A suitable boy or girl

Although Vikram Seth has been out of the closet as bisexual for some time now, I had not been aware of his sexual orientation until he gave a lengthy interview to Outlook India on the subject. His more visible profile on the topic of his sexuality is related to his public support for the anti-Section 377 movement, the movement for the decriminalization of homosexuality in India.

The interview is fascinating, both in terms of what it reveals about Vikram Seth and in terms of what it reveals about India. My favorite part involves the interviewer grappling with the very idea of bisexuality.

I’m not sure I quite understand what bisexual means?

What do you mean you don’t understand? Supposing I have a physical attraction at some time or in a certain place to a particular woman, and another time to a particular man …I suppose if you don’t like the word, you could say I am gay and straight.

But if you can be straight, and life is so difficult as a gay, isn’t it simpler to just be straight?

Of course not. You have your feelings. You can’t just suppress or contort your feelings, either your emotional or sexual feelings. And why on earth should you, just to appease someone else’s unthought-through prejudices. [Link]

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p>Ah yes, such a desi question. But beta, if you are attracted to vomen, then vhy do you need to be the gay? She follows that little gem up by asking “This is something that people often snigger about: has boarding school anything to do with you being gay?” which was the icing on the cliche cake.

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p>While I cringed to read her asking these questions, I was still glad she did. Even if she knows better, I imagine these are questions that your average person on the street is thinking of, so it’s far better to give Seth a chance to respond than to leave them unsaid.

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p>The interview also gives Seth a chance to make his argument directly against Section 377:

There have been about nine convictions in the 125 years since this section was included in the IPC. Why then is it so important to remove it?

For several reasons. First, because it is used as a source of harassment of people… The other reason is that a law like this casts a shadow of illegality on the personal lives of a whole lot of people. They can’t live openly and with dignity. Because even their families and well-wishers tend to use the existence of the law to justify their prejudices…. That’s the crucial point.

… you ask me whether this directly affected me. Yes. When I realised that I had feelings for men as well as women, at first I was worried and frightened, and there was a certain amount of Who am I? Am I a criminal? and so on. It took me a long time to come to terms with myself. [Link]

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p>It’s worth reading the whole thing, as it covers a fair amount of ground, including his relationship to his family, how they dealt with his coming out, and his romantic history. The one thing she didn’t ask, unfortunately, was how his perspective informs his writing.

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p>Here’s an early poem, one of the few where his sexuality shows up directly. It’s called “Dubious”:

Some men like Jack and some like Jill
I’m glad I like them both but still
I wonder if this freewheeling
Really is an enlightened thing,
Or is its greater scope a sign
Of deviance from some party line?
In the strict ranks of Gay and Straight
What is my status: Stray? Or Great? [Link]

Related links: Queer India, Section 377 , and the Wikipedia discussion of Seth’s sexuality and his writing: “Gay Themes

UPDATE:

Amitava Kumar’s take on the interview is less charitable [Thanks Manish]:

You called Sheela Reddy’s interview ‘smutty’ and ‘shallow’. What do mean when you refer to her penchant for such things?

Sheela Reddy is the editor who compiles the Bibliophile section of Outlook magazine. In my opinion, the tone in that column is semi-literate and cynical–very, very different from columns like “Short Cuts” in the London Review of Books and “NB” in the Times Literary Supplement. Given that history, “shallow” is a kind word. I used the word “smutty” for the Vikram Seth review because I caught a strong sense of prurience in her questions. [Link]

65 thoughts on “A suitable boy or girl

  1. Yes, I am. Ridicule is one of the most important weapons in battling mindless conformity.

    Ok! I guess my point is losing out here. Here is my final argument – why would you take a path of confrontation/ridicule and give the opponents of the issue a platform to stand on (based on your approach rather than the issue)? These people (who justify the law in question here) do not have much of a standing on the issue and I think it would be a mistake to let other factors take control of the issue. My opinion is that the justification should be systematically broken down.

    One reason why the influence of extreme right is increasing here in the US is because of the ridicule they face in the hands of the progressive elites. Does anyone think there is lesson for us in that?

  2. One reason why the influence of extreme right is increasing here in the US is because of the ridicule they face in the hands of the progressive elites. Does anyone think there is lesson for us in that?

    Actually, I think the mockery of the daily show has been far more effective than any sort of earnest discussion. However, it doesn’t always work. Rush Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly’s mockers has consolidated the right, but it hasn’t exactly made the left crumble. The difference is that Limbaugh isn’t funny unless you agree with him already, where as Jon Stewart is hillarious even if you’re on the right.

  3. Actually, I think the mockery of the daily show has been far more effective than any sort of earnest discussion.

    The mockery of the daily show (and the colbert report) has been effective because there is a rationale behind its arguments. The rationale behind the arguments of Limbaugh and O’Reilly are weak in comparison. Progressives try to bring changes to the society in a way that it threatens the social standing of a large chunk of the society and thereby gives the types of Limbaugh and O’Reilly a force that can be used to rally them.

  4. A little tempting to add this hindi saying

    “Jiski lathi, uski bhains”

    In the current situation (here in the US) the “lathi” is in the control of O’Reilly and types (hopefully not for long).

