Category Archives: Sexuality

Madonna Turns 60

Madonna broken

On August 16, 2018, Madonna turned sixty.

My first memory of Madonna was watching her “Like a Virgin” video when I was five years old. I remember my sisters performing dances to “Into The Groove” and “True Blue” in our living room. It was only after the “Like a Prayer” era, however, that her impact on me began.

I was one among many gay men who grew up in the 1980s and 1990s feeling like they inhabited a world of darkness. I was in high school in the mid-90s and I remember that it was a very lonely time. This was compounded by the Indian culture I grew up with at home, in which homosexuals weren’t even supposed to exist. There was no one out there saying it was okay to be gay – no one, on the scale of Madonna, that is.

Sexuality was never openly discussed at home, in school or even in public. So, Madonna became my secret teacher and mentor on the subject. Even before I had the courage to say who and what I was, she gave me the words. In her songs, videos, concerts and interviews, she unabashedly celebrated sexual diversity and exploring one’s sexuality.

One time, I remember watching the Girlie Show on Much Music in front of my dad and uncle. It was the part where “Justify My Love (The Beast Within Remix)” was playing. As Madonna recited from the Book of Revelation, two male dancers violently and passionately groped one another on stage. My uncle and dad watched with puzzled faces. I felt embarrassed but couldn’t change the channel. There, in our living room, Madonna was breaking boundaries.

Like many gay men, I had to conceal the truth of my sexuality for many years, at great personal cost. On this her 60th birthday, then, I want to say thank you to this remarkable woman, if for nothing else, then for recognizing that we exist, for making us visible and for not giving a fuck. Thank you, Madonna, for being the person I could always look to and remember myself.

 

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The Gay Faqir

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Shah Hussain was a gay Punjabi poet of the 16th century. He loved a young man, Madho Lal. The two are buried next to one another at Shah Hussain’s shrine in Lahore. They are known to eternity as “Madho Lal Hussain.”

As a gay Punjabi-Canadian man, reading Shah Hussain‘s poetry gave me a sense of pride and belonging to a culture I’d long grown alienated from. I was then (not so) surprised to see Naveed Alam trying to deny Shah Hussain’s sexuality in Alam’s introduction to his translation of Shah Hussain’s verse.

According to Alam, Shah Hussain couldn’t have been gay, because:

  1. Shah Hussain’s poems make no overt references to homosexuality;
  2. Shah Hussain’s love for Madho Lal was platonic;
  3. Shah Hussain wrote in the feminine voice in keeping with Sufi tradition (where God’s devotee refers to himself in feminine terms).

Alam’s first point makes no sense. He claims that a poet like Shah Hussain cannot be gay unless he overtly expresses his homosexuality in his poetry. By this logic, a poet cannot be heterosexual either unless his heterosexuality is overtly expressed in his poetry.

In any case, Shah Hussain probably didn’t express his sexuality overtly in his poetry for good reasons.

According to the platonic love theory, Shah Hussain and Madho Lal were master and disciple respectively and their love should be seen in that context.

The problem is that there is no proof that Madho Lal (a Hindu Brahmin) was even a follower of Shah Hussain or that he was part of a Sufi order. In fact, had Madho Lal been a disciple, then it would’ve been he who was expected to write poems in praise of his master, not the other way around.

Shah Hussain wrote otherwise:

My lover grabbed my arm
Why would I ask him to let go?
Dark night drizzling, painful
The approaching hour of departure
You’ll know what love’s all about
Once it seeps into your bones…
(trans. N. Alam)

Hagiographic accounts also tell us about Shah Hussain’s love for Madho Lal:

When he looked at Madho, he signed painfully and said: ‘Friends, take heed. This boy has set my heart out of control. With one look he has made my heart restless. With one look he has taken away my heart. Taken the life out of my heart, and the soul out of my body. What should I do, friends? What should I do to make him fall in love? Friends, I’ve become a prisoner of his love. I shall not find peace till I see him” (Haqiqat al-Fuqra (‘Truth of the Saints’), c. 1660).

In another account, one of Shah Hussain’s followers spies on Madho Lal Hussain:

You [Hussein] are taking a glass of wine from Madho and kissing Madho on the forehead and the Madho is also kissing Hussein’s forehead … Madho again gives a full glass to Shah Hussein, stands and greets him respectfully. Hussein also gets up and greets Madho respectfully. The two friends remained busy in this matter, and kept kissing each other like milk and sugar … and then the two friends become one.

