Write of Passage

How Vasudhendra became Kannada literature’s first openly gay writer

Vasudhendra at his London home around 2000. The writer produced work prolifically during his four years in the city, seeking to recreate the Kannadaspeaking world he missed. ALL IMAGES COURTESY VASUDHENDRA
01 May, 2017

FOR YEARS, SIX SHORT STORIES, written in Kannada, about a man and his travails in rural Karnataka and Bengaluru, sat in the writer Vasudhendra Shroff’s work folder on his computer. From time to time, he would reread them and edit the prose for clarity, but Vasudhendra, a successful Bengaluru-based writer of short stories, essays and novels, who goes only by his first name, did not dare to send them out for publication. He had little doubt that the stories in his folder would be accepted for publication by a Kannada newspaper or magazine. He had, nevertheless, a lingering sense of foreboding. The stories were semi-autobiographical, derived from his experience as a closeted gay man. Though the process of writing the stories had felt cathartic, they were also intensely personal. Publishing them would effectively mean disclosing his sexuality to the world.

Even in his early forties, Vasudhendra had a fear of homophobia that was deeply internalised. Growing up in Sandur, a small town in Bellary district, jokes about gay men had been common among his school friends. He continued to encounter them when he went to engineering college and then began work as a software engineer in Bengaluru. He went on to become an author of some standing in contemporary Kannada literature. Writing about a gay man’s private life could pose a threat to that status. He feared that his readers would abandon him, and that the experiment would scar his literary career forever.

“I didn’t have the nerve to put them out for publication,” he told me when we met in early March in his home in an upscale apartment block in south Bengaluru. Spring had brought the petunias out in bright blooms of violet and pink. They lined the apartment’s cobblestone walkway. From where we sat, out on his balcony, we could see a weekend tae-kwon-do session in progress on a nearby tennis court. “Usually when I submit a story to a publication,” Vasudhendra added, “it goes to print practically the next day or the next week.”

It took several years before he mustered the courage to publish one of these stories in a literary magazine. After he had written more, the stories were eventually reshaped into a collection of ten connected short stories, titled Mohanaswamy, which was published in 2013. The book’s interlinked stories talked about the narrator Mohanaswamy’s homosexual longings, his denial of his own sexuality, his attempts at reforming himself, and his struggles with the taboo subject of his sexuality, even as he shifted from his stiflingly conservative village in rural Karnataka to the relative anonymity of Bengaluru. These were themes that had never been written about in Kannada literature before, at least not with the kind of sensitivity that Vasudhendra brought to his material. The book’s narrative power came from the fact that it drew so heavily on Vasudhendra’s own experiences.

Unlike his earlier books, Mohanaswamy was largely ignored by critics, who were perhaps wary of the repercussions of reviewing a book that normalised homosexuality in a country where it is still criminalised. Many readers, too, reacted with dismay. But many were accepting, and appreciative of the stories’ intimate examination of male sexuality.

Vasudhendra’s readers across rural Karnataka, in particular, embraced the work. Mohanaswamy sold 1,000 copies in the first two weeks after its publication, and topped the Kannada bestseller chart for three weeks. The book became a topic of discussion on Facebook posts and book blogs. Many of his women readers called him to express their solidarity. Closeted homosexual men from rural Karnataka called Vasudhendra because they found a sympathetic voice in him. The English translation of Mohanaswamy was released in November 2016, and with it Vasudhendra gained wider critical acclaim. As the book’s popularity rose, Vasudhendra transformed from a writer who had disclosed his sexuality through a work of fiction to a figure of support for closeted gay men across the state.

VASUDHENDRA GREW UP in a conservative, devout Hindu family in Sandur. He excelled in academics from a young age, topping his school and engineering-college exams, and subsequently performing well in the GATE exam, for admission to master’s courses in engineering. He obtained an MTech in mechanical engineering at Bengaluru’s prestigious Indian Institute of Science, and completed further studies in computer science, leading to a job in the city’s booming IT industry in the 1990s. His biography seemed like that of thousands of techies of his background and generation.

In 1998, Vasudhendra moved to London to work in a software firm. His literary output till then had been one minor collection of short stories, Maneeshe (Learned Woman), about poor Brahmin widows in Bellary. He had to pay Rs10,000 to get the book published, and it hardly sold any copies. In England, isolated and homesick, he began writing in earnest, to recreate the Kannada-speaking world he remembered.

He was one of several non-resident Indian, or NRI, Kannada writers who entered the fray of Kannada literature in the late 1990s. Vasudhendra began by writing for online Kannada magazines, such as thatskannada.com and kannadasaahithya.com. Gradually, he began contributing to Kannada newspapers back home as well.

