In small-town India, book series helps gay men come out of the closet
CHENNAI: Writing about the everyday life of his gay protaganist Mohanaswamy, Indian author Vasudhendra was acutely aware of the fact that he himself had not yet found the courage to come out of the closet.
For four years he wrote short stories inspired by his own life, his struggle to be open about his sexuality, his despair and frustration that nearly drove him to suicide - quietly breathing life into Mohanaswamy, the hero of his stories.
Just days before his book was first published in 2013, under a pseudonym in Kannada, the regional language of the southern state of Karnataka, he plucked up the courage to tell his sister that he was gay.
"And with me and Mohanaswamy, many of my readers embraced their truth," the award winning Kannada writer said, adding that when he finally did reveal his identity, gay men from across Karnataka started calling him, sharing stories with him, crying, laughing and talking.
"Many readers who called me, from villages and small towns, do not read English and for them the Mohanaswamy series was a way to rediscover themselves and find solace in the fact that they were not alone," he said.
The acclaimed series, which was recently translated in English, will also be published in other Indian languages, including Telugu and Malayalam in the coming months.
"Gay men don't only live in an urban setting. Thousands are growing up in villages and towns, with no way to access information on sexuality, most of which is available only in English," Vasudhendra, who goes by just one name, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"More has to be written and it has to be written in the language people are familiar with."
Since the stories were published gay women have approached him to write about their lives, frustrated that they cannot even find magazine articles that reflect their situation.
"For women it is so much tougher because saying 'no' to a marriage is never an option," he said.
"What they go through is something I cannot imagine because at least I got away by refusing to marry."
There is no official data on the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) population in India, but the government in the past has submitted in the Supreme Court that there are an estimated 2.5 million gay people in the country.
Those numbers reflect only those who have self declared to the Health Ministry and will be far higher as many individuals conceal their identity fearing discrimination, campaigners say.
"In Kannada literature, homosexuality has been portrayed in a very negative way, pushing it to the margins," said Vasudhendra, who came out in his early 40s.
"It took me a long time because I also feared discrimination and lacked courage. Many go through their life keeping their sexuality a secret."
The software engineer turned author vividly recalls a telephone call from an elderly man after the Mohanaswamy stories were published.
"The man said he had regretted his marriage every single day," said Vasudhendra, 48.
"And when he read my book he relived his own struggle with his sexuality and the lie his life had been. I realised then that my story had resonated with people who live in small towns and villages, just like the one I grew up in."
The series of 11 stories of homosexual love and lives explore sexuality, urbanization and class.
Mohanaswamy talks about losing his partner to a woman, mentions an imaginary girlfriend to a fellow passenger on a plane while picturing the man he is in love with, losing friends, being shown around a flat by a real-estate agent who assumes he has a wife and children.
"Mohanaswamy dreams of living a simple, dignified life that would allow him to leave, even forget, the humiliation and fears of adolescence, the slurs his mind still carries and the despair that made him crave to conform," is how the stories are described on the book jacket.
While city readers have told the author these are "once upon a time in India" stories, rural readers say they are ahead of their time.
"Being gay is not easy, especially in small communities, where talking about it is taboo. It gives you many sleepless nights, there is constant pressure to get married and many friendships get ruined," said Vasudhendra.
"Writing the stories was a healing process for me and for many of my readers, it was a book they understood."