Queer Desi: Out of Line and Offline

SPOILER ALERT: This book is not really a plot based novel, it is a collection of interviews and stories. I am placing this spoiler alert anyway because I will be discussing some aspects of the stories presented. This is a book review for Out of Line and Offline: Queer Mobilizations in ’90s Eastern India by Pawan Dhall.

I have been woefully negligent in my research and own education of the queer movement in India. I would like to fix my blind spots and am actively finding books on the topic of Queer Movement, Gender Identities, LGBTQ+ as defined and existing in Indian History and Mythology. I would like to call these series of books and movie reviews as ‘Queer Desi’.

In the last few years, I have started to come to terms with my own sexuality and identity, what those words mean to me and how I view myself in the spectrum of lgbtq identities. I have always known I was different and didn’t fit in the romantic spectrum and gender norms in place in the Indian society. I was assigned woman at birth and I do identify as a woman however, I was never at home with what was defined as a ‘woman’ in the Indian society. The contradictions made no sense to my hyper logical brain. I was either too fat, too fair, too loud, too stubborn, too complacent, too dependent, too independent, too smart, not smart enough, too strong, too weak, too inquisitive or not enough. I always somehow seemed to miss the mark of what makes a woman. To add to the confusion, my romantic interests were both traditional and not at the same time.

My parents did everything they could to provide my brother and I equal opportunities, they treated us equally and tried to never discriminate based on our genders. However, what your parents want for you can only exist within the four walls of your house. Living in a community culture where family includes everyone from your first cousins to fifth or sixth based on geological proximity, parents lose a large amount of autonomy on how they raise their children. And of course the societal pressure to raise a ‘woman’ and a ‘man’ to fit the definition as imposed by the so called ‘Indian culture’ has it’s own set of problems.

Anyway, I digress. Out of Line and Offline is the first book I have read about anything relating to Queer movement and culture in India. I don’t have anything else to compare it to but I don’t think that matters. Let me discuss the wonderful aspects of the book first.

Why You Should Read this Book

I would like to applaud the author for doing a wonderful job of inclusion in this set of interviews and stories. There are multiple perspectives packed within this 150-page book, I was blown away by the diversity and range of folks included. I grew up in the 90s and 2000s in India. Although, I was pre-pubescent in the 90s and hadn’t a notion of my identity in the 2000s I do remember several political and cultural movements during the time. I remember the HIV/AIDS awareness campaigns and ads, I have my encounters with several Hijra communities (despite being told in no uncertain words to stay away by my family) and was exposed to a very subconscious understanding of the queer movement. BUT I had no idea the cultural changes and impacts of queer communities fighting for visibility during that era.

The author goes back down their memory lane to people they met during their time at Counsel Club, their interactions and the work that they have done over the years. They have painted a vivid picture of that time and welcomed us into their literary Pensieve (- Harry Potter reference) that I was able to imagine these moments. The writing takes you back to your own experiences as well without alienating you from the story at hand. I really appreciated the clarity of the author on page one explaining what to expect from the book. They clearly state that the book is not going to delve into the reason why a queer movement started in India and that set the tone of the book very nicely.

The recollections and interviews are genuine, profound and authentic in a way that is very difficult to capture. Pawan Dhall has successfully captured the nostalgia and soul of what they were trying to convey. The educational information on various CBOs and NGOs that existed in the 90s and 2000s is invaluable, even if some of them no longer exist. It is important to document the contributions of all communities that have helped us to get where we are today.

Pawan Dhall does not simply talk about the good times. This is what made this book such an eye opening and interesting read. They document the failures, limitations and gaps that existed in the time these movements were being spear headed. They explore the caste issues within the movement and acknowledge the privilege or lack thereof among activists and allies in the queer movements. There is no judgement in the author’s tone and he provides some very interesting questions for the reader to ponder over.

The book Out of Line and Offline is a beautiful piece of work that balances the good, the bad and everything in between wonderfully. There are several sentences and stories that may seem casually written but the depth and meaning behind them is endless. It does a great job of keeping the topic at hand centered and clear. I also really appreciated the scope of the book – it didn’t lose itself trying to cover movements all over the nation (though there are mentions of them obviously).

For my first venture into literary queer culture and movement in India, this was a wonderful introduction. The book is chockfull of references and further readings which is very helpful for someone like me.

Why You Should Avoid this Book

You should NOT. There is no reason. Read this book. It is only 150-pages and just by reading this book, educating yourself on the goings on of queer movements in India, you are contributing yourself. Step one is educating yourself.

Could Anything be Better in the Book? Yes, I thought it was bit jarring when the author jumps stories and interviews. Perhaps it was an artistic or story telling choice, I personally felt it could have been edited differently. Not at all a deterrer by any means. One other thing that did bother me, though it could just be the print I have, but there are a few places where pictures are inserted halfway through a sentence. I love the pictures, I just wish they had been strategically placed at the end of paragraphs though.

