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Ruth Vanita: On Literature, Sexuality and the Pleasure of “Playing In The World”

Ruth Vanita standing with her arms crossed. She is wearing a blue saree, a red bindi, watch on one hand, and golden bangle on another.

Ruth Vanita is an academic, activist and author, who specialises in gender studies, lesbian and gay studies and South Asian literary history. In 1978, she co-founded Manushi: A Journal about Women and Society. She has written about the works of Virginia Woolf, William Shakespeare and Urdu Poets of the 18th and 19th centuries. She co-authored, ‘Same-Sex Love in India’ with Saleem Kidwai. Her most recent work is ‘Gender, Sex and the City: Urdu Rekhti Poetry 1780-1870’.

In this interview by Shweta Krishnan, she speaks about her work, her views on sexuality and her interest in ‘eroticism as play’.

Shweta Krishnan: Can you tell us a little bit about yourself? How did you become interested in gender and queer sexualities?

Ruth Vanita: I was interested in women’s rights from an early age. Through my work in the women’s movement as founding co-editor of Manushi, I became involved in the study of women’s predicament, and read widely about gender and sexuality although these were little discussed in the 1980s in India. Simultaneously, as a student and teacher of English literature, I greatly enjoyed the way great authors explore a variety of ways to live and love.

SK: What does sexuality really mean? There is a tendency to imagine that sexuality refers only to sexual orientation or preferences, but how would you explain sexuality?

RV: No word has just one meaning. Freud, rightly, I think, said that children are polymorphous in their relation to the world – they sensually enjoy everything with which they come in contact. As they grow up they are taught that some things are forbidden or dirty. That is the process of becoming civilised. It may be a necessary process but it involves loss. I am interested in eroticism as play – the pleasure of playing in the world, what ancient texts call leela. The ‘Kamasutra views sexual desire and pleasure not as something isolated from all other desires and pleasures, but as integrated with them. It says that a good lover needs to know all the 64 arts, everything from cooking to arranging flowers to dance, music, cosmetics, dressing, painting and reading poetry.

SK: In a You-Tube Interview for Project Bolo, you spoke about your own life and said you were “a late bloomer”. I believe that would resonate with several women growing up in heteronormative societies. What would you say young people, questioning their sexuality could do, particularly now as there is more understanding and dialogue about alternative sexualities?

RV: I don’t like the term ‘alternative sexualities’. It suggests that there is a norm and then there are alternatives if you don’t fit the norm or don’t like the norm. Something like vegetarianism in the West. The norm is to eat large quantities of dead animals and then there are alternative diets. I think when one is young one should be open oneself to experience and to pleasure without fear, or with as little fear as possible.

SK: Could you tell us a little about your interest in the works of Virginia Woolf and William Shakespeare and what we can learn of female sexuality from their writings?

RV: My PhD was on Virginia Woolf’s exploration of the erotic life and my first published essay on same-sex love was about Rosalind and Celia in Shakespeare’s ‘As You Like It’, a play I taught to undergraduate students at Miranda House. I agree with thinkers like Coleridge, Keats and Woolf that the mind and imagination of a great writer is polymorphous and able to enter into the experience of beings entirely different from himself or herself. As Keats says, Shakespeare is able to depict experience from the perspective of a snail. Woolf had, as we know from her letters, passionate love affairs with women, and Shakespeare, it would seem from his Sonnets, knew all about love between men. Woolf’s ‘Mrs Dalloway’, which I teach now, contains one of the most exquisite descriptions of a woman’s desire for other women (even though the character Mrs Dalloway has not acted on this desire) and also of female orgasm. Shakespeare, in several plays, depicts intense relationships between women, who live together and even die for each other.

SK: Could you also tell us a little about your current work and any new insights you might have developed on the literary history of female sexuality?

RV: My most recent book, ‘Gender, Sex and the City: Urdu Rekhti Poetry 1780-1870is on the depiction of women’s lives and loves (both cross sex and same sex) in late 18th, early 19th century Urdu poetry in Lucknow. This playful, erotic, funny poetry later gets labelled as obscene and virtually disappears. I think that the pre colonial attitudes to life expressed in this poetry, survive to some degree in Bombay cinema. I am now writing a book on courtesans in Bombay cinema. The matrilineal courtesan household in pre colonial India was a space where women could be highly educated, earn well, choose their own sexual partners, and live with other women. A faint shadow of that life appears in Bombay cinema.

SK: It is my understanding that we often understand sexuality through what we see or read. How far do you think books, movies or TV affect the way in which we (particularly young people) understand our sexuality?

RV: I think it’s not a one way process. Readers and viewers are not passive. They choose what to read and what to see or not to read and not to see. Also, different individuals have very different experiences of the same book or movie.  Not all women love or hate the same books or movies.

SK: In popular books, poetry and in movies, women are often cast as objects of the male gaze and male desire. But considering we do have alternative texts and views, how do we popularise these?

