By Sonya Kalara, Harvard College '21
The fall semester is starting to heat up but I have saved time to read a short story called Stardust by Karishma Kripalani aloud to one of my best friends, Mohi. She is Indian like I am and she traces her lineage through visas and WhatsApp calls home.
The story starts out as a classic love triangle with a cheating husband, an ice-cold wife, and a young mistress. (Bollywood worthy, is it not?) But suddenly, the story shifts to focus on the meddling of the three Hindu Gods of destruction, preservation, and creation. When the husband, Dilip, dies of a sudden construction accident, the Gods devise a plan to bring the two women together to bear a child that is destined to become the next mortal incarnation, the next avatar of Shiva. On the surface, this queer Hindu story is lighthearted and magical realist but its revolutionary power emerges when it is contextualized against the vast backdrop of Hindu history, queer discourse, and modern colonization.
Gayatri Spivak, one of the most prominent postcolonial theorists in the world, explains how the West produces knowledge about the East in a work entitled Can the Subaltern Speak? British theorists, Spivak writes, haven’t necessarily united with the explicit purpose of Otherizing the Indian people. Instead, in their numerous centers of knowledge production, in universities and publishing houses alike, they theorize about what constitutes Indian identity. They come into conflict with one another, they disagree with one another. Yet all of this hypothesizing and arguing continues to create an image of colonized people as objects to be studied, as things to be argued over. Ultimately, the real point is missed: colonized people do not get to control their own narratives and this lack of control is part of the colonial project to silence and dehumanize.
Mohi and I are affected by this process. Our self-perception has been shaped by the discourses of Western theorists on the subject of our motherland. We read about India in textbooks and we hear our white peers call it the "Third World" and we become accustomed to the constant dehumanization of our people. But reading Stardust enabled us to reclaim our rightful subjectivity because Karishma Kripalani produces knowledge from our perspective, in the loving representation of our people. We are all on the same team, and thus we break the colonial silence.
Colonialism, too, is a project that not only dehumanizes but polices the lives of Native peoples. Scott Morgensen, a queer and indigenous theorist, discusses how colonizers in foreign lands would encounter ideas about sexuality and gender that were different from the heteronormative, cisgender constructions of Europe. Then they would violently eliminate these forms of "deviance." They were able to justify their brutality by claiming that Native genders and sexualities warranted "correction." After years of this practice, individuals with non-Western genders and sexualities were all but exterminated and their histories were eliminated as well.
This practice that Morgensen describes called "settler homonationalism" existed within Indian colonization as well. The British, when they pillaged and destroyed and subjugated India, created new norms for what constituted morally acceptable sexualities and genders. Stardust was published after Indian Penal Code 377 was struck down for the first time. This law criminalized homosexuality. It was a British implant into the Indian legal system; it was a codified justification to continue destroying indigenous Indian practices around sexuality and gender. Stardust, then, with its loving portrayal of Indian queerness, aims to resurrect the ideas around sexuality and gender for which our ancestors were killed.
One night, Mohi and I stayed up until 4:30 am searching for queer Hindu stories. We retold the narratives of God Krishna changing his gender, of the Mahabharata’s hero Arjun wearing women's clothes in the forest, of God Vishnu being reincarnated as a woman named Mohini. I told her, too, about how my mother lovingly calls me Shiv-Shakti, the form of God that is both male and female. Our search for similar stories brought hundreds of results that catalogued the homosexuality and gender fluidity and queerness of our religion. These stories appeal to us, even now, because they represent the structures of sexuality and gender that existed before European domination.
Stardust represents the same playful queer energy that Mohini and Arjun and Krishna had. Old Hindu mythology from 2000 BC was not created with normative sexualities in mind; It simply represented ideas about sexuality and gender that existed at the time. When we examine these scriptures now, however, we only have 21st-century language at our disposal.We describe certain practices as “queer” and other practices as “heteronormative” because we analyze the ancient Indian world from the post-colonial, settler homonationalist perspective of today. These very words, “queer” and “heteronormative”, were chosen by the colonial world as tools to categorize genders and sexualities. In staring back at the ancient world, we peer through a lens dirtied by colonization, and thus the image of the past is tainted.
Stardust, on the other hand, was written in the context of these colonial ideas. Kripalani, like Mohi and me, is a 21st-century person carrying the weight of our history. The policing of indigenous Indian sexualities and genders has influenced her and so her short story is an act of defiance. She centers queer narratives in opposition to the heteronormative and cisnormative ideals created by the colonial world. She takes the indigenous queer energy from old Hindu scriptures and imbues it into modern-day characters and contexts. The epigraph to the work is a direct quote from the Krittivasa Ramayana, thus anchoring the short story in the Hindu canon, drawing an explicit connection between scripture and fiction. It reanimates ancient Hindu queerness.
The three of us are part of a revolutionary project that aims to reassert control over the construction of our own narratives. Spivak and Morgensen describe how colonization, in a myriad of ways, has violently destroyed the ability for us to represent ourselves. By objectifying us, policing our bodies, and removing our ability to speak against them, colonizers have bound us. Yet there is a way out. There is a way to reconstruct our own power by revitalizing our histories and reclaiming our stories.