My Own Experience

In the late 2000s and early 2010s, I started to be exposed to and understand the terms and aspects of the LGBTQ+ community. I was deeply moved by (in my opinion) Queer Queen Falguni Pathak. I didn’t have the terms ‘gay’ or ‘lesbian’ (I do not identify as either) in my vocabulary but I knew that Falguni Pathak showed to me a way of being a woman that I had not known was possible. Her little love stories though supposedly heteronormative always put center stage on the relationship between her and the heroine. The guy seemed like an after-thought, either showing up almost at the end of the video or just appearing for a few minutes (if even). The position Falguni Pathak placed herself in these videos was that of a silent friend who always had your back, constantly available to provide advice and support, edging the heroine towards a more socially accepted relationship all while she herself quietly endures the pangs of unrequited love with a smile. This obviously is what my teenage queer brain interpreted at the time. I related to Falguni Pathak on so many levels.

I wish I had known about some of these CBOs and NGOs as I was growing up, perhaps the pain and loneliness could have been elevated in some respect. But now, being actively a part of the LGBTQ+ community, interacting with some wonderful people I have met and being a resource myself, I would like to think elevates that pain and loneliness I had felt in the past.

Have you read the book? Are you going to read the book? Let me know! The artwork featured here is my own, feel free to check out my Instagram for more.

Sven-jolly

Another classic, another disaster. I will include a spoiler alert because if you are like me and haven’t heard about this book other than the words – Trilby and Svengali – well you are in for a rude awakening. You may think you know the plot but trust me that is not even the half of it. So, if you want to read the book first, bookmark this page and come back to it after you have finished it.

If you are short on time, I can summarize the theme of the book in two words – Anti-Semitic and Misogynist. That’s all you really need to know but because this is a review, I will elaborate.

Let us start with the titular characters – Trilby and Svengali. Shocker: they are not the protagonists!! They are barely in the story at all! They make up maybe 30%, if I am being generous. The book is actually about a pathetic dumbass painter called Little Billy and his two friends. The story is set in 1800s Paris – or famously known as Belle Epoque Paris and revolves around three European painters. These painters are worse than Werther in some ways – they also possess the holier than thou, straight white male, chastity-worshipping, stalker qualities that were oh so prevalent in that century. All three of them encounter Trilby – described in the second most misogynistic way in the book – while they are spending their days in good old Paris’ Latin Quarter painting, drinking, being pretentious, looking down upon women that ‘sit for the figure’. A big deal is made about how Tribly is the worst singer they have encountered with a gorgeous sound and how much she hates Svengali.

Speaking of Svengali, I stopped reading the book several times because I could simply not get past the Anti-Semitism. The misogyny is horrible, don’t get me wrong but maybe I have just come to expect such nonsense from male authors (even today!) and so it wasn’t as shocking as the racism. It was just as depressing though. It is quite impressive (sarcasm, duh) how George du Maurier was able to fit in an exorbitant amount of racism for a character that barely appears in the book. But since I had started it, I had to finish it.

The majority of the book is about how innocent and pure Little Billy is and how the three men spend their time in Paris. In a twist that everybody saw coming, all three men fall in love with Trilby but Little Billy is the only one that expresses his love and wears her down into saying yes. But immediately after, Little Billy’s mother lands in Paris because she won’t have a ‘figure-sitting loose woman’ for a daughter-in-law. In a turn of events, Trilby abandons Little Billy because he is too good for her. The rest of the book talks about Little Billy’s ‘depression’ brought on by Trilby’s rejection. Unlike Werther, Little Billy is unable to stalk Trilby because he has no idea where she is but it doesn’t make him any less insufferable than Werther. The moaning, the whining, the fetishizing of the ‘virgin’ is all just too much.

The last thirty-something pages of the book get to the actual plot. The entire world is talking about a new singing diva – The Lady Svengali and it is none other than our Trilby. Little Billy is immediately cured of his ‘depression’ – he starts to feel love again but is unable to believe that Trilby is with a man like Svengali. They also notice a huge change in Trilby. She almost seems like an entirely different person. Our three heroes have no idea what to make of it all.

A lot of anti- Semitism later.

Svengali dies during a concert and Trilby has no idea where she is. Her health starts to deteriorate rapidly. Everybody thinks that the grief of losing her husband has made her lose her mind and though it is peculiar that she only remembers parts of her life and none of the diva memories are retained, they are too occupied by her health to worry about these lapses. Eventually, Trilby is at death’s door and a few minutes before her life calls it quit, she encounters a portrait of Svengali. As though in a trance, Trilby belts out one last heavenly rendition of Chopin’s Impromptu in A flat and dies. Little Billy dies shortly afterwards overcome by grief.

