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Fear and loathing, from Doon to 377

| PATRALEKHA CHATTERJEE
Published : Feb 6, 2016, 9:33 pm IST
Updated : Feb 6, 2016, 9:33 pm IST

What does it mean to be gay in a milieu that vilifies same-sex desires How do you love when such feelings can get you beaten up and put behind bars Writer-activist Siddharth Dube’s latest book, No One Else: A Personal History of Outlawed Love and Sex, a memoir of a gay man growing up in India and the United States, graphically answers those questions.

What does it mean to be gay in a milieu that vilifies same-sex desires How do you love when such feelings can get you beaten up and put behind bars Writer-activist Siddharth Dube’s latest book, No One Else: A Personal History of Outlawed Love and Sex, a memoir of a gay man growing up in India and the United States, graphically answers those questions. The book is hugely topical in light of the Supreme Court’s decision on February 2 to reopen the debate on Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, a colonial relic that criminalises sexual activities that are considered “against the order of nature,” including consensual, homosexual acts. A five-judge Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court will now hear in open court curative petitions that challenge the archaic law. Dube’s book charts the struggle of gays in India. But it is not just a gay memoir. It is an unflinchingly honest portrait of exclusion in its myriad forms. Dube grew up in ’70s Calcutta (now Kolkata). He attended elite schools and colleges both in India and overseas. But what sets him apart from many writers from the same background is the honesty with which he speaks about himself, the upper-class milieu he was born into, and the hypocrisies that permeate the lives of “people like us”. Dube is privileged and a pariah at the same time. It is this insider-outsider perspective, the difficult choices he made, and his deep empathy with those less privileged that gives the 300-plus pages of the book their punch. Dube says it was “very difficult” to write the book. He could not have written it when his father was alive, he concedes. But the passage of time and his success have driven home the futility of writing a book that is meaningless. “I had to name names and hold people accountable. It helped that HarperCollins, my publishers, were supportive.” The book starts with Dube’s childhood in Calcutta, his uneasy years in La Martinière, one of the city’s best-known schools, then at Doon School, which he refers to as that “famed bastion of boys-only education, India’s Eton”, where all the men in Dube’s family had gone since its founding in the last decades of the British Raj. Dube was packed off to Doon in 1973, when he was 11. He recounts in graphic detail the dark side of Doon, the brutal homophobia: “Night after night, residential dorm by residential dorm, young boys accused of being actively homosexual were dragged out and beaten up by several senior students.” With this recollection of his time at the elite school, Dube flouts the Dosco (as old boys of Doon school are popularly known) omerta on such topics. Most boys in the schools he studied were nice but then there were those few “bully boys” who made life hell, says Dube. His critique of Doon, he says, is “a criticism of the fear and hierarchy-based educational traditions that are so pervasive in India.” Much of the recollection of his childhood and teenage years reflects Dube’s desperation to hide his homosexuality, though his family was a liberal one. In the book, his feeling of being different from other boys develops along with his growing awareness of the wider world and of himself as among those at risk of being persecuted. It was in an American campus in Tufts University as an undergrad that Dube discovered the links that bring different groups of the persecuted together. “My readings about homosexuality,” he writes “had already made me realise that I was not entirely alone, that there were scores of men and women who were dealing with the same anguish as me of their vilified same-sex desires These books about poverty, racism and subjugation of different kinds made me realise that the predicament of gay men and women was no different from that of countless other outcasts.” Through these books Dube discovered that men like him, gays, were part of a wider universe that had been marginalised by mainstream society, always on bogus grounds. And this, when all these persecuted minorities would become a majority if you added them up. Dube’s arrival in the US to study at Tufts University, and later at the University of Minnesota, was fortuitous. It coincided with the discovery of the “mysterious killing disease among homosexual men”. This was the early ’80s and Dube had a ring-side view of the unfolding story of HIV and AIDS in the US. It cast a shadow over his own life. His fear of contracting AIDS kept Dube from giving himself fully to nascent relationships. His nervousness also rose from lack of expert advice. He writes about reading up everything that he could lay his hands on about the risks of AIDS transmission — including articles in gay magazines. But, as he writes, “This information was not explicit enough and was also hedged with ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’.” In the years that followed, the AIDS pandemic became Dube’s abiding concern because of his growing feeling that “in the most intimate and profound ways, this was a disease about me — this virus that was intertwined with sex, with society’s irrational taboos and bigotry, with being outlawed and persecuted.” Dube writes movingly about love and fear surrounding gay romance and sex back in India, about the struggles of sex workers and activists. There is a touching account of his friendship with activist Siddartha Gautam. The book also offers a corrosive critique of the international development bureaucracy, of HIV-prevention policies of the George Bush administration, the World Bank, UNAIDS and the Indian government. Dube pens a vivid account of the impact of the “moralistic hysteria” whipped up by America-financed hard-line Christian groups on marginalised groups in Sub-Saharan Africa. Such hysteria led to sex workers being blamed for these countries’ ruinous hyper-epidemics of AIDS. The book ends on a poignant note. The chapter “Freedom: Won and Lost”, speaks of gays finding themselves in a bizarre, “dangerous limbo a decade and half into the 21st century,” of freedom for a glorious but ephemeral moment. Being gay was legit in India for a brief while, thanks to the 2009 Delhi high court order which decriminalised homosexual acts among consenting adults. But in 2013, the Supreme Court reversed the order, saying it was up to Parliament to legislate on the issue. “Once again, I was a criminal in my own country, an outlaw for being who I was,” writes Dube. The Supreme Court’s recent decision has somewhat lifted that despondency. Dube is elated. “This is the puzzle of India — there are these signs of incredible optimism along with pessimism,” Dube tells me. But celebrations are on hold till the colonial law is finally struck down.

The writer focuses on development issues in India and emerging economies. She can be reached at patralekha.chatterjee@gmail.com