Updated: May 27, 2021
When the Supreme Court of India overturned the Delhi High Court verdict decriminalising homosexuality, several of the country’s leading mental health experts had urged the Supreme Court against this to no avail. “ The interveners [argued] that criminalising consensual same-sex intercourse causes ‘enormous mental and psychological distress to LGBT persons placing them at a significantly higher risk of psychiatric morbidity and fatal outcomes like suicide" (Gnanesh). They attributed heteronormativity and social homophobia as causes for psychological trauma for the LGBTQ community, something played out clearly in Himanjali Sankar’s Talking of Muskaan (2014), a text I discussed in my paper at the conference.
Muskaan, along with the rest of the books in my paper, form part of the primary texts I’m looking at for my doctoral dissertation on Mental Health in contemporary Indian Children’s Fiction. Muskaan and Sankar’s more recent The Lies We Tell (2019) are part of the astonishingly few Indian texts which actually represent psychopathologies like depression, anxiety and trauma in detail, but aspects of this are visible between the lines in most of the texts I am looking at. Fewer still represent childhood sexuality and the influence that can have on mental health, which is very telling of social apathy towards these particular issues.
The connection between sexuality and mental health is less direct in Lies than in Muskaan; rather, the author takes care to convey that the protagonist Irfan does not fit into the traditional masculine stereotype, unlike his best friend Rishi, who exemplifies toxic masculinity.
“Apart from Rishi, my closest friends have always been girls. Maybe because of my sister. I grew up with dolls and kitchen toys. I never really played with cars and guns – I would tag along with my sister and do whatever she was doing. In school too, I enjoyed hanging with the girls – I never went through the ‘I hate girls’ phase like most of my male friends. But I did pretend to. Just to belong with the guys." (10)
This is explicitly called a weakness by Rishi, in his texts to his girlfriend Uma, and one of the reasons why Rishi hates Irfan – he doesn’t physically fight back and he never processed his sister’s death. Irfan’s unprocessed grief and Rishi’s manipulations together cause Irfan to fall headlong into a well he gets trapped in. The metaphors and images are in no way subtle and every minutiae of Irfan’s depression is starkly splashed across the text – as he cuts ties, plans his suicide attempt, moves from grief to anger to numbness. Sankar uses this to highlight the necessity of having a support system and the culpability of emotionally negligent parents. Irfan’s mental health issues are exacerbated by the systematic abandonment he suffers – first by his sister, then his parents, then Uma and Rishi. His school only notices when Uma’s intimate picture is leaked and his parents perfunctorily take him to psychiatrist only at the principal’s behest, and then make no effort to engage with him.
“It must have been years since Ammi’s touched me” (129)
There is pathos in Irfan’s shock, but there’s also a pity for these parents who are so consumed grieving for their daughter that they have given their remaining child nothing but neglect.
If the action in Lies is centripetal, it is centrifugal in Muskaan. Whereas in Lies, Sankar puts the reader through the individual experience of depression, in Muskaan, she pulls them through the personal thoughts of multiple characters who each represent various aspects of social taboos on homosexuality. The purpose of this is to impress upon the reader the extent of social culpability in the trauma an LGBTQ individual faces. Muskaan’s withdrawal from the people around her is a result of her friends and parents actively rejecting her and pushing her away. Muskaan’s support system deliberately fails her – even Subhojoy, who becomes her friend after Aaliya rejects her, judges her for her inability to deal with relentless homophobic bullying and her mother actively encourages her friends to bully her –
“Muskaan’s mom always gangs up with us on such stuff. Wax your legs. Wear a bra. Check out that cute guy. I know Muskaan hates it when Aunty does that.” (18)
So why do they? None of them really know. All they know is that difference must be stamped out, whatever the cost to a person’s mental health.
Gnanesh, Chetan. “You Should Know What 13 Mental Health Experts Told The SC About Section 377”. Youth Ki Awaaz, October 17 2016. https://www.youthkiawaaz.com/2016/10/mental-health-experts-on-homosexuality/
Sankar, Himanjali. Talking of Muskaan. Duckbill Books, 2014.
Sankar, Himanjali. The Lies We Tell. Duckbill Books, 2019.
Ritwika Roy is currently a Senior Research Fellow pursuing a PhD from the Department of English, Jadavpur University. Her primary area of research is children’s literature, and areas of interest include mythology and folklore, visual arts and literature, 19th century literature, literature and psychology, and postcolonial studies. She presented a paper titled “The secret is that the secret changes”: Sex and Taboo in India and Indian Young Adult Fiction at LTASYA.