Since I began writing this piece in the light of the censorship debate around Udta Punjab (where 89 cuts were suggested), making all of us almost complicit in the unseeing of such a film, I wondered how much self-censoring I’d be doing in my account of Hoshang Merchant, how much self-censoring we anyway do without the state, or anyone, telling us to. Any discussion of Hoshang and his art cannot avoid the gayness that he so cockily celebrates. In his most recent book, Secret Writings of Hoshang Merchant, literary commentary is the warp around the weft of Hoshang’s story, the story of his body—the site of all pleasure and enlightenment. We are presented here with some of the most beautiful and insightful writing about sex and the self there is. How do I write about it without being told by the editor that I could not use or quote such and such words and expressions in a piece that would be read by decent middle class people? I want to use a cuss word here, now, but will instead say cup, following the Sairat director Nagraj Manjule’s counsel:
But you see, Hoshang would never say cup. How then can we begin to speak the truth about Hoshang hiding under the cloak of both Victorian and Hindu-Brahmanic morality? Can I even state these caveats? What portion of Hoshang’s truth are we ready to utter and reiterate, really? Are we ready for all of Hoshang’s secrets yet? Without foregoing this opportunity to write, and without seemingly standing on the moral (and sexual) high ground of freedom of expression, I do what Hoshang can never bring himself to easily do: hide what I really want to say in plain sight, and yet do justice to an artist who in one breath says “Poetry is a subterfuge in an era of proscription”, and in another declares, “Rebellion ends, and the artist becomes reconciled to life”. Hoshang has many aphorisms to offer and he often becomes one.
Consider this passage: “Yunus and I talk very little. Sex is not a battlefield. Yunus tells me the most beautiful parts of my body are my eyes. If you are in love, you look at the face. Even Rilke’s gaze oscillates between the groin and the eye before the ‘Torso of Apollo’. Sometimes Yunus can talk to an ass as to a face.”
No writing for Hoshang can be complete without a nod in the direction of another artist. The act of sex, in the process, becomes a painted or sculpted poem, even if Yunus may not know Rilke’s poem about the iconic Greek torso that is missing the head, and hence eyes. Yet Rilke draws our attention to “a smile run through the placid hips and thighs/ to that dark center where procreation flared”. Hoshang offers both pleasure and education through his writing/teaching, and he gently demands erudition from his reader/student, though he does not demand the same erudition from his lovers from whom he has less flaccid expectations. His lovers become poems.
I first met Hoshang one evening at a bookstore in Hyderabad. I was a few months into my B.A. at Nizam College. My father had labelled me effeminate—the derogatory word in Tamil is pottai—for studying literature and writing poetry. I was 17. Hoshang told me he was as old as India. Then 43. I had read his most recent book, Stone to Fruit, sitting at Bookpoint, a store since deceased. Many poems in it touched me even if I read them in half-comprehension as I likely read everything at that age. Let me quote from “Secunderabad Sans Light”, a paean to light (in the light of a power cut) and yet a somber reminder of what from the past we can use in a world where everything fades:
In this dark city I am the modern
my ancestors made. Unlike us
They lived and died without fuss.
That should have made me, a poetaster who recompensed lack of talent with bullish confidence, shy away from meeting a man who seemed like a love-child of Tagore and Whitman (not to speak of the many worlds in between that he contained). I was young and foolish. I approached him yet that evening.
Hoshang quickly asked me out for a drink, to be followed by a dinner of biryani. I was an ignorant small-town Telugu-speaking Tam-bram who did not know even one language well (and I still don’t). I clumsily told him I had to return home. Besides, I don’t drink or eat meat. Do you smoke up? No. Have you got a lover? No. Have you had sex? No. You don’t eat meat, you don’t have sex, you don’t do drugs—how do you write poetry? The wise one asked. I am 43 now, and thanks to a guru like Hoshang, a little less foolish.
Hoshang wanted me to be his lover; he offered to take me under his wing. I could be Rimbaud to his Verlaine, he said, at a time when I had to look such names up in the library and could not Google. I’d not be his lover, but became his student. He loved me still and kept pressing poems and books into my hands. There’s much in the book about how Hoshang falls in love with his students (these stories do not always end well). He always saw it as his sacred duty to do so, as part of the education he needed to impart young attractive men. He of course admires several women (his PhD was on Anaïs Nin) and he has mostly women friends about whom he writes at length in his new book. Hoshang presents himself as Mother Hoshang here. He had anointed himself University of Hyderabad’s resident androgyne, and said he felt like a witch on a broom when recently asked to speak on international women’s day, for finally he had arrived as “an honorary woman”. He wants to be Mother India given that he is as old as this hemorrhaging nation that still officially proscribes Hoshang’s existence and his very reason for it.
What does Hoshang teach us? To Hoshang almost everything and everyone appears gay. He seeks the queer in each of us (someone with a 56-inch chest could be an exception but if you ask Hoshang, may be not) . The artist has to find the feminine within him. How else can a Bhimsen Joshi sing a thumri like Baabul mora—written by a cross-dressing Nawab Wajid Ali Shah—with such passion? And when a man does that, even if he does not sleep with another man, he is gay. A line from Stone to Fruit has stayed with me:
Walking down the street of banglesellers
Pleases the woman in me.
Hoshang loved in me what my own father had hated (and mother had secretly nurtured). Hoshang presents us the gay person as universal, as everyman. And from this premise springs all pleasure, all art, for “the beautiful is that which gives pleasure”. All literature is sexual, all poetry is about love and loss. In the act of love, we submit, we lose all identity, we lose all markers, for we receive another’s body amongst ourselves as we give ours away—hence “When I suck my lover’s cock, am I active or am I passive?”
Hoshang writes as if he were the first man, and the first man was gay.
(This piece first appeared in The Hindu’s Sunday Magazine, 19 June 2016. The portions highlighted in green had been edited out to make sure The Hindu readers remained innocent of some pleasures.)