As a cisgendered privileged woman, my idea of what a gay man looked and spoke like was influenced by flamboyant gay portrayals in Karan Johar movies and the odd characters I stumbled upon on American sitcoms. The image was of a hyper-sexualised, neon coloured imagery of a man who always got along with women, enviously fashionable and, with a knack for being a gossipmonger. Gay men have been stereotyped in popular culture, as a teenager and adolescent grappling with questions of gender and sexuality, these representations were my frame of reference.
Mohanaswamy written by Kannada writer Vasudhendra challenges this frame of reference which a lot of us have closely held by creating a character of a man next door. Vasudhendra is perhaps the only writer in Kannada literature who is openly gay. The novel is semi-autobiographical in nature and draws heavily from his experiences. It is also one of the first books in regional literature which portrays homosexuality. This book breaks a lot of stereotypes and challenges every image you may have had of what a gay man looks like modern India.
Vignettes and its Various Threads
Mohanaswamy is a short story collection which explores the vignette style of writing. The book is divided into various chapters, each chapter exploring a facet of Mohanaswamy’s life, ranging from his family, his college life, his tryst with lovers on dating apps, migrating to an urban area among other facets. Each chapter gives view of his complex and puzzling inner world where he is trying to make sense of this world, navigating his sexuality, grappling with being not fluent in English, desperate to find love and burdened with emotions of pain, guilt chaos and confusion, making this a heavy read.
The book opens with a chapter titled The Gordian Knot where Mohanaswamy is dealing with heart-break as his long-time partner Kartik has left him to marry a woman. The reader is slowly shown an unequal relationship between Kartik and Mohanaswamy and the vignette is heavy with heartbreak.
In one of the stories, we find Mohanaswamy on a dating app looking for a companion. The experience leaves him wondering that not knowing English is like standing at the edge while you watch everyone move on with their lives. The alienation and exclusion he feels because of the language barrier is an experience that a lot of individuals who come to big cities for better prospects may be familiar with.
In the story titled Bicycle Riding we see a Mohanaswamy in college, wholeheartedly believing that bicycle riding cures gayness. As a young college boy navigating a male-dominated heterosexual space being gay and closeted makes the experience suffocating for him. The only way he can get broad-shouldered sweaty men to notice him is by being academically inclined and then help them in their studies. This also means that he would have to be party to casually homophobic jokes.
The Contours of Violence
LGBTQIA literature, irrespective of language, geography and author, has some form of violence in common. This violence could be systemic, linguistic and/or physical. Even Mohanaswamy is littered with violence, the violence of words, the violence that permeates through individuals when they witness non-binary gender non-confirming individuals and the violence that is inflicted due to caste identities. The stories titled Anagha-The Sinless, The Bedbug, Kashiveera highlight the violence that Mohanaswamy has faced or the ones he has witnessed. One of the most poignant stories is about the sudden disappearance and death of a trans-woman and rumour has it, it was a family inflicted violence. There are many stories that touch on the practice of attempting to “cure” homosexuality by beating it out of a person’s body. Then there is the violence of casual jokes, homophobic comments and all of this is the arc of Mohanaswamy’s world and the incidents that colour them.
Why It Matters?
Mohanaswamy wakes the reader from a deep slumber of continuously believing homosexuality occurs in big cities and other countries. The poignant portrayal of Mohanaswamy shows that he could be our next door neighbour, colleague and even friend. The book ends with writings of acceptance where we see Mohanaswamy on a trek to Kilimanjaro slowly coming to terms with his loneliness and accepting himself. There is no grand speech on acceptance or finding the love of your life but slow unravelling of a humdrum life coloured by homosexuality and tinged with acceptance.
The power of this book lies in showing the extraordinary in the ordinary everydayness of living and existing. While this speaks of homosexuality, it also tugs at the reader’s heart as I often found myself pining for our protagonist to just find love and acceptance. That is the power of storytelling when the readers sit up, absorbed in the world created by the writer and find themselves rooting for the protagonist.
Priyanka Chakrabarty is an intern for SheThePeople.TV.