Vikram Seth and Naseeruddin Shah, both speakers at Kolkata Literary Meet 2014, share a smile and a walk on Sunday evening at Victoria Memorial Hall. Picture by Rashbehari Das
I am not happy to be a criminal in my own country but I certainly plan to continue to be a criminal in my own country if it comes to that — Vikram Seth
The writer who gave us A Suitable Boy and much more was supposed to address the third edition of the Kolkata Literary Meet, being held till January 30 in association with The Telegraph, on “the wealth of inspiration that lies to the east of India”. And he will.
But before he spoke on matters of the pen, he wished to speak on a matter of pain — the recent recriminalisation of homosexuality by the Supreme Court of India. So, on Republic Day, Seth sat in conversation with festival director Malavika Banerjee in a session titled LOL or Love OutLawed.
In the hour-long session at Victoria Memorial, which he used to call “Toria Moria” as a toddler in Calcutta, the writer explained the many facets of the matter and his involvement with it. Excerpts.
A human aspect of life
I remember when I came two years ago [to inaugurate the first KLM], Sunil Gangopadhyay... and I did calligraphy on either side of the stage. I did mine in Arabic or Urdu and he did his as ‘Kaw Law Maw’ (KaLaM).
One of the interesting things I remember reading about in Those Days or Shei Shomoy was about the great Bengali writer Michael Madhusudan Dutta and his deep affection for another man.... I took a great deal of heart from that. One of the things that people are always saying is that ‘oh, it’s not very Indian’. Of course it’s completely Indian. It’s a human aspect of life.
A pernicious law
The issue at hand is something called Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, introduced as part of our criminal law in 1860-61 by a committee consisting among others, of Lord Macaulay.... I shall recite the clause: ‘Whoever voluntarily commits intercourse against the order of nature with man, woman or animal shall be sentenced to imprisonment for life or imprisonment of either description [that means rigorous or simple] for a term that may extend to 10 years and also be liable to fine’.
Though four years ago this section was decriminalised or read down to the extent that private, adult, consensual sexual acts were fine, about a month ago, on 11/12/13, a Supreme Court bench of two judges decided they were going to recriminalise all these acts.
So if anyone has ever had oral sex with his wife, for example, he should consider that he could be jailed. Recriminalisation of this would be laughable if only it were not so tragic. It is mainly used against gay men to brutalise them, to harass them, to torture them, to rape them and to blackmail them. But it is also used against women. This is a pernicious law that has terrible effects on a lot of people.
The official policy
Now there’s going to be a huge age of wire-tapping, especially with the kind of prime ministership that we might get. What happened in Gujarat is going to be repeated all over the country. Everyone has done something that they can be afraid of, everyone knows someone who has done something for which pressure can be put on the person. And this is something that would certainly be used, I would imagine.
Because the BJP has come up and said yes, people should be imprisoned for the rest of their lives if they have consensual oral sex. They should. This is the official policy of the BJP. Ramdev Baba says so, Rajnath Singh says so… and Modi, very interestingly, doesn’t say anything. He’s tweeted about everything in the world but here he wants to be very clear that he’s a modernist. He’s hiding behind the pallu of these other people. Because he wants people to think he’s a modernist. He doesn’t want to say, ‘No, any man who has made love with his wife in a particular way should be jailed.’ He wants to make sure that there are people whom he can treat as a minority, and as an antagonistic minority.
What happens today
A review petition is when you go to the same bench that decided the matter and say, look guys, you were wrong, please change your mind. This is what will happen on January 28. A review petition will be put forward by the government of India and two judges — Justice Mukhopadhyay and a new judge because Justice Singhvi retired on December 11 — will sit together in the afternoon, without any lawyers, read the review petitions and decide what to do.
So the happiness and peace of mind of 200 million Indians [50 million people who are going to be criminalised and their families] will be decided in a matter of half-an-hour by these two judges.
After that as an extremely long shot you can ask for a curative petition. I can’t think of any example except may be in the Bhopal case.
The fact is, I and many people like me are criminals… and this law is going to be used. It’s going to be used for blackmail.
The ‘novel’ way
I don’t think novels should necessarily be a vehicle for the views and thoughts of the novelist. Then you are preaching to the converted and you’re putting off people who don’t take your point of view. If some of the characters, one way or the other, say for example Mahesh Kapoor [in A Suitable Boy] get involved with land reforms, then it’s reasonable and plausible to put it in. But otherwise I could write an essay about it, I could write a separate book about it but I don’t think it has a place in a novel somehow.
Well I remember one case where something like this jostled itself into the plot. I was in England with my younger brother Shantam, who was at that time very involved with anti-nuclear protesting. And he said to me, ‘Bhaiyya, I think you should have an anti-nuclear sub-text in the novel.’ I was writing The Golden Gate at that time. I said, ‘Shantam, I can’t write about that. None of the characters in the novel is interested in this.’ Then I went back to Stanford, in California, and one of my characters, a priest, got involved in the anti-nuclear movement in California and several characters did as well.
So... for all I know there may be a character [in the sequel to A Suitable Boy that he is writing] who is trying to find himself and is protesting about this. So, all I’ll say is watch this space.
I didn’t obviously want to deal with this issue now. I’m in the middle of writing and I was in a very good patch of writing when this happened. But you can’t decide when life and law, and love, throw a googly in the works.