By Shambhavi Saxena for Youth Ki Awaaz:
Credited with writing one of India’s first ‘gay novels’, R. Raj Rao, the author of ‘The Boyfriend‘ (2003) and ‘Hostel Room 131‘ (2010) spoke to Youth Ki Awaaz about gender and sexual minorities in India, responses to the brazen queerness of his literature, and his experience of being mistaken for an orthodox Hindu writer. Rao’s writing is known (and lauded) for its dry humour and irreverence, which can be a breath of fresh air in times when people take the slightest things much too seriously. Longtime gay-rights activist and presently a professor at Pune University, he was the first in India to offer a programme on LGBT literature at his University.
Shambhavi Saxena (SS): In ‘The Boyfriend’, you’ve been careful to reflect a composite of identity markers like caste, class, profession and age. Do you think the urban LGBT+ movement in India is too preoccupied with sexual identity (and almost exclusively ‘gay’ and ‘trans’ identities) to look at these other intersections?
R. Raj Rao (RRR): Yes, possibly. Each constituency is concerned with its own agendas and couldn’t be bothered with the agendas of other constituencies. This is what hinders the formation of coalitions. But then, at the end of the day, ‘The Boyfriend‘ is a work of literary fiction. Identity politics must not be taken to be its main focus.
SS: When Sridhar Rangayan interviewed you for Project Bolo, you said you “can’t endorse political correctness.” Why is that? And do you think there is pressure on contemporary queer writers to be politically correct?
RRR: I can’t remember in what context I spoke about political correctness in my Project Bolo interview. My fiction is hardly politically correct. If it were, it wouldn’t work as fiction. The pressure on contemporary writers to be politically correct comes from activists and reviewers, not from publishers and fellow writers. That is why I am not the blue-eyed boy of the former.
SS: You spent a significant period of time in the UK, where a lot of your queer politics really crystallized. From what you’ve seen, how do you think British queer culture differs from what we have here in India? Especially since Section 377 was instituted by the British in India but struck down in the UK over 50 years ago?
RRR: British queer culture today is the same as the queer culture of America, Europe and the rest of the Western world. That is to say, it is progressive. But it also tends to straitjacket sexual identities, put them into boxes, as it were. That is where we score, here in India. Homos and heteros don’t have to take one of Robert Frost’s two roads, from which there’s no turning back. We can be on both roads at the same time, as our sexual identities are fluid. So many of our respondents in ‘Whistling in the Dark‘ have said that they have had sex with both men and women and have enjoyed both kinds of sex. This does not help when it comes to movements, or when archaic laws have to be changed. But it does help in decentring the ghetto.
SS: “Outcastes can only expect to be friends with outcastes,” says Yudi, in ‘The Boyfriend’. But no matter how cohesive or organized people on the margins become, they will not be granted access to the centre. Do you agree? Or do the margins have more radical potential than we give credit for?
RRR: But why do we need to reach the centre? Utopias are realized when the margins themselves become the centre. If these needs radicalization as you call it, I am all for it. Radical, to me, isn’t a dirty word, though in India we associate it with Maoism and militancy. I do not regard myself as different from a terrorist, except that my weapon is the pen.
SS: The Babri demolition and Shiv Sena operations form the backdrop for Yudi and Milind’s Bombay in ‘The Boyfriend’. Do you see similar communal tension in India of 2015? What does this mean for queer politics?
RRR: Oh, everyone knows it is much worse now than ever before, with the RSS ruling us. Didn’t you read my Pune Mirror column of 8 December 2015, where I said that there was a conspiracy between the legislature and judiciary to keep passing the buck from one to the other, with neither of them having any intention to scrap Section 377? At least, that’s what I gathered from Arun Jaitley’s recent remarks on Section 377. As long as the present government is in power – which is till 2019 at least – the climate for gays in India will only get more suffocating. Technically, we are criminals, and that is how the government wishes to see us.
SS: Can you share with us your experience of ‘the queer’ within academia? How have students responded and what implications does that have for (the possibility of) mainstreaming queer politics?
RRR: Queer studies in India hasn’t acquired the glamour and respect that women’s studies and Dalit studies have acquired. And it never will. Even now, in 2016, there are only a handful of Indian universities that have a queer studies course on the syllabus. It is always an optional course, so there are few takers. Some students think that if they take the course, they will be making a statement about their sexuality, which no one wants to do. You may call it homophobia. It is preposterous to think that queer politics can be mainstreamed the way caste and gender politics have been mainstreamed in India.
SS: Why have you acquired the pen-name Raja Rao Jr.?
RRR: Well, better late than never. Raja Rao was born in 1908 and died around the year 2000. In 1996, I finally met him in Austin, Texas, where he lived. But ever since I began writing and publishing in the late 1980s, I have been mistaken for Raja Rao. My name has been printed as Raja Rao in the newspapers hundreds of times. These howlers have proved costly. Once, I was inadvertently invited to an international conference in Sri Lanka to deliver a keynote address and was put up at a 5-star hotel in Colombo, called the Lanka Oberoi. It is only after I arrived at the airport that the organizers realized that they had made a terrible mistake, that I was not Raja Rao who wrote ‘Kanthapura’ and ‘The Serpent On The Rope’. But by then it was too late. They had to put me up at the Lanka Oberoi and hear my keynote address, of which Raja Rao would never have approved.
I have been asked to autograph Raja Rao’s books many times by readers who take me to be him. Rather than educate them, I have adopted the line of least resistance at such times–I have forged his signature on their books, and they have gone away happy.
To me, calling myself Raja Rao Jr. is the ultimate act of subversion, considering that he was a Brahmin with great faith in Vedanta philosophy, and was avowedly straight with a series of women in his life. And I, as you know, am none of these things, and my life’s mission is to attack religious hegemony and heterosexuality.
The interview was conducted as a part of Youth Ki Awaaz’s coverage of the ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival.
R. Raj Rao will be speaking at the ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival this year. Catch him between the 21st and 25th of January, at Diggi Palace, Jaipur.