The first question that Hoshang Merchant, who with his flowing white beard appears to be a veritable sage of Indian English gay writing, asked me when I met him a decade ago was this: “Are you a fairy, Tabish?” When I assured him that I was boringly heterosexual, he quipped, “But then, why do you write about angels?” He was referring to the title of my first novel. We laughed, not ill at ease with the joke.
However, it is seldom that conversation on sexual identity between heterosexuals and homosexuals/bisexuals, at least within the same ‘gender’, proceeds without confusion or condescension. One of the best stories in Close, Too Close, Michael Malik G.’s Dreams and Desire in Srinagar, deals basically with this. It presents a kind of triangle, the queer narrator and his male lover, and a young man running a houseboat in Srinagar. The unprejudiced openness of this ‘straight’ young man confuses the narrator: “I chided myself for falling into the common cynicism among too many folks in our queer society that gay-friendly straights must have underhanded motives or desire us clandestinely.” In a story like this, the queer or erotic element appears as an aspect of a larger, very complex humanity, and that may be the reason why it lingered in my memory.
There are other stories in this historically significant ‘first of its kind’ collection—Abeer Hoque’s and Nikhil Yadav’s, for instance—which stand strong, as literary texts and erotica. Some lesser contributions veer towards the camp or incidental provocation. One such, a graphic story featuring a woman masturbating, has been particularly criticised by Khushwant Singh in his column. As Khushwant Singh is one of the most open people I know and a legendary writer who has been a champion of sexual honesty in India, this critique has to be taken seriously and accepted to a degree.