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Odd Man Out

A memoir of growing up homosexual in India speaks urgently to the present .

Updated: January 2, 2016 4:08:33 am
Siddharth Dube, Siddharth Dube book, Vikram Seth, Doon school, A Personal History of Outlawed Love and Sex, The searing prose reveals the violence and brutality that a gay child experiences, when he spends his growing years in hostels and boarding schools.

Title: No One Else : A Personal History of Outlawed Love and Sex
Author: Siddharth Dube
Publisher: Harper Collins
Pages: 376
Price: RS 599

By Arvind Narrain

Siddharth Dube’s memoir is a haunting recollection of what it means to be a child whose sexuality is at odds with mainstream society. The searing prose reveals the violence and brutality that a gay child experiences, when he spends his growing years in hostels and boarding schools.

Dube’s tale casts a different light on childhood, which is not a time of innocence but rather marked by brutal violence. Dube invokes a lecture by Vikram Seth, his senior in Doon school, where Seth had said, “I thought of school as a kind of jungle and looked back on it with a shudder.”

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Dube narrates in great detail why this is so, by describing the hierarchy of a boarding school, where seniors have an implicit licence to bully those who do not conform to the heterosexual macho norm. In Doon School, like many other elite schools in India, “teenage boys” were “prone to despotism and bloodlust” and were brutal policemen when it came to gender non-conformity.

Homophobia was not just a pervasive backdrop to the experience of school. Through moving prose, Dube shows that its most harmful effect was that it became a part of the imagination of those who would go on to identify as gay in later life. Gay people would be apt to view their own feelings and actions with a sense of self-loathing and revulsion.

The experience of school was akin to being in a totalitarian system, wherein all bodies, all feelings and all thoughts were relentlessly conditioned to express the heterosexual norm.

Though the experience of school is tinged with memories of love affairs, for Dube, the predominant experience is one of a deep and pervasive violence. Dube’s memoir draws us into a world, which is a kind of hell for those who are different from the sexual and gender norm. No One Else: A Personal History of Outlawed Love and Sex is, if you will, a gay version of the Lord of the Flies in its savage taking apart of the myth of a happy childhood spent playing cricket and chasing girls.

We follow Dube in his journey through life, through his slow discovery of his homosexual self, his naming of himself as gay and his discovery of the gay subculture both in the US and in India. We get poignant vignettes about his coming out, which was akin to a “desperate spontaneous jail-break” and his bumbling discovery of a gay network. He visits a gay bar wearing a kurta and in his words it was like a “Hare Krishna monk who had stumbled into a lumberjack camp”.

Dube, on his return to India, explores both his romantic as well as sexual selves, though both are not always linked. Sexual experimentation, including threesomes, become “milestones in developing a rational, uncomplicated attitude towards sexuality”.

However, this exploration is always tinged with anxiety due to the criminalistation of same-sex intimacy under Section 377. Dube describes the costs of leading a gay life in India through a searing example of violence in a police station in Delhi, which was unleashed for no other reason than the fact that he and his partner did not hide that they were gay.

In many ways, Dube’s story goes from being the story of one gay man to become a story about how a “silent and secretive minority” becomes increasingly vocal and articulate. In particular, it takes us into the early history of the Indian LGBT movement.

We get moving portraits of some of its pioneers, including Siddharth Gautam, who Dube describes as “aesthete and satyr, madcap and visionary, revolutionary and intellectual”. Gautam, who died tragically young, was one of the forces behind Aids Bedhbhav Virodhi Andolan (ABVA), the first activist organisation to take on LGBT Rights. As part of ABVA, he was also one of the main authors of the first report on gay rights in the Indian context, titled “Less Than Gay”.

Dube captures some part of the excitement of the early days of the movement and what it meant to read “Less Than Gay”, which, for the first time, publicly articulated a vision of an India where gay people were “not criminalised, not perpetually fearful” and a future where the constitutional guarantee of equality would apply to everyone and all aspects of life.

This memoir speaks with urgency to the present. Till today, children are bullied in schools around the country on grounds of their sexual orientation or gender identity. Dube’s compelling narrative of the law’s violence makes the case for the repeal of Section 377 with renewed urgency.

We need protection for children in schools and we need protection for LGBT persons from the persecution of Section 377. One hopes that this book is one step towards in achieving both objectives.


Arvind Narrain is a Bangalore-based lawyer who works on LGBT rights

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