If you are a member of the LGBTQIA+ community, or interested in its history and activism, you have probably heard of Hoshang Merchant. He is one of our most famous poets, critics, academics. In 1999, he edited the first mainstream publication of gay writings in India, Yaarana, which introduced Indians to a host of gay writers, calling from within the closet, and sometimes stepping fully out of the closet to declare their existence, their rebellion,
their pride.

I have read much of Hoshang Merchant’s poetry (whatever I could get my hands on) and am a great admirer of his work. I also met him recently, and was very charmed by his honesty and his refusal to be polite when he didn’t want to be. This is as much to say — I might not be as objective as I should be, but
I am trying.

Gay Icons of India. Why gay, and not queer? The LGBTQIA+ community is India is an alphabet soup of identities, orientations and cultural practices. Gay men are not the only people who have made an impact on the Indian queer (I use ‘queer’ as an umbrella term for the multitudes of Sexual Orientations and Gender Identities outside the ‘norm,’ but it is inadequate coverage, used only to avoid the cumbersome LGBTQIA+ in every paragraph.) Merchant and Rath (Rath is Merchant’s student and friend, they collaborated together on this collection) have focused almost myopically on the gay man, ignoring most transgender men and women, lesbian women, and even most bisexual men and women in India. The feeling one gets is that Hoshang Merchant picked his favourite people and just went with it. I’m not saying we shouldn’t have books focusing on gay men, but the title alone makes me hunger for more. Whom shall I ask to write about the (cis) lesbians, the bisexuals, the transgender men and women? We are vast, we contain multitudes.

Merchant and Rath do remind us that there are four (!) women included in the text, but that is a paltry number, and begs the question — why are these queer women included at all? We are harking back to older terminology, where all terms were interchangeable in tiny communities facing ignorant prejudice that thought all terms were the same. The gay was the hijra was the lesbian was the bisexual, and so forth. In current times, though, I would have asked for a different title, with a
broader scope.

Having made our peace with reading only about gay people (and a few fortunate women), we now deal with whom Merchant and Rath consider as icons. Every person described in Gay Icons of India is, in one form or another, an artiste. Merchant (whose voice dominates the collection — I find myself wondering what exactly Akshaya Rath contributed to the actual writing) looks specifically at poets, dancers, dramatists, fashion designers, actors, writers and some researchers. Activists who make no Art/Academia with a capital ‘A’ do not feature in this collection, which I personally think is a great shame. Even if we look only at cis gay men, there are some terrible gaps in these numbers. Art is food for the soul, but it is not the only food, and not the only light.

There is no criticism of the style here — Hoshang Merchant writes with his well-honed skill, a light mixture of academic criticism, social commentary, philosophy and gossip. He presents to us these artistes from his view of their art, of their research, and their contributions to the cultural context — both for queer Indians and Indian art, music, literature as a whole. In some ways this collection gives us more insight into Hoshang Merchant; he is a very severe critic, an unforgiving judge of personality, a ruthless commentator on their public ‘gayness.’ (For students of Merchant this collection is a must-read.)

There are some facets to this production I cannot gloss over. Merchant and Rath are unforgiving of bisexuality, requiring their bisexual subjects to claim gayness and run with it. They are unforgiving of the people who stay in the closet, who do not say “I am gay.” The section on Rituparno Ghosh is written without considering the audience — of cis-people and straight people — and how they must consume the varying, whimsical attitude taken to describe Ghosh’s gender and gender performance. What is lovingly permitted in private (or even in public) does not work when used in the third person, outside their presence, as an introduction. You cannot say, “Indian Homosexuals must learn how to be liberated from hijras,” as though hijras are a colonizing force. Merchant and Rath’s discomfort of these liminal, transitioning, sexually fluid people borders on dismissal and contempt. Only Vikram Seth’s immense name recognition (and Ruth Vanita’s defence and admiration), one realizes, allows him to be included in this collection.

This is odd to me because when talking about people whom he knows well, whom he loves, Merchant is very aware that we are many people, that as human beings we are not singular, monolithic entities. For his friends he reveals a sensitivity and tenderness – an admiration — we can only hope for from our own kith and kin. But if he does not admire someone’s art, if they do not reach a certain academic standard, they are damned with faint praise, severely dismissed as plebeian, or ‘almost great.’ Greatness is Merchant’s obsession. Are we Great? Have we created Great Art? We never really get a definition of greatness. Merchant’s opinions, like Merchant, like the people he elevates for us, are fluid, certain, and mutable.

I do not know if I will reread this collection. Merchant’s language, his judgments, they stay with me, ringing in my head when I try to think of other things. He shows me some of these men (and women) in forms I had not seen before. But the lacunae — women, bisexuals, transgender people – they are a gaping hole in my stomach. I need more, and I will search for more.

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