The Man Who Would Be Queen
Penguin Books, 2011
The title of the book is such that you are bound to pick it up while at your neighbourhood bookshop. The black & white cover photograph of a white-haired and bearded man holding a Japanese fan, striking the pose of a classic odalisque is provocative to say the least. You read the stylistically designed title, and below, there are written in small font: ‘Autobiographical fictions’. If you know who Hoshang Merchant is, you’d know what to expect. If you have never heard of him, your interest would be pricked. You’d invariably turn the book and check the blurb.
On the back cover, in white prints again the Penguin-orange background, Merchant writes: “‘As everyone knows by now. I’m homosexual.’ To write this sentence and to speak it publicly, which is a great liberation, is why I write.”
After reading the sentence, chances are you’d put the book back on the shelf, which is a shame actually, because Hoshang as a ‘gay writer’ has a lot to tell to the ‘straight’ readers than the ‘gay’ ones.
If you know the life stories of well know queer personalities, from Oscar Wilde to Jean Genet to James Baldwin to Aubrey Menon, you’d agree that it is their personal experiences that informed their writings: The subversion in the text stems from the subversion in the lives lived.
Same is the case with Hoshang Merchant. His literary persona is informed by his “lover” persona, in the context that he seeks to celebrate love in the context where it is not only a taboo, but also politically dangerous. That Merchant lives to tell the tale in itself is a miracle of sorts. Another miracle is how he chooses to tell the story of his life in the fringes in the epic tradition, borrowing the structure from Dante’s Divine Comedy.
Like Dante, Merchant too travels through the gates of hell before he could find his bliss. The book is divided into three broad chapters narrating his journeys, from Mumbai to US to Palestine to Iran and back to India, falling in love and breaking hearts, a tale of an eternal traveller, followed by an epilogue, ‘I Am Not In’. Readers of Yaarana, the collection of gay writings from India that Merchant edited in 1999, would remember a portion of Merchant’s childhood as described there.
Fiction or otherwise, whether autobiography or not, the book tells the story of a man who wants to love and be loved, beyond the bounds of gender, sexuality, race and nationality. That he succeeds in his endeavours, only to fail again, and then try again, makes the crux of the book. It is a series of love stories and heartbreaks, involving both men and women, told obliquely and without sentimentality, and without details. In the middle of a sentence he falls in love with a young doctor and breaks up with him and dreams of watches.
Merchant, an academic who teaches at the University of Hyderabad, is first and foremost a poet. This book is constructed from sentences snatched from his poems. As Merchant remembers the past, he cannot focus on one thing; it encompasses everything, his sexuality, his leftist politics and his enormous capacity for empathy. At times this fleeting nature of the narrative can be quite frustrating; at the same time it is this quality that separates the book from anything you have ever read.
Take a peek at a life lived precariously.