When asked how being queer informs her poetry, our poet for this edition, Aditi Nagrath replied, “Being queer informs my poems the same way being anything else does. My poems proclaim: this is the life I live, this is the body I have, this is the loss I come from, this is the joy I dream, this is the love I want, this is the pain I am pinned to, this is the voice through which I create myself. There is nothing beyond that to them.”
And that is how vital one’s sexuality, the perception of one’s body in one’s own eyes becomes in making up a mental identity. It reflects in the work you do, the social relationships you form, even the places you might shop at. As long as the Article 377 and its provisions hovered over lives of certain people, they could not have been productive or truly independent citizens of this country. Happy as I have been by the final repealing of the draconian Article 377 and the consequential decriminalizing of sexual activity between consenting adults of the same sex, there had been a niggling feeling at the back of my mind that this judgement could not have been the result of a new found large heartedness. I say this because the case had been in court since 2001. While it is a fact that cases drag on forever in Indian courts, especially cases of this nature, there had to have been a pivotal reason for the final verdict to have come out the way it did. The reasons as I see it are twofold.
First, it is important to look at the timeline of the legal battle in 1994, an NGO, ABVA (AIDS Bhed Bhaav Virodhi Andolan) files a petition against Article 377, which lies dormant till 2001 when the Naz Foundation too files a petition challenging the constitutionality of the Article. In 2004, the Delhi High Court dismisses the case but in 2006 takes it up again as per the directive from the Hon. Supreme Court of India. Affidavits are filed by, among others, Voices Against 377. In 2009, the Delhi High Court renders 377 not applicable to consenting adults leading to counter petitions being filed. In 2013, the Hon. Supreme Court strikes down the 2009 verdict.
Global Rage Day is observed in over 30 cities against this action. The slogan, #nogoingback trended. It is indeed beautiful that places like Sydney, Toronto, Boston, London, San Fransico, New York, Hamburg, Berlin Mexico City, Cambridge among others joined Indian cities in the protests. In 2014, a curative petition is filed and the historic NALSA judgement delivered. In 2016, more petitions are filed and in 2017, the Right to Privacy laws demand a re-examination of the idea of privacy of an Indian citizen. In 2018, the Hon. Supreme Court finally decriminalizes same-sex love between consenting adults. This long-drawn battle, all for love!
Second, it becomes imperative to look at India in the nineties. Globalisation had arrived and was here to stay. The then Finance Minister, Dr. Manmohan Singh had declared that no country could remain an island. While a number of political parties resisted this move, multinational ventures such as fashion brands and fast food chains began witnessing throngs of crowds seeing such plenty for the first time.
It was from this period on that India witnessed a new sort of social and cultural revolution. One that celebrated diversity outside of jingoism. One that looked for something unusual in everyday spaces. Remember the television ads from the period? Pidilite, Coca Cola, Pepsi, Dhara Oil, Cadbury’s and so on. There was a push for the different- a search for stories that were not being told in the usual staid manner. It was also the time that advertisements showcased rural stories, narratives of people from small towns and identified these spots as the heart of India. It is no coincidence that the Hamara Bajaj ad came out in 1989. It was about a country that had come out of the licensing raj and was taking rapid strides thanks to its citizens who were largely middle class. These were relatable stories from all parts of the country that told people that there could be others who felt like them. Who were like them.
To compound it all, the introduction of the Star TV bouquet, the MTV programmes being beamed in from Singapore, all created a multicultural cosmos right in the middle of Indian living rooms where just a decade ago, they performed poojas before televisions before the telecast Ramayan began. (A few decades later, things still remain the same…) Fashion TV was a late-night guilty pleasure and people saw not just haughty, nubile women walking the ramp, but also, a strange phenomenon- a well groomed male.
For most Indians, Dev Anand, Shammi Kapoor, Jitendra, Rishi Kapoor and finally Aamir Khan were where the chocolate boy image came to a screeching halt. And here were young men in designer wear (which could not be worn anywhere in India without attracting comment or horror) sashaying down the ramp with a glint in their eyes that set out to attract indiscriminately. The metrosexual man became a by word. Fantasy had a face to relate to.
