Its cheeky title belies the tone and form of Hoshang Merchant’s book, which tells his life story in a collection of vignettes. Its paradoxical subtitle, Autobiographical Fictions is justified: Merchant’s life gives the narrative its shape, but he tells it partially, subjectively and with a certain gentle provocation.
This, of course, is the privilege of memoir. The Man Who Would be Queen’s fictionality is derived from the voice of its protagonist, the “Hoshang Merchant” who lives on the page, through a childhood in a wealthy but conflicted household in Mumbai, an education in the US and Germany in the hothouse years of the 1970s, and travel and work through West Asia.
Each change of geography brings new milestones, many related to Merchant’s private life as a gay man, and others to his development as a writer.
The Man Who Would Be Queen— Autobiographical Fictions: Penguin India, 199 pages, Rs 250.
Merchant writes in a mix of aphorism and confessional, in a serious, self-possessed tone. This is autobiography as performance, and Merchant offers us glimpses—sometimes frustratingly oblique—of an eventful, emotionally intense life.
In his interview with Lounge, Merchant mentions Quentin Crisp, whose glorious memoir The Naked Civil Servant is a landmark of modern British writing. The Naked Civil Servant is a hard book to read, because it is difficult for a contemporary reader to find a way to react to the exquisite lightness with which Crisp writes of a life lived in defiance of violent discrimination and rejection. It is rooted in the social context of Crisp’s early 20th century England, but that violence is still a fact of life for gay and transpeople around the world.
Merchant’s tone and story are both completely different, but he too writes of grief and injustice with ironic distance. The effort is similarly affecting.