“Vasudhendra was among those literary talents that benefited from the advent of internet in the Kannada literary world,” the writer and journalist Preethi Nagaraj, who has followed the writer’s career since his days in London, wrote to me in an email. Others on that list included Guruprasad Kaginele, Srivathsa Joshi, Harihareshwara, Triveni Srinivas, MR Dattathri, and Satish Kumar. These NRI writers wrote on a mix of subjects, most of which stemmed from the sense of alienation they experienced while living abroad. “Initially Vasudhendra’s writings seemed typical—nostalgic about India, his village, his roots with a smattering of the privilege globalisation had given him,” Nagaraj wrote.

For the average Kannada reader, this opened up a whole new set of themes. Readers consumed the NRI literature with curiosity, albeit with a hint of envy, because these writers had the luxury of being nostalgic for a world in which the readers were still living.

When he returned from the United Kingdom, in 2002, Vasudhendra decided to become serious about his literary ambitions. In his four years abroad, he had written numerous short stories, essays and translations, which he compiled into three books that were ready for publication. He was, however, unable to make a breakthrough with publishers. He queried around 50 publishers and only two responded—saying that they could not accept his work. In January 2004, still without a publisher for his manuscripts, he started his own publishing house, Chanda Pustaka, and published a short-story collection, Ugadi (the Kannada new-year festival), and a collection of essays, Kothigalu (Monkeys). These works found immediate acceptance from the reading public. Bookstores in Karnataka started requesting him for reprints of his work. Vasudhendra also reprinted Maneeshe, his earlier novel on the widows of Bellary, which went on to sell over 6,000 copies.

Vasudhendra’s writing after his return from the United Kingdom underwent a dramatic change, according to Nagaraj. Stories tinged with nostalgia were replaced by starkly sketched views of contemporary reality. “Whether it was about how mining was plundering resources in Bellary, or about the loss of close family members, emotions became juxtaposed with introspective narrating in his works,” she wrote.

Vasudhendra’s literary reputation was cemented by his 2006 book Nammamma Andre Nanagishta (I Am Fond of My Mother), his all-time bestseller. It has sold over 18,000 copies in a market where midlist books sell between 4,000 and 8,000 copies, and earned him a Karnataka state Sahitya Akademi Award. The collection of autobiographical essays charts the changing dynamics of his relationship with his mother from his childhood in Sandur through every stage of his life and career. It shows how, as time passed, the role of his mother in his life shifted from being his protector to someone who gave him complete acceptance in everything he did—everything except, perhaps, his homosexuality, which finds no mention in the book. “My mother would not have understood it,” he told me. “It would have confused her.” (Vasudhendra’s mother died in 2000, many years before he began considering writing publicly about his sexuality.)

His experiments till then with writing about homosexuality had left him wary. The same year, he had included a short story, ‘Anagha,’ (The Sinless) in his short story collection Chelu (Scorpion). The story was about a gay teen in an unnamed village and his father’s attempts to cure his sexuality. Readers’ reactions to this story were unpleasant. “A reader was so angry after reading the story, he called me up and asked me if I was gay,” Vasudhendra said. “I put out a brave front and denied his accusations. That night, I wept.”

VASUDHENDRA BEGAN WRITING the stories that would eventually comprise Mohanaswamy around this time. “I was already in my mid thirties and wasn’t happy with whatever I had done with my life,” he said. “I mean, I was good-looking, successful, but something else was missing.” He was also slowly slipping into depression. Vasudhendra was tied to a social world that made little space for a man to be openly gay. Even at that age, he had yet to accept his sexuality, and was still closeted to the rest of society. Vasudhendra had made no gay friends even in the four years that he spent abroad.

Vasudhendra’s notable books include (clockwise from opposite page, top) Chelu, Mohanaswamy, Maneeshe and Namamma Andre Nanagishta.

Many men of Vasudhendra’s background and in his situation end up getting married under pressure from their families, or for fear of spending their lives alone. Vasudhendra, however, refused when his parents suggested that he do so. “My parents never forced me and my refusal was enough to silence them,” he said. Still, he kept his sexuality hidden, and his homosexual liaisons were all surreptitious and short-lived. On a lonely night, he began writing about these experiences, saving the stories on his computer, hidden from the world. He considered his sexual identity as integral to his identity as a writer. But coming out did not seem like an option even after achieving publishing success in Kannada literature.

