As ‘Queeristan’, Parmesh Shahani’s book on LGBTQ+ inclusion in workplaces, launches the business list of a leading Indian publishing house, Lounge examines whether India’s mainstream publishing industry is becoming more queer-friendly
It’s not often that a business book introduces itself as a “memoir meets manifesto". But that’s Parmesh Shahani’s opening gambit in his book Queeristan: LGBTQ Inclusion In The Indian Workplace. Published by Westland this month, it launches the firm’s business imprint. With its unconventional approach to the genre, the book fits snugly into the imprint, led by the motto: Business Unusual.
“Kicking off a business list with a rights-led book is unusual," admits Karthika V.K., publisher of Westland. But it’s also perhaps an indicator of the shifts in the industry, especially in the landscape of LGBTQ+ writing in the trade market. “Earlier, a book like Queeristan would be targeted at a niche readership," Karthika adds. “But now the idea of what’s mainstream and what’s not has blurred. What once used to be called ‘activist publishing’ is of interest to everybody."
Winds of change seem to be blowing elsewhere over India’s publishing landscape too. In September, Hachette India is releasing Sex And The Supreme Court: How The Law Is Upholding The Dignity Of The Indian Citizen, which brings together essays by top lawyers and petitioners involved in judgements pronounced by the Supreme Court on various gender issues—from Justices Madan Lokur, A.K. Sikri and B.D. Ahmed to lawyers Menaka Guruswamy, Arundhati Katju (who are reportedly co-writing a stand-alone book on their fight for the rights of India's LGBTQ+ community), Mukul Rohatgi, Madhavi Divan and Saurabh Kirpal. “While Section 377 (of the Indian Penal Code, or IPC) and the 2018 judgement are at the heart of the book…the essays also cover a wide range of other issues around gender and sexuality—including marriage rights, the trans bill, triple talaq and MeToo—and how judicial proceedings have played out in those cases," says Poulomi Chatterjee, publisher of Hachette India. Until 2018, Section 377 criminalized sexual acts between consenting adults “against the order of nature".
Shahani’s book smartly bridges the gap between specialist and general interest. While entrepreneurs, managers, policymakers, human resource executives and corporate employees are its obvious intended readers, Queeristan will appeal to everyone who is interested in ideas of fairness, justice and inclusivity. Shahani creates a map of LGBTQ+ lives and experiences over the years through interviews with individuals, analyses of law and policies, pop culture references, scholarly research and fieldwork. Most of all, he does not shy away from speaking in his own distinctive voice—a cross between a petulant uncle and gently coaxing elder brother.
“This book is deeply personal and references everything, from Homi Bhabha to Hema Malini, often in the same sentence," Shahani says over a Zoom call from his home in Mumbai. At 44, this is his second book, after Gay Bombay (2008), a critically praised ethnographic analysis of “Globalization, Love And Belonging In Contemporary India". The 12 years between the two books have not only brought a sea change in Shahani’s personal and professional fortunes, they have also been transformational for the LGBTQ+ community in India. In a sense, though, Shahani’s focus has remained the same: The subtitle of Gay Bombay describes the broad themes of Queeristan too—the difference being in the lens of workplace politics that the latter uses to look at LGBTQ+ lives.
The persecution of LGBTQ+ people in India owed its legitimacy to Section 377 of the IPC from 1860, a legacy of the British colonial administration. Its 150-odd-years-long history is marked by a series of recent landmarks—2009, when a Delhi high court ruling read down Section 377; 2013, when a Supreme Court bench reinstated the archaic law; and 2018, when another Supreme Court judgement struck it down for good. These dates, however, form the tip of the iceberg of the fight waged by a loyal army of activists since the 1990s. Their struggle still continues—to change society’s mindset, demand marriage equality and other personal freedoms.
Shahani has been part of this movement since the early 2000s; initially, as a student of communications at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), a stint which led to his first book. After returning to India, he worked as a startup founder and journalist before venturing into the corporate sector—first, with a job at Mahindra & Mahindra, followed by a role at Godrej Industries, where he founded the award-winning Godrej Culture Lab.
