Communal Tensions: Homosexuality in Raj Rao’s The Boyfriend

Oliver Ross, Churchill College, Cambridge University, UK


“A speechless Yudi welcomed his Milya with open arms. He wasn’t at all bitter about the manner in which Milya had dumped him. He was too old for self-respect, and too much in love. Tears flowed down his cheeks. His heart was full of gratitude and joy, so that when his prodigal lover complained about how long he had walked, Yudi sat the boy down and knelt before him to massage his chapped and weary feet.

From the far end of the room, two pairs of eyes watched Yudi risk rebirth as a shit-worm by touching the feet of a Bhangi. The eyes belonged to Gauri.” (Rao, 2003, p.226-227)

In this scene from Raj Rao’s novel The Boyfriend, Yudi, the well-educated and affluent Brahmin protagonist, is welcoming back his Dalit lover, Milind, after a prolonged separation. There appears to be an inversion of the inequities of power when romantic relationships straddle differences in age, class and caste, but the tone is not celebratory. Implicit in the hyperbolic description of Yudi’s “speechless” reaction of “joy” and “tears” is a critique of his servility, refracted through the eyes of the ostensibly liberal but ultimately conservative Gauri. The Boyfriend presents Yudi’s Brahminism as one of the ineluctable constituents of identity which coexist and overlap with his self-consciously Westernised homosexual orientation and preclude its ideal embodiment.In addition to spotlighting the Brahmin/Dalit divide, Rao polarises Yudi and Milind by insisting that the former self-identifies as “radically gay”, while the latter falls below the radar of Anglophone identity politics (p.193). Even when the two men are sexually or romantically united, they are separated by the ideological differences embedded in their class and caste, a leitmotif which contributes to Rao’s depiction of Yudi’s more general social alienation.In this article I argue that inThe Boyfriend, dubbed a ‘cult classic’ by readers and scholars alike, Rao hints at an essentialist, sacrosanct homosexuality which has the potential to unite men who love and have sex with men as a result of their shared abjection. In practice, however, gay identity intersects with and is exposed to the deleterious effects of other identity markers like class, caste and religion, and Rao presents this social determinism in apessimistic tone which occasionally borders on nihilism. Subsequently, I show how he aligns homosexuality with wider debates on religious communalism and nationhood in order to centralise its importance and emphasise the function of his novel as irreverent social critique.

   A lecturer in English at the University of Pune, Raj Rao wrote his doctoral dissertation at Bombay University on the poems of Nissim Ezekiel. While his poetry is similarly conversational, he is distanced from his mentor by his scatological diction and sexual voyeurism, which Hoshang Merchant (2009) describes as “tearing the veils of linguistic gentility” (p.166). At Pune Rao has inaugurated courses in gay literature and queer studies, but, despite his self-identification as gay, homosexual or queer, his writing makes clear that he acknowledges the contingency of these terms and is attentive to the numerous alternative identity markers available in India.In The Boyfriend and his 2010 novel Hostel Room 131 he adduces bothLGBT movements and longer-standing non-normative South Asian sexual and gender identities like those of the hijra and kothi.

In his introduction to Whistling in the Dark (2009), Rao makes explicit his mobilisation of the signifier ‘gay’ in the name of activism, and this strategic deployment has a correlative in his interest in queer politics. What he calls “the intrinsic quality of resistance built into queerness” (p.xv) echoes the idealism surrounding the term as it was co-opted by queer theory in the Anglo-American academic establishment of the early 1990s, in the wake of the formation of the anti-homophobic umbrella group Queer Nation in New York. Andrew Grossman (2001) dubs Rao a “radical utopian” (p.299); present in much of his academic and creative writing on queer themes, this stance is particularly salient in the introduction to Whistling in the Dark, where he analyses Foucault’s oft-cited remark on the normalisation of homosexuality as an identity category…Access Full Text of the Article

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