Under my byline

Queer reads

Posted in Books, Profiles by Rrishi on 25 July 2010

A year after homosexuality was decriminalised, Shobhna Kumar has founded India’s first online LGBT bookshop

“It’s about mainstreaming,” says Shobhna Kumar, explaining why she co-founded Queer Ink, India’s first online LGBT bookshop. LGBT stands for “lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender”, and that is more or less the core demographic that celebrated, this month, the first anniversary of the decriminalisation of gay sex in India. On July 2 last year, the Delhi High Court decided the 150-year-old Section 377 violated fundamental human rights; so the law has at last ceased to apply to things that consenting adults do in private.

Now that people of alternate sexuality are no longer automatically criminals, another struggle remains: for acceptance and ‘mainstreaming’. Indeed, ‘queer’, although it is a less specific term than LGBT, avoids the context of sex. “Queer is not sexuality only; it is anything that is non-mainstream,” Shobhna Kumar explains, adding that “As a queer person, I live in the mainstream.” She lives, and Queer Ink is based in, the middle-class seaside suburb of Malad in Mumbai.

You might wonder how mainstreaming is served if you’re setting up a queer-specific business and community. Kumar describes how she came to think of books as her route to normalisation. It started with a lacuna. “I’m a bookworm,” she says, “and when I came to live in Mumbai some years ago I looked and searched high and low for non-mainstream books. The fiction that interests me is not your average murder mystery or something. I like lifestyle books, non-fiction, anthologies. I don’t want to read about rich businessmen.” Eventually, she says, “I figured out that people don’t go to retail stores and pick up books like this.” Between the shelf and the cash counter, she says, other browsers and salespeople “look down” on people who choose certain kinds of books.

So she resolved to bridge this gap by going online. And not only on behalf of readers with a taste for ‘queer’ writing. “We live in the mainstream,” she says of her fellows of alternate sexuality. “Our brothers, sisters, friends, parents are all straight. Where do they get their support and knowledge from?”

For 20 years Kumar has been in the non-profit sector. Raised in Fiji, she studied in Australia and the USA, and has been in the social sector in Sydney, San Francisco and Mumbai. “I have worked with many groups of people,” she says, including migrants, asylum-seekers and refugees, apart from the elderly and people with disabilities. In India for the last eight years, she has worked in HIV-AIDS awareness and prevention, women and children’s health, with LGBT communities, and so on. Mumbai has a particularly strong and active queer network, and she also helps with Kashish, the well-regarded Indian queer film festival.

Yes, Queer Ink does offer titles which will appeal to queer readers, such as Why Women Have Sex: Sexual Motivation from Adventure to Revenge — and Everything in Between by Cindy Meston and David Buss (The Bodley Head, Rs 520), and Partner by Bindumadhav Khire (self-published, Rs 50). But it has other titles, too, including popular fiction bestsellers and, especially, in the children’s section. “I have young nieces and nephews, and would like them to be able to read non-mainstream, non-patriarchal books. I came across a few publishers producing beautiful, educational and contemporary titles” — like Chennai-based Tulika Books — and tied up with them. Queer Ink has a particular strength in books in Indian languages — Partner is in Marathi, for instance. And most of the Indian titles are economically priced.

The numbers, however, are still small. Queer Ink has only 200-plus titles on sale, with some authors contributing several titles. The website design suggests that comprehensiveness is not the aim. Partly, Kumar says, that’s because “This is just a start.” It wasn’t easy, she says, to get publishers interested in partnering with her at first, “because I was an unknown”. Once the site was soft-launched earlier this year, however, “They saw that I’ve got a unique website, and it’s creating a market.” Now, she says, “I have publishers contacting me and also authors contacting me. It’s a new model available in India.” Some of those authors are queer writers whose work ‘mainstream’ publishers have not been willing to invest in.

Kumar has already made space for queer writers on Queer Ink. There is a Writer’s Corner, which contains (at time of writing) about 20 pieces by six contributors. Several are poems. “The number of poems I receive!” Kumar exclaims. “Poetry is the only way people can express passion and tragedies.” The website also has a short (and, despite three updates, as yet unsatisfactory) section on current queer ‘lingo’, apart from a calendar of queer events (so far just in Mumbai).

Which leads Kumar to her next step: back into the real world. “In six-seven months I would definitely start a publishing house,” she says. “That’s the kind of interest trickling in.” She says she and her partner have put about Rs 8 lakh into Queer Ink. Eventually, the online bookshop may also develop a real outlet, with a coffee shop and a community presence — and Kumar will have completed her transformation from social worker to social entrepreneur.

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