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South Asian Literatures: Diaspora  
 
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Although the treatment of homosexuality is rare in South Asian literatures in the contemporary period, the South Asian diaspora has recently produced a number of gay and lesbian writers.

South Asia, or the Indian subcontinent, is a spectacular mosaic of many cultures, ethnicities, religions, languages, and traditions. It is home to over one billion people, and the nearly fifteen million South Asians who live abroad constitute one of the largest twentieth-century diasporas.

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Inheritors of some of the oldest literary traditions in the world, contemporary South Asian writers build on a rich classical past. A consistent and articulate homosexual discourse, however, is largely absent in the classical as well as contemporary South Asian writing. However, in the literature of the South Asian diaspora, especially since the mid-1980s, a visible and vocal gay and lesbian tradition has begun to emerge.

Homosexuality in Ancient and Medieval South Asia

Some historical evidence suggests considerable social acceptance of sexual diversity in ancient South Asia: In parts of the subcontinent, for example, centuries-old erotic sculptures depict men and women engaged in a variety of homosexual as well as heterosexual activities; some classical Hindu myths recognize, even affirm, the fluidity of gender as well as sexual identities.

But the written works produced in ancient South Asia, generally speaking, either remain silent on the subject of homosexuality or merely allude to it. For example, the Vedic texts, thought to be nearly 4,000 years old, do not mention homosexuality, whereas Valmiki's Ramayana and Vyasa's Mahabharata--the two great Indian epics--make only fleeting references to it.

The notable exception to this trend, however, is Vatsyayana's The Kama Sutra. Arguably the world's oldest sex manual, it devotes an entire chapter to homosexuality. Here Vatsyayana, a Hindu sage, offers explicitly detailed instructions on how to perform homosexual acts.

Among the medieval texts two explicitly engage homosexual themes: Emperor Babur's autobiographical Tuzuki-i-Babri contains a sentimental recollection of his erotic love for a teenage boy; Dargah Quli Khan's personal diary Muraqqa-e-Delhi: The Moghal Capital in Muhammad Shaw's Time briefly documents his foray into the circles of Islamic Delhi.

Homosexuality in Contemporary South Asian Literatures

There is even greater reticence on homosexuality in contemporary South Asian literatures--a reticence that perhaps reflects the generally conservative sexual mores of the people. In the voluminous body of literature that is produced in South Asian countries, in English as well as in about twenty indigenous languages, there is hardly an imaginative text that sympathetically explores the theme of male homosexuality.

Only a few women writers--none of whom is identified as a lesbian--have published works that deal with sexual love between women. Ismat Chughatai's "Lihaf" ("The Quilt"), written in Urdu, was first published in 1942. Narrated from the point of view of a ten-year-old girl, the story focuses on the sexual relationship between an aristocratic Indian woman and her female servant. Shortly after its publication, the author appeared in court to defend herself against charges of obscenity. She won.

When Kamala Das, a well-known poet in South Asia, published My Story in 1976, she created a minor scandal. The candid autobiography not only revealed her extramarital heterosexual affairs but also her adolescent crush on a female teacher and a brief lesbian encounter with an older student.

More controversial is Shobha De's Strange Obsession (1993), a rambunctious novel about lesbian love published by the prestigious Penguin Books of India. Though Shobha De--the wife of a very wealthy Bombay businessman and mother of six children--has been dismissed by the literary establishment as a mere purveyor of filth, her novel has become a national bestseller.

Her commercial success certainly indicates widespread interest among Indian readers in works that explicitly deal with nontraditional sexualities; however, the interest, to some extent, may simply be prurient curiosity.

Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Themes in the Diaspora Literature

Although self-identified gay and lesbian artists are yet to break into the South Asian literary scene, a few writers of the South Asian diaspora have begun to explore gay, lesbian, and bisexual themes with some candor.

The relative openness of this small group of writers is perhaps largely due to their diasporic locations: They live in either the United States or Britain--countries that have well-established gay and lesbian communities with a tradition of organized resistance--and therefore have greater sexual and artistic freedom and wider publishing opportunities.

Further, their physical separation from family and community probably gives them relative privacy and greater freedom from culturally imposed constraints.

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