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The front cover of Gaysi zine.
The front cover of Gaysi zine.

THE SEX TALK | Not just a story

Testimonial literature is a window into history being written

The power of testimony is not to be trifled with. The Diary of Anne Frank, for instance, remains one of the most significant books of our generation, because it tells us the story of a young girl in her own voice, faced with imminent death but living her days out in hope and adolescent angst. A lot of searing post-World War II literature comes from the testimonies of survivors of the Holocaust, like All But My Life by Gerda Weissmann Klein, and from soldiers who were there at the frontline, taking it all in – the death, the unprecedented destruction, the collapse of humanity – like the verses of Toge Sankichi, a survivor of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

Testimonial literature is a powerful thing. Not only is it a tool for advocacy, but also a window into history being written, with all its concomitant contradictions, urgencies, concerns and grammatical inconsistencies. Testimonies don’t offer sanitized versions of history that we have grown up reading in school textbooks (although, this generation may learn to call it science-mythtion instead of history, but that’s the subject of another post). Its existence itself is a political act because it prevents erasure of the ignored.

The third edition of the Gaysi zine, edited by Priya, one of the three core members of Gaysi Family, a blog for queer desis, fulfils its role as a bearer of testimonies of queer Indians, and although there are many stories in the magazine that aren’t personal accounts, all texts, including the recipes of Shikha (Solo supper), the photographs of Akshay Mahajan (I don’t want to sleep alone), the paintings of artist Sharmistha Ray (States of Arousal) and the poems of Arvind Joshi (Letters in Monsoon) are intensely personal in their tone and intent, with the subjective ‘I’ placed firmly at the centre.

The back cover.
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The back cover.

A few pieces stand out, such as Mari Eva Mendes’s account of her 18-year-old daughter in the eponymously titled Rosabel. Mendes, a counsellor and activist who has adopted India, the country of her partner, as residence of choice, narrates her story of being a mother to not just Rosabel, but two other girls aged 9 and 14 years who live in the Persian gulf, ‘hostages of their father, who refuses to accept that a lesbian can also be a good mother.’ In measured prose, Mendes lays out her fears, hopes and small joys that play out in a larger, hostile context of not just a mistrustful father to her children, but also of an indifferent state, an ‘India (that) has no love for families like ours’.

Coming Undone, Georgina Maddox’s testimony of growing up as a gender-queer Anglo-Indian Burmese lesbian butch, is a fabulous account of constant negotiations even in the elite school and progressive art college that she attended. The journalist-curator’s choice to reveal aspects of her life is brave; what’s braver is coming clean about her attempts at ‘being cynical about love’ and a ‘radical feminist who decries conventional love’ and failing hopelessly. Perhaps we feminists need to rethink our recruitment pitch to seem as inclusive of the hopeless romantics as of the promiscuous sluts so that neither feels like it doesn’t belong, and so that monogamy – for those who choose it – wouldn’t need self-deprecation and irony for sustenance.

Sharmistha Ray’s works in the book were on display last month at an artist’s salon that she had started in her Mumbai studio. The drawings are new to Ray’s oeuvre, or at least to what she has previously displayed: dense and layered oil works that are heavily textured, juxtaposing colours - and lately, forms – on large canvases. These smaller works, of the nude form of a woman, in charcoal and ink on canvas, reveal to us the excursions that are a necessary part of an artist’s evolution, of praxis as a vital part of art.

Noted historian Ruth Vanita’s poem, On the other hand, first began circulating around the time that the Supreme Court came out with its baffling verdict last December, which recriminalized same-sex intercourse in India. It’s presence in the zine is a timely reminder of how what is considered unnatural morphs with time leaving countless victims in its wake. “In pre-dawn silence, I sometimes wonder/ Had no one noticed/ Any more than they do black eyes or brown/ Would I have been someone else?/ Played more, worried less?/ Would I have written better verse?/ Had a better life, or worse?"

Ten years from now, when historians will look for evidence of same-sex love in contemporary India, this zine will be primary source material. It offers some sharp writing and funky visuals, but more importantly, it shows a queer group deeply engaged with issues that aren’t just about Section 377, a legal term that has come to stand in as a nifty synonym for the LGBT community.

A monthly blog on gender, sexuality and blind spots

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