Reading Mohanaswamy As A Privileged Cis Woman
September 06, 2019
The first time I saw Vasudhendra, I was in the long queue at the Jaipur Literary Festival’s buffet hall, frozen with analysis paralysis. This stranger made eye contact and spoke to me. Out of his free will. With a huge smile on his face.
Like most introverted women raised in a family where men were defined as either gods or ghouls, I don’t like it when a guy talks to me without pretext. But, I was curious about this man who was so pleasant to me in spite of my stoic Sphinx face, so when I went back home, I googled him, and that is how I came to read Mohanaswamy.
I don’t like reading books that deal with tough issues. I especially don’t like reading books that make me feel ashamed, horrified, or sad. Reading is my escape hatch, and I have always believed that it is the reader’s prerogative to make sure that it does not consistently land her in some hellish nightmare. So, I was hesitant to read it when I realised that Mohanaswamy was a short story collection chronicling the life of a gay man in India.
Out Of Sight, Out Of Mind
I had never read gay fiction (outside erotica), or had a gay friend. I did briefly meet the awesome Ash Kotak at a party in London last year. I have also worked as a writer under the guidance of the amazing Apsara Reddy, the first transgender office-bearer of the Indian National Congress. But I never allowed myself to think of them as different from me. They are writers; so am I. They are humans; so am I. And I told myself, so what if they look and behave, er, different, it’s the inside that matters.
That last line, my dear reader, is a tricky one. Because it may be complicit to being wilfully blind, to the point of being a coward.
I now realise what that blindness is. It was my weapon. For so long, I had defined myself as a good woman who writes for children, uses politically correct terms, and loves all things fluffy, that I had fanatically armoured myself with this blindness in order to protect myself from reality. As long as I was cool and blind this way, I didn’t have to do anything about it.
Warning: It doesn’t work for long. Bad armour rusts.
Is It The Same Difference, Really?
As a cis woman brought up in a conservative family (and city!), I firmly believed I should not poke my nose into things that are beyond what is known to me. The question that came to my mind every time I came across a book written by an LGBTQ individual was this: I am a hopelessly vanilla woman. What can possibly be similar in their lives and mine? What can I possibly learn from someone so different from me?
Turned out, quite a lot.
Almost all the stories in Mohanaswamy follow this format – our hero tries to stay hidden, then bravely reaches out to find love, finds some modicum of happiness, albeit briefly, and in the end, it always gets dissolved into pulp. But, here’s what I learned from reading Mohanaswamy – our hearts beat the same tune and take a beating the same way, whether you are straight or not. There is the same white hot pain of betrayal, the frightening agony as you reel from the blow, and the slow healing back to the land of the living, sans a blood vessel or sinew, but as a wholly another person.
The Rules Of (Permissible) Attraction
Still, I judged. Some of the stories in Mohanaswamy revealed the hero engaging in desperate acts of submission and persuasion. I could not stop thinking: Why is this guy SO clueless? Everybody has hormonal urges, yet why does he alone have such difficulty controlling them? And by god, why does he persist in thinking that if he keeps beseeching, he will be rewarded with what he wants from his lovers?
These questions gradually, heartbreakingly, lead to the choking realisation, one that I never had a chance of learning as long as I was in the sanguine and delusional ‘God created us all equal’ bubble: The Mohanaswamys we know, or at least the ones starring in the book, live in a cursed setting which offer no chance for them to lead a ‘regular’ life, one where they have the freedom to love, lose and learn lessons of natural attraction, intimacy and relationships.
Think about it. A cis girl budding into a woman, if she decides to explore her sexuality with a man, may fear being called a slut, but never unnatural. Same for a cis man, because a woman and a man falling in love is not considered as an act of perversity. With the help of pop culture and literature, not to mention peer pressure/approval, love affairs and dating (at least in metros) offer a chance for a heterocouple to know what it is to be with someone you love and adore, physically and emotionally, without fearing disgust or ridicule. Those who did not participate – or had failed – in this age-old adventure will, more often than not, have that ultimate safety net: arranged marriage.
