Shelf Life: ‘The Doubleness of Sexuality’ Redefines Queerness

Akhil Katyal’s book is an interesting intervention in the way queerness is understood in India today.

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<i>The Doubleness of Sexuality: Idioms of Same-Sex Desire in Modern India </i>by Akhil Katyal.
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I first heard poet and queer rights activist Akhil Katyal at an event organised by the gender forum of Kirori Mal College in Delhi. I was in the first year of my undergraduate course in English Literature. I remember being enthralled by his recitation of his Hindi translation of Dorothy Parker’s Indian Summer.

Five years later, Katyal manages to capture me (and perhaps others like me) again; this time with his non-fiction work The Doubleness of Sexuality: Idioms of Same-Sex Desire in Modern India. The book traces how the term ‘homosexuality’ entered the medico-legal registers of colonial and post-colonial India. It argues that ‘queerness’ is more varied when ‘played out’ in the space of the everyday than the medico-legal definitions would have us believe.

Akhil Katyal currently teaches at <em>Shiv Nadar University</em>. He has previously published a poetry collection titled <i>Night Charge Extra</i>.
Akhil Katyal currently teaches at Shiv Nadar University. He has previously published a poetry collection titled Night Charge Extra.
(Picture Courtesy: Facebook/Akhil Katyal)

The Homosexual in India

In his book, Katyal provides a keen historical exploration of the term ‘homosexual’ as it was used in colonial and post-colonial India.

The term entered colonial India via magazines, Hollywood gossip, popular news about scientific research and legal events, and copies of Time read by the middle classes familiar with the English language. The Indian Psychoanalytic Society, founded in 1922 and comprising both British and Indian elite, was trafficking ideas of psychoanalysis from the West, especially those of Sigmund Freud. Freud’s conceptualisation of the homosexual, therefore, became increasingly known in Indian medical circles.

In the 1990s, in post-colonial India, queer bodies entered medico-legal registers when they were seen as forming a high risk group in relation to HIV-AIDS. Rights activists and AIDS-related NGOs, thereon, facilitated the process of recognition of queer people by the state as a minority community. This led to the organisation of the Indian Queer Movement that went on to challenge Section 377 of the Indian Constitution.

The book cover.
The book cover.

The ‘Doubleness’ of Sexuality

By ‘doubleness’, Katyal means “where something is used in principle but never really adopted monolithically in practice.” The ‘doubleness’ of sexuality is the simultaneous existence of the homosexual as a medico-legal subject and of a ‘sexualness’ that escapes the frame of this subjecthood.

This sexualness exists in the realm of the everyday and its complexity and playfulness remains uncaptured by fixed definitions.

Shelf Life: ‘The Doubleness of Sexuality’ Redefines Queerness

Using examples from the fiction and autobiography of Ismat Chughtai, gay dating websites such as Planet Romeo, personal narratives, stories published in ‘gay anthologies’ like Yarana: Gay Writing from South Asia and Facing the Mirror: Lesbian Writing from India, and other sources, Katyal argues that the term ‘queer’ means something different from LGBT, it is more expansive and intersectional.

‘Intersectional’ was coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw in a 1989 essay that asserted that anti-discrimination law, feminist theory, and anti-racist politics all fail to address the experiences of black women.

Too Theoretical to Digest?

Katyal’s book is an interesting theoretical intervention in the way queerness is understood in India today. The contemporary relevance of the work, especially in the light of the re-criminalisation of Section 377, cannot be undermined. It sends out a very strong message regarding the need to resist and the importance of freedom.

Shelf Life: ‘The Doubleness of Sexuality’ Redefines Queerness

However, the book is definitely heavy on psychoanalytical and political theory. It refers to and engages with the works of Louis Althusser, Sigmund Freud, Michel Foucault, and Jacques Derrida among others. Therefore, perhaps the book is not everyone’s cup of tea. I, personally, could not help but acknowledge both its theoretical thoroughness and its poetry.

(We all love to express ourselves, but how often do we do it in our mother tongue? Here's your chance! This Independence Day, khul ke bol with BOL – Love your Bhasha. Sing, write, perform, spew poetry – whatever you like – in your mother tongue. Send us your BOL at bol@thequint.com or WhatsApp it to 9910181818.)

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