- Choukathe Danriye (Standing at the Threshold): Queer Negotiations of Kolkata’s Archives and Society
This article is an attempt to bridge a divide within me. For as long as I can remember, I have maintained a distinction between my professional and personal writing. The former focuses on history, refugee identity, memory, and the dialectic between top-down policies and subaltern negotiations of power. The latter is about transgressions, hybridity, of speaking in forked tongues and unbelongings, and is mostly in the form of amateurish poetry. The former is published in academic journals and books and is designed for public consumption. I have only shared the latter within the protective circle of intimacy. On reflection, this separation, between public prose and private poetry, seems anything but natural. My fascination with history, and particularly with histories of the partition of India, can be traced back to my girlhood. Growing up in Kolkata, I was acutely aware that my family’s roots lay elsewhere, across a border—in a land that was once home but is now another country. My habit of writing poetry, upon reflection, also began in my girlhood in Kolkata. I wrote to mark my transgressions across the invisible yet pervasive borders of compulsory heterosexuality. Both are, in essence, narratives born of the limits and possibilities of crossing borders. Yet, one form of autobiographical border crossing became a resource for the public performance of expertise, whereas the other was designated to remain private and amateurish.
This split life as a writer was not the result of any kind of conscious choice. It was rather an instinctive protective response, born of negotiating a queer [End Page 84] childhood and adolescence in an overwhelmingly heteronormative and homo-phobic society. It follows that this divide between prose and poetry, public and private, neatly coincided with an unspoken division that permeated public forums in the Kolkata of my girlhood. This was the divide between respectable themes, which were deemed to be worthy of public debate, and the marginalized world of queer bodies and desires. Closeted writing became my dominant strategy for preserving some semblance of an authentic self, while passing as “normal” in a homophobic society. It allowed me to carve out a private safe space where through writing, I could not only explore queer desires, but also experiment with an intimate chronicle of a queer self as a work-in-progress. This refusal to hold up my queer identity to public scrutiny created a precious breathing space, a paradoxical freedom of the closet.
This is by no means a unique experience. Naisargi Dave’s ethnographic study documents how the public obfuscation of queer identities was a common strategy used by lesbians in India in order to retain a public, political voice, while also making room for intimate possibilities.1 However, the freedom of maneuver offered by the closet is inherently precarious. Such spaces and possibilities can be easily destroyed through exposure, ridicule, shame, and the violent policing of women’s desires.2 In my case, the safety of the closet was never compromised. But my success in passing as a “normal” scholar, researching and writing about one of the most mainstream topics in Indian history, i.e., the partition of India, came at a price. I scrupulously avoided all-things-queer within the academy, systematically depriving myself of a queer lexicon and a queer academic community. The loss entailed in this refusal to develop a public voice that could speak of queer selfhood became apparent as the years went by. I felt uncomfortably alienated from the growing field of queer studies. So, the invitation to this forum, and its format of encouraging personal and reflective essays on queer negotiations of research and fieldwork, provided a welcome opportunity for me to begin bridging this internal split between the private scripts of a queer self, and the public domain of academic essays. However, to paraphrase Adrienne Rich, silence can be “the blueprint to a life,” so the absence of words, written or spoken publicly, cannot be equated to absence.3 This article does not build bridges where none existed. Instead, it allows long-ignored connections to come into focus; it illuminates an...