As for the feminine voice, Shah Hussain uses it even when not speaking to God. Shah Hussain refers to himself in feminine terms when sitting at the spinning wheel, taking part in women’s folk dances and sharing secrets with his girlfriends. This feminine voice is Shah Hussain’s soul speaking as a gay man.

In Shah Hussain, Punjabi and Pakistani gay men can hear their own voice, songs and verses singing back to them. The light and passion in his poems is smothered by people foisting their own culturally acceptable interpretations onto it. Shah Hussain’s love for Madho Lal comes alive when we embrace it fully for what it is.

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My Discovery of Russia (Part III)

 

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Politics

Naturally, I was going to ask questions about politics and social issues in Russia. I was fortunate to discuss these questions with Dennis, my hostel mate in Moscow who was also Russia.

According to Dennis, Putin isn’t the highest power in Russia. He is in fact a frontman, manager and negotiator for Russia’s ruling families, those “oligarchs” who own major stakes in Russia’s oil, mining and telecommunications industries.

Still, Putin was everywhere. On every street stall and in every Metro station and souvenir shop, I saw his hulking muscles on rather tawdry looking T-shirts, mugs and even on Matryoshka dolls. One shop on Arbat Street in Moscow had a doll with Putin on the outside, and Trump on the inside …

I couldn’t tell how popular Putin really was. Dennis said that most of the younger generation had grown weary of him after his 18 years in power. Still, if anything, Putin struck me more as a symbol of Russian pride and manhood in standing up to the West.

On June 14, 2018, I took the train to St. Petersburg. St. Petersburg was the capital of imperial Russia and the site of the country’s great revolutions. I came here to see the history and I ended up learning more about Russia’s history of revolutions.

In 1881, the Czar Alexander II was assassinated by a group of political revolutionaries. I visited the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood below, which marks the site of his assassination. In 1887, Lenin’s brother was executed for taking part in an attempted assassination of Emperor Alexander III.

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On June 17, 2018, I visited the Hermitage Museum and the Winter Palace, one of the world’s greatest museums and the residence of Russia’s last czars respectively. In front of the Winter Palace is Palace Square (below). This was the site of the Russian Revolution of 1905 which created a legislative assembly and constitution for Imperial Russia.

On November 7, 1917, Lenin’s Bolsheviks stormed the Winter Palace from Palace Square. They forced the abdication of Nicholas II and created the Soviet Union.

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The Soviet Union ended in 1991. In August 1991, Communist hardliners within the Soviet Union attempted to overthrow the pro-reform Gorbachev and seize control of the government. The Russian people, under the leadership of Yeltsin, rose up and defeated that attempted coup.

Russia may be an authoritarian country, I thought, but Russians don’t take it lying down.

Gender and Sexuality

I was struck by how clearly the genders are demarcated in Russia.

The Russian men were jacked. They wore tight T-shirts and muscle shirts. The (younger) Russian women meanwhile often looked like Barbie dolls, wearing skimpy little tops and showing off as much leg as possible.

 

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I saw men and women holdings hands everywhere. It was a Barbie and Ken fantasy.

What I didn’t see were any gays or lesbians openly expressing their affection. Homosexuality isn’t illegal in Russia, but “promoting” it in public is. I looked up some gay clubs in St. Petersburg, but when I found them, they were housed in dark, indiscreet buildings, with tinted windows and an intercom at the door.

 

 

 

 

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Film Review: Aligarh

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Directed by Hansal Mehta

Starring: Manoj Bajpayee (Ramchandra Siras); Rajkummar Rao (Deepu Sebastian); Ashish Vidyarthi (Anand Grover).

Aligarh is a drama based on the true story of Ramchandra Siras. Siras was dismissed from his position as Chair of Modern Indian Languages from Aligarh Muslim University in 2009, on charges of homosexuality. Mehta’s film is both a sensitive look into Siras’ life and a nuanced critique of how Indian society marginalizes homosexuals in the name of morality.

At the heart of Aligarh is Manoj Bajpayee’s portrayal of Siras. Bajpayee bears Siras’ soul and isolation whether in his barring himself up away from the world or listening to Lata Mangeshkar on whiskey-filled nights.

He also reveals Siras’ quiet charm in his conversations with Deepu, the journalist who interviews Siras after his dismissal from Aligarh. When Deepu asks Siras if he is gay, Siras speaks of his sexuality in terms of metaphor. This is a way for him to leave behind the world of “gay” and “straight” for what matters. But it’s also Siras’ way of making sense of himself in a society which has no vocabulary for his experience.

