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Maya Sharma. Footprints of a Queer History: Life Stories from Gujarat

Nanjani Gandhi
Bibliographical reference

Maya Sharma. 2022. Footprints of a Queer History: Life Stories from Gujarat. New Delhi: Yoda Press. 359 pages.

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1Literature often explores a wide range of lives that escape monolithic categorizations. It helps in understanding social systems and can also often serve as a corrective mirror. Within this context, works of literature that portray the experiences of queer people, who defy fitting into normative gender identities, can be beneficial in fostering awareness and promoting sensitivity towards alternative sexualities. The proliferation of works by Indian authors such as I am Vidya (2007) by Living Smile Vidya, The Truth About Me (2010) by A Revathi, and A Gift of Goddess Lakshmi (2017) by Manabi Bandyopadhyay, among others, reminds us of the need for more awareness vis-a-vis issues of the queer community. As Dasgupta notes, queer people in India “suffer disproportionately along key vectors of structural precarity” such as employment, social stigma, and health inequalities (Dasgupta 2022:893). These works raise many pertinent issues, such as mental and physical anguish, that arise from societal pressure to fit into existing and established categories, and this is even more so in a highly stratified society like India.

2Maya Sharma’s Footprints of a Queer History is a significant addition to this discourse. The book sheds light on the challenges and vulnerabilities faced by queer individuals and organizations advocating for queer rights across the Indian state of Gujarat and likely across various regions in the global South. Against the backdrop of limited governmental and public support, the discrimination is compounded by Gujarat’s pronounced orthodox right-wing political orientation. At a broader national level in India, the recognition of self-identification rights for transgender individuals is a relatively recent occurrence, materializing as recently as 2014. Simultaneously, the decriminalization of homosexuality was not realized until 2018. Additionally, following the enactment of the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act in 2019, transgender individuals in India are now required to obtain a certification from the district authorities to validate their transgender status. While this law permits them to personally identify with their gender, it curtails their ability to exercise self-determination. Notwithstanding these legal advancements, the queer community continues to deal with different kinds of violence and ambiguities. This is evident within India’s queer community where divisions based on factors such as caste, class, and religion persist. Even within this intricate landscape, certain groups, such as trans men with rural backgrounds, remain overlooked.

3This is a book that, in consonance with the identities of its characters, is difficult to categorize; hence it is hard to say that it is simply one thing. It is a record of lives—the author’s life, the life of an organization, Vikalp, and of different queer people from Gujarat whose lives at one time or another got enmeshed with the former two. The organization, Vikalp was established with the initial goal of addressing domestic violence and gender-based discrimination against women in Gujarat. However, it expanded to encompass broader issues such as class, caste, religion, gender identity, and sexual orientation. This led to its involvement in the everyday struggles faced by marginalized women and individuals identifying as lesbian, bisexual, or transgender. Maya Sharma was actively engaged with Vikalp, where she presently holds the position of program director. The book is a fruition of her association and engagement with the organization. Overall, this work of non-fiction charts the lives of queer people, mainly of trans men, in Gujarat, situated within the larger socio-cultural and legal historical background.

4In the Preface, Sharma points out that the work is a coming together of activists in Vikalp and of queer people from Sabrang, a subsidiary of the former, that collects donations for trans people. The stories have been sourced through personal conversations, letters, phone discussions, experiences shared in community meetings, and documented events of organizational involvement. They do not stem from rigorous academic research. They are perspectives of an activist aiming to chronicle the experiences of those marginalized within an already marginalized group.

5Sharma reveals that some of the stories were written due to her personal love for writing, while others were prompted by her documentation work with an organization. However, she remains the narrator who unveils the silences and unspoken truths within these accounts. The book contains eighteen chapters, which include two introductory sections, ten stories, one letter, a narrative pieced together via a newspaper report, and four segments that work as introductions to the chapters that follow. All the stories are marked by stigma and socio-political and cultural dissonance. As a part of the introduction, the author defines the term “queer” for the readers. She uses Arvind Narrain’s definition of the term, which resonates with her. Queer is “not merely about . . . LGBT persons but about loosening up the rigid structures of caste, gender and compulsory sexuality” (Narrain 2011, as cited in Sharma 2022:9). In that regard, the definition of queer is also radical because it does not depoliticize itself or ignore the intersections of class, caste, and gender within a Brahmanical patriarchal community. As a result, the stories are radical because they are components of lives that must constantly struggle to survive and find a place for more similar stories to continue.

