Siddharth Dube: Fear eats the soul
The author, whose latest book is a memoir about life as a gay Indian man, on struggling with femininity and writing about sex in India
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In a rich, thoughtful new book, Siddharth Dube writes an intimate history about life as a gay Indian man in the last decades of the 20th century. He writes from the throes of an internal struggle with gender and sexual identity in the privileged but stifling environs of an upper-class childhood in Kolkata, Delhi and at the Doon School. But Dube, a former journalist and policy expert who worked with the UN and the World Bank on development and public health, also widens the frame of this story to retrace how India has confronted big questions about homosexuality, sex work, AIDS and poverty over the past few decades. No One Else is exacting and moving in both its personal and political dimensions. Edited excerpts from a conversation with Dube:
Your previous books have been about caste and poverty, AIDS and polio. What prompted you to write a memoir?
It’s been very difficult for me to write about myself, as I’m not comfortable with being the centre of attention. But this book, though formally a memoir, is oddly less about me than about the underlying issues of social injustice and the fundamental human need for justice and rights, themes that are common to all my books.
Childhood is often violent, but your years at Doon School were especially dark. You write frankly of widespread physical and sexual assault among students in the 1970s.
There is an imperative need in India to have these issues discussed openly, beginning with the pervasive violence in our schools and colleges, to the larger but intertwined matter of whether fear-based schooling traditions need to be jettisoned in the interest of building a more just India. It’s not simply the victimized children who pay a terrible price. The violence poisons all kinds of things lifelong, from notions of masculinity to relationships between the sexes, to attitudes towards the weaker. And the perpetrators of school violence—especially when they are privileged males—are conditioned to act brutally throughout life, whether to women or to the poor. I don’t doubt that this is a fundamental cause of the violence we see everywhere in India.
You weigh your strong sense of social justice against the relative privilege in which you were raised and educated. How did you reconcile these things in your life and work?
I had compelling personal reasons to grapple with matters of injustice and suffering. The first and most formative was my eldest brother’s polio, which left both his legs badly damaged at the age of 4. This made me sensitive to the suffering I saw everywhere in Calcutta as a child and then eventually pushed me to train and work on public health matters. And then my awareness from childhood of being an outcast for being feminine and gay made me keenly aware of how terribly others suffered, often in ways far worse than me, from being cast out by society, always for reasons that don’t stand up to rational scrutiny. So I’ve been left with a healthy scepticism about respectability and privilege.
You write of “struggling with homosexuality”, but also with “femininity”. Did you think of this gender fluidity as inseparable from your sexual orientation? Has that changed over the years?
More than merely changed, my views about these matters have undergone a profound liberation. Both those taboos are boring and unedifying untruths. Gentleness—what too many men disparage as femininity—is a beautiful, healthy thing. And the animus against same-sex desire is overwhelmingly a product of Abrahamic and Victorian obsessions, which really have no place in 21st century India. In this regard, it’s ironic to see how people like Swapan Dasgupta or others in the Sangh Parivar have internalized these colonial taboos and now argue that they are quintessentially Hindu-Indian virtues.
I’m struck by how clearly you can write about childhood: its comforts and love, as well as fear and self-doubt. How did you excavate these feelings?
I needed to be in my 50s to be able to do this, to be able to look back productively at my difficult childhood and youth. That distance has made it possible for me to write with gratitude for the good things I was given, particularly the security of love within our family and my father’s stress on independently thinking through matters of right and wrong. And equally, that distance has also allowed me to write with legitimate criticism of the “wrongs” I suffered, whether the brutality I faced at Doon or the homophobia I began to encounter as a young adult.
It’s difficult to write honestly about sex in any English-speaking culture, but India comes with particular challenges on that front. How did you think through writing about sexual experience and intimacy?
You’re absolutely right that India poses huge challenges when it comes to discussing sex. But it’s vital to do so, because this remains the cause of suffering for so many Indians, whether women who are accused of being sluts and un-Hindu if they acknowledge or act on desire, to sex workers and gays who are brutally criminalized. So I’ve pushed myself to write frankly about my discovery of the beauty and wonder of sex, about how I progressed from a starting point where I had internalized the prevalent homophobia to developing a rational, healthy view about this human matter. There’s really no rational reason not to discuss sex and sexuality with complete ease. Sex is, after all, one of the fundamental four “f”s of all human societies, along with feeding, fleeing and fighting, as one of my professors memorably put it.
You trace some of the crucial history of the battle for rights and a meaningful health policy for sex workers. How do you feel about the outcomes of those stormy years?
The battle by Indian sex workers to be treated fairly and respectfully dates back to the independence movement but was strengthened as a response to the havoc wrought by AIDS since the mid-1980s. It’s been both profoundly inspiring and depressing to document this history over these decades. Inspiring because I’ve witnessed some of the most emancipatory transformations as sex workers have united to fight for their rights, as in the well-known case of the DMSC collective in Calcutta and the VAMP collective in Sangli.
These transformations—from being reviled outcastes to becoming women who are leaders in the fight for basic human rights—are the greatest testimony to the health of Indian democracy, a parallel to the emancipation of Dalits that I’ve also closely documented.
But on the other hand, I’m left profoundly depressed because all this sacrifice and effort has been squandered by our political class, who have failed to decriminalize sex work, to free sex workers from the brutality of the police and the injustice of the criminal courts, and to provide them workers’ rights and safeguards.
The Supreme Court’s judgement upholding Section 377 last year seemed to foreclose the possibility of India’s decriminalizing homosexuality anytime soon. What do you think the near future might hold for LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) activism in India?
On this matter too, I veer from hope to pessimism. There are countless outspoken gay women and men, all over India, of every background, who are determined to be decriminalized and to be treated as equals in every aspect of life. There are countless people who understand the rightness of these demands, that this is a human rights matter like any other, not just leaders and thinkers but also everyday people, parents and families and friends. The opposition comes only from a small minority of bigots, but unfortunately these bigots can cause a great deal of harm in our lawless country, as witnessed by the ongoing attacks on secularism and diversity. So while this is unfortunately another era of danger, in a longer time frame there is no doubt that justice will prevail in India—India is not Putin’s Russia, however much some of our political heavyweights might wish to set themselves up as autocrats.
It’s exhilarating that you write without fear—a literary quality as well as a journalistic one. I feel silly asking you this so baldly, but how does one do it? How did you do it?
“Fear eats the soul.” That’s a poignant saying across many cultures. So for self-preservation alone, I’ve done all that I can to deal with the sharp fears that I’ve been confronted with—beginning with being a reviled “girlie boy”, facing sexual and physical abuse at Doon, the fear of being found out to be gay as a young adult at St Stephen’s, and then the constant apprehensiveness when I began to live as an openly gay man in Delhi in the mid-1980s.
In helping me through all this, I owe huge thanks to my wonderful late father, and to the philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti, who wrote so insightfully on living without fear. By now, in my 50s, I’ve lost any patience for bigotry and bullying by anyone, whether directed at me or at others. It’s profoundly liberating to no longer feel burdened by fear, to not have it eating my soul.
Supriya Nair is an editor at The Caravan.