Tuesday, October 22, 2002

art and desire in urban india

Real Time: Stories and a Reminiscence, by Amit Chaudhuri. Farrar Straus & Giroux. $21

By Jason Overdorf
(This book review appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review in October 2002).

THE SPARE, elusive tales that make up Indian author Amit Chaudhuri's first collection of short stories, Real Time, manage to capture both the sudden beauty and the crushing stuffiness of domestic life. As in his four well-regarded novels, A Strange and Sublime Address, Afternoon Raag, Freedom Song and A New World, Chaudhuri's primary interest in this collection is not in the twists and turns of plot, but in evoking the emotion and atmosphere of upper middle-class India.

Chaudhuri writes literature, in both the most complimentary and the pejorative sense of the word. The 15 tales that comprise Real Time take on serious subjects, identity, love, loss. But these stories are not titillating, though they are resonant with meaning. This is art, not entertainment; moving, but also depressing. Most of the stories of Real Time seem to end prematurely, unfinished, while an infinity of possibilities still remains for his reader and protagonist. But something in these quiet, circumscribed tales communicates an air of inevitability, too, an atmosphere of possibilities squashed by circumstance.

In "White Lies," for example, a middle-aged housewife and dilettante fantasizes that she can become a singer, eventually performing at one of the corporate parties held by her executive husband. The noose that is ordinariness is always around her neck, however, and unerring sentences like this one draw it ever tighter: "She wasn't really missed; one was missed at other people's parties, but not at one's own; one was not so much the centre of attention at one's own as a behind-the-scenes worker." A grim prelude to one's first musical performance. After the party, Mrs. Chatterjee comes to a frightening realization about her husband, who has a charming love for her inexpert singing. She observes: "To her surprise, he began to hum a tune himself, not very melodiously . . . He seemed unaware that anyone else was listening. Seeing him happy in this way--it couldn't be anything else--she felt sorry for him, and smiled inwardly, because no one, as he was so successful, ever felt sorry for him, or thought of his happiness." Mrs. Chatterjee's second epiphany, which comes only after some sharp words from her guru, is even more disheartening: "For the following two days, Mrs. Chatterjee, going around in her chauffeur-driven car from the club to the shops in the mornings, couldn't bring herself to hum or sing even once; the driver noted her silence. She'd suddenly realized that her need to sing had been a minor delusion, that she and her husband and the world could get by without it."

The preoccupation with love and art and their power--or incapacity--to break through the constrictive dullness of domestic life runs through most of the stories of Real Time. "A Portrait of an Artist" describes a Calcutta tutor who is desperately clinging to poetry and the city's tiny literary world in an effort to give his life meaning. "Prelude to an Autobiography: A Fragment" evokes through imitation a housewife's overpowering desire to write. None of these reflections on the allure of art ends happily. The everyday always descends to snuff out inspiration. But with the spirit of Calcutta--a city that is home to a million amateur poets and a healthy proportion of the world's tiniest literary magazines--Chaudhuri suggests there is nobility in the effort.

If it is not uplifting, Real Time is an invigorating contrast to the volumes of Indian literature produced in English with a Western publisher in mind--too often with a Salman Rushdie or a Gabriel Garcia-Marquez weighing on the author.

One of the characters poses a question, "Whom does one write for?" Real Time suggests a number of answers. Chaudhuri steers clear of the Raj and eschews exotic India, writing instead of the executives of his country's larger companies and their wives, children and servants. Is he writing, then, for Indians? From his oblique references to obscure regions and personalities--clearly meant to resonate with significance--one might assume so. But there is also evidence Chaudhuri wants the West to read about an India where high-school bands also covered Deep Purple in the 1970s, and where kids exhorted mothers and tailors to create thigh-hugging hippie jeans.

One of his characters opines, "Although so many people write these days . . . you feel the world you know, the India you know, is still to be written about."

closet drama

Caught between harsh laws and cultural conservativeness, Indias gay men often lead lives of frightened secrecy. But now hopes are high they may be on the brink of a legal breakthrough.

