January 25, 2020
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"It Took Me Long To Come To Terms With Myself. Those Were Painful Years."

If there's one thing Vikram Seth loathes more than crusades, it must be prying personal questions. And yet here he is not only laying bare his bisexual heart and soul but also leading a high-profile signature campaign to get rid of the infamous Secti

Jitender Gupta
"It Took Me Long To Come To Terms With Myself. Those Were Painful Years."

You are not the kind of person to take up a crusade, you are famously allergic to them, but you are now the moving spirit behind the recent campaign to remove Section 377 of the IPC. Why do you feel this is so important?

I am certainly not allergic to causes—particularly on subjects such as religious intolerance. I have spoken out pretty clearly and freely about that, and also about certain events such as Tiananmen and the Iraq war and so on. But on the whole, you are quite right, I tend to put my views forward more through my writing than by taking up causes. In this particular case, the initial credit should go to Siddharth Dube who is the chap who actually drafted the letter—I only made a few minor corrections, although I am one of the main co-signatories. You should also look at Amartya Sen's noble and forthright letter. I do believe in important causes and while I am quite happy to be considered a moving spirit of this cause, the credit goes at least as much elsewhere.

There have been about nine convictions in the 125 years since this section was included in the IPC. Why then is it so important to remove it?

For several reasons. First, because it is used as a source of harassment of people. We do know of cases that took place in Lucknow and elsewhere. And we do know that people are harassed by the police for this sort of thing. As Amartya Sen points out in his letter, gay behaviour is of course much more widespread than the cases that are brought to trial:

"What has to be borne in mind is that whenever any behaviour is identified as a penalisable crime, it gives the police and other law-enforcement officers huge powers to harass and victimise some people. The harm done by an unjust law like this can therefore be far larger than would be indicated by cases of actual prosecution."

And that's only one reason.

The other reason is that a law like this casts a shadow of illegality on the personal lives of a whole lot of people. They can't live openly and with dignity. Because even their families and well-wishers tend to use the existence of the law to justify their prejudices. As Siddharth says in the International Herald Tribune:

"It doesn't take prosecution in a law court to make people terrified. As a gay Indian one always feels like an outsider, ostracised. I felt like a criminal all the time."

That's the crucial point.

Did this law affect you in a similar way? Did it have a personal effect on your own life?

Yes. For instance, when my mother was a lawyer and later when she became a judge, I enjoyed browsing around in her law books. When I was quite young, I came across Section 377 which was in fact written in very odd Victorian phrasing about carnal intercourse against the order of nature with man, woman and so on. And as I read the description of what this section actually meant, I realised it even included, if you can believe it, oral sex between a husband and wife. A crazy law like this has no place on our books. And of course a law that is selectively used is in one aspect even worse than a law that is generally used because it puts a lot of power in individuals' hands and makes government a rule not of laws but of people.

Now you ask me whether this directly affected me. Yes. When I realised that I had feelings for men as well as women, at first I was worried and frightened, and there was a certain amount of Who am I? Am I a criminal? and so on. It took me a long time to come to terms with myself. Those were painful years—painful then and painful to look back on.

Is that why you took so long to come out with it in the open?

Well, actually, I came out with it many, many years ago. Some of my poems, from my first book of poems onwards, have clearly been written to men. And if there's a poem to a woman, it's clearly been written to a woman. There are some poems where the gender is not clear because when you address a poem directly to someone, you call them "you". And then, when my mother brought out her autobiography, On Balance, some years ago, she asked if it was alright to mention my orientation. And I said: "Of course, Mama, it's alright to mention it. Anything that's important in your life should come up." Because what's the use of a a biography which is full of hidden corners when in fact things that are hard to write about are what give most courage and most interest to ordinary people. I think honesty is a tradition—I won't say just particularly in our family—but basically something that Indians have traditionally always valued—that and clarity. Of course, another Indian tradition is obfuscation!

But your mother mentions the subject first came up around your 30th birthday, when you wanted to sleep in the same room as your then girlfriend, Gabrielle, during your mother's trip to China...

Oh yes. When we were travelling around China together, my mother didn't want me to sleep in the same room as Gabrielle. I said, "Mama this is ridiculous." Gabrielle, who is very, very fond of my mother, said to me: "Look Vikram, we don't really have to. Just do what your mother says." It's around that time I said to my mother, "If I was sleeping in the same room with a man, you wouldn't be bothered about that." In a sense, it came out indirectly, but as far as my poetry is concerned, it was there for her to see. It may be that parents rather fondly believe what they want to believe. Basically my straightness is not at issue here, but the point is that my gayness is at issue.