With the benefit of his US education and exposure to the best practices of employment overseas, Shahani was forthcoming, from the start of his career, about his rights as an employee. He made clearly articulated demands for non-discrimination policies, including gender-neutral spousal benefits, at both his workplaces. Being close to top bosses like Anand Mahindra and Nisa Godrej worked in his favour, but such access also expanded his imagination. He was not merely interested in bringing about a revolution in his own workplace—he wanted to use his experience to encourage other companies to revisit their policies too.
Shahani invokes two neologisms in Queeristan to explain his strategies—the first being “jugaad resistance". This “takes place when the revolutionaries locate themselves within the establishment they wish to change," he writes, “so that they can bring about innovative changes to the system from the inside." He wants companies to act in loco parentis, to take on a parental and pastoral role towards their employees, who probably spend more hours of the day at work, among colleagues and managers, than with their families.
His other method is to use “cultural acupuncture", through his programming at the Godrej Culture Lab, for instance, where he invites guests from across the LGBTQ+ spectrum to speak, perform and participate in events at the Vikhroli campus of the company in Mumbai. From drag performers to Dalit activists, the culture lab has hosted a diversity of people who are unlikely to cross the threshold of conventional corporate spaces.
Queeristan grows out of these years of outreach work done by Shahani—directly, as a speaker and recruiter at campuses of B-schools; or indirectly, as an influencer, impresario and campaigner for LGBTQ+ rights—into a robust narrative. Without resorting to righteous rage, Shahani shakes up the corporate establishment with stories of individuals battling for equality, dignity and respect. “Career advice for a queer person is always more than just that," he declaims. “It is often about looking for personal freedom."
Why stories matter
The power of the story lies at the heart of Queeristan. If policies and proposals are the flesh and blood of the book, the numerous stories of individuals are its marrow. The book’s affinity with personal testimonies also mirrors the trajectory of India’s LGBTQ+ movement. As Shahani points out, the change in the law finally came in 2018 only after a group of petitioners appealed to the Supreme Court: They told the bench their stories, who they are, the people they loved, why it mattered to them to live in a nation that did not criminalize their choices. The lawyers arguing the case recounted the intimate joys and sorrows of their clients in court to persuade the bench.
“Before we get to why employers should be more inclusive, the employers should first know who we are," Shahani says. To this end, he includes a parade of personal stories collected during his travels across India and beyond. From Anubhuti, a trans woman employed with Tata Steel in conservative Jamshedpur, to Mohul Sharma, a trans man working with the Lalit hospitality group in Delhi and the National Capital Region, the characters in Queeristan add to the diversity of LGBTQ+ stories in corporate India.
“I was stung by the 2013 Supreme Court ruling that said the LGBTQ+ community was a ‘minuscule minority’," Shahani says. “One of my intentions in this book is to showcase the range of LGBTQ+ lives, which is increasingly being expressed through fiction and non-fiction."
English-language publishing’s tryst with the LGBTQ+ community in India began, in a sense, in 1977, with the publication of the mathematics wizard Shakuntala Devi’s The World Of The Homosexuals. The book, allegedly inspired by her marriage to a gay man (though her recent biopic put a different spin on it), appeared as the repressive years of the Emergency ended. But Indian society was far from free from other repressions, and unprepared for Devi’s robust clarity. “Immorality does not consist in being different," she wrote. “It consists in not allowing others to be so."
Her words went unheeded for decades and it was only in 2000, with the dawn of a new millennia, that a path-breaking volume, chronicling India’s long and illustrious LGBTQ+ culture, appeared. Same-Sex Love In India, edited by Ruth Vanita and Saleem Kidwai, featured a range of texts, from Sanskrit treatises to poems by Vikram Seth, to show the unbroken continuity of queer desires in the subcontinent, opposing the notion that such feelings arose due to the influence of the West. Twenty years on and after multiple editions, it remains an undisputed classic, although its publication history was far from smooth.
“We had to finance the research out of our own pockets as we did not get any grants (we applied for LGBT grants from the US)," Vanita says from the US, where she is professor of English at the University of Montana. “Indian publishers were extremely wary. As we didn’t have an agent, we could not approach major publishers abroad. Finally, we found Palgrave-Macmillan in the US, and a few years later Macmillan in India, and then the updated edition appeared from Penguin in 2008."
