Close, Too Close: The Tranquebar Book of Queer Erotica raises questions around consent that we must engage with
(This piece was first published on Firstpost.com as part of my fortnightly column ‘The Queer Bookshelf’.)
People say atrocious things when they believe no one is listening. This is what my ears picked up while sipping coffee at a gender conference earlier this year: “I have no idea how lesbians do it. I care about their right to love, you know I am not some homophobe, but I feel sorry for them. I mean, come on, how can you call it sex when there is no penis in the room?” I shot a judgmental look in the direction of those immaculately attired ladies, muttering to myself, “When will these cis-het women stop pretending to be feminists?” They were too engrossed in their pity to know I was around, so the other one remarked, “Yes, it’s so sad. They can never have the real thing.”
I was feeling angry on behalf of friends who were assigned female at birth, and now identify in various ways that foreground their sexual orientation or gender identity — as lesbian, queer, bisexual, trans, non-binary, genderfluid or pansexual. I also thought of acquaintances who were assigned male at birth, and now identify as either trans, genderqueer, or femme. The ignorance and entitlement I had eavesdropped on is something these people encounter on a regular basis. It is no joke. They prefer to channelise their energy into self-care rather than educating people who imagine that sexual fulfilment is possible only through peno-vaginal penetration.
It is always amusing to see that those who have worked for decades on smashing the patriarchy are cheerleaders for cis-heteronormativity. Being unaware of vocabulary used by the queer community to speak about their identities is a legitimate concern but it cannot be used as an excuse by those who work on social justice, especially on gender issues, to disguise their own laziness to learn. If intersectionality is meant to be more than a buzzword or a ploy to attract funding, it must show in the way cis-het people from the non-profit sector talk about queer individuals.
If you think I am being too harsh on the conference ladies, please get yourself a copy of Close, Too Close: The Tranquebar Book of Queer Erotica (2012) edited by Meena and Shruti who identify as queer feminists. Through this beautiful collection of stories about queer desire and intimacy, you will meet queer characters who are in no need of sympathy from people who claim to be allies but are unwilling to question the ways in which they stereotype and stigmatise. It was published seven years before the Supreme Court of India read down Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, and it continues to be relevant because legal reform does not shatter cultural conditioning in a jiffy.
In their introduction to this anthology, the editors speak of their personal investment in “a world where all sexualities can be equally expressed, where non-normativity, fluidity and multiplicity is abundant.” To them, the word ‘queer’ signals “a perspective and political identity that confronts the heteronrmative ideal and the respectability it offers.” What does erotica have to do with politics? Is it not simply about pleasure? Why do queer feminists have to complicate everything? If these are the questions popping up in your mind, here is what Meenu and Shruti have to say: “For us, queerness knocks down the assumption that everyone is heterosexual and shifts the notion that only two genders, fixed at birth on the basis of biology, exist. Instead, queer foregrounds sexual and gender diversity and celebrates the plurality of sexualities, genders, sexual expression and lived realities.”
I am not going to delve into plotlines because each story is different from the other, and lends itself to a peculiar kind of appreciation. What is common to them is the fact that they take place in contexts outside of marriage. In India, marriage is often understood not only as a rite of passage or as a joyous coming together of two people who love each other but as a person’s duty towards their parents, family, clan, caste, or even god. Sexual exploration which does not fit into that framework is designated as either ‘pre-marital’ or ‘extra-marital’. There is moral policing of both because patriarchal norms are more interested in procreation than pleasure. Devdutt Pattanaik’s story, ‘The Marriage of Somavat and Sumedha’, tries to subvert heteronormative ideas of marriage by placing two boys in a mythological forest, the realm of the goddess Aranyani, where “the rules of the city evaporate like camphor: no husband, no wife, no king, no queen, no man, no woman…only predators and prey, and the occasional lover”.
