Lives in Literature: ‘The book gave my life back to me...'
"Though the trigger for starting my writing career was my sexuality and my attempt to find myself within that sexuality, the two are no longer connected"
Kannada author and founder of Chanda Pustaka, a publishing house that promotes young authors, Vasudhendra is the recipient of several state honours for his writing, and the first openly gay litterateur in Kannada. Excerpts from his interactions with writer-translator Maithreyi Karnoor and publishing and translation consultant Neeta Gupta.
On sexuality as the trigger for a life in writing
In hindsight, I feel my sexuality was the only reason I started writing. It was 1995 and I was all alone working in Ernakulam on a deputation from Bangalore. I was still working in IT, and the project was automating a hospital.
Whenever I casually called my friends, they used to talk about their marriage plans and their girlfriends. As everyone had a decent job and a healthy take-home package, naturally marriage was their next goal. They used to pester me to share my marriage plans. I knew very well that I am gay and I should never marry.
Unfortunately, I was ‘in the closet’ and not courageous enough to meet another gay man. These phone calls used to disturb me a lot, and I felt I was going through an identity crisis. I wanted to find my own capability for something better than all these marriage and girlfriend routines. I knew how voracious my appetite for books was. So, I started writing stories.
Fortunately, they turned out to be good and I received a lot of appreciation from many other authors. Once I recognised this unknown strength of mine, I didn’t stop. I continued writing. It became my passion and later on my profession.
Though the trigger for starting my writing career was my sexuality and my attempt to find myself within that sexuality, the two are no longer connected. I feel humbler and more humane nowadays when I am with my heterosexual friends and fellow authors.
The reason I wrote Mohanaswamy—stories about the challenges a homosexual person faces in modern India—was related more to my own well-being and mental health than anything to do with enriching LGBTQ literature. Having written 12 books in Kannada, which were in no way connected with my sexuality, I had accumulated a large readership.
My books were selling well and had received a couple of awards. I was floating on a ‘popularity cloud’. With this aura [around me], I felt I could ignore my sexuality and stay in the closet. Until then I had hardly met a couple of gay men.
At times, the body’s desires are more powerful than the mind. Repressing such desires can damage one’s mental health. Due to such repression, I gradually slipped into clinical depression. The blues became so dark that I couldn’t sleep for two weeks. I lost my confidence and interest in life. I thought I would either die due to ill-health or commit suicide due to depression.
I started seeing many psychiatrists. Unfortunately, it is difficult to find a gay-friendly psychiatrist in India. Invariably they are homophobic and start suggesting conversion therapy. Many of them blocked me from sharing any of my feelings related to sexuality. They kept on prescribing antidepressants.
To be fair, they helped assuage my mental disturbance to some extent, but failed to bring complete peace. I realised later that the healing for mental illness has to come from my internal voice and not from any external healing methods.
That is when I started to write the stories in Mohanaswamy. They are fictional, but partly based on either my own experiences or that of my gay acquaintances. I strongly believe telling the truth is more important for a fiction-writer than working on pseudo-ideologies.
Once I began writing the stories, I began to feel calm and I could sleep again. In a way, this book gave my life back to me.
On becoming a ‘gay icon’ and going beyond it
Mohanaswamy became a hit across the country. I wrote it in Kannada, and it was translated into English, Spanish, Marathi, Tamil, Telugu and Malayalam. Many of my traditional readers were angry and sad after reading this book. They started distancing themselves from me.
Interestingly, however, a new crowd of readers started approaching me. In Kannada, for that matter in any vernacular language, it is very rare for anyone to write so candidly about gay life. Many gay men were thrilled to read such courageous narrations of the challenges faced by a homosexual person like me. I came out to my readers through this book.
They had never read anything of that sort in Kannada. Though there were many such writings in English, only a minuscule percentage of Kannadigas can read English fluently. Our vernacular media were so homophobic that they invariably made gay men feel guilty.
For such readers, there was now a book that fearlessly spoke on gay life and—to put a cherry on the icing—had a protagonist who defended his stand. As a result, many gay people reached out to me and shared their stories, which they had never even dared to whisper to anyone.
Gay people of various ages, castes, religions and ethnicities started contacting me. (In Kannada publications, the author contact details are generally shared for readers to interact.) It opened up a totally new world. There were so many individuals across the state who were suffering in the same way as I had, without committing any mistake!
