Queersapien is Sharif D. Rangnekar’s second book in four years that takes you on his personal journeys as a queer person. The first book, Straight to Normal – My Life as a Gay Man, was published in 2019 soon after the decriminalization verdict of the Supreme Court of India. It was an autobiographical narrative of a 50-year-old gay man ‘who had spent a large part of his life gathering courage to be himself’ (to borrow and adapt a line from the book).
The second book seems to take off from where the first ended – not in terms of time periods, but in terms of the treatment of the subject. It goes well beyond a personal narrative and dwells on larger social contexts, one of the key reasons I liked the book. It’s always good to read a personal story of love, heartbreaks and struggles that’s set amid unfair and unsurpassable social challenges, but where the protagonist comes out the stronger for it. It’s somewhat of a balm on life’s bruises. But the author also wants us to see where we ourselves can and do go wrong.
The book begins with an interesting take on queerness: “Queerness intersects with what is called the mainstream and yet may seem alternate to it. It intersects with every disability – the hurdles and divisiveness of class, caste, religion, creed and colour. It is human, and hence, like heterosexuals, it needs love as it needs air, water, food and shelter. It needs family, but it is wise enough to know that blood isn’t necessarily thicker than water, that there are choices to exercise”. Even better, when the author says: “In all the diversity queerness sees, it has a high regard for the many delightful facets of nature. For instance, it knows water is water. Yet, it also sees water as the sea, the rain, snow, ice, puddles, lakes, rivers, rivulets, hail, steam, dew, waterfalls, floods and every other avatar it has”.
This seems like a good way to present the concepts of queer and queerness for a non-academic readership. It sets the tone for the book – idealistic perhaps, but then why not something that strives for a better vision in a time when ideology, or pretenses of it, is dividing people like never before?
The discussion on the need for gender and sexual identity labels is also meaningful: “As queer people, in all the liberation we can be, and the freedom we can open the world to, we still have to use labels. We need that sense of belonging. Labels and identities tell us, as it told me when I identified as gay, that there are others like us or myself, that we are not alone”. This brings up a question though – given that queerness intersects with the mainstream and yet is like a circle in a square or vice versa, can a queer person really belong anywhere?
Given the time in which the book has been written, a detailed description of life before and after the Supreme Court’s Section 377 verdict of September 2018 was expected. What resonates with me is the author realizing that the reason for his failed relationships with other men could be as much, if not more, in the negative social environment as something inside him. This relates to the sad reality that the apex court’s verdict hasn’t made life exactly rosy for many queer couples still struggling to live together.
The author provides a good analysis of the expected impact of the Section 377 verdict. Over a few pages, an interesting comparison can be made between the outlooks of human rights activists and the commercial media. Maya Sharma, a feminist grassroots activist based in Gujarat is quoted as saying: “The order will make it easier for us to roll out mutliple healthcare and educational programmes in smaller towns and villages specific to the gay community.” A few pages later, Anjali Gopalan, the founder of Naz Foundation (India) Trust says that (after the verdict) there is a lot to do, as we need to “protect future generations so that children can build a more certain life for themselves.” Many sections of the media, on the other hand, seemed bent on prioritizing queer marriages, regardless of the fact that like all relationships, queer ones too need a supportive social and legal environment to thrive. They seemed to lose sight of the fact that decriminalization alone can’t be enough for such an environment to be created.
Quite tellingly, the author recounts several deaths by suicide of queer persons across India even after the verdict. He talks about many a queer friend desiring to leave India because of continued social stigma. He also reveals his long standing ‘Plan B’ – of his love for the Thai culture and possibilities of moving to Thailand.
The next few chapters of the book deal with the author’s sojourns to Thailand, beginning in 2004. The author takes a close look at several aspects of life in Bangkok, Pattaya and more generally Thailand. For sure, the sexual openness that’s associated with Thailand in the popular imagination is there, but there’s more than that. The author keenly takes in the greater visibility of women in day-to-day public life, Thailand’s retention of Buddhist traditions along with westernization, the ‘Thai way’ of focussing on happiness and gratefulness as principles of life, the emphasis on mai pen rai (no problem, it doesn’t matter), and even the widespread knowledge of massage among the Thais across genders and age groups.
The descriptions of the pleasure industry and queer lives in Thailand could well be the stuff that the dreams of many (queer) Indians are made of. Yet, that’s not the mainstay of the book. While the book doesn’t take up much analysis of the expolitative aspects behind, say, the sex markets of Thailand, it does take a deeper dive into the friendships and relationships the author builds with people engaged in providing sexual services. Pop, a waiter and escort in Pattaya, leaves a deep impression on the author’s mind – as much with his wisdom as his sexual mastery: “Be yourself, Khun Sharif. No worry, no stress, don’t follow media, cinema, make your own choices.”
