WINTER ISSUE

Book review “Facing the Mirror: Lesbian Writing from India” ed. by Ashwini Sukthankar

“The course of lesbian visibility in India has been like scattered fireworks- an isolated episode here and there which consumes itself in its own sensationalism and leaves no trace of the life that was its context.”

The charm of heteronormativity wore off when I first left my convent school heading to another same-sex1 institution. The notions of gender, the idea of normative and social constructs were introduced, with my friends acting as catalysts to engage in more disruptive discourses within and outside our classrooms. 

However, this book particularly was one that struck me the most. It is one that genuinely encapsulates voices from the semi-urban to the metropolis, a challenge to how books are consumed by those who are charmed by the Anglophone world of literature. This book challenges the binary between the consumable work and non-consumable work which exists within the Anglophone world. This book is not merely an anthology but “an archive of lesbian writing and lives.”  

It must be explicitly stated here that facing the inner mirror is always the most challenging, especially in terms of identity and when it does not necessarily fit with the heteronormative as well as the homogeneous notions of identities that society projects onto us. The scrapping of Section 377 has been a step forward but that is not just enough! The constant assumption of one’s cis-ness as well as the assumption of one’s heteronormativity is what we must as a society question and challenge. When heterosexual individuals are able to comfortably express their desires and their love openly, any other form that challenges those pre-determined notions are vilified and invisiblised.

This anthology of lesbian writings is a window towards diverse voices who have their desires expressed in diverse ways, some unknown to many of us. Before Tinder, Bumble and a plethora of other dating apps took over, how did the communication of desire take place? These stories give us a glimpse into something beyond our own world view. It is an acknowledgement to the lives and the multitudinousness of that which is hidden. So much of what we read on Queer theory and stories are from the Global North, this book allows us to view each story with patience as well as grounding it within India. 

Ashwini Suthankar, the editor of this book takes utmost care in collating their lives and experiences within these chapters. Personally, within these stories I did not know how much of it was fiction and how many were real narratives of their lives, nonetheless reading through these pages written by women, is a sense of comfort. A comfort that their lives have been dealt with sensitivity, the narratives even if fiction, is written with care and vulnerability towards their myriad identities. 

It has been more than two decades since the book first published, but the stories remain eternal, the struggle that remains constant for women2 to find acknowledgement and acceptance for whom they choose to love and desire, within our society. There are portions wherein the erotic is highlighted and shared, but this has been done through a female gaze with the utmost consideration. Each story leads us to a different life altogether, a peek into a universe that is so different yet so similar in ways unfathomable. A step of courage or the lack of it, the stories revolve around all these and much more. Relations hushed into silence and some forgotten, who knows where the author of these stories are, what kind of lives they live, it leads us to wonder. Some are complete stories but with endings that feel so incomplete that lead us to question, what kind of society we have been collectively creating, which leads certain lives never to be fully expressed and lived. This is an important book for the Indian sub-continent in terms of its writings and the stories it highlights. So many women have been hushed into silencing their selves, for the sake of their community and their family. This book is the testimony of the kaleidoscopic lives of women, their compassion, their desires, their love, their restraints and their sacrifices. The women in the chapter of the books live beyond it, they are present among us and within us. Each so vulnerable yet so resolute in their decisions, the book as a whole is an entry point to learn and unlearn our own prejudices. It is to shed stereotypes of who they are and read them and understand as your own, Facing the Mirror makes us face our own inner mirrors and nudges us into viewing the world a little bit more differently.

1- I use the word same-sex as only those who were assigned female at birth were admitted as students. 

2- I am unaware within these pages if all the writers are cis-women therefore I use “women” here as an umbrella term, to denote all those who were assigned female at birth as well as those who might identify as women.

About the author: Nangsel S (she/her) is currently pursuing her Masters in Political Science from Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi. Her articles have been featured on national and international platforms, through the electronic media. Nangsel strives as a defender for all genders in the spectrum. She is currently in her hometown reading her way through books in the dead of the night.

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