Magazine article New Internationalist

For People like Us: A Placard Reading "Indian and Lesbian" Caught the Eye and Set Tongues Wagging in Delhi

Magazine article New Internationalist

For People like Us: A Placard Reading "Indian and Lesbian" Caught the Eye and Set Tongues Wagging in Delhi

Article excerpt

IN A COFFEE SHOP IN MUMBAI I waited nervously to meet 'the community'. I had just moved back to the city after years abroad and begun the search for other lesbians. Already I had been warned by Sakshi, who had come to make contact with me and make sure that I was not a reporter, that levels of trust were low. This was not only because of the need for confidentiality but also because women from The Outside, she told me tactfully, tended to take up so much space; tended 'to assume that their priorities are ours'. We were sitting by the cash register. When the phone rang and the server asked for Sakshi, I was close enough to hear the voice on the other end, demanding: 'Well? Shall I come to meet her? Is she US?'

When I first started working as a reporter at the Times of India, the breaches of trust I engaged in while trying to promote lesbian visibility were multiple and unthinking, unprepared as I was for the difficulties of being both Us and Not-Us. When the group in Mumbai began working towards the first nationwide retreat for 'women who love women' I helped organize it, participated in it and then wrote about it. It was a conflict on many levels: between organizing collectively and yet representing 'Us' as an individual; between what I knew readers needed to hear and what I didn't know that lesbians were unwilling to share.

I also had to think about Us and Not-Us on many levels when I began the work of compiling Facing the Mirror, a collection of writings by lesbians in India. As soon as word of the project spread, I started receiving letters from men, offering to write about lesbian fantasies, about threesomes, about wishing to be lesbians for a day, about their lesbian wives. I had never expected this.

Some Indian lesbians themselves objected to the Facing the Mirror project on political grounds. One told me that there was no purpose to putting the existence of Indian lesbians into words, since it would just cement and make public the divisions between lesbians and women at large -- divisions which we should be working to erase.

'Militant lesbians aren't aware of the existing spaces,' she said. 'Think about the ladies' compartment of the trains, you see women together there all the time. They hold hands, and from their faces you know that it is bliss.'

I tried to persuade her to change her mind -- after all, that very week there had been an article in a women's magazine talking about the scourge of lesbians in train compartments. Such single-sex spaces of safety were increasingly rare, increasingly threatened. But she merely shook her head, told me that both the verbalizing of same-sex desire and the violent reactions against that desire were marginal to the vast reality of an Indian tolerance.

'All this -- it has nothing to do with India,' she said.

The fire and the fury

Us and Not-Us... these words took on a new valence for me after Deepa Mehta's film Fire came out in India, at the end of 1998, and was immediately attacked by the Hindu right for its depiction of lesbianism. Fire, a tale of two women married to two brothers, developing a relationship with each other in the congested streets of middle-class New Delhi, was not a film made for Indian audiences. The symbolism was pureed like baby food, the metaphors of fire (Sita's trial by fire from the Ramayana... the evil custom of bride-burning... home-fires and hearth-fires...) so deliberately labelled 'For Export Only'. The film had even less to offer Indian lesbians. In its portrayal of two married women falling painlessly in love, there was, as the lesbian writer VS pointed out, no attempt to take on the 'anarchic and threatening emotions that accompany sexual practices generally considered perverted, criminal and taboo'.

Nevertheless, lesbians watched with alarm as the attacks on the film gathered intensity. Even though the Censor Board had, to everyone's surprise, cleared the film without cuts, right-wing groups like the Shiv Sena and Rashtriya Seva Sangh were in no mood to accept that verdict. …

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