The book was extremely tiring to read. It may have been that the translation I read wasn’t the best one but I don’t think so. I generally don’t enjoy reading racist misogynistic characters and I don’t enjoy reading descriptions of music. There are also an incredible number of adverbs used to describe things and it gets old pretty soon. Despite all that the final description of what transpired between Svengali and Trilby as divulged to Taffy by Gecko was one of the most haunting things I have ever read. All I can say is, at least, the ending lived up to the hype. But was it worth it? Tell me what you think in the comments.

The OG Emo

SPOILER ALERT: Spoiler Alert in place for The Sorrows of Young Werther by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Do classics need spoiler alerts?

I am a sucker for star crossed lovers and romantic era stories. I thoroughly enjoy the classics. Wuthering Heights is my all time favorite novel very closely followed by Little Women. Frankenstein was chilling and Dracula genuinely scared me. Three of the four books I just mentioned were written by women and maybe I am biased. Werther is not going to make my list of top ten and least of its problems is the misogyny. It may be obvious to point out that a novel written in the late 1770s is misogynistic but I feel a need to mention it to maintain a holistic review.

I really enjoyed Goethe’s writing style, I am definitely open to reading other books by him. I wasn’t too upset by the plot either. Considering it was the first of its kind, the plot has been very well paced and comes along quiet well. What I didn’t enjoy is the character of Werther himself. The first half Werther is at least tolerable but the second half Werther is insufferable. He is nothing but a creepy, whiny stalker. His infatuation with Lotte is sudden and obsessive. Though Lotte’s personality and beauty are described in great detail, she comes across as nothing but ditzy. Albert is there.

I liked the descriptions of nature – the linden trees, the mountains, the suicidal ideation but was put off by all the Christianity. I was impressed by the observations of class behaviors especially because it was written in a time before class was even a thing. Werther’s isolation makes you sympathetic until he starts ranting about how all the people around him are foolish. He seemed extremely pretentious for someone with a low self-esteem. His suicidal ideation is very characteristic of the Romantic era and I think the Werther mania that followed the publication of the book emerged from this ideation.

To summarize – Albert is no Edgar, Lotte is no Cathy and Werther is no Heathcliff.

Necromancy Anyone?

SPOILER ALERT: Spoilers for Gideon the Ninth.

I absolutely love all things fantasy. I went through a Goth phase in my teenage years (the love is still there). And so it is astonishing that I have never read anything in the necromancy fiction genre. As someone who is part of the LGBTQ+ community, I am starved for well written queer characters. When my friend suggested we read Gideon the Ninth for our book club, I was entirely on board. But, boy oh boy, I had no idea that I had found my next obsession!

It is rare to find well fleshed out female characters let alone queer characters. It was a wonderful change in pace to read Gideon, Harrow and all the amazing characters. I was completely lost in the world Tamsyn Muir built for us. I was laughing, crying and bleeding with the Houses. I fell in love with Gideon so hard and I never saw the heartbreak in my near future. What a bittersweet ending?!

The Goth in me was ecstatic reading about re-animated skeletons and the part of me obsessed with sci-fi was jumping with joy at the concept of space necromancers. SPACE NECROMANCERS!!! What a story Tamsyn has written for us – I am a plot junkie and this satisfied my craving. The character arches are well thought out, well paced and sufficiently engaging. Plot twists and deaths are unexpected. You would think that someone who is a fan of Game of Thrones would be prepared for sudden character deaths. That is not true at all. My shock when Isaac exploded into a burst of necro-light was greater than my shock at the Red Wedding. And I wept harder at Gideon’s sacrifice than at Dobby’s death. I had not realized how attached I had gotten to these characters over a course of 500 pages.

The last battle between Cytherea and Harrow went a little too long. I enjoyed how you think Cytherea is almost defeated but comes back bigger and badder, however, it got a little old when the same trope was used over three times. Initially, I thought the first Lyctor was too powerful. I was worried Tamsyn had written themselves (I don’t want to miss-pronoun Tamsyn) in a corner, like so many other writers. I wasn’t sure how Cytherea would be defeated, I hoped it wouldn’t be some lame ex machina weakness she throws at us in the end. Gideon’s sacrifice, though tragic, was genius writing.

I read some articles arguing that Gideon the Ninth falls under fiction that romanticizes toxic relationships. I strongly disagree. I think that the book does a good job of portraying dis-functional relationships. Portrayal is not romanticizing. It is important for fiction to depict these relationships, for readers to have an avenue to read about what abusive relationships look like in a disconnected, fictional medium. These depictions beget conversations, important dialogue that goes a long way to help those in these types of relationships. And it is important for us to distinguish between stories that celebrate it (Twilight!) and those that talk about it.

