( My review article on Vasudhendra’s fantastic short story collection, Mohanaswamy, was published in Bookwitty.)
Recently translated into English, Mohanaswamy, by the Kannada-language author Vasudhendra, is a collection of short stories that revolve around the central character, Mohanaswamy, who is gay.
Vasudhendra, who has published more than 12 books on a variety of subjects with impressive print runs of 12-18,000, had never before written openly about homosexuality. Mohanaswamy is his first collection of gay stories, which, he admits, was a courageous act that he undertook while tackling depression. It took him more than three years to write, but turned out to be therapeutic. He said, “I am very happy these days that I wrote Mohanaswamy. It was a kind of liberation for me. No other book has given me such joy.”
Over five years ago, Desha Kala, the Kannada literary magazine edited by noted writer Vivek Shanbhag, ran a 6,500-word story titled “Mohanaswamy” by an author whose pseudonym was ‘Shanmukha S’. In an article that appeared in the Hindustan Times, Shanbhag says the story was fascinating, and not because it spoke of gay love. “The central aspect of ‘love and longing’ was well beyond the social and anatomical construct in the story. Its emotional energy was very high because it was deeply autobiographical,” he said. Several years later Shanmukha S revealed himself to be Vasudhendra.
Vasudhendra quit working as a software professional to become a full time writer. He also founded a publishing house called Chanda Pustaka which has developed a formidable reputation for encouraging new writing in Kannada. So far, Chanda Pustaka has published more than 70 books garnering more than 100 literary prizes, including the National Academy of Letters Sahitya Akademi award, in the process.
Mohanaswamy is a young man from a village in Karanataka who has been considered a misfit since his childhood when he preferred playing with his sister and her friends than with boys his age. The stories are not arranged chronologically but roughly cover the lifespan of Mohanswamy from early adolescence to middle age.
The collection opens with a heartrending story, ‘The Gordian Knot’. Mohanswamy has been living with Karthik for five years when he discovers unexpectedly that Karthik is getting married to a woman and moving to another city. Another powerful story is, “Bed Bug” which explores the challenges of being gender fluid and the devastating consequences of trying to live one’s true identity in a firmly patriarchal world. When the protagonist, Shankar Gowda, a childhood friend of Mohanaswamy’s, disappears from his village, it transpires that Shankar was a victim of an honor killing carried out by his father and brothers. The title does not hint at the tragedy to come but when the story ends it’s easy to draw a parallel with the discomfort a bed bug causes and the similar effect Shankar’s presence has on his family. The story is even more powerful when one discovers that the character is based on a real-life classmate of Vasudhendra’s. The anguish a gay Indian male lives is once again illustrated when Mohanaswamy, while struggling to come to terms with his own sexuality in college, hardly ever discusses homosexuality with other students. He chooses not to reveal his true self, fearing “that would give rise to unnecessary doubts in his friends’ minds. So when gay sex did come up in their conversations, he would pass a snide remark as a defence mechanism.”
Story after story addresses a different challenge of being gay while living in a conservative, patriarchal society such as India. It is worthwhile to note that the Delhi High Court, in 2009, decriminalized homosexuality between consenting adults, to the joy of the LGBTQ community. Ironically, on December 11, 2013, the day the original Kannada edition of Mohanaswamy was published, the Supreme Court overturned the previous judgement of the Delhi High Court, leaving the matter of amending or repealing the Act to the Parliament. It has yet to be resolved.
Mohanaswamy is a remarkably bold debut collection not only for writing explicit scenes of gay sex in India but also for a wise commentary via fiction of how homosexuals are perceived and treated in India. There is a quiet dignity in the tenor without a shrill activist voice. The arrangement of the stories with the carefully selected titles is admirable in marking the life of Mohanaswamy from adolescence to middle age, repeatedly facing social ostracization, his exploration for love, and coming to terms with the transition from lust to companionship. Mohanaswamy is an extraordinary collection of fiction which will hopefully travel far especially if it helps speak to parents of the LGBTQ community and farther.