Shakuntala Devi’s Book on Homosexuality – Yay or Nay? We Find Out

Queer activist Harish Iyer reviews Shakuntala Devi’s ‘The World of Homosexuals’ –a pioneering work on homosexuality.

Published30 Jul 2020, 01:31 PM IST
Gender
3 min read

Video Editor: Purnendu Pritam, Rahul Sanpui

We all know Shakuntala Devi as the 'Human Computer' and 'Mathematics Whiz.' But did you know that she gave India one of its first books on homosexuality?

The Quint reached out to LGBTQIA+ activist Harish Iyer to review Devi's book 'The World Of Homosexuals', ahead of the realease of her biopic. Starring Vidya Balan in the lead role, the film is set to release on Friday, 31 July.

Book cover of ‘The World Of Homosexuals.’
Book cover of ‘The World Of Homosexuals.’
(Photo Courtesy:

Devi started writing the book after the man she was married to – IAS Officer Paritosh Bannerji – came out to her. While the exact year of the publication remains unknown, it was released in the late 70s and at a time when conversations around sexuality weren’t initiated, let alone homosexuality.

“This book came at a time when there weren’t even whispers about homosexuality. In the sense, people didn’t speak about it at all. Forget homosexuality, there was very little conversation about sexuality per se. And at that time, you know, in early 80s, to come and speak, and to come out with a book on homosexuality is historic.”
Harish Iyer, LGBTQIA+ Activist

What’s the Plot?

The book revolves mainly around the interviews of two Indian gay men. One of the two main stories is of a man from Bengaluru. He is a top executive and has gotten married to a woman, just a year before. The interviews reveal that he has many affairs – including ones with rickshaw drivers. The interviews also show a clear class divide between the executive and those he has affairs with.

The second protagonist is a man the author chooses to name Shashi.

“Now this person speaks about homosexuality in general as well. Where he actually says that you know homosexuality is a design of nature where the world is getting so overpopulated and there is a huge pressure on Bhuma Devi and that’s why god has designed homosexuals.”
Harish Iyer, LGBTQIA+ Activist

A Champion Of Queer Rights

Iyer says that Devi was a vocal champion of queer rights and would have filed the petition for decriminalising homosexuality herself.

“There are some interesting excerpts from the book that I was reading and it is so progressive because it came in the late 70s and early 80s, it is so progressive. I am sure that if Shakuntala Devi was alive today, she would have been really happy. In fact she would have filed a petition against Section 377 herself.”
Harish Iyer, LGBTQIA+ Activist

"On this level, nothing less than complete acceptance will serve. Not tolerance and not sympathy," writes Devi in the book.

‘Sympathetic With Patriarchal Undertones’

However, Devi calling for complete acceptance over sympathy is “ironic”, says Iyer, adding that reading the book in 2020 and viewing it with a feminist angle is forcing him to believe that the author herself “victimised” gay men.

“I will have to say that it has this whole victimised version of gay men. You know, when I look at it from a very feminist angle, I feel that it basically says that ‘Mard karenge kya.’ ‘Bichare’. ‘Woh toh shaadi karna hi hai unko.’”
Harish Iyer, LGBTQIA+ Activist

However, Iyer is quick to add that the book is wholly based on facts and that the difference of perception arises from the fact that it is being read more than 30 years after it was first written.

“But it is a book without judgements and it is a book about facts. It is a book that is empathetic about homosexuals and looks at it from that angle. It has a patriarchal undertone to it – if I look at it from today but if I look at it from the days that it was written, I would say that it is quite astonishing that someone could write about it at that time.”
Harish Iyer, LGBTQIA+ Activist

Devi’s book was not brushed aside. But, at the same time, it was not talked about either. It makes you wonder whether the same principles were applied to the subject matter at that time – something that was not brushed aside but not talked about either.

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