Sunday 22 March 2015

Book Review – The Closet People by Hemanth Deshpande

Let me begin this review of Hemanth Deshpande’s ‘The Closet People’ with a quote from Audre Lorde’s ‘Zami: A New Spelling of my Name’ – 

Once I accepted my position as different from the larger society as well as from any single sub-society – Black or gay – I felt I didn’t have to try so hard. To be accepted. To look femme. To be straight. To look straight. To be proper. To look “nice”. To be liked. To be loved. To be approved. What I didn’t realize was how much harder I had to try merely to stay alive, or rather, to stay human. How much stronger a person I became in that trying.

There is no comparison between Audre’s historic biomythography and Hemanth’s debut novel. What they share is a premise, a theme, the intent to depict a reality that traditional love stories filling the contemporary book shelves do not, and finally to add a voice to the chorus of ‘Gay Pride’. Hemanth’s two male protagonists and their story of finding themselves by embracing forbidden love and growing beyond the stigma of society took me back to ‘Zami’.

This is the story of love between two men, Zoze and Nik – one nearing fifty, the other younger than his own son; one a world-famous algebraist the other an aspiring artist; one who once succumbed to the logical-next-step of marriage and kids the other who will just not. This is also the story of their loved ones, their feelings of rejection and their rejection of the feeling of gay-love as an ‘unnatural’ phase at best and a barbaric birth ‘defect’ at its worst. What is laudable is not just this author’s idea in writing such a book. How he has managed to give expression to the most basic eddies of love and conflict between partners and families is what endeared it to me. All this, without making it feel like activism.

Coming home to love

I was home. I was in Zo’s arms.’

In the initial chapters the reader is gradually introduced to the characters and their proclivities with subtleness and sensitivity. Hemanth, here and throughout the book, aims not to shock or create melodrama. The slow-paced unravelling and freeing of consciences is effortless and done such that Nik and Zo appear before our eyes as flesh-and-blood. This is important; important because we are being asked to understand and get involved in love which is not readily understood, or even accepted. It is an ushering in into their lives and the author did well to not rush it up! 

What was also equally important was to not depict their relationship as ‘a sack of clichéd gimmicks’, borrowed from social media. Zo and Nik’s increasing intimacy and eventual dependence on each other needed to be free from images of popular perception about gays and their cohabitation. How did Hemanth manage that? In telling us this story is he taking out of the closet a story of someone he knows? Just an aside, really, but I do believe the portrayals could not have been made-up out of thin air.

Nik will amaze you with his frankness. His unabashed stalking to unashamed confession that ‘I am interested in the algebraist’ oozes with an I-don’t-care attitude in keeping with his tender age. On the other hand, Zoze’s hesitance to embrace his own history or indecision of ‘I still don’t know what I am doing with you’ is that of a man encumbered with age and responsibility. While Zoze is still walking towards Nik, Nik lands up at his doorstep with his bags! It is a love which is fulfilling and never bordering on the physical alone. Hemanth breaks the carnal myth to show how their relationship left them feeling more creative, younger and at peace with how they claim they were born and which is now their new identity.  How sex is not the point, but companionship is, where even ‘silence’ was pregnant in Zoze’s apartment for ‘I simply loved the uniquely uncomplicated way in which it let the moment evolve’. 

But are the two men looking to define their love or give a name to their relationship? No. And that gives their partnership the freedom of subjectivity that “normal” love is usually not allowed. By the end of the book they no longer need to answer ‘Why are you scared of love?’ because they no longer are. 

And then the world with its book of laws intrudes.

Their other homes 

Parents are a part of our lives’
‘Only a part of our life and not life itself’

If there is an element of predictability that enters the story, it is in the reactions of their families towards their sexual preferences. From Nik’s parents to his ‘girlfriend’, the college principal to 92-year-old Fr. Demello, there is not a single person who is anti-gay for a reason that we have not heard already in ban-homosexuality discourses. Family values to reputation, social standing to career prospects, emotional blackmail to even the idea of sin, no page is left unturned to make Zo and Nik stop the shame. Not even threats of ‘a hundred other ways to fix Zo-like characters’ because ‘going against nature is not natural’. However, while the stigma that same-sex relationships generate in society is something we have heard of before, what imparts ‘The Closet People’ another level of realism is the way Hemanth makes both his protagonists tie-up threads of their past relationships and present roles neatly and rather sensitively; especially so for Nik with his parents and Zo as a parent. 