The author participates in his first rainbow pride march in Thailand. Here he’s at his evocative best: “I felt both lost in the numbers and found in my sense of being.” There’s also an honest admission that he just didn’t notice the absence of slogans on human rights in the first pride march he attended. He goes on to describe how the rainbow pride march in Bangkok has had its struggles with corporate money and flamboyance displacing human rights as the focus, before a course correction of sorts took place in 2017.
The author’s candidness is another reason to like the book. While he reflects on the hypocrisies around everything sexual back home in India (and among the Indian tourists in Thailand), he also looks inside at his own imperfections – his initial squeamishness around sex, his liking a certain body ‘type’ (the Oriental look), and then the conflicted state of his mind about whether to immigrate to Thailand or not, eventually leading to a realization mentioned in the book’s epilogue: “[My] search was not really about a place to be in or go to. It was about the ingredients that I believed could make an ideal world or a better one.” On finally not immigrating, there’s a dash of humour when he says that he’d grown to want elements of Delhi and India which, apart from friends, family, politics and Bollywood, included the need to eat wheat as much as rice and millets!
The chapter on looking at life in Delhi (and India) through the author’s Thai lover Non’s eyes makes for compelling reading. Non, a masseur the author meets in Bangkok, travels to Delhi for a holiday. Though he loves the architecture, cuisines and handicrafts, the author’s home and being with him, he makes searing observations about how grossly unequal Indian society is, compared to Thailand, in terms of gender, class and occupation. The author experiences a “pseudo-nationalist moment” but desists from whataboutery in pointing out things like Thailand’s lack of democracy. A poignant moment follows when the author and Non part ways – because Non couldn’t see himself living in Delhi and the author couldn’t move over to Bangkok. The social and the personal mingle in this sad moment, acting as a reminder about why relationships can be so hard.
The author’s conversations with Thai and Indian scholars, writers and journalists provide an insight into the history of queerness in Thailand. As in India, same sex love has long been documented in Thailand. The country escaped western colonization, but it has had its share of queerphobia, some of it also contributed by greater integration into a globalized system and exposure to western conservatism. However, sodomy was decriminalized in Thailand way back in 1956, and the country seems to have a more matter of fact attitude towards queerness.
In an aptly named chapter To Love Is a Battle, the author talks about his mother Veena Rangnekar’s life – the trials she had to undergo, first as a Kshatriya woman marrying into a Brahmin family, then as a widow, and finally also as the mother of an out gay son as she helps create a ‘queer oasis at home’ for the author and his friends. All of this is set in an educated and well-to-do social environment where one can expect better, or can one?
The author also narrates incidents of subtle religious bigotry (not the least in relation to his own name), the importance of ticking the right class and caste boxes to be able to belong in the Delhi elite circles, the ‘coolness’ associated with being gay in these circles, and the futility of legal changes without social attitudinal changes, whether it’s to do with the concerns of queer people or those of women. A broad canvas of issues as narrated by a queer person.
In the last chapter The Fix, there are several suggestions for anyone who wants to resist social inequities. There’s a welcome emphasis on the need to address mental health, and not just when the “rich or celebrated end their lives”. In India, poor mental health on its own and co-existing with social inequalities is begging for urgent attention – whether of the policymakers, healthcare systems, corporate bodies, social activists or ordinary citizens.
On the question of ‘merit’, which’s been shamelessly appropriated by the privileged in our country, he hits home when he says “[The] idea of merit can’t be applicable in a deeply unequal system and society”. Similarly, he talks about consciously deciding to keep his public relations consultancy firm mid-sized – for the sake of retaining “something special about the intimacy and connection between people” and because scale would have meant “overt systems, processes and templates that confined people’s abilities to boxes”. While scale will be necessary to solve the development problems of a country as large as India, it’s time to think and act harder on ensuring that scale in any context doesn’t come at the cost of being humane.
If one has to talk about what doesn’t work in the book, then it would be the pace at times. In one place, the author mentions the ‘Rainbow Lit Fest’ he started in 2019, but it comes up without context. None of these count as reasons though for not reading this heartwarming book.
As the author concludes an account that engrosses and disturbs in equal measure, he says: “So my journey, so far, to get to where I am today has been about coming of age, as [the late historian] Saleem [Kidwai] had defined it, about being fully established as a gay person, getting to a point of being uninhibited, not having to hide anything, no secret to hold on to, the kind that many queer folks are compelled to live with. It has been about freedom and the expression that comes from it, that I don’t need to seek validation for my existence.”
If only such self-realizations could happen all around and at an unprecedented scale!
About the main photo: Front cover of the book Queersapien written by Sharif D. Rangnekar. Photo credit: Pawan Dhall.