‘You ask me if I have heard the word “lesbian”. No, I have not heard it,” says factory worker Vimlesh, one of the women interviewed by Maya Sharma in this extraordinary book. Vimlesh continues: ‘I am attracted to women. Why create these categories, such deep differences between male and female? We are all human beings, aren’t we?’
‘Groundbreaking’ is an over-used epithet, but in the case of this journey through lesbian working-class India it is entirely warranted. The movement for lesbian rights that has emerged in the country during the past decade has been predominantly privileged. Only women who can afford to live independently of tight family networks and the enforcements of tradition can live as lesbians. As for the women-who-love-women in shanty towns and villages, who knows who they are or how they live or even whether they exist?
With patience, determination and sensitivity, Maya Sharma has managed to make contact and get to know these ‘invisible’ women; the stories with which they slowly entrust her make for compelling and moving reading. These are powerful testimonies of love, courage, despair, accommodation, violence, endurance, passion, prejudice and rebellion. There are surprises aplenty, and ingenuity too; with little or no access to the ‘movement’, the women have to navigate their way around compulsory heterosexual marriage, stultifying patriarchal tradition and the omnipresent threat of violence. Some interviewees are fiercely memorable. Juhi, for example, who says: ‘It’s a blessing to have daughters. I did not want sons, I know what men are all about. All my daughters are lesbians. Oh yes! I know the word lesbian. So do my daughters.’Vanessa Baird