He had imagined the day — December 11, 2013 — as a difficult but a momentous one. After decades of denial, Kannada writer Vasudhendra was about to declare to the world and his readers that he was gay. His coming-out story was his 13th book, Mohanaswamy, a collection of stories about the eponymous gay character. But the highest court of the land — on that very day, of the book’s release — had shut the door on the face of India’s sexual minorities, pushing them back into the confinement of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code. “When I heard that the Supreme Court had criminalised homosexuality again, I was scared. I called my lawyer friends. What do I do? Will they put me in jail?” recalls the writer, who was 45 then.
In the years since, Mohanaswamy has sold 5,000 copies and been translated into English (2,000 copies), Spanish, Telugu and Malayalam. The Tamil, Hindi and Marathi versions are in the works. “I wrote it as an outburst, for myself. I had not realised that there was such a need for this book,” says the 49-year-old writer.
The flood of calls began soon after the book’s release. “It is not as if the men wanted sex — that they had managed, even in their villages,” he says. All they wanted, these men living desperate double lives in Karnataka’s villages and towns was “to share their stories”.
Vasudhendra tells me of a man from a remote village near Sringeri, who called minutes before I had walked into his ground-floor flat in an apartment complex on Bannerghata Road in Bengaluru. “He is 65, married and still not out. He called and said, ‘I am gay, sir. I want to come and meet you and discuss my life. You are the only person who I know who has openly said he is homosexual’,” he says.
Nearly five years after the book’s release, the calls have not stopped — from an 80-year-old in Mysuru who wanted to confess his “pseudo life”, to a young man in a village persecuted for being open about his sexuality. “His parents curse him. Villagers have nicknamed him Rs 200, insinuating he is a prostitute. Even the village prostitute accuses him of taking away her customers,” he says.
Those conversations were an echo of Vasudhendra’s own long struggle against the silence around homosexuality in Kannada literature and culture. Like these men, the writer in his 20s and 30s had been stranded on an island of lovelessness, unconnected to a larger community in the pre-internet era, and filled with self-loathing. “Those who could read English came to know about homosexuality sooner than us. In Kannada, no one talks about it. There was no word for it in the language we used. There is no information available about it in the regional language, even now. Most of the Kannada newspapers are homophobic. In depictions in literature and cinema, a gay man is shown as worse than a Naxal,” he says. Mohanaswamy was the first Kannada book to acknowledge the desires of a man for another man, and Vasudhendra is the only Kannada writer to have come out as gay.
What is it to be gay and unacknowledged in rural Karnataka? Vasudhendra had a fair idea, having grown up in Sandur, a town in Bellary district. But over many conversations with his distraught readers, he found out more. For one, the rules of urban etiquette did not apply here. “Here, it is considered indecent to share someone else’s phone number with another gay man without asking first. But it is the exact opposite there. You are doing them a favour by giving their numbers. They would ask me to do so,” he says.
Because marriage is a way by which families grow in stature and wealth, everyone succumbs to it. “The social pressure is too high. Somehow, a man will manage to get intimate with his wife for one or two years, but later they sleep in different rooms. If they are lucky, they have children. The worst sufferer is the wife, of course,” he says.
He recalls a man in his 50s, married with two children, from a village in Hubli, who came to meet him in Bengaluru. His sexual relationship with his wife had broken down completely, plunging her into depression. “He told me, ‘I feel so guilty, I can’t look at her. Just to avoid looking at her, I sometimes beat her up.’”
In the absence of partners and sexual release, men are forced into dangerous liaisons. “One man confessed to following an auto driver or stalking someone he saw at the bus stand. There is no rule, no ethics in this. You are driven to just look for some flesh. That’s what it becomes,” he says.
As he absorbed the confessions, Vasudhendra, who had also trained as a counsellor, became one — to anxious teenagers, HIV-affected young men and weary men weighed down by regret. “Whoever could afford, I asked them to buy a smartphone, taught them to download dating apps or Facebook messenger. At least they could know if there was a gay man in a village 5 km away,” he says.
While the internet is changing things in small towns and villages, its effect is felt only by a tiny minority. “Nobody has the courage to put their face on the dating apps. They put the image of a flower or a Shiva linga as their profile picture. Most of them want to convince themselves that they are not gay, but bisexual,” he says. None as much as the “Andhra bi(sexual)s”, he jokes. “In Andhra Pradesh, a marriage brings huge dowry to a man’s family. Now if you say you are gay, you will lose all that money. Naturally, you cannot opt out,” he says.
In his struggle to accept who he was, Vasudhendra had seen the depths of despair. But the man who meets me on a Friday evening is aglow with health and good cheer. He speaks of his darkest days with candour and humour, he breaks into guffaws often. He looks back without anger.
There he is, an M Tech student at the Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru, desperate to do everything to prove himself straight. “I was convinced that because all men knew how to ride a bicycle and I did not, all I needed was to learn how to and I would cease to be gay. But the man who was teaching me was so good-looking, I ended up with a crush on him,” Vasudhendra says, with a loud laugh.
Growing up in Sandur, homophobia was all around. He remembers a classmate running away to a temple. “He began to dress like a woman and wearing a sari. His father and brothers thought he had defiled their honour. So they killed him and said he had committed suicide,” he says.
From Sandur, Vasudhendra moved on to an engineering college in Suratkal (“till the final year of college, I did not know the word gay) . He was working in the IT industry when he began writing. “At the time, I had told myself that it was that routine life that had triggered the stories. Now, I realise that it was an identity crisis about my sexuality. I was 27 or 28. Everyone around me was getting married. I didn’t have the courage to tell my story, but I found a creative way to get rid of the anxieties and questions,” he says.
Over the next few years, his collections of essays and stories, such as Nammamma Andre Nanagishta (his best-known work about his mother) and Maneeshe, earned him popular and literary acclaim. These were stories of his Bellary childhood, the big-city life, but not about his desires. “I was locked in a closet. I didn’t know anyone else like me,” he says. A year before Mohanaswamy, he began attending sessions at a support group for gay men. The stories wrote themselves. “I had started accepting myself,” he says.
“They are not getting away this time by calling us criminals,” says Vasudhendra. The writer has been following the developments as the Supreme Court hears arguments for and against striking down Section 377. “I think it will go. We are all waiting,” he says. As a writer, he has moved on to other subjects. “There was a time when I would wonder where the humour in my writing has gone. Now, I can laugh at myself and my encounters. I recently wrote about looking for a house in Jayanagar. The landlord was reluctant to let out his house to a bachelor. He asked me to promise not to bring girls home. I asked him: Is it okay to bring boys? He readily agreed,” Vasudhendra says, laughing.
Mohananswamy’s readers continue to find him. He uses every opportunity to meet and counsel them. “I have to speak up, only then will others find the courage. Someone has to be there for them. Someone has to say, this is who I am,” he says.