Fortunately, I am a trained counsellor, and I could listen to all their stories with empathy. It’s been 10 years since Mohanaswamy was published and now I have become a gay icon in Karnataka.
Though the success of Mohanaswamy opened [hitherto] unknown avenues and brought a lot of fame, the media started branding me as a ‘gay author’ and ignoring all my other works. Major lit fests started inviting me as a ‘gay resource person’ for LGBTQ panel discussions.
Gradually, this ‘branded fame’ started irritating me. Though I am an ‘out and proud’ LGBTQ community person, I am much bigger than its periphery. At home, my Kannada readers were aware of my writing ability and had respected me like any other author.
However, outside Karnataka I became just a gay symbol. I desperately wanted to come out of this one-dimensional popularity. And so, I decided to write a book that was completely different. That is how I wrote my recent historical novel Tejo Tungabhadra.
Fortunately, this novel became a big hit in Kannada; as its publisher, I’m proud and happy to say that more than 15,000 copies sold in three years. Translations into English (by Maithreyi Karnoor) and Telugu have been well-received. Malayalam and Marathi translations are in progress, and I expect them to be published next year.
Now I feel glad that many organisations and literature festivals are inviting me to be part of their literature panels, and are looking at me through a wider lens.
On language and power dynamics
Languages, throughout history, have had lopsided power dynamics where certain languages have dominated others. For instance, between the 1st and the 7th centuries, Sanskrit and Sogdian were popular along the silk route.
All of Central Asia, and the regions of Afghanistan and what is now Pakistan spoke Sanskrit. Chinese monks were eager to learn Sanskrit to understand and translate Buddha’s sutras. Even during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Sanskrit was popular among European anthropologists. Most European universities offered Sanskrit language courses.
But now, it is hard to find even a handful of Sanskrit scholars. During the Vijayanagara period and the reigns of the Salva and Tuluva dynasty, Telugu was more popular than Kannada and Tamil.
Today, English has taken over that role and naturally has a greater readership. Language is important to me. I love my mother tongue, Kannada. However, in my writing, the story takes precedence over language. I do not believe in attracting readers through stylised language alone.
On AI, IT and engineering
In this age of AI, it may not be difficult for 98 per cent accurate translations of simple prose (but not verse). Such technology might help bring a certain equality among writers of all languages. A reader can then order a book in the language of his choice, similar to language options on OTT platforms.
On the negative side, this facility might oversimplify the language of literature. It’s my background in engineering that prompts these thoughts. I worked for 20 years in software development and delivery. Earlier, I felt self-conscious in the presence of writers with an academic training in literature. But not anymore.
I am a storyteller. Our folk artists—who were uneducated—have narrated beautiful stories. I believe life is the only university a teller of stories needs, and the mother tongue is the tool to tell them with.
Also, my career as an engineer has influenced my craft. I can map my writing process to the software development life cycle—requirements, design, development and testing. The need for simplicity and the logic of system design runs at the back of my mind when I write.
I also feel that the unique background of each writer enriches literature. In Kannada, we have authors who are doctors, architects, police officers, housewives, academics, carpenters—you name it! This variety makes our literature colourful and beautiful.
On Kannada authors and readers
Kuvempu (the pen name of Kuppali Venkatappa Puttappa), D.R. Bendre, (Shivarama) Karanth, and Masti (Venkatesha Iyengar, considered the grand old man of Kannada short fiction) have created a robust foundation for modern Kannada literature.
The modernist and other movements gave us important writers. These days, highly ambitious authors from wide-ranging backgrounds, whose focus is on content rather than form or technique, are writing in Kannada and breaking the mould of canonical theories.
Although there is a rise in the number of authors, I feel Kannada readership is dwindling gradually. The younger generations have little attachment to their mother tongues—or any language for that matter. Society is forcing them to be career-oriented and not look beyond science and technology that assures well-paying jobs. I think this is the trend in most Indian languages.
This phenomenon worries me and that is the reason I think translation of literary works into English is important. We need to cross language barriers to create larger readerships in order to sustain our rich vernacular literatures.
All said and done, I believe stories will continue to exist in one form or the other for as long as there are humans on earth. And as long as there are stories, there will be storytellers and an audience for them.