In October 2018 I spoke at a meeting organized by Hasratein (Desire), a queer collective in Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi. This meeting was soon after the landmark Supreme Court judgment in India on September 6, 2018 that read down Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), allowing for same-sex sexual acts between consenting adults in private. Pushing against the euphoria of the moment, my observations explored the non-linear trajectories of sexuality politics that cannot be plotted within the paradigms of rights, recognition, and individual autonomy. Drawing on the key interventions of my book Unruly Figures, I shared my thoughts on how regional idioms of activism and vernacular cultural practices, from different parts of India, disrupt a singular narrative of sexual progress and liberation.
Unruly Figures: Queerness, Sex Work and the Politics of Sexuality in Kerala, was conceptualized, researched, and written over a period of about ten years. The primary research for this book was done in 2007–2010 when the global AIDS prevention and awareness machinery played a crucial role in making sexual categories such as the Commercial Sex Worker (CSW) and Men who have Sex with Men (MSM) highly visible. Sexuality politics in different regions of India has undergone considerable shifts as I was completing this book. Identity categories, legal frameworks, the public health machinery, global and national patterns of funding, the status of sexuality as a field of study, the circuits of print and visual media—there are many sites through which we can track these changes.
While the struggle for reading down Section 377 is perceived as an overarching framework for this period—this book demonstrates that the rights bearing sexual subject cannot be the fulcrum to anchor the long, ruptured history of the politics of sexuality in India. So it seems apt that this book reaches its readers in the aftermath of the Supreme Court judgment hailed by international media with headlines such as: “India Backs Freedom – Others should Follow” (The Guardian, September 9, 2018), and “India’s Riotous Triumph of Equality” (New York Times, September 7, 2018). My explorations in this book function as a timely reminder about the dangers of celebrating a teleology of sexual progress with set moments of origin and arrival. It makes us acutely aware of the unresolvable contradictions that nestle in the same slice of history.
How do we address the fact that the Supreme Court judgment on Section 377 comes at a time when India has witnessed systemic violence against religious minorities and Dalits, massive unemployment and dismantling of social welfare structures, as well as increasing surveillance in public spaces? “Safe Spaces, Unsafe Times: Support Systems in a Suspended World,” was the title of a workshop held in Delhi on November 2018 that attempted to move beyond the mainstream narrative around the repeal of Section 377 and address the question of larger support systems for gay, lesbian, and transgender persons. The tentative and restless journeys in this book, its reflection on political subjectivity and dispossession, hopes to speak to these dilemmas of our present.
Public interventions such as the dual autobiographical project by Nalini Jameela and the report on lesbian suicides by the activist group, Sahayatrika (Co-traveler), are struggles staged in embattled settings. The forms of self-fashioning we encounter in Unruly Figures are marked by reiteration and failure. Yet the idioms to etch these everyday politics are drawn from the layered imaginations available within “small places.” Cultural practices such as watching soft-porn films and reading pulp fiction play a role in unsettling a disciplined ordering of gender and domesticity in Kerala.
The political is recast in this book for it is routed through unexpected sites, such as the wanderings of two schoolgirls on the run in a 1980s popular Malayalam film. The cover image of this book gives new life to an image from this film that is central to the book. There is much to learn and unlearn from struggles staged in unhomely places—places that bind us and yet they are too close to let go. This doubleness of marginalized subjects and their relation to their immediate surroundings has to be taken into account as we search for an elsewhere. The potential for transformation is kept alive by drawing on the unruly movements generated in the spaces that we inhabit. Thus to engage with the global trajectories of sexuality politics we need to pay heed to vernacular imaginations of sexuality.
Navaneetha Mokkil is assistant professor at the Centre for Women’s Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University. She is the coeditor of Thinking Women: A Feminist Reader.