The introduction in 1994, of the Gladrags Manhunt and the Graviera (later Grasim) Mr. India contests for men, helped evolve a public discourse and consensus around male beauty in the country. Models such as Bikram Saluja, Milind Soman, Dino Morea, Marc Robinson, Zulfi Sayed etc. helped admit an urbane, groomed man. One who dressed well and was not judged for his coiffed hair or for paying attention to his body. The body on display here had a different appeal from the bodies parading around akhadas and body building contests. Their arenas of desire were also different and operated on a different cultural sphere. The male body on the ramp became the canvas on which desires and fantasies clothed in fabric (or lack thereof) were played out. It opened up avenues for a number of erotic minorities to find professions suited to their talents and accommodative of their sexualities, as opposed to working as assistants to tailors. It made it easy to dream, to escape into a world that was very different from the one’s they were living in.
The opening up of the economy also saw the rise of the NGO culture in India with foreign funding and assistance for safe sex practices and AIDS prevention. Many NGOs that are front line responders for erotic minorities toady, started off as nodal agencies for distributing condoms among MSM as they were known then- men Who have Sex with Men. (Simply and baldly stated). The launching of the magazine Bombay Dost in 1990 also helped serve as a rallying point for the LGBT community of the time. The editor Ashok Row Kavi talked about how he used to get letters from people from small towns who talked about their problems.
The takeaway one got from that statement is that, he wishes to point out that homosexuality is not something of an urban disease. And that there is now a definite way to gauge the pulse of the community. This is because while trans people had at the very least, the thin protection of cultural and religious acceptance, homosexuals were largely seen as the result of the corrupt modern or western influence. The movie Fire (1996) brought home the possible of love in very ordinary homes, away from English speaking, mansion- residing decadents. It became very confusing that EVERYWOMAN (due to the loaded, yet generic names Radha and Sita) could ‘shame’ the family. (But that is a journey for another time.)
There are studies from the nineties, conducted by agencies like the ABVA that talk about the state of affairs in the nineties in semi-urban and rural areas.
There are narratives of personal liberation through coming out just as there are crushing tales of oppression. The claustrophobic social walls within which these desires operated is apparent. More often than not, there was a fear of being considered ‘less than male’ if discovered or outed. The stories of women or other sexualities are few and far in between. In most narratives, there is the understanding that while the facility of articulation- calling oneself homosexual, transgender or bisexual was not available, the channels of physical expression had been at one point or the other open. Erotic minorities had a vital presence in non-urban centres. Those that went away to big cities, ostensibly in search of better incomes were also aspiring for the anonymity that these cities provided that served to help them live as they wanted. Unfettered and loved. It was from urban centres that the terms and words that are so important in legal parlance, were articulated.
The point is that, the frenetic activity in that iconic decade, set the tone and temperament to help open discourses about same-sex love in India and the difficulties faced by those directly affected. It also brought to the fore, the need to congregate, form communities that could push for change. Not that these mechanisms were not already in place. But they were largely unorganized spaces. Parks, beneath bridges, traffic junctions- places that did not present much possibilities other than cruising or casual meetings. The turning point came with the vocal presences of interested parties from influential or game changing frontiers such as media and entertainment. There was sufficient ampere to be heard, but importantly, there was spending power. When contextualized in a global economy where numbers are everything, the spending as well the workforce power of the communities become massive. And this has only grown in the recent years. The onus is on corporates to be inclusive spaces as studies have shown that most LGBTQI+ individuals keep track of businesses that support their cause or have LGBTQI+ employees. A study showed that 80 percent of responders from Poland- erotic minority or otherwise would not shop at homophobic stores. The Levi’s Circles ad became one of the most watched ads of 2017, on account of the inclusivity it put forth. This translates into immense goodwill from a community that is often DINK- Double Income No Kids.
In the last decade, the ‘pink economy’ which is a term used to describe the economic power of erotic minorities, has grown exponentially. There are businesses that cater specifically to LGBTQI individuals or are enterprises that are known to be LGBTQI friendly. There are, for example, tour operators who organize travel itineraries for same- sex couples and offer holiday packages to destinations that are ‘safe’ destinations. A country like India in the pre-2018 scenario, would not be one of these, thus, losing out on potentially millions of dollars in revenues. Case in point being celebrities such as Wendell Rodricks and Keshav Suri holding their weddings (with their respective partners) in Paris as India did not recognise gay weddings. As per studies conducted by Forbes India, in 2009, while pegging the number of LGBTQI population at 4 percent of the population, found this demographic to constitute 6 percent in 2014, with a spending potential of 200 billion dollars, roughly 6 per cent of the GDP.
