The body is also in the soul

Tolerance is nobody’s monopoly — Section 377 was scrapped under a BJP regime

Written by Hoshang Merchant | Updated: September 22, 2018 7:00:17 am
The reading down of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code has come during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s tenure The reading down of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code has come during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s tenure. (Source: Neeraj Priyadarshi)

“Ajeeb dastaan hai yeh,” sang Meena Kumari. She also starred in Dil Ek Mandir (1963). She was my neighbour. I was 11 and I wanted to be Meena. I wanted my heart to be a temple, too. But I was male and a sullied Zoroastrian gay child at that. “The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom,” said William Blake. I trod this road for 14 years. Like Rama, I was exiled — in the West. I returned home to sanity. “When you make life tolerable for others, you make it tolerable for yourself,” said Anais Nin, my other hero, on whom I wrote my book at Purdue.

For the gay poet to become recognised in India is a tough ask. But I did it. How? How does Waheeda Rehman in Pyaasa (1957) go from being a whore to self-sacrificing beloved within three hours? It took me 30 years. It took a study of Meera, the Sufis, Dalai Lama’s Mahayana, and Hindi films to understand that “When all is soul, the body is also in the soul.”

My Hindu boss in the Deccan made me understand the true meaning of Ardhanareeshwar. I may be male outside but female inside. Female outside and male inside. When they respect each other’s twin natures and appreciate both and be equidistant from both, then we can communicate fully as human beings instead of as sex objects. If I had stumbled on this in my youth, I would not have understood. They say places of pilgrimage call you, you can’t go there just like that.

Secularism has become meaningless. Once I heard the communist Aruna Asaf Ali say on Doordarshan that secularism does not mean no religion but an equal respect for all religions. Lest you think I am a new Pope, let me tell you that at 72, I am full of error but, at least, I know this: I was lucky to escape Western Heathenism because a remedy for soul-sickness (of which gay whoring is a symptom) can also be addressed by a secular religion of self-control and compassion and not only by Marxism.

We liberals do not have a monopoly on tolerance. Religions have always been tolerant. My Yaraana: Gay Writing from India (1999) was published during Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s term as prime minister. This reading down of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code has come during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s tenure. I’m speaking facts, you draw your own conclusions. Politics and people are complex and even activist movements can become quite categorically fascistic. No dissent is tolerated in any political party, which will spell the death of our democracy.

Even the gay movement in Hyderabad has been captured by elite leftist student movements. The poor are left out. I gate-crashed their party and told them, “To theorise the revolution is also revolution.” To call a writer non-political is wrong. A man planting a tree will not eat its fruits, his grandchild might — “Liberation is not for the liberator.” Moses saw the Promised Land but died before entering it. This is the fate of all human work. Even Ashok Row Kavi is not remembered today, expect by Gautam Bhan in a national daily. Ashok, an ex-monk, manned the barricades for us. Herd-thinking is the order of the day. The highest lesson of gay life, namely independent thinking, is lost on the establishment. My latest book has been rejected by 15 Indian publishers. I changed 13 rooms in my first 11 months in Hyderabad. No one wanted a gay. I have lost count of lovers. Love is not possible in a prison. Today my prison poems are archived at Cornell (not in India).

I got stoned by college-going kids in my neighbourhood for writing Yaraana. The paanwalla told them to leave me alone. This illustrates our native cultural tolerance. Half-baked education makes asses of us all, the teacher and those taught. I used to throw those stones right back, daily, until one day I shamed my tormenters by becoming non-violent. “The cave of the heart is the seat of the intellect.” Aubrey Menen talked in his autobiography about the atrophied heart. By my lectures, I hope to touch my listeners. This is the secret of my success as a teacher and the cause of student-love for me (I am giving away my trade secret).

I started India’s first university level gay literature course. I showed my vulnerability. Students pitied me. “Pity is akin to love.” The ustad pehlwaan teaches all the holds except the master stroke. That the pupil has to discover for herself.

May the new judgment bring what is hidden to light.

Merchant is a Hyderabad-based poet and professor

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