In 2010, Chanda Pustaka published the US-based Kannada writer Guruprasad Kaginele’s novel Guna (Quality). Kaginele and Vasudhendra were friends, part of the NRI generation of writers in Kannada. The novel included a gay character who lived in the United States and wanted to return to his roots in Bengaluru. Kaginele built the character based on his encounters with gay friends in the United States. Around the same time, Kaginele also Vasudhendra a short story by another writer, Nagaraj Vastarey, which featured gay characters. Kaginele recounted that Vasudhendra had a mixed reaction to the portrayal of gay men in these works. “While he mentioned that he liked several aspects of the portrayal of gay characters, when it came to the physicality of a gay relationship, he thought this could have been handled better,” Kaginele said.

The stories emboldened Vasudhendra to share his own work. Within a few days of reading Guna, Vasudhendra sent Kaginele two stories: “Kaggamtu” (Knot) and “Ollada Tambula” (Unwanted Offerings). Kaginele says he had long thought that Vasudhendra might be gay. Still, reading the stories were a revelation. “At that instant, I knew that only a gay man can write from this viewpoint,” Kaginele said.

Reading the stories, he saw also that Vasudhendra was going through a great deal of mental turmoil. Kaginele was concerned for his friend’s welfare. “I was honestly worried about his physical and mental health,” he said.

Around the same time, Vasudhendra sent one of the stories, titled ‘Mohanaswamy,’ to his friend and fellow writer Vivek Shanbhag, who then ran a literary magazine called Desha Kala. (Shanbhag is best known outside the Kannada literary scene for his novella Ghachar Ghochar, which was translated into English in 2016.)

Many of the elements that characterised Vasudhendra’s style were present in the story—a linear narrative structure, a liberal use of common metaphors, familiar characters. But the content of the story was startlingly new. “This is probably the first story that brought the politics of the male body to the fore,” Shanbhag told me about his initial reaction to the story. “It was a different experience for the readers to read about a man desiring another male body. This suddenly changed everything.”

Impressed by its originality, Shanbhag immediately offered to publish the story. He told me that he had no prior knowledge of Vasudhendra’s sexual orientation, and “decided to publish the story because it was a fine story, and not because it was a gay story.” Concerned about his privacy, Vasudhendra suggested using a pseudonym, and the story subsequently ran under the name Shanmukha S. It appeared in the January–March 2012 issue of Desha Kala—the magazine’s last edition.

After the story was published, Desha Kala was flooded with responses from readers. Vasudhendra told me that after the story was published, “I became unburdened.” He developed the character of Mohanaswamy further and wrote more stories in the series, which began “transmuting into a novel.” But the writer shaped the material into a form he was more comfortable with. “I believe I’m more successful as a short story writer,” he said. “So I pulled out a lot of chapters from what was supposed to be a novel and made it into a short story collection.” Mohanaswamy, the book, was born.

GAY CHARACTERS and the theme of homosexual love were not entirely unknown in Kannada literature before Mohanaswamy, but the portrayals were rarely sympathetic. For example, the titular character in the Jnanpith-award winner K Shivaram Karanth’s classic 1968 novel Mookajjiya Kanasugalu (Dreams of a Silent Grandmother) views physical relationships between men and women as holy and denounces lovemaking between men as vile and disgusting. In the end, the novel projects same-sex love as a phenomenon that contributes to the degeneration of human society.The depiction of queer characters is no more empathetic in Kamaroopi’s 1974 novel Kudure Motte (Horse Egg), in which a sexual predator tries to force a young boy into sex.

Vasudhendra (centre), at age 20, with two childhood friends in his hometown, Sandur, in Bellary district. Like his character Mohanaswamy, he grew up in a society where the concept of being gay did not exist.

In other Kannada fiction, gay sex has been portrayed as the recourse of confused individuals who turn to homosexuality owing to a lack of access to women. One such example is the character of an Englishman named Stewart in the Jnanpith-awardee UR Ananthamurthy’s short story ‘Clip Joint.’ Stewart has homosexual inclinations while studying in a public school in England, but these later recede when he finds the company of women at university. “They are forced to see gay love as a perversion, a frightening prospect, carried out by men ridden with guilt, done under some inevitable circumstances and against nature,” Vasudhendra said.

But in the past decade, there has been some incremental change in Kannada literature. In her short story ‘Hoovina Puje’ (Flower Offerings), Mitra Venkatraj views lesbian relationships in a favourable light. Other writers, including Sudhesh Shetty, Chidananda Sali, Nagaraj Vastarey and KV Akshara have attempted to portray gay characters in their stories and plays. According to Vasudhendra, however, “in-depth literature,” which depicts gay characters as complex individuals with the right to live full lives, “can come out only from writers within the gay community.”

