The day before the Supreme Court was to review the ruling on Section 377, I was at the Kolkata Lit Meet, one of the newer entrants in the Indian literary festival circuit. This one is held in the grounds of Victoria Memorial. There’s something rather lip-curlingly lovely to have openly bisexual Vikram Seth scampering around the lawns, talking to people about homosexuality and the poetic piece he wrote to protest the Supreme Court judgement criminalising “unnatural” sexual activity. Meanwhile, the grumpy queen, living on as a statue, sat on a throne with an expression that said, “Harrumph.”
A friend of mine overheard Seth listing out prominent but closeted LGBTQ people in India, expressing complete disbelief that Ratan Tata had once been in love with a woman (as Tata claims), and pulling out a copy of his India Today article (see above link) from his backpack to explain how he translated the English piece into Hindi. “That’s not cool, dude. Did he carry copies of The Suitable Boy around with him when everyone was talking about that?” my friend observed. I pointed out that marriage, the central subject in A Suitable Boy, wasn’t in danger of being declared criminal.
Even though no one seemed particularly hopeful that the review of the Supreme Court judgement would be successful, there was still hope lurking in most of us that this time around, the judges would see sense. They didn’t.
On Tuesday, the Supreme Court spent ten minutes reviewing the judgement and issued this order:
Four lines is all it takes to tag completely normal and innocent people in the country as criminals. In no time, Seth had a few lines of his own that he circulated among people at the festival as well as with the media:
I’ve got to admit, I’m not entirely swept away by the rhyme (matching “whole” with “soul”, “rhyme” with “crime” is terribly close to a a kid’s homework for English Composition class). But these are petty details. Seth is one of the few celebrities to have stepped up to championing the rights of India’s LGBTQ community, and for that, he deserves all the adulation in the country.
That night, I was taken to dinner at the Bengal Club in Kolkata. It’s a gorgeous old building, with as many rules as there are bannisters (i.e. many). Men must wear jackets and their shirts must have collars. No open-toed sandals; only shoes. Women must be dressed formally. One of my dinner companions mused, while eating their soup, that Macaulay may have drafted Section 377 in the very room where we were dining. My appetite vanished immediately.
Technically speaking, my companion was wrong. When you enter Bengal Club, there’s a plaque that informs you of the following:
In the house which formerly stood on this site and was dismantled in 1908, resided Thomas Babington Macaulay, Law Member of the Supreme Council, in 1834-38.
Although the Indian Penal Code came into effect in 1862, Macaulay had drafted it in the 1830s, when he’d been living in the house that stood where Bengal Club does today. (The British weren’t bothered with making their legal presence felt until the mutiny of 1857. British law was introduced in India not to give rights, but to place constraints upon individual freedom in a variety of ways. We seem to be committed to carrying on that tradition in independent India.) So while Macaulay may not have done the writing in that precise room, it is very possible that we were in the general vicinity of the place where anal and oral sex had first been defined as unnatural and therefore criminal in India.
Sitting in that room with its fading opulence, I couldn’t help but wonder how Macaulay would have reacted to India today. Ours is a society that attacks people because they look different, from black people to those from the north eastern parts of the country who have Asian features. They could be harassed, they could be killed, just because they don’t look like other Indians. For a vast number of unprivileged people in the country, including women who can be gang-raped because they dared to choose their own boyfriends, there’s no such thing as rule of law. Marital rape is legal. Being suicidal is considered a mental disability. Homosexuality is illegal. The rights of those with physical disabilities are severely limited.
Macaulay would probably have found much of this familiar if he were to surface today.
In 2009, a judge in a small town in Lebanon, which has its own version of Section 377 in Article 534, threw out a case against a homosexual man. The judge wrote in his judgement:
“Man is part of nature and one of its elements and one of its cells and no one can say that any of his acts or behaviour is contradicting nature, even if the act is criminal or offending simply because these are the rules of nature. If the sky is raining during summer time or if we have a hot weather during winter or if a tree is giving unusual fruits, all these can be according to and with harmony to nature and are part of its rule themselves.”
Eating soup in Macaulay’s parlour, I let myself daydream that these days of smothered liberties and sinking rights are our rains during summer time.