By Jason Overdorf
(This article appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review in October 2002).

"HOW DO I LOOK?" asks Prafulla, a 24-year-old Bengali man. He is wearing a red skirt garlanded with purple nasturtiums and a gold silk shirt, beneath which a black bra is clearly visible. He has wrapped a black headscarf around his head in a turban unlike any Sikh's, and around that he has tied a fluorescent print headband. Doubt furrows his brow. "Are you sure you are comfortable with this?" he asks me.

Tonight's underground party on the outskirts of New Delhi is one of the rare places where it is safe for Prafulla (who asked not to be identified by his real name) and his three friends to dress in drag. Spraying himself liberally with perfume in a beauty parlour in one of city's poorer districts, he explains that the four homosexual men always wear dresses when they go to Delhi's gay parties. "It is our only opportunity," he shrugs.

Homosexuals are still liable to prosecution under Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, which prohibits "unnatural offences" or "carnal intercourse against the order of nature." The penalty for the offence is a prison term of between 10 years and life. Consenting adults are almost never taken to court; there have been fewer than half a dozen cases, and most of those were before India won independence. But the threat of prosecution and exposure makes for rampant police abuse, say activists. That not only causes India's estimated 50 million gay men to live in fear, it also hampers the fight against Aids. Nearly 4 million Indians were HIV-positive as of 2001, and Aids still claims more than 100,000 new victims a year, according to India's National Aids Control Organization.

"We noticed . . . that there was a lot of harassment . . . by goondas--that's professional hoodlums--as well as by the police," says Shaleen Rakesh of the Naz Foundation, a group that has been working with gay men to prevent the spread of HIV/Aids since 1994. "That was a problem for us, because when we're talking of HIV/Aids work, then we need spaces where we can talk about these issues without fear, spaces where the community does not feel vulnerable." Documented cases of harassment include not only extortion but also illegal detentions and physical and verbal abuse by police. Naz, which means "pride" in Hindi, also found that police and hoodlums were harassing their own outreach workers: In one case police even jailed workers from another organization for promoting so-called unnatural sex.

"The law is the law," says Dr. Kiran Bedi, joint commissioner of training for the Delhi police. "The police do not have discretion." On the other hand, she adds, "The police have no business asking for money."

But culpable or not, officers have little reason to fear disciplinary action as long as the men they target remain afraid to lodge complaints. Which is why Naz last year petitioned the government to amend Section 377 to legalize consensual homosexual sex between adults, arguing that the law violates articles of the Indian constitution that guarantee the right to life, privacy and free speech. The government has been stonewalling, but the court has proven to be encouragingly sensitive on the matter, says Rakesh, coordinator of the division of Naz that brought the petition. On August 26, India's High Court refused to accept the state's argument that changing the law is inappropriate because homosexuality goes against "the morality in society as a whole." Saying that the issue "could not just be brushed aside," the bench instructed the government to file its response to the petition by November 27, the third and last such deadline.

Those comments from the judiciary had "an enormous impact on morale" in the gay community, says Rakesh, and made Naz hopeful that it could get a final ruling by as early as next year. That would be lightning speed for India's slow-moving courts. Legal experts warn, though, that the court is unlikely to rule on the petition before it receives a response from the state, even if that means extending its supposedly final deadline. Still, all acknowledge the importance of this incremental step, which demonstrates the court's commitment to a resolution and which gay activists see as a hint of sympathy with their cause.

India owes its anti-sodomy law to the British. Indeed, many other former British colonies in the region--Singapore, Malaysia, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka--still have pre-independence anti-sodomy laws in place. In India, though, Hinduism's treatment of sexuality was traditionally more nuanced. The friezes on some of the country's important old monuments are homoerotic, and though there are proscriptions against homosexuality in the Hindu texts, "they are much milder than those against inter-caste marriage," says Saleem Kidwai, who co-edited Same Sex Love in India, an anthology of homosexual writing.

