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On the Edge: 100 Years of Hindi Fiction on Same-Sex Desire

Ed. and Trans. by Ruth Vanita

Penguin, 2023


This collection of sixteen stories translated from Hindi into English maps the trajectory of gay and lesbian narratives in modern Indian literature from the 1920s to 2022. Ruth Vanita, the translator, and editor of the volume, ushered a new era in gender and sexuality studies with her works such as Same-Sex Love in India: Readings from Literature and History (Ed. with Saleem Kidwai, 2000) and Love’s Rites: Same-Sex Marriage in India and the West (2005). The collection unfolds different shades of “chaah,” a Hindi word referring to both love and desire, in romantic relationships between men and between women.


In stories such as “Ekakini” (Asha Sahay, 1947), “Waiting” (Rajendra Varma, 1962), “Vision” (Ruth Vanita, 1983), “Lip-to-Lip” (Shobhana Bhutani Siddique, 1985), “A Double Life” (Vijay Dan Dehta, 1983) and “Under Wraps” (Geetanjali Shree, 2001) lesbian passion has been represented through images of “flames, attraction, magic, anguish, madness and intoxication” (Vanita, xii). On the other hand, stories on gay relationship such as “Discussing Chocolate” (Ugra, 1924), “A Primary Knowledge of Geography” (Rajkamal Chaudhari, late 1950s), “On the Edge” (Sara Rai, 1999), “Winged Boat” (Pankaj Bisht, 2009), “Mrs. Raizada’s Corona Diary” (Kinshuk Gupta, 2022) and “Shadow” (Shubham Negi, 2022) reflect on the themes of taboo, repression and unacceptance.


The book title, taken from Sara Rai’s story “Kagaar Par” meaning “on the edge,” aptly conveys the threats hovering on same-sex desire in a society dominated by heterosexual norms. Manoranjan, the gay protagonist of this story, loved wearing girls’ clothes since his childhood days. However, to a local tailor, who chuckles on hearing a man’s fondness for long skirt and top, he lies that the dress was for a relative abroad. The lives of gay men like Manoranjan and Javed in Rai’s story, Sarthak and Jacob in “Mrs. Raizada’s Corona Diary” and Manav and the unnamed narrator in “Shadow” stand on the edge as they face emotional abuse and social embarrassment on a daily basis. The stories show that both genders are vulnerable to pangs of separation, which mostly befall them when one of the partners gives in to the patriarchal pressure of embracing a heterosexual alliance.


Vanita’s selection of stories from both pre-and post-Independence periods situates the issue into the discourses of nationalism and postcoloniality. The translation of these stories into English is a big step in re-situating the colonial and postcolonial narratives of Indian homosexuality within the corpus of world literature. Her insistence on retaining the double meanings of certain Hindi and English words such as baatein (discussions, also sexual activities) and ‘chocolate’ (a slang for homosexuality during the nationalist movement) not only minimizes the loss in translation but also mends the gaps with indigenous supplements.   



*Shyamasri Maji teaches English at Durgapur Women’s College, West Bengal (India). She writes articles and book reviews, some of which have been published in Asian Review of Books, South Asian Review, Economic & Political Weekly and Antipodes. Her debut collection Forgive Me, Dear Papa and Other Poems has been published by Hawakal. 


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