‘This was the most difficult book I’ve written’: Siddharth Dube on his memoir

An edited version of this interview appeared on Scroll.in.

There is a chapter in Siddharth Dube’s memoir, No One Else: A Personal History of Outlawed Love and Sex, in which he writes about receiving the devastating news of a dear friend’s death. At the time, Dube was working as a UN consultant in New York City, and had last met his friend on a visit to New Delhi. Soon after receiving news of his friend’s passing, Dube describes the wrenching pain of receiving a last letter from him, written days before his death, “I wept with remorse for not having written to him, and for knowing it was too late to remedy my error. […] It broke my heart to know that I would be the one missing him for the rest of my life.”

This friend was Siddhartha Gautam, a lawyer and activist, who founded India’s first AIDS activist group. Dube spends the same chapter detailing the contents of a remarkable booklet Gautam and his colleagues had written, and sent with his last letter for Dube to read. The quality of Dube’s prose is just as heartfelt, and just as powerful when he switches easily to talking about the political implications of the booklet. This is a quality that characterises the entire book, which merges the telling of a deeply personal tale with major political currents that have swept India and the USA during Dube’s lifetime.

Dube begins in Calcutta of the 1960s, when as a child, he first realised he didn’t fit into societal norms of gender and sexuality. We follow him to the elite Doon school, where he experienced bullying and sexual abuse, and then to university in the USA. Alongside the beautifully told stories, often painful, and often uplifting, of his closest friendships and relationships, Dube deftly addresses the hypocrisies of the World Bank and UNAIDS, where he worked, and the brutal way that consensual sex work is criminalised in India.

No One Else is remarkable in both depth and breadth. Dube manages to tell not just his own story, but the stories of people he considers as standing beside him in the fight for freedom from regressive understandings of human life. Here are excerpts from a conversation with the author.

On writing a memoir

This book came out of a very particular point in my life when everything was changing: my beloved father passing away, an important relationship falling apart, and my moving back to India from the USA. It also has to do with reaching real middle age, because I began the book a few years before I turned fifty.

The thing with growing older is that if you’re pushed hard enough, and if you’re fortunate enough to have spiritual support, you’re forced to look at pain in a wiser way. You feel almost grateful to it. And it is the pain of many decades that pushed me to write the book in the way that I have.

On the anger in his book

This is a book full of both gratitude and anger. The gratitude is for the course of my life, and the anger has to do with at how this country has let down sex workers, transgender people, injecting drug users, poor people, and other marginalised people.

The anger is also the corrupt, complicit, irrational political class that has mis-governed this country for decades. The worst of this is the Sangh Parivar — they represent what is worst in India. Luckily, they’re only a tiny minority, I’m sure of that.

On not reading while writing

As I write a book, I try not to read anything related to what I’m writing about. This is because I struggle as a writer; I never think that I write particularly well, I’m always frustrated by myself and feel that I never do justice to all the oral histories that I take from other people. I feel like a failure as a consequence, and this feeling is heightened when I read other people’s work. I’ll be reading Sonia Faleiro or Kiran Desai, and see that they have managed to capture in one sentence what I feel I couldn’t say in the entire book. So I keep the reading for after I’ve finished writing.

This was the most difficult book I’ve had to write. Even my first book, despite involving the most extraordinarily difficult research concerning land reform in rural India, was easier. I was young and desperate then, and I took three years to write that book. But this took seven years to write.

On the adverse impact of homophobic writing

I was privileged; my father’s support, and the fact that he could afford to send me to the USA saved me. Far from home, I could become myself. Had I not had that opportunity, I would probably have had a dark and very short life. Many of my peers certainly did: many turned to drink, some committed suicide. This is why it really angers me when I see someone like Swapan Dasgupta writing about gay people as a ‘criminal fringe’. These are human beings, they are people’s children, for god’s sake. They are flesh and blood.

When it comes to public discourse about sex, I agree with what Martha Nussbaum says in her book Sex and Social Justice. First of all, everything that relates to human life, including sex, should be talked about without disgust, and with empathy and rationality. Secondly, why is there so much darkness and persecution because of gender and sexuality? It is the cause for some of the worst inequality and injustice in the world. Unless we stop this and treat everybody with loving kindness and respect, there can be no human progress.

On being the US when AIDS panic first emerged

The AIDS epidemic started six months before I reached. Everything that queer people had fought for suddenly went into a tailspin. All those decades of progress were lost, because hateful people went around saying that the epidemic was God’s judgement on gay people for being promiscuous.

On the multi-issue nature of movements

All social justice is integrally intertwined. Injustice to one person will infect and poison the rest of society, and cause more injustice in the world.

I do find a focus on single issues distressing, and I find that this has grown in India because the economy has boomed, and there is more distance between people who are rich and those who are economically marginalised.

However, I’ve met people all over the country, from all kinds of social and economic backgrounds, who already think of justice in these terms, from Swami Agnivesh to Ram Dass Pasi, the dalit labourer who featured in my book In the Land of Poverty.

We need a politics of social justice in this country, and that’s what we should focus on.

On the repeal of Section 377 in India

I’m sure it will happen, I trust that in the long term, most Indians will understand that it is a matter of human justice. I don’t know if it will happen in my lifetime. Of course, I expect and demand for it to happen immediately, and I am going to criticise all the people who stand in the way of it. But it’s so difficult to say whether it will happen in the short term.

I was so taken aback by the Supreme Court ruling in 2013, upholding Section 377. It is not in keeping with the spirit of the Indian Constitution, nor of the Supreme Court and the High Courts. It is not what Indians expect from the judiciary, it is not justice. This same court has understood the humanity and essential need for equality for people of any definition of gender, which is reflected in the 2014 NALSA judgement. It is such a telling contradiction, and somebody needs to solve it.

However depressed I can get by the fact that all this democratic churning and people’s effort often comes to naught, I believe that India is an increasingly just country. That’s the source of my hope.

On the decriminalisation of consensual sex work

There’s an utterly criminal misrepresentation of the truth about sex work in India. I’ve spent a long time working on this, and the data from India is very clear, because millions of dollars have been spent in trying to understand the HIV epidemic in this country. And yet, people like Nicholas Kristof, author and journalist, and Ruchira Gupta, the founder of Apne Aap Worldwide, ignore this data and do not differentiate between human trafficking, and consensual sex work by an adult.

I cannot criticise these people enough, because as we speak, women are being locked up in reformatories by the police thanks to this conflation of trafficking and sex work. We all know what happens when the police have their hands on women; there are countless testimonies of the sexual violence they face.

I don’t want people to get me wrong, so let me say this: there is trafficking in India, and it is a crime, which must be stopped. But abolitionists need to be the first people to stand up for sex workers’ rights when they are locked up for ‘anti-trafficking’ reasons. Consensual sex work needs to be decriminalised, because most women do it as one option of many other difficult options, such as working on construction sites and cleaning bathrooms, situations in which they’re almost always prey to exploitation and sexual abuse. Sex work often gives them the chance to leave behind abusive husbands. How can anybody justify locking them up after this?

I close the book with another woman, who in 2012 is locked up in the same reformatory that Selvi was locked up in, in 1986. This woman was in there for two years, and for the entire time she kept saying that she hadn’t been trafficked or pimped. Nobody listened to her. Is this what we want, for women to be treated in this utterly brutal and disempowering way?

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