There are organisations such as Out for Business which describes itself as “a coalition of global companies making the case that inclusive, diverse societies are better for business and better for economic growth. The purpose of the coalition is to advance LGBT+ inclusion globally, by promoting a positive economic and business case for equality of opportunity for everyone, all across the world.”
The partner companies in this venture include Accenture, Brunswick, Google, IBM and so on and their policies for inclusion are adopted by companies such as Mahindra and Mahindra and Godrej, whose Culture Labs provide valuable spaces for erotic minorities to showcase their talents. Also committed to creating better work environments are Tata Steel who have resolved to have at least 5 percent of their staff from the LGBT+ community, Infosys, Dr. Reddy’s, Lupin, Sun Pharma and Wipro to name a few. The reason I am listing out these organisations is that their work needs to be acknowledged or, if their employees need to call them out, then so be it.
These strong rubrics have a powerful impact on the way trade and commerce connections play out on the international stage and needless to say, they are a very vocal voice in influencing policy decisions in governance. When there are companies such as Apple, Google, Reuters funding studies that index cities on their ‘livability’ and ‘inclusiveness’ is a criteria, same sex partnerships being criminalized is not a good idea. It affects the sort of talent that flows into the country, as well as it causes talent to leave too. Interestingly, when an Indian diplomat was accused of violating human rights while being stationed in the US, one suggestion put forward for paying back the Americans in the same coin was to mandate that all the same sex partners of the American diplomats stationed in India be arrested using the anti-gay laws in place in India. There cannot be a better and more visible example of the ways laws are twisted in order to commission vengeful action. When transposed onto the life of an ordinary gay citizen of this country, the law becomes a terrifying and humiliating proposition. That was 2013.
There is a definite connection between the way the LGBTQI+ discourse evolved in this country, gained political citizenship and constitutional presence through economic validity. Manvendra Singh Gohil, talks about how he explained to politicians in the only language they understand- money- about the huge losses the country incurs by maintaining this stranglehold on sexualities. Interestingly, for the final verdict in 2018, the. Government of India left the decision to the wisdom of the Supreme Court. But said that the court must adjudicate only and only on the constitutionality of the Article 377 and not on related issues such as natural orientation or marriage and inheritance. There are so many layers of meaning and signification here. After all, rights when won, must be unequivocal, not concessionary.
It is true that LGBTQI+ people can now live and work with greater freedom. Many companies are offering medical insurance for their partners too. This makes them more productive citizens. Importantly, it makes them economically contributing citizens as they are mentally and physically in better shape to work or relax with their loved ones. Destinations previously closed to them are now opened. This does not mean that their problems have vanished. It means that one of their biggest enemies has been rendered toothless. It means that they are one step closer to living their life as they are supposed to live- free, at ease with their feelings and bodies. They can exist as physical, tangible beings, in tangible spaces. They still will have to go to Paris to get legally married though…(just saying).
Aditi Nagrath’s poems celebrate this freedom. The body and the limitlessness of desire occupy centerstage. She asks vital questions about creativity.
- Eat the poem until there is little else left of you
- Eat yourself until there is little else left of the poem
- Poem yourself until there is little else left to eat
(What do you do with a Poem?)
Elsewhere she claims that “The poet is a madwoman is a cloud.” (What is a Poem that a Woman is not?)
Aditi completed her Master's in Clinical Psychology in 2018, and is training in expressive arts therapy and working to build access to arts in education. Currently living in New Delhi, she works as an education counsellor and uses her free time to teach and write poetry. Her work has appeared in Noble/Gas Qtrly, Monstering Mag, among others. Her first collection of poems, Beyond Survival, was published in 2015 through Condensed Matter Bindery & Press.
She writes to be heard. And to remember. Her works are personal journeys into experiences. And to articulate the intensity with which she feels. As a poet, she is generous in letting the reader claim the poem. She offers her works to us, to take freely, whatever we want. “At best, I wish for my poems to be like the rain-- gentle sky, distant hope, a simmering evening shared.” But the fire in her verse is easily discernible. There is raw passion and very earthy means of expressing desire. There is the fervour of activism, the desire for freedom at any cost. At a time when love can thankfully be called so, without fear or prejudice, Aditi’s poems are indeed a blessing. And salvation.