Heart Place

In an issue about place, to talk about placelessness is about the most obvious thing I could have done, and the most boring.

But this is just what I am going to do, and like most things, it has an odd reason. A few years back at my Rhodes scholarship interview which was an absolute disaster, I remember being asked about my ‘academic interests’. Girish Karnad, the playwright, was the one who asked the question. Now the least that he could have been sure of was that a third year literature undergraduate might have passions and ambitions, and a heart to reach them, but he does not have this stale thing called ‘academic interests’. But my answer was as rehearsed as his question. Indian writing in English, specifically the novel, I offered.

I had an excellent teacher for Amitav Ghosh’s The Shadow Lines, I could not have said anything else. But Karnad smiled menacingly. Shit, I should have said drama, Indian drama. Give him what he wants, what he does. He went on to say: ‘So you are interested in the Indian English novel, so let us ask you about poetry.’ Blast! What? Is he kidding me? Poetry? But I just said…! Anyway, that was when the downward spiral began. My answers were as stupid as his question was sly. Talking about placelessness when I should be talking about its opposite is my childish revenge on Karnad. I am going to be as obvious and as unimaginative as he was. If this piece is a disaster, I would have succeeded.

Lengthy preface, I know. But let us get back to what a third year literature undergraduate does have and what a Rhodes interviewer does not: a heart. Let us talk about the place of the heart. It is a tough job to begin because you do not have a precise point to set off. It seems to me that the heart is a name for all kinds of movements. Your heart goes out to the things you like, the people you adore. Involuntarily, it seeps out of you and lands at the step of the objects of your affection. It is a gift like no other. It may be accepted or rejected. It may be kept in suspension, waiting for an answer for days on end. It may be the epitome of placelessness. And yet it is winged, air-borne. “The verie instant that I saw you, did My heart flie to your service,” Ferdinand tells Miranda, lovers you might recall from Shakespeare. It jumps out of its slot and goes elsewhere. When you say too much, share too much, you wear your heart on your sleeve. So how do you ever stop and look when your heart jumps to so many places?

And since there is no fixed point for the heart, that red apple like heart we see all around us was the nearest we have got to a consistent shape, at least. But that shape does not remain. The heart is brittle; it breaks in suffering. You eat your heart out in sorrow, you weep your heart out in pain. Never a fixed point; always opening up. And what do you do when someone you love passes you by and your heart starts racing? You forget about the point which has now become a line, at high speed. And who can gauge the speed of a racing heart? Not even those who try to wrench it away from you.

Sometimes you wish that the others had a heart, sometimes you wish you could part ways with yours. It was Ghalib who said “Wafa Kaisi, kahan ka ishq jab sar phorrna thahra/ to phir aiye sang-e-dil, tera sang-e-aastan kyoon ho”1 Khushwant Singh has done a translation which scarcely passes muster but I have no one else to quote: “What kind of loyalty, wherefore this love? It is my own head I have to break./ Then, O stone-hearted one, why at your threshold must I smash it for your sake.” What sort of thing is this heart which sometimes we ache to part with, bestow it as a gift to someone else, and at other times, we feel it throbbing with pain or happiness, somewhere near us, in us, in a good or bad shape? Full or incomplete. Because sometimes all of it is there and at other times, a part of it. When we cannot concentrate on something, we do not do it with all our heart. The promise that we make without our heart in it is a bad promise, unlikely to stay. It has the effort but not the guarantee. It is half-hearted.

It was near the end of the first year of my PhD in London. I used to live in Stoke Newington. It is a nice, bustling place in Hackney borough. Concentric Zone Two of London. Despite having spent several months there, I did not seem to know the place, whatever that means, knowing the place. Of course I knew the streets and the turns but I did not get that feeling, you know, the one which comes from your gut, or from your heart perhaps. Five years in Delhi had to have its withdrawal symptoms.  I seemed to have had all the fun in central London where most of my friends lived. And I knew I was going to shift out in the second year. So I set out on a mission. One of my friends Shilpa Phadke had once said that loitering is the best way to know and own a place. So be it, I thought. I set out to know and own Stoke Newington. Often during late nights, eleven sometimes, sometimes two. Some of my friends would have killed me if they knew that I was roaming around Hackney at that hour. They had heard pistol shots, they told me. They always hear pistol-shots, don’t they, never see one being taken! But the walks paid off. They started in this artificial, commissioned kind of way, like an air-steward’s smile, but they ended in a way only surprises do. With a sense of wonder. With the rarity of genuine effect. There was this one image which has stayed with me from during those walks. And now at least with the recollection of that image Stoke Newington has become a memory. Perhaps the only thing we can own in any definite way is a memory. We own a place by remembering it. It never leaves you at any rate, for all you wish. At one of the turns, I saw a small church. The clergy seemed to be trying to be cool and get the young ones in. On a big white board an apology of a valentine card. “Gd ♥ U / Y dnt U ♥ Gd?”. SMS lingo to attract a pious congregation! England has as many denominations of churches as there are people; desperate times call for desperate measures. But it is that heart that has tied me to the place. Tied, I mean, in the way it is possible to be tied to places. I reached back home that night and one of my friends’ Facebook status messages was “I ♥ NY”. t was a vulgar coincidence. But it was heartening!