Through the courtroom scenes, demonstrations and Deepu’s investigations, we see how the issue of homosexuality in India has become at once political, legal, cultural and moral. But for Siras, it isn’t about politics, activism, collective morality or social censure. It’s about living a life of quiet dignity denied to him.

 

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Art and Obscenity: The Case of Manto

manto

Written by Randeep Singh

The Urdu short-story writer Manto was charged with obscenity six times for his short-stories, three times in India before 1947 (‘Dhuan,’ ‘Bu,’ and ‘Kali Shalwar’) and three times in Pakistan after 1947 (‘Khol Do,’ ‘Thanda Gosht,’ and ‘Upar Neeche Darmiyaan’). He was fined only in one case. The charges of obscenity haunted him nevertheless until his death: “I am not a pornographer but a story writer,” he would defend himself.

Under section 292 of the Indian Penal Code and the Pakistan Penal Code in Pakistan’s early years, a book or writing would be considered obscene if “it is lascivious or appeals to the prurient interest or if its effect … if taken as a whole, such as to tend to deprave and corrupt persons who are likely, having regard to all relevant circumstances, to read, see or hear the matter contained or embodied in it.”

The book or writing would not be found obscene however if it was “justified as being for the public good on the ground that such book, … writing… is in the interest of … literature, art … or other objects of general concern.”

Manto wrote about his experiences at the trial and appeal hearing of “Thanda Gosht” between 1949 and 1952. A witness at trial for Manto, Syed Abid Ali Abid, the Principal of Dayal Singh College, testified: “from Wali to Ghalib, everyone at some time, has written what is generally labeled as obscene. Literature can never be obscene. And, what Manto writes is literature.”

One witness, Dr. Saeedullah, gave Manto the title of “musavvar-e-hayaat,” the painter of life. Soofi Tabassum, a professor of Government College, deposed that “immoral writing is where the sole object of the writer is to undermine morality” and that “Thanda Gosht” did not affect public morality.

In Manto’s testimony, “Thanda Gosht” was a story “telling human beings that they are not separated from humanity even with they become animal like.” Like Flaubert’s Madame Bovary which had also been charged with obscenity, “Thanda Gosht” was a serious story filled with melancholy. As for the potentially corrupting influence of his stories on the public, Manto remarked, “my stories are for healthy people, normal beings, not for minds who dig  up carnal meanings in innocent and pure things.”

The case of Manto is relevant to the question of what is art and what is obscenity. The following questions are worth considering:

  1. What is the artists’ intention in writing the story (to arouse sexual excitement etc.)?
  2. Is the sexual element of the story the primary or dominant value of the story or is it subordinated to the writer’s aesthetic goals?
  3. How does the reader experience the story? Does it appeal more to his or her aesthetic judgement or mostly to his or her senses and carnality?
  4. Does the aesthetic experience of reading the story do away with the reader’s “practical, operational” ways of viewing its characters and situations as if they were real people or situations?

If the story’s primary or overriding goal is to sexually arouse the reader, then the work can be considered obscene. If the story’s primary or overriding goal though is to use sexual or erotic scenes for some larger artistic purpose related to theme, setting etc., the story can be considered literature. A story moreover may have sexual situations or scenes which by themselves may be considered obscene but which have some meaning in the story’s overall context.

In “Thanda Gosht,” Manto tells the story of Isher Singh, a Sikh, who tried to rape an already dead Muslim girl, a heap of “cold flesh.” In “Khol Do,” a brutalized, unconscious  girl on the verge of death, Sakeena, opens her shalwaar qameez after the doctor examining her utters the words “khol do” (‘open’) to a nurse to open a window. The suggestion of raping a corpse or a girl opening her shalwaar on hearing the words “open (it)” by themselves may have been obscene; in their proper context, they illustrate the extent to which women were brutalized in the Punjab in 1947.

Manto was not only holding up a mirror to the dirt, hypocrisy and puritanism in Indian and Pakistani society; he was showing a way out of it. Ismat Chughtai wrote in her memoir “Kaghazi Hai Pairahan” that Manto’s “flinging it (dirt) about makes it visible and one’s attention can be called to the need of cleaning it.”  His stories unsettle us because they take us to the darker corners of our psyche, to desires repressed and to the ugliness that results. South Asia still struggles with the brutalization of women, sexual repression, sexual abuse, a growing AIDS menace and with discussing sex or sexuality openly.

