The Big Deal About Lucknow’s Little Queer Literature Festival
“Corporates blocked us, stopped taking calls and went cold.” Despite being postponed, did the fest create a buzz?
Nineteen-year-old Saurabh Shrivastav, a final year BA student from the temple town of Ayodhya where Awadh gets its name from, has come to attend Awadh’s first Queer literature festival held in Lucknow on 8 and 9 February.
Saurabh explains why he travelled all the way: “When events like this happen, people like me can be a part of it. They find out that they are not alone. They come out of hiding and find themselves facing a mirror when they meet others like them. If I sit cross-legged or move my hands a lot that’s fine you know. This is my life and I know how I should live it.”
For 19-year-old Avinash*, the 400 kilometre bus ride from Gwalior to Lucknow only to attend the fest was absolutely worth it. He refers to it as an exercise towards becoming self-aware. “This change has helped me recognise myself. I am educating myself about myself and my people.”
Literature fests have become quite the cliche, but away from the razzmatazz of corporatised calendar festivals, this modest attempt at making a literary breakthrough in Lucknow seems to have worked its charm. Aided by outreach and amplified by the internet, small town India is witnessing a slow yet remarkable awakening in the post Section 377 era.
From Being Jailed to Being Published Authors at The Queer Fest
Lucknow’s administration and police have had a hostile relationship with the queer community. Nearly two decades ago in July 2001, 48-year-old Jafer was booked and arrested under Section 377 and jailed for 47 days before being granted bail. Again in 2006 Lucknow Police entrapped 5 men using a popular gay dating site. To constantly remind himself of the time he spent behind bars, Jafer would wear handcuffs.
But then time lapsed to 2019 when Section 377 was read down and gay men were no longer criminals. The case against Jafer closed and his handcuffs came off.
Jafer says the Awadh Queer Literature Festival (AQLF) is a good beginning. “We want to tell everyone the LGBTQ community are participating in every field. We have to showcase our stake in literature too.”
Activist Maya Sharma, in her book Loving Women: Being Lesbian in Underprivileged India, has tried to tell stories of working class lesbian women. She says, “There were youngsters at this festival, being able to present their poems for the first time. This gives an opportunity to people who cannot reach these big festivals. Some of our histories that have been silent so far need to be documented and shared down the generations.”
Nighat Gandhi, a queer-feminist from Allahabad, launched her collection of stories “Waiting” at the festival. The book tells stories about the private lives of women, including intimacy between lesbians. Nighat says, “It was a moment of great pride to launch the book at the AQLF. It’s for anyone who is interested in reading stories. They are sure to find something to relate to. Doesn’t matter if they are queer or non-queer, because the stories are about human characters.”
The Queer Community, A Chaotic World Within
The discourse is also evolving beyond the predictable themes of gender and sexuality. Uttar Pradesh is a complex landscape where caste, religion, class and political hierarchies are not only chaotically enmeshed but are brazenly asserted. The queer community is no different.
Dr Akhil, a 29-year-old Dalit writer, is currently researching his book on same-sex relationships between Dalit women in Eastern UP. He says, “Mainstream literature has always tried to deny caste factors. I am a Chamar and thought that since I was from the community myself, I could write on this issue better. Dalits usually don’t enjoy a sense of freedom, so you can imagine how hard it would be for Dalit lesbians to find the space, or look for “aazadi”.
Transgenders too have a voice in queer community discourse. The Kumbh this year saw transgender activist Laxmi Narayan Tripathi establish the Kinnar Akhada which raised questions about where transgenders lie on the left-right-centre spectrum of queer politics.
Dhanajay Chauhan, a transgender PhD student from the Panjab University, cautions against mainstreaming of religion by a community that has always taken pride in its secular credentials. “People are free to follow their beliefs and become Shankaracharyas. But they should not drag others with them. Transgenders should study, get jobs and be reunited with their families. Today I’m a part of the mainstream and nobody bullies or says anything derogatory to me.”
India has seen an explosion of online queer content. People are blogging about their coming out stories and struggles, queer content is being translated and adapted to different mediums and widely shared.
Sukhdeep Singh, the Editor-in-Chief of Gaylaxy magazine says, “People from Lucknow and other tier-two cities not only read our magazine but also contribute articles. Smaller cities are where the new conversations are starting, and that’s where people exist who are still very afraid to own their identity.”
Organising The Fest, No Easy Feat
The festival organised over two days was of interest to academia that is trying to understand and document queer culture in India and the global landscape. Huma Ahmed Ghosh from the department of women’s studies in San Diego State University feels proud that Lucknow has taken this lead. “I felt that I needed to be here, not just to see what was going on, but to learn from the community, and also to encourage the organisers. The sessions were diverse and there was an excellent mix of political social panels, as well as poetry, music and film.”
The AQLF was not an easy sell. Its organisers struggled with sponsors and failed to raise the much hyped “pink money” that corporates are claiming to spend on LGBTQ events.
Darvesh Yadavendra, the founder, says, “It was a no, but not a direct one. Corporates blocked us, stopped taking our calls and just went cold. That was a very difficult time for us. The festival was postponed twice due to lack of funds.”
Sharif Rangnekar, a former journalist and communications professional, who launched his book Straight to Normal at the festival feels that, “If I were to prioritise, I would rather be at this literature fest. To me the community and my people are important and I wanted to know what they feel about the book.”
Despite Being Postponed Twice, Did the Fest Create a Buzz?
But did this lit fest which was organised with the support of little or no money attract attention in the array of literary events?
The event struggled to make a buzz in Lucknow’s culture circuit and was fairly muted on social media. The venue, a 200-seater auditorium, was half empty. Most felt that the outreach to non-queers in Lucknow could have been more effective to make the festival more inclusive. The literary component could have been stronger.
As one participant felt, “The event was lacking in literature-related and literary conversations about queer literature. We needed to hear the history of queer literature, the representation of queer characters in different Indian languages. Such literature festivals should aim to develop a queer-literary consciousness”.
It may not be a huge success in numbers but according to one of the attendees, “We cannot focus on those who have not come, because it takes away from being grateful to those who did.”
(Anant Zanane is a Madhya Pradesh-based journalist who was with NDTV for over a decade. He tweets at @anantzanane. )
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