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Smriti Nevatia

QUEER ACTIVISM IN INDIA: A STORY IN THE ANTHROPOLOGY OF ETHICS
By Naisargi Dave
Zubaan, Delhi, 2016, pp. 265, Rs. 695.00

VOLUME XL NUMBER 7 July 2016

Early on, the title’s invocation of ‘ethics’ is explained, when the author says, ‘. . . I started asking . . . Why are activists, activists? Why do (these) activists act? The answers . . . seemed to exist within the realm of the ethical. These activists act, because, collectively, they nurture ethical ideals about what the world could look like. They act out of . . . beliefs in the possibility of justice. . . . because they desire new freedoms that they can as yet only imagine, but strive to enable.’ While such a gloss on activism might seem, at one level, commonplace, it is how Dave uses it as a point of departure that gives this book its substance, texture, and, to use a word the author often does, ‘affect’. Dave tells us that ‘It was in the simple and extraordinary practices of living life together—whether just watching television while piled in a bed, singing old love songs on a moonlit terrace, or riding through the empty streets of the city late on a summer night, shouting our conversations over the wind—that I often found myself most challenged, moved, or taught. . . . Thus, queer friendship and love are important and constitutive themes in this book about activism. . . . An ethnography about queer activism is necessarily an ethnography about friendship, and its troubles.’ The troubles, both internal and external, are certainly as well-documented here as are the friendships: the uneasy and shifting relationship between queer and feminist, in terms of the membership as well as political trajectories of groups and movements (among many other germane accounts is the story of how a queer group within a feminist NGO in Pune felt discriminated against and hounded out); questions of class and caste; of terminology, language, and privilege; the role played by media reports, such as the troubling notion of the ‘marriage’ between two women constables in Bhopal; the alwayspresent conflict for some between the ‘pressure’ to be ‘political’ and the desire just to be specifically desirous beings; the problems of running helplines with a handful of volunteers (there is a hilarious story about the ‘menstruation test’ that was devised by some volunteers in Delhi to identify ‘male lesbian impersonators’—suspects would be asked when they last got their period, causing unwanted callers to ‘stammer and slam down the telephone.’) It is precisely that prized-by-documentarians-of-all-hues access the author has, that makes this book a rewarding read. And yet, despite the author finding inspiration in ...


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