Manto is still holding up the mirror to ourselves.

Further reading:

Ayesha Jalal, The Pity of Partition: Manto’s Life, Times and Work across the India-Pakistan Divide (Princeton University Press, 2013).

Aziz Akhmad, “Manto Ka Muqaddama: Obscenity Trial”:  http://pakistaniat.com/2009/09/29/saadat-manto-trial/

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The Homosexual Desi in “Dedh Ishqiya”

dedh ishqiya

Written by Randeep Singh

Dedh Ishqiya is no “Brokeback Mountain” in Hindi cinema. The story of its two gay characters – Begum Para (Madhuri Dixit) and her lady-in-waiting Muniya (Huma Qureshi – is just one ingredient in the masala. The scene where the Begum remembers how she became estranged from her husband, a homosexual Nawaab, could have made for a more complete, compelling film. Instead, it’s a thirty second narration while elsewhere we’re treated to a Tarantino-style shootout to Begum Akhtar’s ghazal “Woh Jo Ham Mein Tum Mein.”

As a film on (homosexual) love however, Dedh Ishqiya is commendable. First, it shows desi gays as human beings. Prick them and they’ll bleed, tickle them and they’ll laugh. The Begum says that her husband the Nawaab, was not into women and that after his death, the Begum herself found comfort in the arms of her lady-in-waiting Muniya. It’s not clear whether the Begum was in fact homosexual – it’s almost implied that she became one – but that ambiguity aside, the Begum and Muniya, are gay and human.

Second, Dedh Ishqiya does not resort to stereotypes or sensationalism respecting the homosexual desi. Girlfriend (2004) had to have its “hot” lesbian love scene and Dostana (2008) elicited laughs from straight guys “playing gay.” In Dedh Ishqiya, the Begum and Muniya love one another even if that love is confined to the four walls of their mansion. When speaking of Muniya in one scene, the Begum recounts, “woh hamaari saathi, hamaaari hamdard aur ab hamaari jaan bhi hain” (‘she’s my companion, my sympathizer and now my darling, my life too’). The desire between the two is subtle but palpable whether it’s in Muniya’s intense gaze at the Begum or Muniya’s massaging the Begum’s arms.

Third, Dedh Ishqiya shows its homosexual characters making a new life for themselves. In a Thelma and Louise style sendoff, Muniya and the Begum drive off into the sunset, pawn off an essentially priceless necklace and use the money to set up their own dance school (the Begum was once an accomplished dancer). It’s an ideal situation in an otherwise than less ideal society and culture for homosexuals. I could not help but feel though, when listening to the closing song, “ Hamri Atariya Pe Aa Jaa Re Saawariya” (‘Come on to my rooftop darling’), the song was an invitation to gay desis to come out and sing.

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A Gay Guy in a Turban

South Asian GLBT Protest (2)

Written by Randeep Singh

On December 15, 2013, Kanwar Anit Singh Saini attended the Global Day of Rage in Toronto to protest the Supreme Court of India’s upholding of Section 377 of the Penal Code of India which criminalizes homosexual sex.  He kisses another gay man at the protest. Another protester holds a poster above them with two men and the word “pyaar” written in Urdu. The photo was posted on his Facebook page with the caption “proud to be illegal.”

It’s interesting that while many in the diaspora have condemned what has happened in India, fewer have bothered to reflect on homophobic prejudice and intolerance within their local communities. The photo of Saini kissing another man generated hateful comments on Facebook from within the diaspora. Saini recalls on his Facebook page how his uncle once said the family would’ve killed Saini as a boy had they known he was gay.

South Asian GLBT persons like Saini continue to fight hate and intolerance within (and outside) their ancestral communities, including from “progressive” Indians, Pakistanis etc. Recently, I received a statement issued by a local South Asian group to the Indian Law Commission condemning the Supreme Court ruling. I was surprised to see the statement being lauded by people whom I have experienced homophobia from personally. I asked the group’s President that while I welcomed the statement, we’d do well to challenge prejudices in our backyard.

The openly gay former Indian prince Manvendra Singh Gohil said recently in an interview on CBC Radio that challenging Section 377 in India’s courts is one thing, but challenging Indians to open their hearts and minds is the greater struggle. That too is true here in Vancouver, as well as in Toronto, London, California and Queens. Saini has helped us all in that struggle by reminding us that GLBT South Asians are here and will keep up the fight.

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