But modern Hindu fundamentalists and Indian society at large vehemently oppose homosexuality. Until that changes, gay men and women who are persecuted will have little recourse to redress. The Naz Foundation has already lodged a formal complaint on behalf of one member of the community with the National Human Rights Commission, only to be told it is impossible for one body of the government to guarantee rights to individuals whom another body considers criminals.

The effects of the repressive atmosphere are evident at the party that Prafulla and his friends are attending on New Delhi's outskirts. The group of 20 or so organizers are used to dealing with the authorities, but tonight they are especially worried. To hold a party for as many as 200 guests takes a serious investment, in this case an outlay of 60,000 rupees ($1,250) to hire a venue and buy food and drink. Normally the police are satisfied with a nominal bribe, sometimes as little as a bottle or two of booze. But tonight someone has spread the word via anonymous text-messages that there is to be a raid by the media and police. Local journalists have already arrived unexpectedly, carrying press-release-style invitations that were mysteriously faxed to them.

Inside the iron gates, drag queens greet each other with enthusiastic air-kisses and younger men at relative ease with their sexual nature chat casually around the swimming pool and dance floor. But 40-year-old men with the moustaches, paunches and polo shirts that distinguish India's conservative middle class stand awkwardly on the party's fringes. It is a future that few of the younger set wish to contemplate. The older men represent the reality of life for the vast majority of Indian homosexuals: Only a tiny minority of Indian gays express their sexual nature openly, say activists, and most are compelled by their families to marry and raise children.

For gays living in the countryside or in impoverished communities, life is still harder. There is little access to information about homosexuality and few opportunities to establish even a furtive gay lifestyle. Many turn to prostitution or join forces with bands of eunuchs. Some even submit to castration. Lesbians face as great or greater obstacles.

Prafulla's experience indicates the impact that access to information can have. "Until I joined Naz, I thought I might have some disease. I didn't know what I was. Now [the meaning of] gay is very clear to me," he says.

"But still my family doesn't know. The day my parents decided I had to get married, I sat up all night worrying, thinking I should run away." Naturally, he had serious reservations, but in his case marriage turned out to be less difficult to manage than he'd feared. "I had the misconception that I wouldn't be able to keep my wife happy, both physically and mentally. But I am finding it quite easy. My wife doesn't know about me, either. I want to tell her. She's my life partner."

By 2 a.m., the party is jumping and the police have arrived. This time, perhaps because of the unknown saboteur's faxed publicity campaign, it is impossible to put them off. Someone overhears a policeman discussing a false report of shots fired. One of the organizers gives the order to cut the generator, so that the revellers can slip away in the dark. Some of the men who have stripped down to their underwear and jumped in the swimming pool now scramble over the walls half-naked, running and hiding like the criminals that they are under India's law.

sirrh! master! sahib! boy!

From zero to hero in the eyes of India's masses

By Jason Overdorf
(This article appeared in the Asian Wall Street Journal in October 2002).

Ali, my guide, and I lolled in a camel cart somewhere in the Thar desert in Rajasthan, India. I had given up on camel riding after having my own hump tenderized by the wooden saddle for several hours. Our two camel drivers played cards next to us, letting the camel plod along as it wanted.

"Do you think youll ever see the sea?" I asked Ali.

"No," said 19-year-old Ali, a clever and outspoken Muslim boy. "It's too far. It would take me three days traveling, so I would have to stay fifteen days."

Bikaner, Alis smallish hometown, lies smack in the middle of the Thar, perhaps 150 kilometers from the border with Pakistan and 800 kilometers from the Arabian Sea. On this unforgiving plain of baked sand virtually nothing grows except giant milkweed and the khejri tree, a dark hardwood that manages to survive by dint of exceptionally deep roots. In the summer, temperatures routinely top 50 degrees Celsiushot enough to burst your can of shaving foam. It is a desolate place, but also a beautiful one.

