Book Review: ‘Sexualness’ by akshay khanna

book cover for the bopok 'sexualness' by akshay khanna

I chanced upon this academic piece of work one night at a close friend’s house. Half drunk, I sat down with the book, not knowing that it would become a departure point for me on queerness and themes around sexualness that it so generously explores. akshay khanna, who is a social anthropologist and a political activist, weaves the narrative of how the Queer body came to be included into juridical registers of the State as a citizen-subject. akshay also writes about how ‘sexuality’ becomes a cause – as a political movement and as a connecting factor between people and geographies.

The book is divided into six parts starting with an Introduction. The tone of the book is already set before the introduction to the contents, when it starts with the lines of the historic poem “Hum Dekhenge” written by Faiz Ahmed Faiz in 1979. The book is based on multi-sited doctoral fieldwork carried out by akshay between October 2005 and February 2007. The introduction starts with a discussion around India’s modernity, sexuality and ‘sexualness’, moving on to talk about men holding hands in India, and the curiosity with which it is viewed by Europeans and North Americans. It[1]then goes on to talk about subjectivity, and key terms such as queer. It ends the introduction by discussing the specificities of writing an ethnographic work and its ethics vis a vis questioning its own location as a queer activist and a political actor.

The first chapter is titled ‘The Soft Boy and Heris Hard (Epidemiological) Fact’. It informs one about the epidemiological knowledge structures relating to MSM (men who have sex with men) that were sought to understand the phenomenon of HIV and AIDS. These groups were singled out as targeted interventions based on where their social, cultural, political identities are rooted. The chapter specifically explores the knowledge-works on Launda naach which is an erotic form of dance in some northern parts of India.

Moving on, the next chapter ‘A State of Arousal’ explores the queer injured body within the public glance, which is primarily heteronormative and violent. It is based on field-work done in Shillong, after the brutal murder of a gay man. The gay man was clubbed to death with large rocks and dumped in a drain. This chapter explores how the “public” is different in different places within India. The mainstream public of mainland India has a separate relationship with the North-east Indian “public” identity of  Queer citizen-subjects. This came out when in the narrative, a group of activists from Delhi dropped the plan of going on a fact-finding mission related to the murder of the gay man because of the consequences that the local queer persons might have to face after their visit was over. akshay eventually went there after two months of conversations and keeping in contact with the people there, for a memorial meeting for Bin and a day-long film festival and book reading. The chapter ends in Bataille’s formulation of ‘eroticism’, and how the erotic interacts in the everyday in the “public” space of Shillong for a Queer body through the sexual violence of the Indian State and its soldiers.

The next chapter ‘The Social Lives of 377’ explores the dynamics of how citizenship and fundamental rights came to be shaped and re-told through the awareness of this provision. It talks about the provision that clearly criminalised homosexual acts. It should be noted that the book was published in 2016, before the historic judgement of the Supreme Court in 2018 decriminalising consensual homosexual sex. The next chapter ‘See you in Court’ is a kind of smooth movement between what Sec 377 stands for and what it means to the Queer body which now specifically has entered the juridical texts as a way of fighting for their rights. This chapter connects the epidemiological and juridical strands of thoughts on queer citizen-bodies. The chapter describes not only how the queer body comes to be constitutive of law but it also lies outside the juridical registers because of the multiplicity of projects.

In the next chapter ‘The Cleavage on the Queer Body’, akshay argues how the Queer body and its claims to citizenship deals with the strategic articulation of what is visible. The formal objective of the Queer movement, if it is to be “articulated” as such, becomes that the Queer body then is more visible and goes on to negotiate with the realm of law. The final chapter, ‘The Being of Unseen Light…’, articulates the question of the subject in politics and law. It starts with the narrative of Professor Siras at Aligarh Muslim University, who had been suspended from his job after he was ‘caught’ on camera in a sexual embrace with another man in his house. akshay takes us to a moment in the film, Aligarh (2016) wherein Prof. Siras is talking to a journalist who has gained his trust. The Professor says, “the poem is found in the space between words, in silences, in pauses…and your generation…does not have an understanding of poetry at all. They want to stick a label on to each and every thing.”This is the moment where we can see what akshay is thinking, about the book and about the untranslatability of the human and of the notions of sexuality. The final chapter ends with a theoretical experiment wherein akshay applies the framework of quantum mechanics to the question of sexualness.

The book makes sense of the sexual in the non-Euro-North American context of public discourse and the emergence of ‘sexuality’ as a political object. All in all, it is an engaging ethnographic work which is primarily a social anthropological work bordering and explaining the notions of sexualness marked by identities of citizenship, rights, erotica and law. It gives the reader an idea of what Queer bodies go through in their everyday and how they are ‘marked’ and ‘used’ by the sexual State. After reading the ethnographic work, I realised how complicated it has been for me to navigate the public space with respect to my sexual desires and performance. Like, with respect to this incident in the book where Wann is stopped by CRPF soldiers and he literally does not have a choice but to have sex with seven men, I wonder how this translates to their public lives as soldiers and private desires as men. The law necessarily amounts to acts and transgressions meted out on the “public”. What is fascinating in this work is how akshay weaves examples of gender and sexual performances in the public and relates to how they are noted within certain judicial or governmental registers. It tries to identify questions related to gender and sexualness that can become a cause for a public movement. It also speaks about how social and physical geographies change the way Queer bodies are seen and experienced by non-queer-bodied persons, in their everyday. How these Queer bodies are bodies that become political active bodies in their own right and navigate the public, relentlessly. 

[1]Preferred pronoun

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