The queen of good intentions

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Hoshang Merchant peeks into a life that defies the conventional and lets itself be used, debased and exploited, says Nithin Manayath

Modern ‘saint’ Hoshang Merchant
Modern ‘saint’ Hoshang Merchant
Photo: The Hindu Archive

THIS IS quite literally a life flashing before us. Homosexual (gay doesn’t quite cut it) poet, writer and academic Hoshang Merchant packs into this slim 200-page book, which he calls ‘autobiographical fictions’, a good 60 years of experiences. Recounting his life from the 1940s to 2010 (separated into four sections that I fear my illiteracy can make little sense of for you), the reader faces a wandering homosexual who only occasionally reveals himself as a character, peeking shyly from behind the I-me-my of the narrative.

Unlike the gentle witticisms of a Quentin Crisp or the brute shock of Genet’s rituals or the lyrical ludic of a Reinaldo Arenas, what we get with this queen is a more capricious truth telling bordering on the neurotic. For instance, unlike the first two, he does not shy away from calling himself a saint, a title that the first two earned even as they are likely to have cocked indifference to it. Hoshang says quite shamelessly, “No, I chose purposely a difficult path which few start upon, the path of ‘saint’ or ‘poet’ which by definition includes ‘sinner’ and ‘destroyer’.” Unlike Genet, there is no sacred liturgical drama, no moment of nirvana or castration that is recounted to us as the moment that creates the saint-I of the narrative; this is more of a reincarnation.

A family that is characterised as dysfunctional, friends, lovers, acquaintances, rooms, mentors (Mulk Raj Anand, Virgil Lokke, Anais Nin), alter egos (Anais Nin, Jesus, Rumi, Ghalib), other writers, monuments, art, sexual encounters and other events are summoned and banished in quick succession. His poems, letters and incessant quotes from across cultures are presented as brief elaborations, footnotes or appendices to these impulsive invocations. His prose is at once baroque in its whimsical surge and yet skeletal, in the manner that we fall occasionally into elliptical memory holes even as he has just elicited a tactile response by offering the promise of more flesh.

The Man Who Would Be Queen
Hoshang Merchant
Penguin
208 pp; Rs 250

His preoccupation with Judeo-Christian theology and psychologisation mingles effortlessly with references to high-art, Linda Goodman babble, mysticism, pop Hindu philosophy, ghazals, self-proclamations of sainthood, and even banal newsprint sexuality politics. And it is in these mad mappings that we see an image of a lone dancer, letting events and ideas pass through him, sieving nothing, retaining nothing. The hardest part of reviewing this book was also that much of what one can say of the man and his writing is already there within the book as odd assessments from friends and acquaintances, that are inserted into the telling and seemingly wash over the narrator without any effect.

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