There is a lacuna in most modern Indian literatures in the matter of queer representation and narratives of queer lives in the subcontinent. A recent crop of books in Bengali have been trying to fill this gap, and bring queer stories into the cultural mainstream. Souvik Ghosh’s debut novel, Probaho, is one of them.
Set in multiple Indian cities (including several recognizable Kolkata neighbourhoods) at the beginning of this millennium, this work of fiction illustrates the very real and probable consequences and experiences of coming out as gay in the Indian context. The novel also touches upon community-specific events and issues such as gay parties in the bigger Indian cities, dating scams, societal reactions to the accidental outing of sexual preferences, parental trauma, and other life challenges in a homophobic environment, though it does manage to offer the protagonist a ‘happily ever after’, of sorts.
Anirban, the adopted elder son of Alakananda, a professor of sociology, and Mihir Acharya, a coal industry official, finds himself attracted towards college senior Gourab. When Gourab starts visiting the Acharya household frequently, he is appointed tutor to their younger son Writaban, and Anirban and Gourab start a clandestine physical relationship which is discovered by Chumki, the teenage household help. She spills the beans to her paramour Piku, who has his own axe to grind, and they surreptitiously video record Anirban and Gourab being intimate. Later, they send the recording to Mihir. The action quickly spirals into harsh words, beating up of an adult child, and finally in Anirban leaving the house one early morning.
As Anirban rebuilds his life outside Kolkata, far away from home and his love, and becomes more confident with his sexual identity, Alakananda immerses herself in acquiring knowledge about the queer world, attempts to sensitise Mihir and others about sexual choices that people may have, and writes a series of emotional letters to her absent son. Eventually, the prodigal son returns, but not before Alakananda suffers a fatal cardiac arrest while taking a class at her university. The end of the novel almost approaches a fairy tale. Not only is Anirban accepted at home, but his lesbian and gay friends are welcomed to take part in the ancestral Durga Puja and even Gourab reappears in Anirban’s life.
The story in Probaho flows in a non-linear fashion. The initial focus on the sexcapades of a 20-something gay man fall out of focus as the novel progresses and tries to explore the emotional state of Anirban. So far so good, but the penchant of the author to pack all the chapters with action seems to affect the characterization. The feelings, confusions, and self-doubts of the characters are often masked by the melodramatic exchanges they get sucked into. In particular, the villainous character of Piku and his final chapter transformation through the counselling done by his doctor wife Pakhi seems a little too pat and renders him quite black and white. Similarly, Writaban’s lack of perception of what is happening in his own home and family seems unlikely. Alakananda shines in her attempt to be an ally, but the theoretical notes coming through her letters do not completely mesh with the storyline.
Another concern is the production aesthetics of this paperback from 24by7 Publishing. Spelling issues on almost every page creates hiccups in the reading flow. Also, while the author cannot be faulted where sexual orientations are explained, the gender diversity explanations could have been handled better.
The literary value of Probaho, therefore, may not lie in its intrinsic ‘literary’ qualities, but rather in the fact that it is more and more important that these stories get told and that people are sensitised about gender and sexuality diversities and complexities. In that, Probaho will take its rightful place, and one looks forward to the author’s next.
About the main photo: Front cover of the book Probaho by Souvik Ghosh. Photo courtesy 24by7 Publishing. Author’s picture in the inset courtesy Souvik Ghosh