6The initial two chapters give an overview of the queer strands in Gujarat. Together, they act as an introduction that charts the origin of the book, interwoven with Sharma’s personal development as a part of different organizations. Chapter 2 discusses in detail the various practices and sites of resistance, with the traditions and lives of queer people, from the tribals to the aristocracy. The focus of the rest of the book is specific, stemming from the author’s encounters in Gujarat. Most of the narratives in the book problematize the questions of gender and discuss the impossibility of articulating one true experience for everyone in relation to that.

7Chapter 3 throws light on the hitherto overlooked and under-scrutinized experiences in the Hijra community. The Hijra community, exclusive to the Indian subcontinent, operates as a distinct system where trans women cohabit together under the kinship system known as the guru-chela relationship. Frequently depicted as a safe environment for transgender women to embrace their identities (Bakshi 2004; Mondal et al. 2020), this account introduces a lesser-explored facet within the Hijra community. The protagonist, Shashi, a transgender woman from Chhotaudepur, Gujarat, highlights the constraints imposed on her once she joins the Hijra community, which she initially believed would offer her a sense of liberation. Her story encourages a setting for a careful evaluation and contemplation of the way in which we imagine and constitute communities.

8Chapters 4 and 5 talk of Sharma’s opinion on sex work and the pervasive forms of everyday violence respectively. This part delves intimately into the life of Amitaben, a sex worker who was introduced to them by Shashi. Her story skillfully unravels the complexities of the choice of this profession as a means of sustenance.

9Chapter 6, “Post Box- 31, GPO, Raopura,” is intricately interwoven with chapter 7, known as “Leefafey Mein Band Kuch Baate: Some Conversations Sealed in Envelopes.” The latter chapter delves into an anonymous letter received by Vikalp during their collaborative HIV/AIDS campaign with the Gujarat State AIDS Control Society in 2002. This correspondence is authored by an individual who identifies as biologically male, has a son, and is separated from their wife. In the letter, the author candidly expresses a profound mental shift towards femininity. He/she details the current relationship, where he/she assumes the role of a wife to another woman named Mukta. This remarkable letter defies and deconstructs conventional gender identities, promoting a multifaceted comprehension that necessitates the need to discard preconceived notions about gender.

10Chapter 15 also delves into the complex terrain of gender, titled “Everyone Needs a Companion in Old Age.” This narrative unveils the complex interplay between religion and gender identity, shedding light on an unconventional way of living and finding acceptance for a life that is often stigmatized by society. The chapter chronicles the life of Mataji, a devout follower of Goddess Dasha Maa, who serves as an intermediary between the deity and the worshippers. Interestingly, Mataji undergoes a monthly transformation in her gender. The gender fluidity, ambiguity surrounding their sexual identity, and sacred spiritual connection distances them from others and helps make it easier for them to have a queer relationship with societal approval. Collectively, these two chapters entangle and disrupt the otherwise established boundaries, challenging rigid categorizations and advocating for a nuanced understanding of gender and identity that demand new labels, that is if we must label at all.

11It is also imperative to acknowledge that the already established labels in society can prove to be advantageous, and they also often help promise safety and acceptance. Chapter 9, “Exposed,” particularly highlights the politics of labeling. Gujarat, with its extreme neoliberal turn in terms of economic development, also took a sharp right turn in terms of social conservativeness (Jaffrelot 2015; Desai and Roy 2016). While the othering and subjugation through deprivation of marginalized communities like Dalits, Muslims, and Adivasis is well-documented (Jaffrelot 2016; Chacko 2018), the effects of this harder shift in an already conservative society on the queer community has received scant academic attention. However, organizations like Vikalp were able to work with members of the queer community at the grassroots level in addition to their existing work with labor and women’s rights under the garb of being a women’s rights organization. A newspaper report in 2004 by The Times of India and Vadodara edition of Gujarat Samachar exposed the organization as queer, which was previously working under the “safe” identity of a “women’s group.” Owing to the somewhat contentious nature of the term ‘queer’ within the cultural context of India, the use of this terminology led to unfavorable outcomes for the organization. Various families and communities withdrew their support, unwilling to be seen as being associated with a queer organization. The chapter raises important questions regarding the unfortunate importance of secrecy in a hostile environment, the risk of getting “outed,” and the consequences thereof.

