As a kid growing up in India, I was more than accustomed to men holding hands while walking, or men dancing together. For me, such acts were neither unusual, nor reprehensible - just what they were - two men expressing their affection for each other. As time passed by, and as India liberalised, we were soon exposed to American/western culture, through the television, radio, internet - you name it… And as we soaked it in (quite consciously), a word surreptitiously entered our lexicon… and the word was-GAY!!! (Exclamations deliberate).
I was curious about this word, and all that it implied... Suddenly, so many things that I thought were normal were labelled as ‘gay’… Holding hands. Listening to ABBA (I do!), and the list went on and on…So this got me thinking, what defines something as ‘gay’? And whose definition is it?
In India, prior to the onslaught of this liberalisation, the lines between straight and gay were largely blurred. In fact, I doubt if anyone besides a few actually knew what the word ‘gay’ meant. By this, I do not imply that India was oblivious to the concept of alternate sexuality. Alternate sexuality has had a long presence in Indian culture, but it existed more as an undercurrent of the mainstream culture, and never as a distinct entity as it has in the west.
The most prominent example of this is the way young boys are often dressed in India, especially during religious festivities. Dressed in costumes and make-up which in conventional wisdom can be said to possess ‘feminine’ overtones, they could immediately be dubbed as ‘gay’ by an uninformed ‘westerner’. However from a typically Indian perspective, these things are not unusual to the slightest degree.
Historically too, Indians have viewed sexuality in a more fluid manner compared to their occidental peers. Seventeenth and eighteenth century Delhi afford us a perfect example of this tacit toleration of sexual ‘deviancy’. From Sarmad, the Sufi faqir who fell for a Hindu boy, to Mir Taqi Mir, the giant of Urdu poetry who fell for a young perfume seller, Urdu poetry is replete with themes of homosexuality or homoeroticism. Obviously, homosexuality was technically forbidden in Islam, but the practice was so rampant that the Imam at Jama Masjid could do little besides urging the faithful to abstain from such activities.
In present times, the most prominent examples of alternate sexuality in India are hijras, or eunuchs. Though they live in self-contained communities, they do sustain a complex relationship with the mainstream society. Although sometimes treated with contempt, they are also treated with fear and awe. Their curses are said to be potent, and their blessings deemed to be auspicious. Even in Islamic societies, eunuchs were often highly regarded. Mahmud Ghazni, for instance, promoted a captured eunuch from India to the rank of a general.
So, as one can see, in contrast to western sexual pigeonholing, the east developed a more subtle and a nuanced approach to sexuality. There have been no demarcations of what was and what wasn’t ‘gay’. The west on the other hand has unwittingly created a wedge between ‘straightness’ and ‘gayness’ and this often makes it difficult for society to accept homosexuality as ‘normal’. By this, I do not imply that the ‘east’ is ‘superior’ in its approach. I am trying to see this phenomenon from a fresh perspective. I hope I have succeeded in getting the message across.