One of the biggest challenges that lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer students in India face is the near absence of people like themselves in the books they read and movies they watch. The situation today is better than it was 10 years ago but there is a lot to be done. Why? Well, being seen and being heard are important needs anchored in the desire to be respected and valued for who one is. In a society that is heteronormative, popular culture too is obsessed with heteronormative concerns. Imagine how alienating that is for people who do not identify as heterosexual.
Here is an interview with Himanjali Sankar, the author of a beautiful novel titled Talking of Muskaan published by Duckbill Books. It engages with the challenges of being different in a world that rewards sameness. Hear what the author has to say about this book. This interview is part of a larger project that I am working on as a Shanti Fellow with the Chennai-based Prajnya Trust.
Question: What led you to work on a novel about a high school student who is bullied because of her sexual orientation? There is very little data about homophobic, biphobic and transphobic hate crimes in India. How did you research this book?
I didn’t look at any data or statistics before writing this since it’s a personal story about a child who faces bullying. Of course one is generally aware about how these social and cultural issues pan out in our country by reading newspapers and watching television and on social media these days. I didn’t go out of my way to research the topic as much as just read articles and books that were broadly on similar subjects.
Question: Since sexuality education is absent from the majority of Indian schools and homes, what kind of reception were you hoping for once the book was out in stores?
It was a story I felt I wanted to tell more than actually educate children. It was something I felt strongly about and so I wrote the book. I didn’t anticipate any reaction or response really.
Question: What struck me about Talking of Muskaan is that it engages with mental health, sexuality and death, all of which are topics that adults are often unwilling or unable to discuss with children and teenagers. How did you manage to address these without talking down to your readers?
People underestimate the ability of children to understand complex topics — no one needs to talk down to teenagers. It is only if sensitivity and awareness is taught or rather discussed in homes and schools that teenagers will get the right perspectives and learn to think in a liberal manner about these topics.
Question: Why did you choose to give the reins of the narrative voice to Aaliya, Subhojoy and Prateek, but never to Muskaan? It could be argued that the author is complicit in silencing the queer voice. She is always spoken of or for by someone else. Your thoughts on this?
That’s an interesting perspective but the way I saw it was that I had three voices discussing Muskaan, and the way to create narrative tension was through these and without letting the reader hear Muskaan’s voice directly. Also the prejudices and bullying were on the part of other kids so it was that which I wanted to address. Muskaan wasn’t the one who was responsible for what happened but her friends and classmates were.
Question: While the book focuses on Muskaan’s experiences as a lesbian girl who encounters prejudice and violence from her peers at school, Aaliya who is bisexual seems to be suffering from her own denial of her sexual orientation. Is it common for you to come across readers who feel empathetic towards Muskaan and angry towards Aaliya? How do you see these characters?
I think it would be natural to feel empathetic towards Muskaan and angry towards Aaliya who, in spite of her own orientation, behaves homophobic. Also, she seems to take care of herself quite well and is spiteful towards Muskaan on many occasions, which is unpardonable really. However, Aaliya is also conflicted and worries about Muskaan though she can’t seem to help her own behaviour which shows she isn’t a bad person but rather is confused.
Question: Most commentaries on Talking of Muskaan speak of homophobia but not of bi-erasure. Since bisexual individuals do not conform to the binary of heterosexual versus homosexual, they are often condemned in heteronormative as well as queer spaces. If you could revisit Aaliya’s character, would you write it differently?
No because I wanted to showcase the complexities that arose from Aaliya’s sexual orientation as well. Bisexuality is of course worth exploring, and it should be given centrestage in storytelling too — just that I chose Muskaan to be the central protagonist in this book. And also I really wasn’t making any statements but rather wanted to write a story that came to me — I wanted to be true to what I felt rather than be able to tick boxes about the LGBTQ community.
Question: This book came out in 2014, and includes some meaningful conversations about Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code. How did you get past the legalese, and found the language to say what you needed to say to your readers?
I am a storyteller first so the legalese wasn’t something that interested or affected me except in the broad outline of what Section 377 meant.
Question: I don’t mean to reduce your novel to a pedagogic resource. However, it does make a powerful appeal in favour of young people who need to be understood, accepted and embraced for who they are. What are the ways in which you would like Talking of Muskaan to speak to teenagers, parents, librarians and mental health professionals?
The work of fiction is to improve our understanding of the world, to teach empathy and compassion. That’s how I’ve felt about the best novels I’ve read — they’ve helped me to grow, not in a didactic obvious way, but by deepening my sense of who I want to be. In the same way I’d like Muskaan to speak to everyone who reads the book, I would like the book make some small difference to some small lives. Every book isn’t for everyone, some books don’t speak to me but others do and that possibly happens because of the sort of person I am. So I have no plan really — I just hope Muskaan speaks to those who are open to or need to hear what the book says.
Question: What I also appreciate about your book is how you create moments of sexual agency, pleasure and intimacy in the fraught relationship between Muskaan and Aaliya. How have your readers responded to this, especially as we live in a world where the sexuality of women, queer people and adolescents is policed so stridently?
Thank you! I did hope to have done that but I can’t really remember any feedback on it that was significant. I remember someone saying they loved the tree house chapter but nothing apart from that. I don’t think I consciously wanted to break down any silence that exists around the sexuality of queer people and adolescents but I followed the story to the places it needed to visit and sexuality was integral to a book like Talking of Muskaan even if not in any overt sense.
Question: What sort of feelings did you grapple with as you wrote about Muskaan trying to kill herself? Suicide is certainly an option that many queer people consider because living can be terribly painful. What led Muskaan to make that choice?
Well, it was just the piling up of incidents under which she was buried that led to her making the decision. I thought it was the natural culmination of the incidents in the story.
Question: Muskaan’s decision to take away her own life is a moment of shock because she is not portrayed merely as a victim. She stands up for herself at school. She reads books to learn about homosexuality among animals. She does not actively court the approval of her peers. What made you keep the adults in the novel on the sidelines, even when Muskaan is so lonely and miserable?
Muskaan closed herself from the adult world — she didn’t expect anyone to understand. At home too there was tension on the parental front. In any case, all of it led to her taking her life. Her sense of aloneless and alienation from friends, family, school.
Question: Since Muskaan, Prateek, Subhojoy and Aaliya are your creative babies, what kind of policies, structures and practices would you like their school to come up with now that the Supreme Court of India has given a landmark judgement decriminalizing same-sex love?
I think schools should actively sensitize children through sessions and discussions on sexuality. However, I am a storyteller and not an educator, so I really don’t have any structural ideas on how this should be done.