Book Review


Secret Writings of Hoshang Merchant by Hoshang Merchant edited by Akshaya K Rath

Wafa Hamid

Publisher:  Oxford University Press India

Genre:  Non-Fiction, Autobiography

Extent: 225 pp

Price: Rs 650

‘You are what you do in bed. In life you play roles.’ (Merchant)

With over twenty eight books of poetry, prose and critical writing already under his belt, