Book Review: No One Else
No One Else: A Personal History of Outlawed Love and Sex
By Siddharth Dube
Review by Udayan Dhar
When early African-American writers like Frederick Douglas and Harriet Jacobs told their stories in their classic memoirs- such as ‘Narrative of an American Slave’, and ‘Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl’, they were more than just personal story of struggle, pain and ultimate triumph. They were also the story of their momentous times- the scope of those books as much social and political, as it was personal. And therefore to label journalist-activist Siddharth Dube’s book, ‘No one Else: A Personal History of Outlawed Love and Sex’ merely as India’s first gay memoir would be immense disservice to a book of such global scope, even though at its heart it remains the narrative of a gay Indian man- his coming of age in nineteen-seventies India, his self-discovery in America, and ultimately his love and struggles back home in India.
A book that starts off with an uncensored recollection of ten year old Siddharth witnessing a strip show by a remarkable transgender performer in Calcutta’s Grand Hotel is bound to be revelatory. Siddharth joyously reminisces about the many romantic episodes that came his way during his years at Doon School- India’s elite all-boys boarding school, while also shocking the reader with candid tales of brutal abuse. One particular incident that stays fresh in the mind is the near witch-hunt of “homosexuals” at the boarding school where senior students- many of whom were themselves the abusers- began to publicly humiliate and thrash younger boys they knew had allowed themselves to be used sexually. Siddharth’s chapters chronicling the Doon years are a stinging indictment of the misogyny and homophobia that is rampant at the institution, mostly ignored and sometimes tacitly encouraged by the school authorities themselves.
The memoir transitions from coming of age to coming out as the writer describes his move to the United States. There, over the years where he studied at Tufts University and later at the University of Minnesota’s School of Journalism, he grew from being a deeply closeted and insecure gay man to being aware, confident and assertive of his sexuality, and his place in the world. He returns to Calcutta to discover his true calling to live and work among the most destitute and underprivileged of the world, and ultimately against his father’s advice settles in India while embarking on the first real relationship of his life, with French-Tamil Bharatnatyam dancer Tandavan. Reality however struck them hard as India’s anti-gay law, and a malevolent police force wreak havoc with their lives. The vivid recollection of the day they were arrested by the Delhi Police brings home the deep vulnerability of being gay in 1980s India.
What sets apart Siddharth’s life, and well as the memoir of course- is the fact that despite the personal hardships and challenges he faces at almost every step- he never fails to recognize that these dwarf in front of the outrages that people like Dominic D’Souza (a young gay man in Goa arrested for being HIV positive under the state’s pernicious AIDS prevention laws), or HIV positive female sex workers in Tamil Nadu had to go through. Relentlessly documenting and sharing the stories through his journalism became Siddharth’s raison d’etre, and these narratives are presented with the raw pain that they brought into the lives of these individuals, yet without a sense of fatalism. That perhaps is where the strength of his writing lies. Indeed, even before “intersectionality” became common parlance, Siddharth eloquently celebrates this concept very early on while describing his student years when he realizes that gay men and women are “no different from countless other outcasts… we were part of an even larger community of people who had been marginalized by mainstream society.” This remains the underlying theme of Siddharth’s focus on the lives and struggles of female sex workers, transgenders and gay men. His accounts of interactions with these marginalized people- most of whom are withering away under the assault of the unsparing AIDS virus, make for intense reading.
Siddharth’s passionate work on the HIV/AIDS epidemic is of course explained by the fact that he himself came of age at a time when the virus was devastating an entire generation of gay men in America. What is striking about the memoir’s coverage of the global fight against HIV/AIDS is the fact it never shies away from exposing the hypocrisy and corruption that sadly often accompanied such efforts. For example, when the Secretariat draft of UNAIDS- where Siddharth was working as an advisor- reflected the conservative approach of the Bush administration towards dealing with the epidemic among sex-workers, he mentions the subsequent attempts at revision in unbridled reproach- “… because of the appalling quality of the draft, even the revised one could not meet the standards of earlier strategy documents. To bring it to that quality would have required trashing the draft entirely and writing a stronger one from scratch.”
Of course, in a memoir like this the ghost of Section 377- India’s infamous colonial era anti-homosexuality law can never be far away, and it isn’t. Siddharth finds his compatriot in his namesake- the passionate young activist Siddharth Gautam, who vehemently believed in and acted for the cause of gay equality in India- most notably through his pioneering report “Less Than Gay. Siddhath Gautam’s untimely death leaves a void that never seems to be filled- either personally, or in the field of LGBT advocacy in India. As the legal battle plays out in the Delhi High Court, and later on in the Supreme Court, Siddharth’s account of his thoughts and feelings during those days is an articulate reflection of what so many gay men and women across India had to go through. Sadly enough, the wait continues- justice is yet to be delivered.
Siddharth writes without fear- whether it’s a description of intimate sexuality, a disclosure of senior level misconduct, or the intense sadness that engulfs him following Siddharth Gautam’s death. There is deep empathy in his writing- an underlying awareness of what privilege brings, and how the lack of it devastates lives- whether gay or straight. Siddharth’s writing goes beyond facts, towards a deeper understanding of the world we live in- of the myriad forms of inhuman atrocities individuals and groups face- for instance what is the root cause of homophobia globally? Is it ultimately misogyny that causes a small minority of powerful men to use religious and cultural mores to subjugate the fragile majority? The reader does not merely get acquainted with an eventful life, but gets a rare insight into wider social, political and historical realities that are today perhaps more relevant than ever before. This is powerful reading, indeed essential reading- Siddharth Dube’s story needs to be told, and told with purposeful urgency.