The second edition of Same-Sex Love in India: A Literary History comes at an opportune time. At the Supreme Court, legal processes are under way for the repeal of the antiquated Article 377 that prohibits alternative sexuality. In popular culture, Dostana from the Dharma Productions stable, released in November, was a historic film because it portrayed, for the first time in mainstream Bollywood, two men (at least) pretending to be lovers.
Edited by Ruth Vanita and Saleem Kidwai, Same-Sex Love in India first came out in 2001. The new version, which brings fresh perspective to ancient texts as well as contemporary authors, doesn’t stop at exploring the question of whether same-sex love has always existed in India. Rather, it explores the varied ways in which such experiences have found expression in Indian literature.
Rainbow nation: A gay rights march in Mumbai earlier this year. Rajanish Kakade / AP
Literary styles encountered in the book span from the Rig Veda, through early epic literature such as the Mahabharat and the Ramayan, into the later epochal style of the Bhagavad Gita, Puranic narratives, works in the Perso-Urdu traditions and contemporary writings in English and Indian languages.
Vanita and Kidwai had an enormous task at hand: to compile little-known, neglected primary source materials and have writers versed in both languages translate that material into English.
Same-Sex Love in India illuminates a diverse range of unconventional expressions of love with warmth and empathy. The editors have sensibly selected works which represent that diversity while remaining sensitive to the politics that now surrounds issues of gender and sexuality in the world.
Literary history drawn from so many sources is bound to reflect an intriguing plurality of perspectives. The Panchatantra is one such source. In its original, this collection of stories is presented in a fun, yet didactic narrative style, with various animals as primary characters—there are stories here of “unnatural” friendships between “natural enemy” species such as the monkey and the crocodile, or the lion and the bull.
Another example from the Skanda Purana is that of Sumedha and Somavan, two boyhood friends who develop a great love over time that they themselves grapple to understand. While stressing the importance of care and devotion, themes discussed in these stories demonstrate how love can take different forms, not necessarily the romantic love that we are familiar with.
Love in India:Penguin India, 479 pages, Rs450
It may be hard to imagine the relevance of such stories to our own time. What is the utility, some might ask, in mining tales of friendship and love enjoyed between men or women from ancient or medieval literature?
The answer lies in literature’s ability to connect us to the past. In modern times, divisive political agendas and Bollywood films often trivialize issues concerning same-sex love. They disconnect us from the past, enabling what political scientists call the “depoliticization” of man.
Literature, by connecting us to the past, helps us understand ourselves. For those in same-sex relationships, this book can help them understand themselves and their loved ones better.
Short, engaging chapters make the book easy to read, the narrative moving to and fro from the present to the distant past. Meticulous footnotes complement the compassionate, yet intellectual anthology.
Ralph Bauer is a Pune-based Sanskrit language fellow at the American Institute of Indian Studies.
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