12Chapter 10, titled “A Man of Two Cities, West to South, Punjabi-Gujarati,” delves deep into the intricate journeys of self-identification and the peace that accompanies the acceptance of one’s true identity. This narrative navigates the complex politics of self-labeling through the story of Virat, a transgender individual. The chapter includes a section titled “A Collective Coming Out,” which draws parallels with Sharma’s life, the life of Vikalp as an organization, and the trajectory of Virat’s life. However, as other chapters detail, the journey towards self-acceptance and living authentically often comes at the expense of violence.

13Chapter 8, titled “Something This Name Lacks,” explores the intricate theme of familial violence through a focused lens on Ankit’s life experiences. This chapter delves into his passionate yet ultimately unsuccessful relationship with Komal, shedding light on the complexities that arise from Ankit’s identity as a transgender individual. The prevalence of familial violence is a recurring motif throughout the book, and various chapters document the same. Chapter 9, “But I Knew That. I Knew That Others Knew,” talks of the consequences of openly asserting one’s queer identity in a public sphere via the protagonist, Bittu. Emphasis is put on the disapproval Bittu faces from his mother regarding his gender identity and vividly illustrates his arduous struggle for survival on the streets. Similarly, chapter 17, “No, No, We Are Not Hurt So Badly That We Cannot Move,” spotlights the oppressive weight of heteronormativity exerted by the family and the society. The story of Avani and Neha’s elopement elucidates the immense familial pressures put on the couple to conform to traditional societal expectations.

14The eighteenth and final chapter, “Fear of Family and Community Holds Us from Living Our Lives Fully,” also probes into the challenges confronting queer individuals as they seek acceptance for their relationships in a predominantly heteronormative society. This chapter focuses on the trajectory of Prem and Rukaya’s relationship and the obstacles they encounter due to Prem’s queer identity. Another chapter, “Who Will Believe She Ran Away with a Woman, and That She is Still…,” addresses the complexities arising from elopements of same-sex couples. It tells us the story of Monu and Reema, highlighting the legal strategies employed by the organization to support the couple in their pursuit of a loving relationship. In these stories, the organization, Vikalp is documented as a vital mediator, offering guidance, financial support, and legal assistance to those in need. The legal avenues ingeniously employed by the queer community in Gujarat specific to different time periods have been underscored.

15Chapter 12, “Of Elopements and Maitri Karaar,” focuses on Maitri Karaar, a traditional contract system unique to the Gujarat state that is now illegal. It had its origins in customs that gave legitimacy to temporary relationships between men and women and was later popularly used by men to keep mistresses without violating the Hindu Marriage Act. However, due to its loopholes, it was also used by women to register their partnerships with other women. The section complements chapter 13, “The Life and Times of Mansa Patel and Dalphina Fernandez.” It pieces together the story of Mansa Patel and Dalphina Fernandez who entered into Maitri Karaar, and their unfortunate, mysterious endings. Chapter 14, “I am Taking This Step Willingly,” also discusses the tragic end of two women from the same village where Mansa Patel died. The case is unraveled through newspaper reports and narratives surrounding the women’s alleged suicide. The difficulty of sustaining relationships in a society that does not accept your identity is a running thread in the book.

16The chapters document the lives of selected same sex couples in various spatio-temporal contexts, the legal recourses they can opt for, and the identities they must maintain for their safety. In chapter 18, the last story, situated after the repealing of Section 377 (the article in the Indian Penal Code that criminalized homosexuality) in 2018, stresses the unchanged nature of the socio-cultural demography in our society. The work also charts the forced migration of queer people to cities and the continued suspicions that follow. Observations about societal approval/disapproval, reverse cultural appropriation, and the impact (or lack thereof) of legal measures are found throughout the book.

