Over the rainbow: A Wknd interview with author and poet Ruth Vanita
A new book encapsulates poetry themed on identity, loss, same-sex love; another traces battles for marriage equality in rural India. Much has changed, she says.
Ruth Vanita, 67, is a scholar, novelist, teacher, poet and translator.
“I find it reinvigorating. These forms of writing activate different parts of the imagination and enable one to live in different worlds. Only scholarly writing might have turned me into someone who knew more and more about less and less,” she says.
The author is best known for Same-Sex Love in India (2000; co-edited with the late Saleem Kidwai), a collection of excerpts from biographies, histories, letters, poems and stories covering more than 2,000 years, beginning with ancient epics and concluding with stories from the late 20th century. The editors’ introductions to each period trace changing depictions of and debates around same-sex love.
Vanita’s latest book, The Broken Rainbow (June 2023), is a collection of 49 poems that she has written over 35 years, on themes of memory and displacement, love and grief. It also includes translations of three poems by other poets, that she loves reading and revisiting. It comes nearly three decades after her first book of poems, A Play of Light (1994).
“So much has changed!” she says. “There is a lot more visibility of same-sex love in media, popular cinema, and the curriculum. Now, I am invited to speak at colleges in small towns as well, not just big cities. People are eager to listen and talk. There is curiosity, interest, and openness. The internet has revolutionised everything.
Dating apps in particular amaze her, particularly for how easy they have made it for gay people to find each other. “Earlier, we used to think, ‘Is she lesbian? Is she not?’ Now you can just find out online. I know many people who have met their partners online.”
Some of the terms being used are so different, she adds. “I almost never use the word ‘queer’. I do not object to it. But, to me, ‘queer’ means ‘strange’, and I do not think that there is anything strange about a woman being in love with another woman. I have also been called an LGBTQ person, which sounds funny. How can one person be all those things at the same time?”
Vanita was born in Yangon, Myanmar, in 1955. Her parents moved to Delhi when she was two.
It was from her mother that she acquired her love of poetry, she says. She recited poems and told stories while doing housework. Her father had a clerical job, and her mother was always trying to supplement the family income by sewing, holding conversational English classes for women, offering piano lessons and English tutoring to children. She homeschooled Vanita, all the way until she enrolled in Miranda House college, for first a Bachelor’s and then a Master’s degree in English literature.
After completing her MA at the age of 20, Vanita took a job as a lecturer of English at Miranda House. She would hold professorial positions here and in the English department at Delhi University for a combined 20 years.
Like many lesbian women at the time, she learnt to keep her personal and professional life separate. Then she moved to the US, in 1997, to teach English / British literature and South Asian Studies at the University of Montana. She met and married Mona Bachmann, now 65, a Jewish American woman; together, they raised their son Arjun, who is now 17.
She retired as professor last year, and plans to spend more time in India now. “My closest friends are in India,” she says. “I am a practising Hindu. I miss Indian food when I am away. It’s so easy to just walk down the street, and get a samosa here.”
Most of Vanita’s work is set in India, and it has been a busy three years for the writer.
Her 2020 novel Memory of Light tells of the love between two 18th-century courtesans, one in Lucknow and the other in Kashi. In 2021, she released My Family, her translation of Hindi writer Mahadevi Varma’s Mera Parivaar, about how a chosen family can include not just humans but also animals and birds that one cares for.
In 2022, Vanita released her academic work, The Dharma of Justice: Debates on Gender Varna and Species. Her second novel, A Slight Angle, due for release in 2024, is set in 1920s Delhi and Bombay and features a significant relationship between two gay men.
Love’s Rite, first published by Penguin India in 2005, was updated and reissued in 2021. The following year, the publisher released a collector’s edition to coincide with the marriage equality petitions being heard in the Supreme Court. The book is a documentation of same-sex marriages in India, solemnised through rituals and ceremonies that were meaningful to couples in love even if they were not recognised by the law, with some of these dating to 1980.
“When I started working on that book, I was keen to understand the lives of women who pioneered the marriage equality movement in India, long before the recent petitions,” Vanita says. “These people did not belong to the urban elite. They were from marginalised caste and class backgrounds. Many of them happened to come from villages and small towns. They did not wait for the courts to approve of their relationships. They were in love. They found creative ways to declare their commitment to each other.”
A book of translations covering 100 years of writing about same-sex desire — On the Edge: 100 Years of Same-Sex Desire in Hindi Fiction — is due out next month.
What future does she see for marginalised youngsters in India? “Everybody has a cell phone, and access to the internet. That is a game-changer,” she says. “People are now able to connect easily, find people like themselves. This used to be so hard.”
She finds it reassuring, she adds, to see many queer couples joyfully living out their lives.
“Most people in same-sex relationships exist, in that sense, outside the movement. They do not go to pride marches. They want to just get on with their lives, not really participate in debates or explain themselves to others. These people are not closeted or ashamed of who they love, have sex with, or spend their life with,” she says. “They just choose not to label themselves, and I think that is okay. Let everyone flourish in their own way.”