Homosexuality in India: A literary history

Nilanjana S. Roy at India Ink / NYT:

“Some men like Jack/ and some like Jill; / I’m glad I like them both; but still…/ In the strict ranks/ of Gay and Straight/ What is my status?/ Stray? or Great?”

When Vikram Seth wrote “Dubious” many years ago, he may not have realized how long his poem would live. “Dubious” has become an anthem for Indians unwilling to be straitjacketed into heterosexuality, unwilling to accept the argument often put forward that being homosexual, lesbian, transgendered or transsexual is against Indian culture.

Seth had a long line of predecessors, as the scholar Devdutt Patnaik and the academics Saleem Kidwai and Ruth Vanita have noted. The “Markandeya Purana” carries the story of Avikshita, the son of a king who refused to marry because he believed he was a woman.

Gender was fluid, for yakshas and humans alike, in ancient and medieval Indian culture. The Mahabharata famously tells the story of Amba, the princess who was abducted by Bhishma but rejected by the warrior, who had taken a vow of celibacy. Praying to avenge the insult, Amba is reborn as Shikhandini, daughter to King Dhrupada, and then prays for a further transformation into Shikhandi — as a man, she can fight Bhishma, and becomes the cause of his death on the battlefield. More:

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