Here I hoped finally to shed my sahib skin. When I moved to India with my girlfriend four months ago, I was prepared to plunge into the street life, munch samosas with the sadhus and blab with the babus. But somewhere over the Pacific, I became a sahib--a sir. The transformation was no fault of my own. I am happy to scramble into third-class compartments, eat street food fried in suspect oil, and haggle over a dimes worth of Rupees. Its the Indians who made me into a big shot.

Being royalty isn't so bad. The trouble is that I have no control over when Im a sahib and when Im a sap. The Indians define me as it suits them. When they want money from me, I'm a sahib. In exchange for groveling sycophancy I am expected--required--to pay ten times market value for goods and services. The patter of a dubious guide near my girlfriends hometown of Madras drove the point home. "Sirrh, you take one guide, sirrh? You no take guide you no look see anyting." When I ignored him, he called out to me with increasing deference, until, giving up in disgust, he called me by my right name. "Sirrh! Masterrh! Sahib! Boy!"

I've attracted a string of pavement artisans to our posh South Delhi neighborhood. Hearing of the sahib's arrival through the network of housemaids, chowkidars and press wallahs, the trinket sellers have trooped up to our rooftop apartment, cap in hand, to see if the sahib was at home. You're not to buy anything, was my standing order from my foreign-returned Indian girlfriend. Arms akimbo, she barred the door to the woodcarving wallah whod buttonholed me in the street. He produced a pencil holder and tried to show it to me by thrusting it underneath my girlfriend's arm. But sahib told me he wouldn't be busy at six oclock, he insisted. After that, even my partner got into the act. Sahib is not at home, she now tells visitors when it suits her purposes--that is, when they call her Madam.

The desert would be different, I thought. There was nothing to buy, not even a packet of paan masala. Ali's aspirations, if not his experiences, were probably closer to mine than to those of our tribal camel drivers. With only the occasional goatherd as witness, we could define our own roles.

When the sun had reached its meridian, we veered off the camel track to stop under a khejri tree. The boys prepared a potato and chickpea masala for lunch, and after we had eaten, Ali declared that we would wait out the heat of the afternoon there.

"What other places in India have you visited?" I asked Ali.

"Jaipur, Jodphur, Udaipur, Ajmer," he said, rattling off a list of cities in Rajasthan. Hed never been far from the searing plains of North India. "And Delhi. I've been to Delhi several times."

"Don't you want to go to the Himalayas one day?" I asked. "Himachal Pradesh isn't too far away."

"Do you want to eat beef?" Ali asked before we sacked out.

I cast a sidelong glance at our Bishnoi camel drivers, a teenager and a boy not much older. Beef has the illicit romance of contraband everywhere in India, but the Bishnoi are more strict vegetarians, even, than the Hindu Brahmins.

"Not here," said Ali. " These are Bishnoi people. You can eat beef at my home, with my family." Was this Ali the procurer, or was this an opportunity to return as a genuine guest, our seller-buyer relationship concluded?

"Maybe," I said. "I might be leaving. It depends on whether I can get a train tomorrow or not."

That night the four of us slept on a sand dune under the stars. The camel drivers chattered in Rajasthani, laughing loudly every so often. Ali and I watched for streaking planets. He invited me to his brothers wedding in another month, he told me about his girlfriend and about his plans for the camel safari business he would open for himself one day.

"Someday you should visit the sea," I said. I suppose I was proselytizing.

That was the closest the two of us came to an understanding. I never made it to Ali's house to eat beef. In Bikaner the next afternoon, he warned me: "Don't tell anyone in the hotel that I told you where to get cheaper beer. And don't say see you later or make any plans in front of them. If they know I am taking you for eating in other places and telling you those things the owner may be angry."

By the time we reached reception, I'd become a sahib again. Ali stood outside my room deferentially while we tried to plan a time to meet for those cheap beers he'd told me about. But we both knew he was just waiting for his tip. I gave him one hundred Rupees, slipped into my old skin, and said goodbye.