And would, I imagine, have been the issue from the beginning?

I suspect so, though actually given the way that Indian society is, often people don't really like talking about these matters in the open. And indeed I don't particularly like talking about these matters myself. I am a private person and I don't feel my friends' lives and my own should be part of the public's right to know. But in a case like this where so much is at stake, where the happiness, at a conservative estimate, of 50 million people and their right not to be fearful or lonely and to be with the people whom they love is at issue, and the happiness of their families as well, then it really is incumbent on us to speak out.

Is it easier to be gay abroad than in India?

Of course. Certainly in any country where it is not against the criminal law, you don't consider yourself a criminal. Whereas in India, even if the law is rarely used, the fact that it can be used, and is on the books, means that you are by definition a criminal. I have lived abroad but I also love living in India. Someone like me can afford the luxury of deciding where to live but most Indians don't have that luxury. And very often if they are gay, they live lives of quiet desperation. Strangely, despite the specific phrasing of Section 377, it casts an aura which puts even lesbian women beyond the pale of Indian society. You saw the enormous fuss that took place when the film Fire was shown. And there have been cruel, cruel cases where two women who want to live together have virtually been torn apart by their families with the help of the police. The specifics of the law may not prevail in so many cases, but this doesn't really give a true idea of the terrible shadow it casts over people's lives and the attitudes it engenders.

But the real battle is not against the law but people's attitudes, surely? Most people think of homosexuality as something wrong and abnormal.

The law certainly helps in that inhumane and illogical belief. But I don't think you are quite right in what you say about people's attitudes—after all, if you look at the signatories to this petition, they are not only people from the arts. literature and the media but also from the armed forces, civil service, law and judiciary, academia, business and education. It shows that Indian society is not as bigoted as people sometimes think of it as being. Take my own parents. Yes, of course they have their prejudices—but because I spoke out about it in a certain context, although awkwardly, they, being decent and humane people, thought about it a lot and although they weren't particularly happy with it, they said, "Yes, we were brought up in a certain way, but our views have to change. We have to consider the justice of the matter, not just our prejudices." And indeed, if you look at India historically, at the Kamasutra or the statues of Khajuraho, both of which also depict gay sex, it shows Hinduism has a tradition of tolerance. And this is true even in the tradition of other religions, like Islam—for example much Arabic, Persian and Urdu poetry. One of the greatest Urdu poets, Mir Taqi Mir, was clearly writing about his love for other men. I don't think people give Indian society enough credit. We may not like to talk much about things but we do, basically, want to live and let live.

It must have been frightening, especially when you were young, to be able to acknowledge to yourself that you may have bisexual tendencies?

It was difficult. It was difficult. And basically I couldn't understand it—I mean if I felt an affection or attraction for a girl, that was one thing. And if I felt an equally deep physical and emotional attraction for a boy, that was somehow considered wrong. And this as a young chap was very deeply disturbing. I couldn't see where or what I was. I could hardly come to terms with that part of myself. And if that was true of someone like me in what you might call a liberally-educated family, then you can imagine how much confusion and misery it would cause someone in a less liberal family.

There are those who believe that accepting such behaviour is to legitimise it and by showing social disapproval, homosexuality can be suppressed. Do you think there is any truth in that?

I'm afraid all it does is not to change people but to make them unhappy. Basically what people are asking for —if this law is rejected and society's views somewhat change —is the chance to live an ordinary life: to not feel a criminal, to not hate yourself, to be with someone you love, and to not be lonely or fearful throughout your life. These ordinary human aspirations are not going to change simply because a law says this or a family says that. All it does is to make people miserable. Maybe drive people's desires underground or act them out in dangerous and unhealthy circumstances. And even increase the spread, among other things, of AIDS if people can't even speak of the circumstances in which they caught it because they are afraid of the disapproval of society and the reach of the criminal law.

The first time you felt attracted to a man, you said you felt miserable and confused. So did you try and repress your feelings and forget about it and only when you went abroad discovered that it was Ok to act on your feelings?