From the late 1990s, LGBTQ+ writing had begun trickling into India’s English publishing ecosystem. However, apart from anthologies edited by Hoshang Merchant and a few books by R. Raj Rao, it was only academic titles that were available in the market. In 2005, Arpita Das, founder of Yoda Press, began to publish a “Sexualities Series". It ushered in a wave of crossover publishing in the LGBTQ+ space, with books such as Because I Have A Voice: Queer Politics In India, edited by Gautam Bhan and Arvind Narrain, straddling the trade and academic markets. Our Lives, Our Words: Telling Aravani Lifestories by A. Revathi, a transgender rights activist, appeared in 2011.
“Even so, it wasn’t an open or hospitable discourse," says Urvashi Butalia, founder of Zubaan Books. “It was an uphill task to get bookshops to display the books." As an intersectional feminist publisher, she published writers like Naisargi Dave, Gayatri Gopinath and Navaneetha Mokkil, among others, in spite of the relatively small market for such works. Maya Sharma, whose book Loving Women: Being Lesbian In Underprivileged India was published by Yoda Press in 2006, recalls the fledgling interest in women’s sexuality in those years. “Until 1996, when Deepa Mehta’s Fire (a movie with a lesbian love affair at its centre) came out, some women’s groups used to say lesbianism was a ‘myth’, there was no willingness to confront the reality." In a bid to prove them wrong, Sharma began to collect stories of women that would reveal the human faces (“manviya chehra") behind everyday masks.
Shahani also remembers finding it hard to locate many books that dealt with queerness in an Indian context when he was at MIT. But between 2008 and 2018, the scenario began to change, with more books on the LGBTQ+ experience coming out—a sophisticated array of works, feted by critics and readers. Pre-eminent among these was Kari, Amruta Patil’s graphic novel, whose eponymous protagonist is a lesbian, though that aspect of her character barely made an impression back then.
“During the entire process—editorial back-and-forth, launch and promotion-related conversations—there was never any explicitly articulated mention of the queer quotient of the book, or its place in the LGBTQ+ firmament! Can you believe it?" Patil says. “Kari slid in as just a graphic novel, not as the queer graphic novel. There was more emphasis on my being the ‘first female graphic novelist’ than on the queerness of my protagonist." Twelve years on, in the age of social media, “the decibel level… about the book and its politics are really at their prime now," she adds. “I often joke that I wish as many lay people read the book as academics."
Others followed: Sachin Kundalkar’s Marathi novel in translation, Cobalt Blue (2013); Sandip Roy’s novel Don’t Let Him Know (2015); and Kannada writer Vasudhendra’s Mohanaswamy (2016), a collection of stories in translation, to name a few. This July, poets Akhil Katyal and Aditi Angiras published The World That Belongs To Us: An Anthology Of Queer Poetry From South Asia, a pioneering volume of its kind, which solicited entries through a public call on social media. The idea was to be as diverse and intersectional as possible, representing classes, castes, genders and sexual identities across the spectrum. It’s hard to imagine such a volume existing even five years ago. But, as Sohini Basak, the editor at HarperCollins India who worked on the book, says, “Many more books, and not just labelled anthologies, will need to be published to slowly fill the gap."
Miles to go
While Shahani celebrates the distance travelled by the LGBTQ+ movement, he is also aware that there are many more miles to go. Drawing on Bollywood, he sums up his sense of the change by comparing two movies, Dostana (2008), in which Abhishek Bachchan and John Abraham pretended to play gay characters, and Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan (2020), where Ayushmann Khurrana and Jitendra Kumar really are gay lovers. “When Dostana was released, the audience laughed at the gay characters," says Shahani, “but now, in Shubh Mangal, they are laughing at the bigot parents. This is how far we have come."
But in spite of its buoyant optimism, Queeristan doesn’t play down the problems of tokenism. In the age of social media, it’s easy for companies now to “virtue signal" without really bringing change at the grass roots. In a section titled “Pinkwashing", Shahani calls out entities like Hidesign, which hadn’t genuinely practised the values they preach when it comes to inclusivity. On one point of policy, he doesn’t spare his own employer either.
But these rebukes arise out of the need to impress on the corporate world that inclusivity is a fundamentally decent path to follow. In an ideal world, we should not have to make a business case to convey a message that is essentially based on appeals to our humanity. We may never get to live in such an ideal world, but, as Shahani writes with hope, “other worlds are possible". That’s the thought Queeristan leaves its readers with.