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“On The Edge”: Translated from the original Hindi, this collection of short fiction is centred on the theme of same-sex desire

"On The Edge": Translated from the original Hindi, this collection of short fiction is centred on the theme of same-sex desire
Author Ruth Vanita
"On The Edge": Translated from the original Hindi, this collection of short fiction is centred on the theme of same-sex desire
  • The book “On the Edge: 100 Years of Hindi Fiction on Same-Sex Desire” by Ruth Vanita is a collection of short stories and extracts from novels centred on theme of same-sex desire.

  • The sixteen beautiful and provocative stories featured here (published between 1927 and 2022) include classic works by Asha Sahay, Premchand, Ugra, Rajkamal Chaudhuri, Geetanjali Shree, Sara Rai and Rajendra Yadav, among others.

  • This important anthology shifts the focus on stories and characters who have, for far too long, remained in the shadows and brings them (and us) into the light.

  • Read an excerpt from the book below.

Editor’s Note: The following excerpt has been taken from the book’s Introduction.

Gay people all over the world have looked to history and literature to find others like themselves. Ugra’s homosexual characters do this, referring to Shakespeare and Wilde as well as Mir. Anupam, in Winged Boat, finds mostly Western ancestors, the exceptions being Bhupen Khakhar and a reference to Mahmud and Ayaz in a Ghalib ghazal. A millennium earlier, a girl in the Kathasaritsagara also looks for ancestors in literature. When she falls in love with a woman at first sight, she tells herself that this is not surprising because they must have been connected in a previous birth and also because women in earlier literature were inseparable friends, such as Arundhati and the daughter of King Prithu.

Vijaydan Detha’s ‘A Double Life’ literalizes the idea of ancestors in the form of ghosts. I first translated it from Hindi in 1983, and have now updated that translation by closely comparing it with the Rajasthani and making several significant changes. This story was written in Rajasthani but was translated into Hindi almost immediately and enacted as a play in Hindi in the 1980s. It has exerted tremendous influence in its Hindi incarnation. Despite its not being originally a Hindi story, I have included it here for these reasons, and because I consider it one of the world’s most powerful and beautiful stories about same-sex love. It effortlessly integrates Indian tradition with modern debates about same-sex unions and individual preferences, although these debates had barely begun in India when the story was written.

Before her unwitting marriage to a woman, Beeja says, ‘After all, marriage is a union of two hearts. If the hearts of two women unite, why should they not get married?’ This is exactly what Sushila Bhawasar, a village schoolteacher in Madhya Pradesh, said about the marriage of her neighbour Urmila Srivastava to Leela Namdeo in 1987: ‘After all, what is marriage? It is a wedding of two souls.’ In 2002, the Shaiva Hindu priest who performed the wedding ceremony of two Indian women in Seattle said to me in a brief interview, ‘Marriage is a union of two spirits, and the spirit is not male or female.’

Bhut, the Hindi word for ghost, is also the word for the past; the past tense in grammar is called bhut-kala (past time). There are two types of ghosts or pasts in ‘A Double Life’. One is the ghost of ingrained ways of living, of dead conventions continuing from the past. Teeja remarks that this kind of ghost prevents their friend from leaving her abusive husband and in-laws. The ghosts who help and protect the two women represent the past that inspires the future. Teeja says that these ghosts are ‘the invisible, living flame of that which is to be’.

The ancient symbol of the fish as woman appears in this story as well as in other Indian lesbian narratives. This is perhaps because the vesica pisces or ichthys in many ancient cultures was a symbol of Goddesses, women, fertility and sexuality. Fish are associated with Aphrodite. Vishnu’s first incarnation was a fish (with a female counterpart), and fish appear in sculptures of river Goddesses, such as Ganga. Some scholars think that the fish sign in the Indus Valley Civilization’s script stands for woman.

Beeja’s sex change from female to male recalls Shikhandini from the Mahabharata, but more importantly, the sex change back from male to female recalls Bhangaswana, also from the Mahabharata. Bhangaswana was a sage who was transformed into a woman. At first he was upset, but then he realized that women are more affectionate than men and are capable of feeling greater sexual pleasure than men. For these reasons, when she is offered the chance to become a man, Bhangaswana refuses. Similarly, Beeja, who, like Shikhandini, was eager to become a man and thought that male–female sex is the best kind, recalls her love-making with Teeja and becomes a woman again. In the Mahabharata, the woman Shikhandini becomes an aggressive and revengeful man, Shikhandin, and never misses being a woman.

‘A Double Life’ evokes a series of old Indian images of love— lotuses, rain, Kamadeva—but also a new one: red velvet mites. These beautiful mites, indigenous to Rajasthan, are known as teej, and they do not mate. They perform a dance, then the male deposits sperm on the ground, which the female picks up.

A character in Ugra’s story says that everyone is naked under their clothes. Detha’s story repeats this idiom, which indicates that one kind of sex is less different from another than we think. The same is true of love. When the two wives spend several nights gazing at each other, women looking through the keyhole are surprised but say, ‘Well, each to their own thirst and to their own taste.’ Later, the two women feel as if ‘the thirst of the whole universe was encompassed in that one thirst of theirs.’ Art springs from that identification of the universal with the particular.

"On The Edge": Translated from the original Hindi, this collection of short fiction is centred on the theme of same-sex desire

Excerpted with permission from On the Edge: 100 Years of Hindi Fiction on Same-Sex Desire, Ruth Vanita, Penguin India. Read more about the book here and buy it here.


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"On The Edge": Translated from the original Hindi, this collection of short fiction is centred on the theme of same-sex desire