Kannada writer Vasudhendra created quite a storm a few months ago with the publication of his short story collection, Mohanaswamy, in English. This collection was published a few years ago in Kannada to the usual acclaim Vasudhendra gets for all his books, barring one thing. There were gay stories in it, and the critics, predictably and pathetically, ignored the book altogether.
No one spoke about it. However, all his other books are discussed widely in the media. A few went so far as to say that these (the gay stories) were his weakest stories yet. This homophobia was, and is, characteristic of the Kannada literary scene but the remarkable thing about Vasudhendra is that he does not care.
Once he came out to himself, coming out to the world, Kannadiga and literary, or otherwise, did not matter. Indeed, it has become a part of his peculiar activist credo to simply be his gay self in every context in which he chooses to participate.
Vasudhendra started his own publishing initiative more than a decade ago and it is still alive and kicking. He also works as a counsellor with gay people, particularly small town and rural gay boys, helping them come to terms with themselves.
In a freewheeling conversation with Ashley Tellis, over a steaming cup of coffee that he made in his modular kitchen in his wonderful house, Vasudhendra opens up about his universe.
Ashley (A): What was the process of starting your own publishing house like?
Vasudhendra (V): Chanda Pustaka is thirteen years old now. I began writing when I was offered a position in England. Out of my Kannada context, I missed it so much that I wrote three books. I sent them to at least 50 Kannada publishers and got three responses, all negative. The others did not even bother to reply. So, I decided to publish them myself. My books sold out immediately and I had them re-printed.
I wanted to publish and sell young writers. That’s the decision I took. I also instituted a prize at the publishing house for the best first short story collection. It is a Rs 25,000 prize. I have done this for ten years. Young writers are the best writers now in Kannada.
A: What is your usual print run? What are the returns like?
V: I print a 1000 copies of all the books I publish. My own books do pretty well and have six and sometimes eight reprints. I put all the earnings back into publishing young writers. Some of them also go into reprints. I do the distribution mostly myself. I can easily sell 1500 copies of all the books I publish or my own books myself.
A: You write about many other themes than just the gay one. Does a gay sensibility inform all your writing?
V: I have written an entire book about my mother. It was very popular and went into 18 reprints. It also won the Karnataka Sahitya Akademi prize. I have written about Brahmin widows in rural Karnataka. I have written about lives in the IT industry, about society under globalisation. There are the shades of a gay sensibility in most of my writings.
‘Anagha’ was my first gay story in a collection called Chelu. I was afraid of writing in first person. I felt I had to protect myself. But now, I may not even write about gays any more.
A: Describe for us the process of your writing?
V: Writing for me is like putting rangoli in front of your house. You connect the dots with lines. Intimate experiences are the dots. I connect the dots when I write. You can make different patterns with the same dots through modes of narration, through techniques. You are a rich author if you have many dots. All sorts of things come together, bear connections that you never thought they had, but they do
Writing for me is not a special activity. Most of my stories and novels were written in the car going to and coming from work in Bengaluru, and being stuck in traffic. There is no special time or environment that I need to write. I write when the dots start to come together and form patterns.
A: Is writing a way to confront the damage/wounds of the past?
V: Not just damage but all the stories of the past. Humour is also a huge part of my writing. All feelings are in my writing. My writing comes out of my experiences and helps me understand or come to terms with those experiences. For example, when my mother was really ill, she would be incontinent and I would have to clean her. It reminded me of when she would visit me in school because I had soiled myself because I did not go to the toilet in the morning and she would come to clean me. That reversal made me write about it but also realise it as a reversal.
A: Mohanaswamy’s views on what a gay life is change over time. Have yours too?
V: What changes do you mean?
A: He starts out wanting a monogamous relationship based on romance and thinking that is the only way to be as a gay man, but by the end those rose-tinted glasses have broken.
V: Monogamy with love is great but only if society accepts you. Society is only for heterosexuals and no one even talks, let alone supports, the idea of gay couples, gay lives. When you are together, you are alone. When you separate, you are alone. You have to suffer alone. Heterosexuals have a huge support network. Who is there for us? That is why monogamy fails. That is why we are polyamorous.
A: How much does acceptance matter to you?
V: Acceptance is very important to me. I am a rebel. I will live as I want to. But I am not doing any crime. I want acceptance from the family, from society. My idea of a perfect society for gays is when a mother actively goes around looking for a gay male partner for her son. This is the ideal for me.
I have suffered so much because of guilt. No one should ever have to suffer guilt. I had so much guilt about sleeping with men. Guilt comes from society and it is not good for us. For guilt to go, society has to accept us for who we are.
A: So you are quite conservative, then?
V: See, you have to live with someone who loves you. Finally, we are part of society. I live in a gated community. These people have to respect me and to accept me for me to be here. They cannot harass me.
They do respect and accept me here. It is not about hiding who I am. A female neighbour was really interested in me, in an affair with me, I guess, for a long time. I recently messaged her saying I found her husband really cute. She has not messaged me since, but it is not a problem either. We are just like anybody else. If that is conservative, I am conservative.
A: Caste figures in your work as a limited case too. I read you as honest but also limited on the question of caste.
V: Caste plays a role everywhere. In the villages, it is obvious. In the cities, it is subtle. No religion or caste supports us homosexuals. Caste is not such an issue in my stories as it is not such an issue to me. I am not strong in caste analysis. But I have tried it in my own way. The yoga instructor lover of Mohanaswamy is a critique of a great Baba, who declared that homosexuality can be cured through yoga. To show him that yoga instructors might also be gay.
A: So what are you working on now?
V: I am deeply interested in the historical novel that I am writing now. Set in the Vijayanagara era, it is about this leader Prouda Devaraya. Why is he losing the battle with Muslims, he asks. Muslims eat cows and that is why they are strong, he concludes. So he hires many Muslim soldiers for his empire, builds a mosque for them, allows them to eat beef. These soldiers refuse to bow to him as they consider him kaafir. But he places the Koran next to himself and asks them to bow to it. I am passionate about history and such stories.
I am very fond of the Mahabharata. I have written a lot on it. But now I want to write on the Ramayana.