Hoshang Merchant: The grand old man of Indian gay writing
Hoshang Dinshaw Merchant was born in 1947 to a Parsi business-family in Bombay. He was educated at Bombay, Los Angeles, Purdue and Jerusalem. Now a Professor of Poetry and Surrealism at the Hyderabad Central university, Merchant is widely known for his gay anthologyYaarana- Gay Writing from India. Being an openly gay academician hasn’t been easy for Merchant- he had been beaten up by goons, and barred from entering the men’s rooms. But the eccentric man’s indomitable spirit has shown him through tough times, on more than one occasion. He lives in a Muslim housing complex in Hyderabad and talks freely about sex, politics and literature.
I love your flowing beard…
Oh, that’s just a disguise! It’s better to be made fun of because of your beard than to be made fun of because they think you’re a hijra.
How’s life as an openly gay professor at HCU?
My students and seniors are very supportive. My life there is pretty much protected, though I can’t say the same for life outside campus.
How difficult was coming out?
Very. I waited for my father to die before I could publish my first book. The local Zoroastrians shunned me thinking I’ll be a corrupting influence on the children, and when the goons beat me up, they really wanted to kill me. Here in this housing society people treat me with contempt. The mullahs are furious that I don a beard like them!
What are you working on right now?
My autobiography which should be out by year end, and the second edition of Yaarana, containing more stories from across South Asia- Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Kashmir.
In the introduction to Yaarana, you mention your reservations about the ‘gay identity’…
I find the word ‘gay’ rather exclusive, ‘queer’ on the other hand is much more inclusive. You see, everyone is queer to some extent. My father used to be a very queer man!
And the dedication will remain the same? (Dedicated to my lovers- past, present and future..)
Yes… though I don’t really see the possibility of any future lovers! (laughs)
How is the current state of gay literature in India?
Very disappointing indeed!
And you don’t see an Indian Edmund White or Alan Hollinghurst in the foreseeable future?
I can’t say, but also let’s not think of the two on the same plane. White wrote from the depths of his heart, while Hollinghurst writes for straight readers. I couldn’t even complete ‘The Swimming Pool Library’! though I must admit I haven’t read ‘The Line of Beauty’ yet.
Where is the Indian gay movement heading to?
I think it’s copying the west too much. We must maintain our distinct queer identity. It’s happening because of the influence of globalization.
You seem to be suggesting that globalization is a negative influence…
Globalization is destroying cultures worldwide. Today’s young gay Indians may think of globalization as an instant road to freedom, coming out may not be as difficult as it used to be, but let us be clear about the fact that there can never be success without decadence. History bears testimony to this fact.
Excerpts from the new introduction to Yaarana by Hoshang Merchant…
Recently the Delhi High Court read down article 377(b) of the Indian Penal Code which prohibits homosexual acts. The government has yet to plead its case before the Supreme Court simply because it is afraid of a public backlash. Meanwhile poor gays continue to be exploited by the police in Delhi as elsewhere and rich, closet homosexuals continue submitting to blackmail if not murder as at Vasant Vihar, Delhi and in other parts of India. On-line gay chat-groups claim that police exploitation has lessened in Delhi but I saw no statistics to back up their claims. I think it is just wishful thinking on the part of their spoilt young cocooned by their parents’ wealth and social acceptance of the gay identities. No change in the law has taken place at the time of this book going to press though the media, as usual, has gone mad 24 x 7 with its gay hoopla.
Since I wrote Yaraana ten years ago, the new term ‘queer’ has come into vogue even in India. Judith Butler (among others) invented the term to mean that all men and women have a little bit of the gay in them. Modernism used the categories ‘straight’ or ‘gay’. Post-modernism uses ‘queer’ which is more complicated, kinder, poetic. In India, however, this would implicate everybody and frighten everybody. This would further inhibit acceptance by India of its gays. Just as there is stupidity in the world there is also compassion. I suppose ‘gay’ will be current in India a little longer.
A whole new generation has grown up under globalization watching Hollywood and Bollywood movies and daily T.V. news-stories about gays. They are more at ease with their own sexualities and that of people around them but they are also under renewed pressure from their families, schools, churches. Saving souls is as big a business as the world-economy that gays continue to play into from the comfort of their double-income / single-sex ‘families’! Dailt gays are thrown on the scrap-heap.
A word of caution on ‘gay marriage’ : This will only lead to the bourgeoisification of gays, not necessarily a good thing ‘Married’ gays with ‘families’ suit the world-economy better than less well-off, single gays. Marriage is a decaying institution in the West. India’s gays should question the concept of marriage instead of swallowing a bait thrown them by the globalised economy. Also, gays should not blindly imitate straights.