Pleasure points

Print edition : June 22, 2018

LGBT community members and supporters during a Queer Pride March in New Delhi on November 27, 2016. Photo: PTI

An engaging argument and a provocative appeal for the basic rights of transpeople and queer pride.

“Pleasure. Risk. Surveillance. Censorship. Panic. Resistance. Pleasure. The audacity of it.” It is with these words that Brinda Bose’s book, The Audacity of Pleasure, begins. The book returns to these points of intensities, nodes of arguments, agonies and also ecstacies, again and again. In the process, it straddles in its strident arguments various disciplines such as film and cultural studies, LGBT and queer rights, gender politics and legal history.

This book chronicles the umpteen ways in which Indian society, public discourses, legal judgments, resistance movements and popular culture have grappled with transgressive pleasures and gender boundaries in India. The most poignant argumentative thread that runs through the book is the plight and struggles of transpeople, in both academic and activist spaces, which provokes the readers to confront, acknowledge and address the radiant energy and productivity of transgender embodiments and experiences.

In the author’s own words, she wishes “to contend that what trans signifies on the gender identity continuum is what sexuality symbolises in gender/cultural studies: a political space of risk, pleasure, pain, dynamism, change”.

The larger academic and political interventionist intention of the book is to effect a paradigm shift in gender studies “by making ‘transgender’ the catalyst and the site for this tectonic movement, deploying it by both what it stands for (risk, difference, challenge) and [by] what it does not stand for (conformity, retreat, invisibility)—in assertion as well as in combat” (page 24).

Through exciting and sometimes exacting textual and contextual readings that place “the sensual as dissensual”, this book traverses many a streak of resistant imagination that pushes the boundaries of what and how we think about art, activism and academics.

This collection of essays written over a period of two decades is divided into three parts called Explorations, Speculations and Adventures and includes a very perceptive introduction and a “fragment” of an epilogue that returns to Arundhati Roy, with references to her novels functioning as bookend.

The first section, “Explorations”, which constitutes the bulk, contains ruminations on select films and texts such as Deepa Mehta’s Fire, Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things, and Indian diasporic cinema by Mira Nair and Gurinder Chadha, followed by essays tracing the legal, political, gender and social aspects and dimensions of sex work, transgender communities, queer activism and erotica.

“Speculations” brings together essays on censorship, followed by a discussion on desire and dissensus in Satyajit Ray’s Tagore adaptations and another about the “Abused Goddesses” campaign.

“Adventures” looks at various trajectories of transgression at the political, legal, aesthetic and theoretical levels in the form of LGBT/queer protests, gender movements and activism of various colors and hues.

The last part of the book has a photo essay on Durga pujas organised by transgender and sex workers’ collectives, which, according to the author, bring to the festival “a peculiar mix of sparkling passion and low-life grit and the shadow of hard unsentimental labour to the city’s wonder-week”.

The Audacity of Pleasure is a passionate and engaging argument, an angry and provocative appeal for the basic rights of transpeople and queer pride. The author goes all out in her argument for it as it is not a question of fairness or generosity for her but something that constitutes and celebrates the very nature of desire itself: “Everyone wishes to transgress, to push the boundaries of convention, to seek pleasures that are elusive and illusive. We are all queer, in fantasy if not in reality—but some of us are afraid of being queer because we want to be safe instead, and because we feel that it is irresponsible and unethical to step outside of norms. Queer is desire itself, it is the erotic personified—because every desire is a transgression, it ceaselessly wishes for more than what is” (page 292).

One of the recurring motifs of the book is the discourses, arguments and agitations around Section 377 that in many ways trace and document the trans movement in India. According to the author, the 2009 judgment of the Delhi High Court reading down the offending sections of Section 377 about “carnal intercourse against the order of nature” was a historic landmark and moment of victory for the LGBT community.

But it was rolled back in 2013 by the Supreme Court, which, according to the author, “damns not only just the LGBT community which we belong to or ally with, but just about each and every one of us in our politics, philosophies, agentic actions, dreams and fantasies, as it also damns our first nation-builders whom we invoke in all our incantations of freedom and glory” (page 273).

Taking head-on the taken-for-granted notion that any non-heterosexual activity is “carnal intercourse against the order of nature”, something that has achieved the status of a self-evident truth as it were in legal and, in turn, common parlance, the author argues that it flies in the face of the very meaning of the word “nature”.

She argues that our judiciary “has forgotten, and we are tending to forget, that that which is natural to passionate sexual loving—essential, timeless, unchanging—is that which is beyond the reach of man or law when they wish to impose constraints and rules upon them” (page 277).

The analyses of films and literary texts, engagements with theoretical underpinnings and arguments around them cover the long and complex history of iconic gender struggles and movements that the country has witnessed in recent decades.

Popular surges such as the Save our Sisters, We are all Queer, Kiss of Love, and other campaigns and protests that punctuate and often lead the discussion invariably ignite interesting interfaces and negotiations, conversations and combats between art and politics, academics and activism, theory and practice, something the author herself vouches for: “What I have been trying to do in my readings in/of sexualities in all these years is to look at moments in texts, as well as entire texts themselves, as intervening through their experiences of sensual desire/desiring in ongoing combat and conversation, if desire denotes a fluid state of both being and becoming on the one hand and of discord and resistance on the other. This combat and conversation enacts a politics that is energised, turbulent, excessive, resistant and celebratory, sometimes in turn and sometimes all together” (page 11).

The tone and tenor and the pitch and pacing of these texts are marked by a certain kind of energetic hybridity: they freely and charmingly mix reading and writing, musings and quotations, observations and barbs, and thought-out critiques and strong opinions. The language too veers between the strictly academic and the pamphlet polemic, which in many ways vibes with the political urgency and ethical angst with which Brinda Bose argues her case, with what she herself would call a certain kind of “cruel optimism”.

This tumultuous flux of diverse and divergent trajectories of intensity, lines of intense argument and theoretical polemic ends with an invocation to the visceral force and energy of pleasure itself: “Such is the colour and stench of our pleasures, in this, the time of foreboding. Indeed, pleasures turn, as in a kaleidoscope, in fervent search of fresh designs, and bits of coloured glass splinter and splice our vision. Gravely shrouded, yet still insistently audacious.” True, gravely shrouded, yet insistently audacious, is the journey that this book undertakes.

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