Society demonizes some loves as illegal, abnormal and harmful, simply because they are ‘different’. For the people who bear these loves in their hearts – their entire lives become a long saga of running away and hiding. They are forced to conceal the deepest, sharpest, most intense of their emotions – sometimes even from their very own selves.
Every once in a while though a few of these ‘others’ stop running. They turn and face society, fight, question and force the masses to think again, to realign the equations of justice and injustice. Love wins, once again, in this eternal battle with hate, and history begins to be rewritten. Jaydip Jana’s Amar Bhitor Bahire contains the narrative of just such a life whose likes and loves were strictly monitored and dictated by society since early childhood. How fares that life and love now?
There is, understandably, an acute shortage of queer or queer centric literature in India, especially in our modern Indian languages. Some self-styled experts have recently published tomes of either expose or research style works. But books that are by queer-identified authors and tell the stories of queer lives, often othered by everyone from one’s birth family to friends and all the way to society at large, are still few and far between. Jaydip brings us a breath of fresh air in the form of his eminently readable autobiography Amar Bhitor Bahire (Freedom Group, Kolkata, Rs.289, 2022).
It is not easy to be so open, honest and outspoken when talking about intensely personal experiences. It is even more difficult when one has a lifelong experience of oppression and bullying because of one’s difference from the accepted norms. And yet, Jaydip manages to be that open.
However, this volume is so much more than just an autobiography. It is, at once, an intense reminiscence and examination of the author’s various identities, his life journey over some 30 years; an exploration of the changing times in our country, especially the eastern part of it, over the last couple of decades with relation to LGBTIQA+ identities and issues; and a chronicle of the queer movements in Bengal and India, including the changes they have wrought in the lives of individuals labeled as ‘different’ by society.
Autobiographies can be dry or verbose and difficult to get through. Jaydip’s work is quite the opposite. It is easy to read, conversational in tone and focusses more on his subject matter and internal and external reflections. He avoids the pitfalls of over-flexing the literary muscles and trying too hard to sound serious and erudite. He chooses, instead, to speak to the reader one-to-one, as a friend, rather than create a dazzling display of academic wordcraft showing off his prowess. This makes the book a pleasure to pick up – whether at home, in a café, in public transport, or anywhere else.
In fact, the volume is difficult to put down, calling to the reader’s fancy even when not actively being read. If one identifies as queer, one can see reflections of one’s own journey, struggles with alienation, sense of loneliness, and eventual arrival at a sense of self and community in Jaydip’s journey, which makes the work almost one’s own story. If one is part of the larger society that either shrugs off the existence of ‘these people’ or claims a lack of understanding, the book is full of familiarity too – easily showing how ‘not different’ the ‘different’ really is.
The very human experience of growing up and becoming aware of the self, of negotiating the conflicts that exist between one’s sense of identity and that which society expects, the process of falling in love, requited or unrequited, and the experiences of heartbreak and loss, intensely personal and yet universal, are captured beautifully in Jaydip’s narration.
The addition of lines from Bengali songs, such as his stage debut dance performance to the Hemanta Mukhopadhyay classic Abak Prithibi Abak Korle Amay, add a layer of evocative nostalgia to the narration. Mention of stories from Chandamama and Jatak deepen the sense of familiarity and resonance created by the events and times portrayed.
Every life is a journey of finding oneself. Beginning with the innocence of a child to exploring the world, onset of adolescence, awakening of desires and attractions, analysing and exploring one’s boundaries – Jaydip captures the realities of the universal journey very well.
The bhitor (inside) and bahir (outside) in Jaydip’s journey are something that everyone can resonate with. His ‘internal’ realizations of identities, likes and loves, not just in terms of people and romance but also interests and passions, were so often forced to bend a knee, to accept defeat or hide in the face of the ‘external’ pressure from family and society. For example, he had to sacrifice his desire for dance, over and over, to present a more ‘masculine’ front to the world. Similarly, the feeling of wanting to express oneself as the ‘wife’ of a significant other was something that could never be articulated.
Jaydip’s story is one of the universal struggle to find a balance between self and society, me and them, identity and expectation. And then the arrival at a semblance of acceptance that allows us to be true to oneself while negotiating life and society is precisely what makes his book highly individual and yet the story of every journey.
As mentioned earlier, another important aspect of the book is its documentation, albeit as a current in the background, of the queer rights movements in India, from the earliest days of HIV and AIDS work, the campaign against Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, to the ongoing struggles for visibility, equality and civil rights. This book therefore will not only be of interest to anyone wanting to understand aspects of queer lives in India, but will also be an essential read for anyone interested in the progression and the impact of the queer movements in India, particularly in West Bengal.
Ultimately though Jaydip’s book is a memoir, not an academic exploration or a dissertation of history. It is personal, perhaps with a fair share of biases and specific points of view. In that, its honesty, presented in a friendly style, makes this book a pleasure to dive into. One looks forward to more from this author.
About the main photo: Front cover of the book Amar Bhitor Bahire written by Jaydip Jana. Photo credit: Pawan Dhall. Author’s picture in the inset courtesy Jaydip Jana