In a curious way, if I were to say that I acted on my feelings while I was in India, I would be saying I am a criminal. But of course I did eventually, and to that extent I am a criminal. And ludicrous though it may seem to you and me, the people who want to maintain this law on the books want to make millions like me remain, in our own views and in the views of society, criminals. That is absolutely ludicrous. But it took me a long time to realise that the problem lay not with me but with the injustice of those who want to preserve unjust laws.

One of the great problems for homosexuals here is the hunt for a monogamous partner. What has been your own experience?

In a funny way, if this law was done away with, it would be much easier to find a monogamous partner because you could be open about things. I myself was for a long time in a monogamous relationship which is sadly over now but anyway it only happened abroad.

How long did it last?

Well, basically, for ten years.

Your mother mentioned your partner in her book...

I don't particularly want to get too personal about it. But my mother met my partner, Philippe, and both families also got along very well. But I think in India it would have been much more difficult. I am not saying it doesn't happen, but it happens only in very tolerant echelons of society and even then there is quite a lot of nudging and sniggering behind people's backs.

In a sense, you are withdrawing your membership from the privileged male world you are born into and entering the world of the disadvantaged minorities?

I think this is too noble an attribution of my motives! Not at all. I think one has to apply humane logic in all circumstances — and expect humane logic from others. In other words, you have to imagine that you are someone else: If you are a man, it is incumbent on you to imagine what it's like as a woman if you are considering women's rights; if you are a Hindu, you have to imagine what it's like to be a Muslim, and vice versa. That's the only way our tradition of tolerance can survive. In fact, in the long run, that's the only way the human race can survive.

Why is it that gay relationships usually mirror unequal heterosexual ones—where one plays the male and the other a female?

That is by no means always, and I'd say not even usually, the case. Gay relations come in all shapes and sizes just as straight relationships do. Some are happy, some unhappy, some equal, some unbalanced one way or another. The point is to let diversity flourish. As long as something doesn't harm others, there is absolutely no reason to reduce people's freedom.

Your mother says in her book that later she learnt that many creative people had this propensity and it gives them a nurturing and emotional aspect.

No, I think there my mother is perhaps being a bit too flattering. Creative people may be more open about it, in the sense that they live in a more sympathetic community and they are taught to examine their feelings more, whereas say in business or the civil services or the armed forces the idea is not to examine your feelings; that's not part of your job, so to speak. But that doesn't mean there are no gay people or fewer gay people in these jobs. I don't really feel you can make a judgement about the proportion of people who are gay who take up one profession or other. But I do take issue with what my mother says. There are excellent architects, artists, composers, choreographers, musicians, writers and so on who are completely straight and they don't show lack of sensitivity in their art. I don't think if you're gay you get elevated over straight people in terms of your sensitivity. There are sensitive people and insensitive people and they are spread all over the lot.

I'm not sure I quite understand what bisexual means?

What do you mean you don't understand? Supposing I have a physical attraction at some time or in a certain place to a particular woman, and another time to a particular man ...I suppose if you don't like the word, you could say I am gay and straight.

But if you can be straight, and life is so difficult as a gay, isn't it simpler to just be straight?

Of course not. You have your feelings. You can't just suppress or contort your feelings, either your emotional or sexual feelings. And why on earth should you, just to appease someone else's unthought-through prejudices.

This is something that people often snigger about: has boarding school anything to do with you being gay?

I don't think so. I have no way of knowing basically but I don't think so. It's something I leave to the sociologists.

Are you in a relationship just now?

No, I'm not.

What kind of relationship are you looking for? And would this be a factor in hesitating to come back to live in India?

Well, I suppose I could have taken the nationality of several countries over the last 30 years. But I never have. I see myself as Indian, and I see my home as India and if I was forced to live in one place then of course it would be India. What I don't appreciate is being treated as a criminal in my own country. So of course it is something of a factor. As for what sort of relationship: I suppose I'd like to meet someone whom I can love and who loves me and whom I can make a life with.

And you feel it's more likely with a man than with a woman?

The trouble is I don't know. I have to meet the person.

But you have already had a long term relationship?

With a man, yes. And you could also say I have had relationships—but not for so long—with women. Sometimes you ask yourself why something ended: was it because you had to leave for different countries or because of emotional incompatibility—what was it exactly?

Do you feel emotional compatibility is always with one's own sex?

I'm not sure about that. In a sense, you may be able to understand certain aspects of the thinking of your own sex better but it's like saying emotional compatibility is always with people of one's own caste or religion. It may be to some extent true but it is by no means a determining factor. When you meet someone it's much more than just a question of what group they belong to.

