Love is a Many-Lotused Thing

A Lotus of Another Colour reviewed
By Mina Kumar

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A Lotus of Another Colour:
An Unfolding of the South Asian
Gay and Lesbian Experience
edited by Rakesh Ratti Alyson Publications, 1993

It is emblematic of A Lotus of Another Colour front cover is pink. Pink is of course the usual colour for lotuses.

Where is the other colour?

This anthology has all we have come to expect from anthologies by marginalized groups—a little history, lots of politics, bad poetry, essays on difference—this time by lesbians, gays and bisexuals of South Asian descent. Rakesh Ratti, the book's editor, is a founding member of Trikon, a California group for gay South Asians.

The first group of essays deals with historical views of South Asian homosexuality and political issues surrounding South Asian gays and lesbians, while the second group focuses on biographical information, a sort of "Portrait of the Author as a South Asian Homosexual" in various versions, and poetry is interspersed in between.

Ratti himself remarks on the paucity of materials to gather. There was a time when anthologies collected the works of writers who have been oppressed, but it seems anthologies now collect the works of oppressees who have been writers. Ratti apparently believes that the effort to depict South Asian homosexualities is more important than literary quality or good scholarship or anything else, which is the prime culprit in the book's failures. The other problem is his premise. It takes a while to realize this, but there is quite a bit of bisexual, gay and lesbian South Asian material that Ratti has ignored; a random list would include something of India's First Homosexual, Ashok Row Kavi, the trial for obscenity of Ismat Chugtai's story, "The Quilt", and the work of Hanif Kureishi. Another recent anthology, Our Feet Walk in the Sky , includes two excellent lesbian short stories by two South Asian American writers, Gaurangi Kamani and Qirone Adhikary. A Lotus of Another Colour doesn't even have the kind of juicy and important reclamation of important gay figures in the past: apparently Nathuram Godse and Veer Sarkar are good targets, maybe even Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalitha and her freind Sashikala (according to Karunanidhi).

This is not to say that the book does not have its peaks. Ian Rashid has contributed two witty poems on Indian-white sex; Kamini Chaudhyary has a scintillating description of cunnilingus; and S.D.G.'s "My friend" is a moving poem which concludes after the friend's death with the poignant lines:

I turn away, my heart aches
like it did at fifteen
when I dreamed of holding a man like you.

The photograph of a frieze at Khajuraho that a depicts a lesbian orgy is wonderful, but it represents a large missed opportunity, since it is never discussed within its historical context.

The best of the political essays is probably Anu and Giti's polemic on media relations to the marriage of two Bhopal policewomen. It's certainly more interesting than Ratti's p.c. sermons on feminism and colour-consciousness. (There is something really weird about the fact that the only appearance of black people in this book is in discussions of colour-consciousness). Nayan Shah's interesting piece on sexuality, identity and history is marred by the fact that he fails to address the Euro-fixation of the South Asian gay movement. "Trikon" refers to the triangle Nazis put on gays and "khush" is an Urdu approximation of the pun "gay", but both of these things are alien to South Asian culture. The personal essays are occasionally charming (Raj Ayyar's father teasing him about his attraction to a waiter, Kartikeya's description of barsati parties) and occasionally moving (Kiron's wrenching account of the death of his partner), but their worth is in general proportional to how much the reader identifies with the writer's experiences.

The first article, "Homosexuality in India: Culture and Heritage", has the potential to be a profound document, but it is undermined by shoddy thinking. The mention of fellatio in the Shushruta really says nothing about homosexuality, because surprising as it may seem, there are also women who perform this task. Shiva's female energy is his wife, Shakti/Sati/ Parvati, and the worship of the mingling of male and female energies has as much to do with concepts of heterosexual marriage—and for that matter, the sublimation of female goddesses within male deities—than androgyny. The writers seem incapable of distinguishing female power from lesbianism. In the quote cited, Gragacharya speaks of polyandry and women's control of trade, but not about lesbianism, and the three are not synonymous. The repeatedly used phrase, ‘female kingdom' is in itself bizarre: does it imply matriarchy or a lack of men? The article cites references to female monarchs in the Mahabharata as instructive, as if heterosexual women are incapable of being monarchs. This is the kind of sexism that masquerades as anti-heterorsexism. Is it any surprise that the article's strengths are the explicit and clearly located citations on gay men? The comments about ‘Aryans' and ‘Muslim culture' are particularly sloppy, and out of line with the latest scholarship. The article does contain much valuable information but it would have been much better if it had been more rigorous in its analysis. The same is true of the interview with Pratibha Parmar, which fails to address the kinds of important concerns about reproducing the colonialist gaze to be found in other places, like her interview with Trikon.

Ratti has made a commendable effort to be inclusive in terms of contributors. This anthology, happily, has no party line. While Ratti writes about the oppression of Indian women, Kaushalya Bannerjee writes of her weariness with the stereotype of ‘Eastern patriarchal oppression.' Some of the writers locate their lesbianism within the tradition of romantic friendship in Indian women's lives and others reject that analysis to stress sexuality. Some contributors are emphatic about their connection to Indian culture, and some are thoroughly Western- ized. The writers range from a half-Italian lesbian to a bisexual Bengali woman to a Ugandan Gujerati gay man to a bisexual Indian married male-female couple. It is revealing that many of the contributors use pseudonyms.

Finally, there is something sad about the level of ignorance Ratti assumes (and perpetuates) in his readership. It's bad enough that any phrase in an Indian language is translated right afterwards even though there is a glossary at the end, it's bad enough that Ratti feels obliged to offer glib explanations of the caste-system, sati, the duties of ‘Moslem' women and saris in an India-lite version of things that would do any Orientalist proud (stirring deep desire in the reader for a breath of Lata Mani or Paul Brass), but when one has to read ‘bum' translated in brackets as ‘ass' right afterwards, that is going a bit too far. The original choice may have been the writer's, but Ratti surely should have done something about such locutions as, "‘This looks just like Shimla,' she exclaimed, comparing it to a hilly resort in the Indian state of Himachal Pradesh". At least this isn't as bad as "my father is South Indian, my mother is from Hyderabad." Ratti's definition of ‘butch' is a ‘very masculine man or woman' is truly passe, especially considering he has the decency to put masculine and feminine in quotes in his article on feminism and men. Who does Ratti imagine will pick up this book without knowing what a lesbian is? He defines this term too in his glossary. The pity of the book is that despite the hope represented by its glossaries, most of the material will be of interest only to homosexual South Asians (and their admirers). It didn't have to be this way: Joseph Beam's In the Life is a good example of an anthology whose interviews, scholarship and literary works are of such high caliber that it enriched its readership, instead of merely placating it by proving that there are indeed others of the same orientation.

Frieze and handprint design by Sherazad Jamal.
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Mina Kumar was born in Madras and lives in Manhattan, New York. Her writing has appeared in over twenty publications.
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