  5. Neale: Not offended…I recognize that you were just kidding. But that reaction is fairly common.

  6. re: comment #48 (by bidismoker):

    You say –

    Most people in India are too worried about feeding and clothing themselves to worry about some archaic law that undermines the identity of upper middle class closeted homosexuals. I doubt the lower classes would have much sympathy for Vikram Seth and people like him; they still have it a lot better than those living in the streets.

    likewise, most people in america are too worried about feeding and clothing themselves (and buying consumer goods that are being sold to us) to worry about some archaic law about torture. doesn’t mean there aren’t people of all classes incensed by it and wanting to vote out every US congressperson who voted for it this past week. your reasoning doesn’t hold.

    in addition, it’s rather narrow-minded to think that the archaic law on sexuality only affects upper middle class closeted homosexuals — there are tons of queer people in india, in all classes (just like in america) and it’s important for those who can give greater voice to the cause to do so. just because people are living in the streets doesn’t mean that important laws that can affect everyone in society aren’t passed. just my two cents.

  7. Wasn’t it Woody Allen who quipped, being bi doubles the odds that you are not alone on Friday nights.

    I didn’t know Woody Allen said it, but I’ve always said the same thing! It’s naive to try to place sexuality into a couple of boxes – gay or straight – doesn’t it lie on more of a spectrum? Yes, there are two ends, but there are so many points that lie in between. I once went on a date with a bi desi guy. We developed a comfort level fairly quickly, so I guess that’s why he was open to sharing his sexual attraction to men with me. He liked getting serviced, and returning the favor, but he’d only had emotional connections with women. In any case I was cool with it, but then he swore up and down that he was straight.

    ……….

    Eh?

    ……….

    I was sitting there with a certain look on my face… It just struck me as odd because, well, if he was embarassed or shy or nervous about sharing his affinity for men, he wouldn’t have mentioned it. But now that you’ve told me you like getting head from guys, you’re going to wave the Straight Flag? Yeah…. no. You might not be gay, but you sure as hell aren’t straight. Just embrace it.

    I hope he finds peace in any case.

  8. it’s just like when Aunties ask, ‘Then why don’t you just get married? Don’t you want to, instead of having all this boyfriend-girlfriend nonsense?’ which really means ‘How come you get to spend your youth having sex and I had to marry some guy who now spends his time looking down your blouse at cultural functions?’, thinly veiled by fake concern for those vedding and baby photos they’re so anxious to see pop up in your wallet. Underneath her painfully tacky-Indian questions about ‘why he can’t just stop being ‘a’ gay’ and the influence of boarding school on his attraction to men I sense a very passive-aggressive strand of jealousy…see, Ms. Reddy, you could have spent your time crushing on Aish AND Hrithik but you’re just too busy sticking to the straight and narrow ;)

    ACTUALLY…………. sex expert statistics still show that MARRIED WOMEN are having the best sex.

    So could it be that these “frustrated aunties” are getting more satisfaction than any of us – both qualitatively and quantitatively???

  9. Nice post. Most bisexual faces discrimination that’s why they hide their identity. Most bisexual can be difficult to be in relationship because you can have a rival both male and female.

  10. Great post but I laughed when an interviewer ask about the bisexual. I’m not sure I quite understand what bisexual means? hahaha very funny. In India, people were criticized if you are bisexual. It is against their religion. But in some cities, bisexual is being accepted especially celebrities and fashion designers.

    • When you mention religion, are you referring to Hinduism?

      Not sure if it has been discussed here or anywhere else on SM or any other source, but from what I have studied, there is nothing against homosexuality in Vedic culture/religion. (At this point, I am not aware of any rules/laws/commandments/etc against homosexuality/bisexuality/lesbianism/etc in Hinduism/Jainism/Buddhism.) Or if anyone can enlighten me, please state the source or Bhagavad Geetha chapter or whatever text that makes a case for or against homosexuals.

      All I ever read about sexual energy in general, in the Vedas, is that it is to be conserved, or reserved only for marriage. But nothing about homosexuality or a case for or against it.

      The Abrahamic religions like Christianity/Judaism/Islam have some verse(s) in their holy literature that can be interpreted to be anti gay or even a few clear statements against homosexuality. Again, let me know if that is wrong. Hindu/Buddhist/Jain literature don’t reveal much in that department. Or at least the way those religions are practiced today.

      I wonder if you mean in the villages of India, the culture, and not religion, the culture is biased against gay people. Sometimes culture can be different from the way the religion is practiced. And has it always been that way, or has Western/ Islamic/Christian/Victorian British/etc culture had some influence in the Indian villages to have a bias?

  11. All I ever read about sexual energy in general, in the Vedas, is that it is to be conserved, or reserved only for marriage.

    Sort of, sort of not. The idealized couples were generally monogamous like Shiva and Parvati or Rama and Sita. But in other cases you do have Krishna sleeping around and it’s implied in the Mahabharata that it would be unmanly of a kshatriya to refuse to oblige a woman if she wants to go to bed with him. Basically ancient Hindu societies had a great deal of leeway for deviant behavior and lifestyles. Sex before marriage was probably not considered ideal, but also not considered a huge deal.

    Presumably some measure of discretion was required though. So no Carrie Bradshaws.