In your Open Letter you emphasise romantic love among gay partners. Any reason?

Basically those words were put into the letter because very often people only concentrate on the sexual side of things, and shy away from thinking about people's feelings. Imagine if, when describing heterosexual couples, you only concentrated on the sexual aspect of things. Of course sex is great, it's exciting and pleasurable, but it's very important what feelings you have for somebody. And those are also deeply affected by laws of this sort. And not only laws, but the way in which rights and freedoms are built into society at present. For instance, it may be the case that someone you've lived with for 20 years is in hospital and you don't actually have the right to visit him except with the permission of his parents who might not have approved of the relationship in the first place. So romance, feelings, emotions, fidelity, the strength of a bond are all in a sense affected by the existence of society's prejudices, backed by law.

Were you in a situation where you couldn't visit your partner when he was in hospital?

Not at all. But I know of many people who have had to suffer that.

I would say Philippe's family is rather like my family although they come from a different country, France. They were obviously not particularly elated at first, but when we met each other and they could see how much we cared for each other, they came around. And they were sad when we finally separated. We have to give people much more credit than we usually do: people change, they don't have these fixed prejudices. And part of the reason why I and many others are speaking out now is an attempt to show other people that their idea of gay relationships or who happens to be gay is not correct. And actually even if their views are not changed, at least it'll give courage to young people who are struggling with their own emotions. They'll be able to see a role model or two. And they'll also know that many people who are not gay have signed this petition because they feel it is a fundamental injustice. At least these young people won't feel that Indian society doesn't understand or accept them at all. I myself feel that India aspires to be a decent society, not a cruel or bigoted one.

When you launched An Equal Music in London, Philippe was there with you but you didn't bring him for your launch here?


He couldn't travel to India at that time. Otherwise he would have been there, although I wouldn't particularly have relished answering questions which I wouldn't have been asked had my partner been a woman. He'd have certainly have been there, no question about it. However, you must remember that I am much less frightened and bothered than I used to be or than many people are. After all, look at my profession—what do I have to lose? I am a writer. Fewer people might read my books out of disapproval, or a few more people might read them out of curiosity. It is people in the armed forces or who are in jobs where their bosses may throw them out, who have a lot to fear and it requires remarkable courage for them to speak out. But more and more, not just in the Western world but here in India, people are displaying courage, openness, tolerance and justice. Let's hope these prevail.

Do you feel any self-censorship in writing a novel about gay lovers?

I did, but no longer. When I was younger I was more concerned about the effect on my family and what people would think of me...

How different is romantic love with one of your women friends compared to your relationship with a male lover?

First, you can't generalise because every man and every woman is different. And secondly, it's far too private.

Did you ever contemplate marrying your partner?

I didn't but there are private partnership laws I think even in England. At that time we were happy to be together—that's what we were concentrating on.

One cliché about the gay community is that they are far more vulnerable to AIDS than other groups. How much truth is there in that?

I haven't really followed the exact trajectory of AIDS but one should say that the more people are forced away from the possibility of monogamous relationships and the more secretive they have to be about their sexual lives, the less cautious they are likely to be and more disease-prone.

How hard was it to tell your parents? Could you describe how you picked up the courage to say it out loud?

I don't remember the actual words or circumstances so much as the feeling of anxiety I had, of not wanting to disappoint them, of not wanting to hurt them but at the same time not wanting to be hurt by their reaction. We are a close family.

(Next morning Vikram called to add) It has been bothering me that I don't remember such an important moment so I called my mother to see if she recalled what we might have said at that time. She too felt it was a gradual realisation rather than any one moment of truth. But one defining moment for her was a BBC programme co-produced by my sister Aradhana where I talked of it quite openly. This was soon after A Suitable Boy was published. My mother recalls being very upset by our decision to talk about this subject, primarily because she felt Aradhana was pushing it. But Aradhana felt quite rightly that it was important to speak about this if it was sensitively done.

Your father found it more difficult to accept you being gay than your mother?

I think men have a more macho view of the world and they think it's somehow unmacho to have sexual feelings for other men. But that's like saying—to trot out the usual examples—that Julius Caesar, Alexander the Great or Frederick the Great of Prussia were all unmacho. That's complete nonsense.

A shorter, edited version of this interview appears in print.

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