There is barely any high-octane court drama or hyperbolic twists in the tale. ‘The world colligated us as per their own convenience’ and makes them ‘feel stirred, lost and even guilty’. Nik and Zo’s arguments in favour of their relationship come based on the pure and simple ideas of love, of individuality, of happiness and of living a life sans masks. Plus, ‘I am just homosexual. I am not a criminal … I am not diseased. I just have a different preference’ is not just plain-speak but grass-root honesty. I found Nik’s musing after Reem breaks up with him very telling about how society thinks – 

I was still not sure what had hurt her most; that we had broken up or I was gay or that she had fallen for someone who was gay or the thought of her friends laughing at her “gayish” breakup.

Hemanth decided to write about a contentious issue, but not without giving equal print-space to both sides of the debate. In fact, you realise which "side" of the debate he is on without him waving a flag in your face. 

A thought in my head, ever since ‘Zami

There is this question that nags my head the moment I think about homosexual relationships. Do they too, eventually, become parallels to conventional relationships? Is there a power-dynamic that develops and a rule book quite in line with the marriage one? Is there a convention of commitment they follow within all the unconventionality that gives birth to their relationship in the first place? 

Just like in ‘Zami’, in this book too I found numerous instances which point towards an affirmative answer to the questions above. Zo’s ex-partner had demanded a commitment towards himself when Zo was about to become a dad and Zo had thought it “right” to break-up with him once Nik moved into his life. Nik too reminds Zo that ‘you have some commitment towards me too’ and acknowledges that often he ‘did sound like a possessive woman’. No ‘fancy names’ and no ritualistic seal yet this companionship too comes with its own rules? Just a thought.

The disappointments 

First, the title. ‘The Closet People’ reads as impersonal as the book is personal, and as devoid of emotion as the book is full of it. I wish Hemanth had not tried universalizing these two homosexuals’ lives in the title, no matter how shared their experiences are with gays in other parts of the world. Because, this book is not activist material. For me, the title should have reflected on the unique relationship he has strived hard to create and portray. I would have named this book after Nik and Zo, though I am taking some liberty here. 

Then, the ending of the book. Why, Hemanth? Was that the only way forward, the only way to give permanence to a relationship that shaped so well? The only way to reconcile all the disparate voices? Can some of us read it as defeatist for a cause we share our views on?

And then, the editing. But on that front a high degree of immunity is descending on my mind. I have learnt (rightly or wrongly) to not shut the book at the first editorial mistake. As if I have sub-consciously decided to see the books for what they are and not for what the editors decided to do to them; awry commas and elusive articles included. So many badly edited books around! Why? 

In the end

I will remember this book for using the plainest language to successfully strike a chord in the reader’s mind, and that too about a kind of love most of us understand not. My doubt when I began was whether a straight person will be able to feel gay-love, enough to feel involved in the protagonists’ lives. It was a needless doubt. 

It is almost as if Nik’s challenge to Zo – ‘when are you planning to invent an algebraic equation for love?’ - was met by Hemanth in the form of this book. I laud the premise and the portrayals of characters and conflicts, though not the final closure. Leaving you with a simple truth from Nik – 

I am not a terrorist. I am not a rapist. I have not killed someone, I am not trying to kill myself. I am just trying to be myself. I am in love with a man. I want to be with him. Please don’t criminalize our relationship.

'The Closet People' by Hemanth Deshpande is a Leadstart Publication, 2015

[The review was commissioned by the author. Views are my own.]


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  2. I’ve just finished reading a book with elegant prose but one that gave emotions an analytical slant. Too clever by half. Time for a change. Making the reader feel raw, gut-wrenching emotion through the dynamics of a relationship or excitement through a mystery (not necessarily fast-paced) requires subtlety, skill and a sense of timing. Having said that I have to admit I do ignore grammatical errors in conversations on social media but prefer a book with none or very few. Chetan might disagree to protect his own work :-) Am torn.

    1. "subtlety, skill and a sense of timing" - The three S. Well said.
      I agree grammatical errors do take away from experiencing a book. I often wonder, whose fault is it anyway - writers'? editors'? Whose?
      As for Chetan, you know my views.


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