Mohanaswamy was Vasudhendra’s profile name on an online dating application. “It was quite unique, so I retained it for my protagonist,” he said. The collection of ten stories is a meditation on sexual desires, body politics and the growing pains of a queer boy in rural Karnataka, who is subjected to blackmail with the threat that he will be exposed.

Vasudhendra made it a point to depict gay sexuality explicitly in the stories. He pointed out that the way he writes about love and sex in Mohanaswamy would not be shocking to readers if the characters were heterosexual. Hence, he added, he chose at times to be explicit as a way to normalise queer life.

The writer also decided to publish the book under his own name. “There was too much at stake for me—my reputation as a writer and my literary career,” he said. “But I decided it’s pointless to wait.” Age played a part too; he was already 40. “I didn’t know what I was waiting for. I asked myself and came up short for an answer.” In an ironic coincidence, Mohanaswamy was released on 11 December 2013, the day the Supreme Court delivered a verdict upholding the archaic Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, which criminalises gay sex.

Kannada literature is consumed far beyond cities such as Bengaluru, and has a wide following of readers in small towns and villages across Karnataka. Many of these readers live in places such as Sandur, and belong to conservative religious families much like Vasudhendra’s own. These readers had embraced Vasudhendra when he had written his acclaimed collection of essays on the relationship between a mother and a son.

When Mohanaswamy came out, he began getting phone calls from regular readers who had contradictory reactions to what he had written. “I recall an elderly woman, my reader, called me and, mid-conversation, she broke down in tears,” Vasudhendra said. The woman wanted to show her support and express solidarity with him. She ended the conversation with, “I would’ve disowned you if you were my son, but you are my favourite writer.”

Despite the initial bewilderment, people read Mohanaswamy in large numbers and spread favourable reviews of it online. Most of the initial responses came from Vasudhendra’s considerable base of women readers. Then, he began getting calls from men from all over Karnataka who identified with the character of Mohanaswamy.

“The age range was wide, from teens to late eighties,” Vasudhendra said. “Some of them are married, with children, yet closeted.” Many of these readers would call Vasudhendra not to seek solutions, but only to talk to someone who would listen.

Bengaluru, where Vasudhendra lives, has for many years been a prominent centre of queer activism in India. The Alternative Law Forum, an organisation that has been part of the fight to repeal Section 377, is based in the city. The socially active queer community can be seen in full attendance at the annual Pride Parade and the Bangalore Queer Film Festival. The Karnataka state government, too, has recognised queer activists: in November 2015, it honoured one of the foremost transgender voices of the city, Akkai Padmashali, with the state’s second-highest civilian honour, the Rajyotsava Award, for her work for sexual minorities. Organisations such as Swabhava run telephone helplines for sexual minorities, while queer help groups such as Good As You provide a safe platform for people from the community, and offer group counselling on issues ranging from coming out to legal advice.

In an interview, quoted on the back cover of the English translation of Mohanaswamy, Vasudhendra said, “Some called me up, some wrote to me and some met me personally. Many worried mothers also approached me, saying that they found similar traits in their sons. Some young gay men told me that I was the first person in whom they confided about their sexual identity. So there I was, reaching out to people of the gay community and becoming their voice in a way.”

Many of the gay men who called Vasudhendra said that they were HIV positive. They faced enormous social stigma and had no access to counselling services. Vasudhendra met some of these men—in coffee shops or even in his home. The writer realised that many of these readers needed professional help. He decided to assist them directly, since he had already completed a one-year certification in basic counselling skills, through the Bengaluru-based organisation Parivarthan, which trains counsellors in a wide range of specialisations, from couples counselling to youth counselling. Since then, Vasudhendra has been active as a counsellor with the queer-support group Good As You.

These days, the writer travels regularly on speaking assignments across south India, where he addresses issues that he explored in Mohanaswamy: growing up gay in rural Karnataka, queer identities, denial, coming out. He has spoken at diversity seminars in the National Institute of Technology in Calicut, Manipal University and elsewhere. Vasudhendra, however, does not want his work to be coloured by activism. “I’m not comfortable calling myself an activist,” he said. “I think if I become one, my ideologies will influence my writing and I want to keep my creativity free of influences.”

He also refused to be typecast as a queer writer. Since Mohanaswamy, he has published two more books, which have nothing to do with queer experience: a Kannada translation of Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air, titled Everest, in 2015, and a collection of essays called Aidu Paise Vardakshine (A Dowry of Five Paise), in 2016. “To me, it looks like all his writings were a preparation of a sort for Mohanaswamy,” said the journalist Preethi Nagaraj. “Mohanaswamy was his destination till the book was out.” With that goal attained, she added, “He can now afford a free run.”