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What's so queer about it?
Break the bond: Hanif Qureishi’s family denounced him for writing The Buddha of Suburbia

Decades ago, when Ismat Chughtai, an eminent Urdu novelist, penned Lihaf (The Quilt), she ruffled many feathers. Hanif Kureishi's family denounced him for disgracing them by writing The Buddha of Suburbia. But they were not the only ones to write about sexual preferences, several classics have a subtle reference to homosexuality.

For decades, the homosexuality in famous literary works has been referred to as "intense friendship" and teachers have lived in fear of students asking about the sexual preference of the characters. It has been long in coming, but the time has finally come when people are ready to come out of the closet and speak about their sexual preferences. What's more, even the academia, known for its prudish correctness, has sensed the huge demand among students for courses pertaining to this genre. The English department of Jadavpur University (JU), Calcutta, introduced Queer Studies as an optional subject in the postgraduate course. This may be a new concept in India, but colleges and universities like City College, San Francisco, Yale University, University of California and DePaul University, Chicago have been offering this course for quite some time now.

Queer studies encompasses theories and writings of thinkers from numerous fields -cultural studies, gay and lesbian studies, women's studies, post-colonialism and psychoanalysis. It's a study designed to examine the cultural, social and political implications of sexuality and gender from the perspective of those marginalised by the dominant sexual ethos.

Calcutta has always been tolerant towards the marginalised sexual minority, so it isn't really shocking that JU was the first university to break all norms and offer Queer Studies as a part of the syllabus. But what made them break the norms?

"While switching over to the semester system, we were asked to give a list of optional courses. Since I belong to the School of Women's Studies and was also associated with the lesbian movement, I had been toying with the idea of such a course for some time. So Abhijeet (a colleague) and I suggested Queer Studies. To our surprise it was introduced as an optional paper," says Paromita Chakravorty, convenor of the course.

But what was more amazing was that despite the silent resistance by those belonging to the old school, the six-month optional course became a huge hit with students, who looked upon the course as a route to get all their questions answered. "As a student I had come across literary texts containing moments of revelations of alternative sexuality - a realm that can't be categorised. I wanted to see how a subject that can't be theorised has been theorised," says Shuhita Bhattacharjee, one of the students belonging to the first and only batch of JU that had been offered Queer Studies as an optional paper in 2005. Most of the students had opted for it primarily out of curiosity. "I always wanted to know more about the third gender, who comprise a huge but relatively unknown section of the society. The interactive and interesting classes did manage to demystify the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community," recounts another student, Debasri Rakshit, who is now an editor with Anthem Press.

The unusual course called for an unusual teaching methodology; the teachers decided that they had to be on an equal footing with their students. "Here, we were talking about sexuality so we couldn't afford to be snooty. We needed to give students a democratic space in the class in order to break the silence of sexuality," explains Chakravorty.

Those who had raised their eyebrows at the "sensationalist" course, were taken aback by its content. Literary classics like Virginia Wolff's Orlando, Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray, Marlowe's Edward II, Hanif Kureishi's The Buddha of Suburbia, Sappho's poetry and other serious literary work that spoke of - or hinted at - homosexuality were taught as part of the course.

"The opportunity to take classes at JU came as a boon as it gave us a platform to talk about the LGBT movement. The students were keen to know what sexual activism and politics was all about," recounts Malabika, founder member of Sappho, an activist forum for the LGBT population.

Generally, the class for an optional paper never has more than 30 students but, for the only time in the history of JU, almost 60 students opted for the course in Queer Studies. "I never expected the course to have so many takers. It was quite an exhausting experience as I had to co-ordinate with various teachers, NGOs and researchers who would come to take classes. Often I also had to explain to teachers how to bring out the subtle mention of alternative sexuality in mainstream literary works," said Chakravorty. Perhaps this was the reason why the course had been put in cold storage for about a year or two.

"I would love to take up the course, provided the university offers it again. For, as a student of English literature, nothing could be more fascinating than studying the same stream of thought right from Plato's symposium to modern literary works," said Nandita Roy, a second year student in JU.

"All optional courses are offered every alternate year. But yes, the demand for Queer Studies has been as good as any regular course," said Ananda Lal, head of the English department, JU.

But how does a specialisation in LGBT community and queer theory help one make a career?

"The options are limited. One can opt for academics or research, for which one would have to go abroad. But with a lot of NGOs in India dealing with the LGBT movement and AIDS, one could easily get a well paying job with them," said Chakravorty.

And for students like Nandita who would like to take up Queer Studies as an optional paper, there's good news. With demand for the subject increasing, JU will offer the course again in 2008.

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