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.