17Maya Sharma, a queer rights activist who started out working for women’s labor rights, provides useful insights through her stories. Sharma’s impressions and commentary across several chapters, come from her position as both an insider (a lesbian herself, who walked out of a heterosexual marriage after coming to terms with her sexuality) and an outsider (a relatively privileged, urban upper-caste woman working mostly with an unlettered rural community, often belonging to the Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, or Other Backward Classes, in precarious financial condition). A number of chapters are preceded or followed by a section by Sharma which indicate her perspective, while serving as a mediator to portray the story. Some of her insights are supported by statistics, while others are the result of her own empirical observations and analyses. This book is also the story of her personal development—her own growth and that of Vikalp’s, is intricately linked to the cases she handled. However, unlike most Savarna writers/researchers trying to “speak for” the subaltern, Sharma limits her role to that of a facilitator who brings to the fore the precarity and the plight of the oppressed without seeking to assume the role of a “savior.” The book also contains an appendix that charts the growth of the organization.

18The most significant contribution of this book—or any book of a similar nature—is to provide narratives that fill the silences and blank spaces of history. These narratives create networks and give courage to those who identify with them. In simple, straightforward language, the book tells stories of violence, resistance, and persistence. It offers substantial analytical value to scholars who seek to chronicle the experiences of marginalized communities, thereby facilitating a deeper, more nuanced understanding of their precarious circumstances. This in turn will contribute to fostering a more cohesive collective identity. Moreover, it furnishes first-hand empirical data ripe for subsequent scholarly investigations. These anecdotes can serve as starting points for researchers working on questions of policy and legal reforms for the transgender and lesbian communities.

19The content in this book could have been relegated to grey literature, never to be published by commercial presses, let alone read by academics (Davidson 2017). Yoda Press is one of the few “alternative” publishers in India who put out work that is often ignored by mainstream publishers driven by profit motives. Yoda recognized the worth and relevance of these stories, which not only provide novel insights but question entrenched categorizations while challenging the simplistic oppressor-victim binary. The book will be helpful to readers who want to learn more about experiences that cannot fit neatly into one box.

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Bibliography

Bakshi, Sandeep. 2004. “A Comparative Analysis of Hijras and Drag Queens.” Journal of Homosexuality 46(3–4):211–23. doi:10.1300/J082v46n03_13.

Chacko, Priya. 2018. “The Right Turn in India: Authoritarianism, Populism, and Neoliberalization.” Journal of Contemporary Asia 48(4):541–65. doi:10.1080/00472336.2018.1446546.

Dasgupta, Rohit K. 2022. “Viral Assemblages and Witnessing Extraordinary Times: Queer Patchworks of Intimacy, Precarity and Affect in an Indian City.” Journal of Intercultural Studies 43(6):880–96. doi:10.1080/07256868.2022.2128086.

Davidson, Brett. 2017. “Storytelling and Evidence-based Policy: Lessons from the Grey Literature.” Palgrave Communications 3:17093. doi:10.1057/palcomms.2017.93.

Desai, Manali, and Indrajit Roy. 2016. “Development Discourse and Popular Articulations in Urban Gujarat.” Critical Asian Studies 48(1):1–26. doi:10.1080/14672715.2015.1120402.

Jaffrelot, Christophe. 2015. “What ‘Gujarat Model’?—Growth without Development—and with Socio-Political Polarization.” South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies 38(4):820–38.

Jaffrelot, Christophe. 2016. “Narendra Modi between Hindutva and Subnationalism: The Gujarati Asmita of a Hindu Hriday Samrat.” India Review 15(2):196–217.

Mondal, Bithika, Sudeshna Das, Deepshikha Ray, and Debanjan Banerjee. 2020. “‘Their Untold Stories’: Lived Experiences of Being a Transgender (Hijra), A Qualitative Study from India.” Journal of Psychosexual Health 2(2):165–73. doi:10.1177/2631831820936924.

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References

Electronic reference

Nanjani Gandhi, Maya Sharma. Footprints of a Queer History: Life Stories from GujaratSouth Asia Multidisciplinary Academic Journal [Online], 31 | 2023, Online since 14 December 2023, connection on 18 July 2024. URL: http://journals.openedition.org/samaj/8943; DOI: https://doi.org/10.4000/kk1j

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About the author

Nanjani Gandhi

Pondicherry University

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Copyright

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The text only may be used under licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. All other elements (illustrations, imported files) are “All rights reserved”, unless otherwise stated.

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