The Art of Naming: Meditations on Queer Activism

…when words found mouths
when tongues wagged their way
into minds,
and each object shrank, suddenly,
to fit its own precise outline.
You could say
that was when the trouble started:
When things stepped into the cage
of a purpose I must have had
somewhere in my mind.
– Imtiaz Dharker, ‘Words find Mouths’

What is in the name: homosexual? If you say it again and again, homosexual, homosexual, homosexual, it begins to sound like a creepy symptom. It is one of the bad habits of words, to give way on the slightest bit of repetition. The word leaks out of itself on being repeated, becomes what it originally (!) was – the deceived one brought into the menacing contract of meaning making. Repetition is a paradox: it both consolidates and shatters. To repeat something is to validate it, confirm its thereness and give it a nod of approval, like in a chant or in sloganeering. At the same time, repetition, for repetition’s sake has a sincere cheek; it kills the word with a master stroke: pulls it out of contingent frameworks and shows the ghastly madness of the name, like in the babbling of a child.

Give a slogan to someone who’s three and you would know. The words straight, lesbian, gay, homosexual, MSM are names with the classic weaknesses of names; words which totter if they are not continuously and shamefacedly propped up by dense political, medico-legal or religious frameworks of conception that are consubstantial with their usage. Every name is a product of a particular framework. The name does not define; it is rather a variable within a hopelessly circular (infinitely repeatable!) process –that first gives the premises of naming and then performs the act of naming based on these premises – and then smugly locates this whole process at the origin of things, before everything else, ala ‘I am gay’, ‘Are you a lesbian?’, ‘We are queer, we’re here, get used to it’, exercises in definition-making, processes of self-identification, loveable repetitions but not simply so!<\p>

I am not sentimental about LGBT activism (with about twenty years of a movement behind us in India, no one better be!) but I would be a part of all of it all the same, with an unforgiving self-irony and a constant clapping on one’s own head. Queer activism, here and now in Delhi, as I have lived through for the past three years, is composed of varied definitional excursions that are precisely that, definitional excursions, baggy monsters, simplifying technologies that take enormous and complicated raw material, lets say of the morass of human sexuality (itself a finished product of another technology), and try to produce, indeed with success, finished products, peculiarly sexualised individuals, gay or straight. These are historical occurrences; contingent responses for a world that can only be handled with strategic generalisations, with the steady repertoire of names, with banners asking for gay rights, hijra rights, lesbian rights, or with pleas composed of canny statistics. Queer activism in Delhi then, composed of a heterogeneous lot of organisations, collectives and individuals, responds practically(!) to this situation of frameworks. For the current case that the Naz Foundation and Voices Against 377, a collective of several queer, child-, women’s and human rights groups, are fighting in the Delhi High Court against the anti-sodomy law in the India, section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, we (the activists? I won’t dare choose to speak for everyone, though!) would present ourselves as minority legal subjects within the immediately available framework of the Indian legal system. Using the weapons at hand, we would shape ourselves strategically and then indulge in another process of self definition: legal State citizens, Indians, sexual minorities et al. That some of us provisionally or really buy into such logics of articulate, if not artificial, self definitions and make them the markers of understanding ourselves for ourselves (in our personal diaries!), can not and should not be denied. Politics is a name for strategies; the desire for and the social process of change have to make use of available names, categories and obstructions and then plunge into a continuous process of remoulding these. We can not start (or end) with something that is already mutatis mutandis. Queer activism, as I have seen in process in Delhi, is the utopian process that deliberately excludes the possibility of a Utopia. A utopic process that finally understands the concept of Utopia (for it is only the concept we can possibly discuss; Greek ‘ou’ is ‘not’, topos is ‘place’, ‘utopia’ is a ‘noplace’, it does not exist!). The Utopia is the defeat of all that is utopian and not what we could and have always easily and non-rigorously believed in, that – Utopia is a the realisation of the utopic. The Utopia is implicit within the utopic; it does not follow it like a flower does a bud or like a child does a foetus.