What do words like ‘pre-marital’ and ‘extra-marital’ mean to queer people here when India does not even provide legal sanction to queer marriages? While the editors of this book want to celebrate sexual expression that is not “contained within heterosexual, married, monogamous set-ups,” it is worth noting that numerous queer people in this country and elsewhere want to get married. Their reasons could be different. Some might prefer exclusivity instead of multiple partners. They might be fed up of meeting people through dating apps. Others might want a sense of stability and social approval that they associate with a formal commitment. Some might want to retain their caste privilege by maintaining close ties with their families of origin. Others might want to get married because they are afraid of loneliness, and are interested in long-term companionship held together by emotional availability as well as legal benefits.
I wondered if the editors’ surnames were dropped from the book cover because they wanted to reject their caste locations or the patriarchal practice of identifying women as belonging to men — fathers and husbands — who provide the last name. However, they had something else in mind. As far as Meenu is concerned, the book jacket reveals, “Using only her first name as editor is a deliberate choice. She hopes that it serves as a reminder to everyone that the lopsided power equations between genders and sexualities in society continue to threaten many queer lives.” What are the reasons behind Shruti’s choice? We are told: “…while the world may have allowed for a South Asian queer erotica anthology to be actually published, it is still not progressive enough for all queer people to feel safe always. This is why she has chosen not to use her second name. If her mother was ever to get her hands on this book, she wants her to know she loves her very much and is happy to sit down and explain what the hell is going on!”
Close, Too Close: The Tranquebar Book of Queer Erotica can be a provocative discovery not only for cis-het people but also for queer folx, particularly because of the questions it raises around consent. In ‘Conference Sex’, the story by Ellen LR, the protagonist, who is a woman, struggles to communicate her interest in another woman she finds attractive. Before they decide to get intimate, she asks herself, “Did she even like women? It was impossible to know. Presumed straight until declared otherwise, is the wisest way to go, of course.” Making a move boils down to asking, “Where are you staying?” They are among fellow professionals at a conference dinner, so there is a cautiousness in the interaction. Eventually, they split from the group, walk a little, and a date is fixed for the following day. Her love interest says, “There’s a market I’ve been meaning to visit. You’re welcome to come if you’re free.” It does not have to be spelt out further. Cookies and coffee are laid out on the bed, life stories are swapped, questions are asked about safe sex and being tested, and the hours pass by quickly.
In Nikhil Yadav’s story ‘Upstairs, Downstairs’, a journalist is picked up a South Delhi scion at an art event. What is initially presented as consensual sex between a gay man and a closeted queer man who prefers to pass as straight takes an unexpected turn. We get a peek into the former’s mind. He asks himself, “What did he want from me? Who was I to him in this moment? An elder cousin, a dirty old uncle, a boarding school head captain, who was it who had given this very straight guy the first taste of his twisted pleasures. Where had it happened? At some summer camp, at the back of the lawns in the school ground, here in this very room with someone from the family left to look after him. And at what point had persecution become pleasure?” I hope this story does not lead readers to assume that child sexual abuse makes people queer. That is a problematic conclusion.
Consent cannot be discussed without reference to power. When you read this book, think about the identities — chosen and assigned — of the people who are involved with each other. Reflect not only on their sexual orientation and gender identity but also their race, occupation, nationality, and status in society. What social locations do they occupy, and how does this influence their access to public space? Where do they meet lovers? Do they cruise in public toilets or hook up in hotel rooms? When they want to be intimate with someone who is not from their class background, how do they seek or offer consent? If their interest is not reciprocated, how do they deal with rejection?
‘Dreams and Desire in Srinagar’ written by Michael Malik G, and ‘Perfume’ written by D’Lo, are the stories that engage with these questions in tender and interesting ways. They take consent beyond the simplistic discourse of good touch versus bad touch, and look at it through the mature lens of pleasure, respect and healthy boundaries. Meenu and Shruti say, “While ‘no means no’ and coercion is out of line, what yes means can be a tricky matter, very subjective and sometimes negotiated in murky ways. Consent cannot be black and white, and some stories explore that grey zone in between.” What are your thoughts on this? I would love to hear them.