When Avijit Kundu handed me his book, Nacher Chhele/The Boy Who Danced, modestly requesting me to go through it if I had the time, I had been reading a collection of letters gifted to me by CLAGS, New York City, titled, The Letter Q: Queer Writers’ Notes to Their Younger Selves (2012), the month before. As I began reading Nacher Chhele simultaneously, I was surprised how the book, at times, echoed the intensely emotional narratives in those letters. It seemed to me that a community was unfolding under my eyes, comprising of people who never knew each other, but, connected with each other in solidarity of suffering the same kind of pain and rejection. An older Eileen Myles, for instance, writes to herself in one of those letters:
“I promise you won’t always be standing there stuck in your horrible Catholic school all your life, feeling like if you sit with your friends there will only be more abuse unless you agree to be funny and mock yourself all the time. And all the time knowing cruelty will come again…” (p. 19)
I got goosebumps as I read these lines, for Avijit, much younger, miles away from Eileen, had suffered school the same way, where he was made to stand out as ‘different’ – a boy who was feminine, was not excited by football, but could dance, and was incapable of controlling his emotions. He cried, when it was impossible to hold back tears. And, the result was endless shaming. Later on, he even entertained his bullies during the recess by dancing seductively to popular numbers in a desperate attempt to find acceptance. He purposely played up that talent of his for which he was subjected to daily mockery, much in the manner of Eileen, but in vain.
In Nacher Chhele, a 38 year old Avijit stands outside himself, takes a long look at his past, and writes an intense testimonio, which would resonate with many middle class Bengali queer men who grew up in the pre-global, pre-Internet city of Calcutta in the 80s and 90s. While appealing to a local community of queer individuals who, like Avijit, often imagined themselves exceptional in their desire and peerless in their suffering, or felt alienated for their inability to reconcile their mind with their biological body coded with pre-existent scripts of masculinity, Nacher Chhele will also find appreciative readers across the globe, notwithstanding their location.
Avijit traces his childhood, adolescence and his entry into adulthood in painstaking detail. Avijit is never self-pitying; but, he is bitter, and at times, sardonic. And, he is angry. For, nothing less than a sardonic anger could adequately bring out the misery of those who have to deal with the ignominy of being ‘different’ day in and day out. Those who draw a little, apparently harmless, sadistic pleasure at the expense of a fem-boy or a butch, scarcely realise that they often end up scarring the person for life. Often abused and teased for his ‘effeminacy’, the child Avijit came of age with a disquieting sense of non-belonging. He wished he were invisible, both at home (of a large extended family of judgemental aunts and prying uncles) and in school (where he was bullied regularly). He lost his innocence into learning to perceive himself as an alien who did not fit-in! What comes across in this anguished diary is an overpowering fear of being trapped in a panopticon of vigilant moralists who were incessantly keeping track of the slightest manifestations of his ‘unmanliness’ and waiting to take him to task at the earliest opportunity. And these vigilant moralists were often close relatives, friends and classmates, let alone strangers on the street who Avijit had nothing to do with.
Nacher Chhele documents four affairs, better identified as ‘flings’ in retrospection, which Avijit mistook for relationships. The stories bring out the absolute necessity to be loved, particularly, in those adolescent years, when one does not usually learn to divorce sex from romance. Avijit’s affairs, mostly one-sided, seem to have left irreparable scars in his mind and soul; for, the heart-burn with which he recalls them informs every word he deploys. His obsession with a ‘straight’ classmate, who he imagines as a reincarnation of a fantastical lover, akin to the Krishna he has worshipped since childhood, leads to a woeful tragedy. The book ends with that, leaving the reader expectant of a sequel. The incident and Avijit’s emotional collapse at the end of it, would resonate again with hundreds of queer men who have mistakenly, but hopelessly, ended up falling in love with a ‘straight’ friend. (The inverted commas around straight, the reader should note, are deliberate, for straightness is always under erasure, as many would agree.)
The book is written in a pellucid style, but, what might jar the reader at times is Avijit’s tendency to lapse into theory while elucidating his own experiences. That was not necessary. Avijit need not have located his experience in theoretical frameworks of gender and sexuality, for, his personal narrative, by default, reconfirms those models. However, I would deliberately refrain from evaluating the book in terms of its literary merit. I believe that is not important; for, what is more valuable is the production of these narratives, particularly in regional languages, and their availability within the public domain, at this very anxious moment when India is looking forward to the reading down of Sec. 377 of the Indian Penal Code, once again. More such stories should be told, more such queer desires should be unleashed, in order to dismantle the honourable Supreme Court’s dismissive attitude towards India’s queer population who possibly could not demand a repeal of Sec. 377 of the IPC for they were but a ‘miniscule minority’.
In his testimonio, Mo Terres (2008-2009) wrote:
“Writing about other people is easy. You can conduct interview after interview asking invasive questions you yourself will never have to answer, but when it’s time to write about yourself – the person you hopefully know best – the dynamics shift. This is especially true when you’re writing about something as personal as your sexuality. All of a sudden, you can’t say everything you wanted to say. What if this sentence makes me look bad? What if I misrepresent the people in my story? And worst of all: what if people just don’t get it?” (n.pag.)
I do not know whether Avijit’s mind was assailed by the same thoughts; but, it is indeed an uphill task to ‘come out’ officially, by making the fiercely protected pages of one’s diary public, and that too within a conservative society in which homosexuality is still a criminal offence. Avijit’s intensely personal need to make his story known, therefore, unwittingly acquires a strong political currency. The misgivings and heartbreaks, the melancholia of living in shame, the dismal feelings of aloneness that inform this testimonio work remarkably well in bringing out the everyday pains of a precarious life queer individuals are often thrust into. Avijit, I am hoping, would have another testimonio to write, given a new challenge he was confronted with when he lost his job overnight. The Calcutta-based ‘international’ school where he taught found him unsuitable to continue anymore; and this dismissal ‘dramatically’ coincided with the publication of Nacher Chhele earlier this year, again testifying to the cliché that ‘coming out’ is often burdened with unforeseen and sometimes terrible consequences.
Kundu, Avijit. Nacher Chhele: Amar Samakami Ejahar/The Boy Who Danced: My Gay Diary. Kolkata: Hawakol, 2018.
Moon, Sarah ed. The Letter Q: Queer Writers’ Notes to Their Younger Selves. New York: Arthur A. Levin Books, 2012.
Torres, Mo. ‘Another Way: When I Chose to Be Queer’. Prized Writing. Edited by G. Miller. 2008-2009. <http://prizedwriting.ucdavis.edu/another-way-when-i-chose-be-queer>
Review of Nacher Chhele: Amar Samakami Ejahar/The Boy Who Danced: My Gay Diary by Avijit Kundu, Hawakol, 2018, pgs. 216, INR 250.
Cover Photo: Part of the book cover of the book: Nacher Chele