Book review: What is it like to be gay in small town Karnataka and love in fear?

"Why should we be so scared? Have we murdered anybody? We just love each other."
Book review: What is it like to be gay in small town Karnataka and love in fear?
Book review: What is it like to be gay in small town Karnataka and love in fear?

I am not gay. But I don't have to be to relate to Mohanaswamy's heartbreak when he loses his long-time lover to a woman.

Just like Mohana's sister, as a teenager I have also called someone gay as an abuse without fully understanding what it meant. I have also felt lonely being single. But it's not the same thing, is it?

Though I can relate to Mohanaswamy - my sexual orientation, my marriage, my children - their very existence will never be questioned. I will never have to think twice before holding hands with my partner in public. What I do in bed will never be on top of anyone's mind when they meet me. My love will ever be shrouded in fear.

That's why it stings when the author says, "As a young man, people pestered him to get married, even offered to find him a bride. But when he came out of the closet, nobody had a heart large enough to advise him to find himself a boy and settle down". He is talking about you and me here. 

Vasudhendra's short story collection, Mohanaswamy, gives glimpses into the life of a gay boy growing up in a small town in Karnataka. Each story is an experience that Mohanaswamy or someone he knows has been through simply by not being heterosexual.

Growing up in ridicule before he could understand why he stood out or what it meant to be gay, his life is a constant struggle to keep his desires and identity under wraps. Mohanaswamy, originally written in Kannada in 2013, was recently translated into English by journalist Rashmi Terdal.

It's not often that you find an exemplary English translation of regional writing.

Rashmi uses simple language and delivers the sentiment without diluting Mohanaswamy's diffidence, desolation and despair. By retaining some lines in Kannada, she has packed these stories with the local flavour that brings home the fact that homosexuality is not 'happening out there to people we don't know'.

Mohanaswamy believes, "If I learn to ride a bicycle, I will turn from gay to straight". Reading those lines took me back to my if-onlys: “If only I were thinner, fairer and prettier.” I attributed everything wrong with my world to one of these three things. Growing up was quite baffling for me. I imagine growing up gay can only be doubly so.

While mother had had the 'becoming a woman' conversation with me, I guess she assumed I would behave like the 'well brought up girl' that I was and not put my parts to use 'prematurely'. In fact, when the chapter on ‘Gender and Reproduction’ came up for study, our teacher made a fellow classmate 'take the class as punishment'. 

Where do young people get their information from? True that the web has opened up our access to information but hasn't it also made information highly subjective? In his time, Mohanaswamy devoured magazines like Rathi Vignyana "hoping to find something, anything on gays". When he found bits and pieces of information it was often seeking a remedy for "this tendency" and the responses were grossly misleading.

I too have read my share of questions in women's magazines and got my perspective skewed. Recently when a good friend from college came out as a transman, it weighed heavily on my conscience that I didn't have the slightest idea of his struggle. Even if I knew, I wondered how I'd have supported him then because I knew nothing about transgender persons. And I what I know today is still very little.

Mohanaswamy, a Kannadiga software engineer homosexual protagonist, leaves no more wiggling room to get out of the discussion on a basic human right: to love without fear.

This is an important book for Indian fiction. A coming out for Vasudhendra himself, Mohanaswamy jolted its audience into joining the discussion on gay rights. Here's a namma huduga, Karnataka Sahitya Academy Award winner (Nammamma Andre Nangishta, 2006) talking about homosexuality. How do you sidestep that?

He brought into the fold all the girls and boys and their parents in semi-urban and rural areas who don't speak English, who don't have Internet access, whose people don't have the vocabulary or the agency to discuss these things and who don't afford the anonymity that cities offer.

Heartwrenching is Mohana's quest for love in familiar and unfamiliar places alike. His long-term relationship, his one night stands, friends he is attracted to are all covered in a shroud of fear. Fear of being outed. Fear of contracting a sexually transmitted disease. Fear of facing the world alone.

What is it like to love in fear, to live in fear? "Why should we be so scared? Have we murdered anybody? We just love each other," says one of the characters. 

Effortlessly, Vasudhendra manages to dispel the impression that homosexual people are lawless, faithless heathens. Mohanaswamy is a devout follower of Krishna. In times of struggle, he always relies on faith to pull himself together.

Once, he is even in a relationship with a priestly yoga-doer. One of his dates, described as dark-skinned like Krishna, asks him, "Are you a Brahmin?", and Mohanaswamy answers: "A gay belongs to no caste. People from no caste or community will accept him within their fold".

Prejudice, caste-based or otherwise runs deep. I believe the key to dispelling these prejudices lies in conversations. When I shared the news of my friend's coming out with mother, she used a Malayalam slur for gay that I was surprised to hear her use. But she also said, "It must be very tough. I hope he is happy". And that's why I live in hope.

Add Mohanaswamy to your must-read pile in 2017 because not only is it relatable, heartbreaking and very well translated, but it is also one those seminal books in Indian fiction that you want to have read because it will be talked about for a long time to come. My wish for this book is to be prescribed reading in our otherwise useless Moral Science classes.

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