Pride 2020: Love, loneliness and violence

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It’s early morning. Two women, on holiday in Puri, stand in the balcony of their hotel room after a passionate night together. They recall their heated lovemaking with laughter and pleasure.

This is not a scene out of a contemporary film. As we enter Global Pride Month, when LGBTQ communities around the world assert their right to the freedom to love, it’s a good moment to recall an extraordinary short story, Prateeksha (Waiting), written in October 1962 by the late Hindi writer Rajendra Yadav.

Most readers are probably familiar with Ismat Chughtai’s 1942 story, Lihaaf (The Quilt), with its erotic lesbian undercurrents. It caused such an uproar at the time that the feisty Urdu writer, often called ‘the female Manto’, faced trial for obscenity. But somehow Yadav’s complex, no-holds-barred lesbian love story fell through the cracks. Few people have heard of it; fewer still have read it, and yet it is a gem.

Yadav, who died in 2013 aged 84, was the enfant terrible of Hindi literature — acerbic, mocking, uncaring of critics. Invariably seen with a pipe clamped between his teeth, jet-black hair combed severely back from a craggy face, the writer from Agra tore into the hypocrisies of middle- and lower-middle-class life, in his short stories and novels.

Prateeksha weaves a tangled web of love, loneliness and violence. Gita is an unhappy middle-aged college teacher living a solitary life in Calcutta. Till the young, lovely Nanda, a typist at a private firm, moves into a room in her flat, on rent. Soon Gita’s life begins to revolve obsessively around Nanda, and the two women become intimate. But Nanda is young and restless, and gets drawn into a friendship with a smart Miss Raymond in her office.

Gita’s jealousy spirals out of control, erupting one day in an orgy of violence against Nanda. Oddly enough, the two grow even closer after this and go to Puri on a romantic holiday. But there’s a bigger threat than Miss Raymond on the horizon — Harsh, a man Nanda has been in love with since college. Gita resents their relationship, but she also watches over them with a strange maternal benevolence.

Rajendra Yadav was not a writer of queer short stories. Prateeksha seems to have been a one-off, though it was in keeping with his general disdain for convention. Even so, how was the story received in those socially conservative times? I spoke to the writer’s daughter Rachana to see if she had found anything in his papers that would provide some clue. But she had not. Perhaps the reactions were expressed privately.

Historian and scholar Saleem Kidwai, who co-edited a book titled Same-Sex Love in India: A Literary History (which contains an English translation of Prateeksha by Ruth Vanita), didn’t know about reactions to it either, but offered some general pointers. He suggested that maybe people were too embarrassed to talk about it openly. And added that, though the theme would have certainly been shocking for the times, stories of lesbian love — especially when written by men — have always been considered more palatable than tales of male homosexual intimacy. There may even be an element of titillation for readers when it comes to the former. (In 1924, the Hindi journalist and writer Pandey Bechan Sharma ‘Ugra’ wrote a short story, Chocolate, about male homosexuality. The ensuing storm spurred Ugra, who delighted in the notoriety, to write even more stories on the subject. Chocolate was still selling 30 years later.)

For me, though, Yadav’s Prateeksha, apart from being a remarkable story for its time, is also a comment on the oppressive Indian family (both Gita and Nanda face abuse in their homes before they escape to Calcutta). And it is about ‘waiting’, as the title suggests — Gita has grown old waiting for a suitor her father drove away to come back for her, even as she now waits for Harsh and Nanda, lost in each other’s company, to return to her empty flat.

But in the end, Rajendra Yadav’s Prateeksha is really about the universal yearning for love and companionship.

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