Not such an effortless ride for the Mohanaswamys of our world.
A Peek Into Other Perspectives
The first tale, The Gordion Knot, sucker punches you as it takes you into the unstable, unbearable life of the gay Mohanaswamy, fighting a losing battle. It’s wired into the best and worst of us to hope and pray for happy endings. Namratha Rao, previously at Siemens Healthcare and currently creating Udupi cuisine in San Francisco, says, “I am an incorrigible romantic, and my heart broke for him when Mohanaswamy hears of his lover Karthik’s upcoming engagement. His internal conflict and his monologue with the idol of Lord Krishna, lamenting his innate sexuality and cursing Lord Krishna’s life in his next avatar was very touching.”
In the train wreck impact of the subsequent tales where it becomes clear there is going to be no ‘happily ever after’, you desperately want Mohanaswamy to act with dignity and grace, forget the morons who hurt him, and just move the fuck on, but how will he? How did you? How many times have you ached for someone to love you, in spite of your size or your skin colour or your (perceived) ugliness? How many times have you cursed God for creating you as you are – so many warts! so many scars! – and wished to be better, just so that you could feel secure?
Sasha Madhan, educator based in Himachal Pradesh, read the book when it came out in 2016. She says, “I stumbled upon it at Pragati Maidan Book Fair. I could not read it at a stretch, I had to put it down many times. I really wished Mohanaswamy would find someone he could spend his life with. The story of the crossdresser from his village really got to me. I cried throughout this book.”
I cried too. Time and again, you feel enraged at Mohanaswamy for debasing himself, prostrating himself over and over again, making himself smaller and smaller, more and more invisible, to fit in to the dangerously diminishing space for him in his lover’s life.
Sounds familiar? We all wear the same masks, live the same lives, make the same mistakes.
A Pioneer Of Gay Literature In India
For a lot of women, Mohanaswamy is the first LGBTQ+ work they have read. Shruthi Rao, published-author raised in Karnataka but now based in the U.S., says, “It’s the first book I read in Kannada which shook me. Some words were taboo in my mother tongue – as kids, we weren’t allowed to say them, and we considered those who said them as cheap and indecent. Vasudhendra went ahead and used all those words, and the 8-year-old in me was deeply disturbed. But I eventually accepted it.”
Acceptance. It’s such an uncomfortable, painful yet ultimately redeeming process. Mohanaswamy slammed me into a wall until I had to throw my hands up and accept the truth.
I used to think that privilege means having money and food and a safe roof over your head. The titular character too had all this, so why all the drama, why so much anguish? You’ll know the answer when you read this book. At the age of 39, I finally understood what Mohanawamy and its various literary counterparts have been trying to convey – the futility of being privileged in a world that does not accept you for who you are, a world which will choke you if you dare to fall in love, a world that will spare you only if you pretend all your life to be something you are not.
That’s literature, alright, at its finest and most brutal avatar. It throws light in hidden corners, drags the many screaming secrets that society tries hard to keep hidden, airs out the long rotting carcasses and forces you to look at yourself in the mirror without flinching. And tells you, Come on, I am no monster; if I am, so are you. We are all in this together. Let’s keep growing. Let’s keep hoping. Let’s keep loving, losing and learning.
I feel that there is a wilful blindness in a lot of cis women who refuse to acknowlege the trials of the gay community, and thus deny them the much-needed empathy and understanding which may very well be crucial to tipping the scales. This book needs to be read by all, especially women (and not just because they found themselves next to the author in a queue), because we need to consider the possibility that underneath all the layers of skin, lies and rules of love and attraction and acceptance, we are all Mohanaswamys. Just with better social and existential privilege.
Radhika Meganathan writes creative non-fiction, short stories and novels (graphic or otherwise). The Gurukul Chronicles, her YA retelling based on The Mahabharata, won the manuscript award at Pune International Literary Festival 2016. An ardent advocate for community-based learning, she moderates Chennai Writers’ Circle, which offers critique meets, writing challengers/workshops and literary retreats. Give her a holler - and a like! - on Facebook.
Read her articles here.