I can’t wait to finish Harrow the Ninth – currently reading (check out my Goodreads on the right hand sidebar).

Fat is not a bad word

Spoiler Alert: This is a review for Roxane Gay’s Hunger. There may be spoilers.

A lot has been said about Roxane Gay’s memoir, a lot of praise and a lot of acclaim. All of it is more than justified. I have been a huge fan of her writing since I read Bad Feminist. Hunger is on an entirely different level. Her writing is raw, you feel her pain and her journey. It makes you uncomfortable, sad, empathetic, empowered and also vulnerable all at the same time.

One of the most important things I think the book deals with is the result of trauma over several years. We always hear about these ‘success’ stories – how so and so went through this horrible event and are now healthy, how they survived and put the past behind them. We hear about the immediate effects of trauma. We rarely hear about how trauma breaks you, the very different destructive ways that it effects you. We rarely talk about trauma being carried into adulthood, being triggered several years later, about the phantom pain that is both constant and absent.

I know she wrote this book to tell her story. Learning her story has helped me so much in dealing with my own truths. To know that there is someone out there who may have experienced some of what you are experiencing provides an unknown type of support. It gives you a new perspective when you read someone put your thoughts to words – reading her thoughts about her self esteem, her self image shook me out of my spiral. She put to words the thoughts my brain and my soul spout everyday, and to hear them from somebody else’s mouth made me realize how badly I was treating myself.

I fall under the category of someone that is “forty, fifty pounds overweight”. Yes, I have not had her experiences first hand, but I was able to relate to: her relationship with food; her struggles of sharing space in this world; her wanting to be invisible, but also wanting to occupy space; and her being a feminist, yet not entirely being able to shed the pressures of societal expectations. I understand how my weight is a ‘family problem’, how the concern from loved ones only turns into more baggage you carry.

We as women have hard enough of a time being comfortable in our bodies – add to that the constant expectations from society, family, self can be debilitating. I am thankful for Roxane Gay, I am thankful she told her story, I am thankful I am able to read it and I am thankful for her thoughts that influence so many girls and women out there – me included.

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The Power in your Hands

Spoiler Alert for The Power by Naomi Alderman : If you haven’t read the book yet please stop here, bookmark the page, read it and come back. Or if you like spoilers, please go ahead.

Let me first explain the photo displayed above. From where I come, patriarchy is rampant and the only value a woman is given is based on how successful her husband is. Without a marriage, most of her accomplishments will remain unappreciated. Growing up, I associated Mehndi (henna) with weddings. It is tradition for the bride to adorn her feet and hands with Mehndi. When I turned 23 and my parents started to bring up the topic of marriage and such, I wasn’t ready. To their credit, they did not start badgering me about it until I turned 26. At this point, I started to resent weddings and everything that went with it. This was a big deal for me because my secret ambition is to be a wedding planner when I grow up. I realized however, it wasn’t Mehndi or my parents that were causing my resentment. It was the system and the patriarchal culture that required a woman’s worth to be tied to a man.

After 3 years of debating and fighting, my parents finally have given up on the prospect of me ever being married. I have since decided Mehndi will be my symbol of the power I yield as an independent woman who doesn’t need a man to validate her.

Let us move on to the actual review of the book. Now, is a book really good if it made you extremely depressed? I think it is, because it must have been written well to incite such a strong emotion in the reader. In my last post, I talked about the best book I read in 2017. (If you didn’t read my last post, it was The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy). The Power by Naomi Alderman was the best book I read in 2018. I hated that book, only because of how accurate I thought it was in it’s depiction of a dystopian future.

If you are a feminist, like I am, you have, no doubt, daydreamed about what it would be like if the patriarchy was flipped on it’s head. What if men and women switched places? If the power lay in our hands, what would the world look like? One of the reasons I hated the book is because it shattered my bubble, it was a rude awakening to reality, my daydreams turned into nightmares.

Naomi Alderman’s writing style is pleasing, she knows how to write a story and most important of all, she knows how to captivate her audience and make them feel. For days after the book, I kept trying to find flaws in her argument, to find a way to avoid the dystopia she predicted. I could not! I was distraught. Did this mean, there was no point in our fight? Would we be committing atrocities against men? We would not! The point of feminism is not to rule over men! My fight isn’t against men – it is against patriarchy, toxic masculinity, this notion that somehow women are an inferior species.

The Power is a difficult read. But it is a very important book. If you meet men that do not believe in feminism or are the poster child for everything wrong with this world, I would have them read this book. Maybe if they read about what happens to women everyday in today’s world as happening to them, maybe then they will open their eyes and aid in our fight to smash the patriarchy.

P.S. I apologize if this post was more rant than review. I think The Power is a great food for thought and these ideas are worth discussing.