Talking of Muskaan: A review

Himanjali Sankar's Talking of Muskaan is a work of fiction, written in English, for Young Adult (YA) Indian readers. This could be described as a poignant coming of age story, or a poignant coming of age homosexual story or simply as the story of 15-year-old Muskaan who comes out to her closest friends at school only to face a wall of senseless opposition, cruel bullying and deep, dark ignorance. The loaded theme is treated lightly, with heartbreak and prejudice woven casually into the everyday fabric of urban English-speaking young India.    

Sankar writes almost matter-of-factly of Muskaan, "…but I've known forever that I'm gay". And rightly so, one's sexual orientation is a matter of fact. It doesn't need drum rolls, or speeches or marches for that matter. One's sexual choice is one's own and should be as easily accepted as say the color of our skin or the imperfections of our body. At least it should be in a perfect world.  

Given the deeply hypocritical way in which sexuality, sexual identity and gender roles are discussed in urban India, it would be unfair to expect Sankar to have written a gay assimilation work of fiction. As it is, Muskaan's trauma is perfectly credible (in India it will be a long, long time before sexuality is seen as just another piece of one's identity). Young people studying at Indian schools and discovering their sexual identity will most often find no support from any front within the school community. Years ago when I studied at a girls' only convent school in India, the few young women who did not conform to our 'girly' expectations were 'just silly lesbos' though what exactly a 'lesbo' was supposed to be was not very clear to most of us at the time. It was used as catchall word for girls who (i) did not do expected things like swoon over the current 'hot guy' from our neighboring all-boys' school; (ii) girls who were exceptionally hairy or un-girlish and did not seem to mind this (iii) girls who attempted to be exceptionally physical with other classmates. Basically it was used to describe girls who simply did not conform to the rest of the herd. Things have changed little in nearly three decades. 

Sankar, who lives in New Delhi and as an established children's fiction writer, created the popular 'stupendous time telling super dog' character Rousseau, knows her world of young adults well -- she is also mother to a young teenager. "Apart from being simply uncomfortable with the issue, there are lots of people who think that homosexuality should not be discussed or paid attention to because it might encourage children to go that way! Like a fashion statement that kids might want to make or an infectious disease they might catch," she writes in an email to me.

On her way to Bombay  to attend the Kala Ghoda arts festival, Sankar talks of the festival's curator, a woman who loved reading Talking of Muskaan, "She [the curator] said she found it really difficult to find schools to commit to sending children for my session -- as soon as they heard the word “homosexuality” almost all of them asked her if she had any other books on offer!"

While Talking of Muskaan is selling reasonably in India (it is available online through Flipkart) and has been reviewed in the Sunday Guardian and a handful of literary and queer blogs, mainstream Indian  media has mostly given the book a wide berth with a few exceptions.

Sankar has been especially brave to create Muskaan, a lesbian character rather than a male protagonist. The city-dwelling, English speaking Indian class that peoples her novel, is wary of homsexuality but more particularly of homosexuality and women. There have, however, been gradual changes in recent years and 'Talking Of Muskaan' can now join other developments that have helped in some way to empower India's lesbian community. 

Talking about the creation of Muskaan as opposed to a male protagonist, she writes, "Two of the three main voices in this book are male…but I am more comfortable when dealing with girls and women -- especially when it comes to depicting emotions and the inner voices of characters. Interestingly in LGBT fiction the representation of homosexual male relationships and characters is more common than female -- I am not sure why." 

While adult (and YA) LGBT fiction in India, written in English or regional languages, is almost non-existent, the existing homosexual image in urban India is overwhelmingly male and affluent, shaped in large part by recent Bollywood films and high profile flamboyant movie personalities and fashion designers. 

The Times of India, published an article in its online edition on December 12, 2013 (around the time the Supreme Court recriminalized gay sex by reinstating the constitutional validity of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code). The article is an informative piece on what exactly Section 377 criminalizes. Accompanying the piece is a 'boxed item' with the title "proud to be gay" showcasing comments from prominent gay people in India. It is telling that all nine of the gay people featured were homosexual Indian men.

Young women like Muskaan, struggling to find a place in their world, fight social prejudice against homosexuality, and equally against women asserting their right to be individuals. Early in the narrative we witness Muskaan being browbeaten into joining a communal waxing session with her girlfriends. She eventually walks out of the gathering refusing to allow herself to be depilated, "It's almost like a cult thingy [to wax oneself]. Like one has to do this to belong, whether one wants to or not."    

Well-educated, otherwise independent-minded heterosexual women in India conform and subject themselves to all sorts of patriarchal rules. They raise their daughters within the same limited confines. Teenagers like Muskaan's friends, Rashika, who later becomes 'school hottie' Prateek's girlfriend, and Aaliya who shares a conflicted kiss with Muskaan early on in the novel are raised to believe in conformity and inhabit a circumscribed woman's space. Sankar creates first conflict and then assertiveness in both these women characters. Rashika liberates herself of Prateek and his self-centered relationship and Aaliya who visits Muskaan at the hospital after the attempted suicide, freely and without shame kisses her sedated friend 'right on her lips'.   

Sankar, who grew up in a very conservative household, is familiar with the world of patriarchal rules:

I am always aware of the insidiousness of gender stereotyping and even the romantic charm of it sometimes. It is not something that we deliberately taught our two girls…a 101 in how to reject stereotyping! but it has happened. They used to get puzzled and surprised when other kids or adults made gendered statements. Now that they are older I discuss these issues with them so they are no longer naive about it."

And rightly so, for growing up naive about gender and sexuality is, in a way, not growing up at all.

 

Talking of Muskaan

published by duckbill

www.duckbill.in

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