. His lens is wider and tone more contemplative.
In an interview with indianexpress.com, Shahani spoke about the book, the challenge to write it without alienating readers, and the privilege that aids in coming out.
The book has been described as a memoir-cum-manifesto. It is a distinct genre to outline a step-by-step guide to change office culture in India post the decriminalisation of section 377. How did the genre help?
Yes it is a distinct genre – and I was very clear that I wanted it to be a hybrid book – an entertaining, practical and deeply optimistic blend of memoir and manifesto, and that too under the guise of a business book! There were no genre guidelines as such as we were attempting something different and I think that was a relief because I could write very much in my own voice and weave in the personal story of the past 20 years of my life, going to university out of India and then coming back and working within Godrej and also advising companies across India about why LGBTQ inclusion matters.
I also wanted the book to amplify the voices of the queer superheroes that I have encountered over the past few years – both in the corporate world and other sectors, and this includes inspiring folks like Aroh Akunth, who are running the brilliant Dalit Queer Project and Rafiul Rafiul Alom Rahman, the founder of the extraordinary Queer Muslim Project, and so many accepting allies, including parents like Mangala Aher and Jyotsna Suri who have not only accepted their queer children but also celebrated them. This also played into the audio narration of the book on Audible that it made it very easy to read out the book like a conversation and in fact, that’s what so many listeners have told me already – that it is like a friend sitting next to them, narrating kissa after kissa.
In the 12-year gap between Gay Bombay: Globalization, Love and (Be)Longing in Contemporary India and Queeristan, a lot has changed in the landscape of the LGBTQ+ community. As an author writing before 2018 and after, do you use language differently?
I use language very differently from before. There are three changes I can think of. Firstly, I am very conscious now that my language is as plural and inclusive as possible. Also, my entire nazariya about queerness has changed over the years and for this, I am grateful to my friends like Dhiren Borisa, professor at OP Jindal Global University in Delhi, whose academic work is at the intersection of caste and queerness. Today, I recognise that our struggles are inter-connected, both within the queer community and between the struggle for queer rights and other rights. Within the community, we need to talk more about the trans act, which in its current form is far from perfect.
Also, we need to realise that our struggle as LGBTQ citizens for our rights is deeply connected to other social justice movements across the country, whether the feminist struggle or the struggle against caste-based violence or for the protection of our environment or with global movements like Black Lives Matter. Even as someone who is based within the corporate world, and has written Queeristan primarily for business audiences, I try and widen the language I use as well as the world view I offer to be as expansive as possible. Secondly, I think that writing after the 2014 NALSA judgment and the 2018 Navtej judgement, my writing is so much more confident and assertive. Finally, I also think I have grown in confidence in blending the different parts of my own personality into my writing. I love Bollywood for instance, and I have happily interjected a good dose of it into Queeristan, right in the middle of the business cases, statistics and stories!
The title Queeristan sounds like a portmanteau of being queer and Hindustan. In your long research on the orthodox office spaces in the country, how accommodating did they come across for members of the LGBTQ+ community?
I have found that there isn’t necessarily willful homophobia in corporate India, rather there is more often than not, deep ignorance about queer lives and concerns. Given this, with sensitisation and an awareness of why LGBTQ inclusion matters, office spaces can and do change quite rapidly. There are several extraordinary companies in India like IBM, McKinsey, BCG, Tata Steel, Wipro, Nomura, Thoughtworks, Bank of America, the Lalit group of Hotels, Swiggy, and so many others that are doing good work in terms of creating inclusive policies as well as work cultures.
In addition, industry bodies like FICCI, CII, AIMA and others are all urging their member companies to become inclusive. I write in the book about how LGBTQ inclusion is truly win-win for everyone – it makes companies more profitable, helps them innovate and attract the best talent and also is great for reputation and how more and more Indian companies are realising this. I also write about how an ecosystem is now being built around LGBTQ inclusion itself in our country. For instance, LGBTQ job fairs like RISE (Bangalore), Q-rious (Delhi) and Vividh (Mumbai), and transgender training and placement agencies like Periferry.
As the Founder of Godrej India Culture Lab, how important a role do you think privilege still plays in aiding a wilful coming out and choosing to tell one’s story?
Completely! To be able to come out is itself a privilege right? Come out if you can, and if it doesn’t hurt you, I say to anyone who asks me today. It depends on your own situation. Through the Culture Lab, over the years, we have tried hard to create a platform through which we can amplify multiple perspectives on contemporary India, including multiple queer perspectives, but we recognise that the lab itself comes out of a deeply privileged space.
Homophobic jokes are often the lowest hanging fruit while being pejorative to someone else. In office spaces where heteronormativity is established and lauded, how difficult was it to come up with a book like this without alienating readers?
So it wasn’t difficult to come up with the book! I just wrote from the heart – direct dil se. Now, I am sincerely hoping that readers accept it and don’t find it alienating – but from all the early response that I’ve been getting, I am relieved that people are getting it. Also, they are connecting more to the stories of the real life people in the book, and because of that connection are able to grasp the rationale for inclusion as well as the steps they need to take. Fingers crossed!
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