Hindi Movie Actor Madhubala in her Room- Photographed by James Burke for Life Magazine 1951
Hindi Movie Actor Madhubala in her Room- Photographed by James Burke for Life Magazine 1951

RV: I don’t think there is any such thing as one ‘male gaze’. That’s an outdated theory. A beautiful or desirable woman in a movie, say, Madhubala, is not admired or desired only by straight male spectators. Plenty of gay men also love such female characters. And so do most women. Sexuality is not absolutely fixed and rigid. Even a predominantly heterosexual woman could enjoy watching a beautiful woman perform. And of course lesbians might enjoy this too. Is there such a thing as a ‘lesbian gaze’ that is somehow completely different from a straight ‘male gaze’? I don’t think so. It is impossible to measure desire. Desire is of its very nature, fluid and ever changing. Furthermore, I think the canon (of English literature, of Urdu literature, of Bombay cinema and so on) is wonderfully homoerotic as well as heteroerotic. I’m not sure what counts as an ‘alternative’ text and what doesn’t, but I personally find plenty of canonical texts very erotic, for example, Shakespeare’s sonnets or Ghalib’s or Insha’s ghazals or songs and dances in movies of the 50s, 60s, and 70s.  Is every text by a gay person ‘alternative’? And how do we know exactly who was gay or who wasn’t in the past when such words and categories were not widely used? I think we should quit worrying about what is alternative and what isn’t, and just enjoy what we enjoy. It’s time to relax and shed some of these iron clad theories and formulae.

SK: Do female authors tend to write differently from male authors about female sexuality? Also how important is it to hear what women have to say, and for women’s voices to be published?

There is no evidence that female authors write differently from male ones about female sexuality. Several experiments have been conducted to see whether readers can distinguish a female authored text from a male authored one and the majority of readers (male and female, straight and gay) fail to do so. Insha, Rangin and Jur’at, the Urdu poets I write about and translate in my latest book, write with wonderful lyricism and eroticism about male-male, male-female and female-female sexual relationships, in particular the last.

Women have historically not had equal opportunities to write and be published as men have. Of course, most men have not had that opportunity either. As Woolf wrote in ‘A Room of One’s Own’, one can count on the fingers of one hand the number of men from working backgrounds who did not attend university yet were able to write and be widely read. But women even of upper classes had less opportunity to write and be read than their peers had. So obviously it is important that all those who wish to write have the opportunity to do so. Time is the best test of who actually writes well.

SK: In your book ‘Same-Sex Love In India’, you write about how queerness is not necessarily a western or a modern construct. Can you explain why we seem to think it is a modern, western construct?

We did not use the word queerness in that book. We wrote that same-sex love has been widely written about in Indian and other Asian societies but this particular aspect of literary history has been covered up or forgotten in the modern era.  When European colonisers came to India, many of them were shocked (though some were delighted) by the variety of sexual arrangements that they found here, and the fact that same-sex desire was not ‘unspeakable’ in India as it was in the West. In fact, it was very openly written about. For example, Lord Byron in the early 19th century had to change ‘he’ to ‘she’ in his poems before publishing them but his contemporaries in Lucknow wrote explicitly about sexual and amorous relations between men. At this time, sodomy was punishable with death in most parts of Europe, but in India no such law existed. After 1857 when the British officially took over the Indian government, they changed the laws and the education system. This is when they introduced Section 377 which we are still struggling with today, and which they got rid of long ago in England.

Defeated Indian elites, both Muslims and Hindus, tried to remake themselves in the image of the conquerors. Part of this make over was erasing all sexual arrangements except heterosexual monogamy. Polygamy, polyandry, courtesans, same-sex relations all had to disappear. By the 1920s same-sex desire had become unspeakable. When Hindi writer Ugra, whose stories I have translated, wrote about male-male desire in the 1920s, he was told by almost every educated person he knew that this was a subject never to be mentioned. From the 1820s to the 1920s this sea change had come about in Indian educated society. By the 1960s Europeans were changing their minds.  They abolished sodomy laws and today most Western democracies have endowed gay people with full civil rights. So Indians today, most of whom unfortunately know next to nothing about our own history or literature, now imagine that homosexuality came from the West (because it is now relatively more visible there) and was unknown in India (because it had been rendered invisible in India by the mid 20th century).  This is how cultures can undergo 360 degree changes and become absolutely the opposite of what they were a century earlier.

SK: On social media, it is not uncommon to justify or rationalise sexual preferences and orientation by referring to the Puranas or the Hindu Epics. How do we use these texts without falling into the trap of Hindu nationalism?

This question is a good example of our post colonial predicament. So shattered is our self confidence that we are constantly defensive, trying to guard ourselves against imaginary traps.  Christian and Jewish scholars have no hesitation in re reading the Bible and other religious texts such as saints’ stories to find positive images of same-sex relationships. That is because they do not think their religion belongs only to fundamentalists nor do they think that if they see anything positive in their tradition they will somehow fall into the ‘trap’ of fundamentalism. Quite the contrary.

I think most educated Indians have to some degree internalised colonial contempt for Hindus as backward, primitive, misogynist idolaters.  If we now read our own literature (how many Hindus have actually read a single Purana or epic in the original or even the whole text in translation?) we are afraid of being labelled Hindu nationalists (and with good reason, because many of our friends or acquaintances may actually label us this way). I don’t read Puranas or epics to ‘justify or rationalise’ anything. I don’t think any justification or rationalisation is necessary. I read our literature in order to educate myself on my own tradition. If the tradition happens to be largely positive about desire, we should know that instead of imagining otherwise. And we will know that only if we first familiarise ourselves with our traditions from which we have been alienated by our colonial past.

If we set out to ‘use’ a great work of literature, we are already in a trap from which it will be hard to get out. A literary work is not a pot or pan to be ‘used.’ It exists to illuminate and to delight. I read the epics and Upanishads for enjoyment because they give joy that nothing else can give in quite the same way, ananda. I am now reading and re-reading the Upanishads in the original along with many translations such as the Irish poet Yeats’s beautiful translation, which he did with Purohit Swami.