This is not to think about the process of naming as simply undesirable or desirable within activist agendas, to get caught in the enquiry of whether it is right or wrong. To say that the concept of the name works contingently i.e. historically, that we circularly imagine them into being within certain points of history, is not to say that they are unreal or fantastical with no palpable effects. The imagined, with all its imports, can hardly be dispelled or easily demarcated from the real. There is no escaping the realities of the name (as if that was desired or possible; names are the basis of how we interact, it is how we generalize ourselves, names mark our presence even when we are absent, kill me, I’ll still be known by my name! The name is everything!) but it is possible for all of us to see what conditions make what names possible for which people within certain moments of history. I could call myself gay; have done that in the past, might do that in the future, but what are the stakes involved; here, not the stakes of security, rather the stakes of the very process of finding and legitimating a name for oneself, queer for instance, or even Akhil. When and how does the fact that I love men (and sometimes women), that I want to fuck them or get fucked by them, become a variable for what I – want to – call myself? When does the sex-bit get into the name-bit and how does this process work? When does desire become sexuality or sexual-orientation i.e. if it does exist prior to them? Queer activism considers that it is significant to resurrect the sex-bit within the name-bit. The heterosexual poses as the unmarked sexuality, it is the presupposition, the grounds we took for granted. The heterosexual need not name himself; he is the beginning of things, he is unlimited dark space. The queer then appears as a name that queers; the sex-bit in the name-bit marks the different sexuality, the light from a chink. This marking is a politically indispensable process and politics rushes in my veins (another way to enter oneself, to access and define oneself!), so that I have no way to describe myself without names that do not already try and define something about me; otherwise they would be non-names (ideal, theoretically truly queer, stupid utopias!).

Queer activism is strategically played amidst this game of names. We commemorate the first gay protest in Delhi, the AIDS Behdbhav Virodhi Andolan’s public protest against police harassment of gay men, on the 11th of August, 1992, we co-memorate this event and its participants; collectively memorialize the first gay protest that then (threatens to) become our common undisputed history as stringed together through a certain name (they were queer, we are queer!). Names are these trajectories we carve for ourselves and others that are carved for us within the otherwise perversely multiple ways in which histories of individuals or a people can be drawn. One of the events that my queer collective Nigah (nazariya? nazar? a way of looking? a perspective? a name?) organised to mark this now historic date of August 11th was when we met at a particular venue at Cannought Place, made presentations about queer urban histories, talked about them, talked about personal experiences and all our first protests, loves, kisses, and then wore T-shirts that we had painted a day ago and walked around the inner circle of Cannought Place wearing those T-shirts with red roses in our hands (the first(?) public LGBT gatherings in Delhi used to happen on the terrace of the India Coffee House in CP; they used to keep a red-rose on the table as a clue, a locally acknowledged symbol; we chose to extend this curve of history, keep on a tradition, use their strategy of self-identification, use their name) and finally got together in Central Park and ended the evening with more songs and chats. The T-shirts we wore (see Figure. 1) on that day with slogans such as 377 Stinks, We’re Queer, We’re here, Get Used to it!, Aadmi hoon Aadmi Se Pyaar Karta Hoon, Queer and Lovin It!, Aawaz Do Hum Anek Hainet. al. function like names; they form a visual vocabulary for self-identification within a dense public space like CP in Delhi. They want to disrupt the unmarked heterosexual space, dirty it and produce effects of other and strategic namings and spellings (new spells that we cast?). These names, as I have pig-headedly (?) tried to drive home the point, are not at the beginning or the end of things; they are caught in the mire, just like the people they seek to stain.


Last Night

I thought of you as an incomparable portrait; all framed in gold.
You were Dorian Gray last night.

My dream of paradise left incomplete, I suddenly woke up.
I ate an apple last night.

Everyone knew the truth about you and me.
I spread a rumour last night.
I remembered our ink-stained hands; the prose we used to write.
I typed a sonnet last night.

You instructed me about the rules of languages – yours and mine.
I read Shahid Ali last night.

Your love had something in it unbearable – a mother.
It was the night of the scorpion last night.

You had made my mind your house; my body your room.
I tripled the rent last night.

You were the muse of my story; of my first novel.
I wrote the epilogue last night.

And I, Akhil, knew well that God died yesterday; his was the other pyre.
The ashes ceased to smoulder last night.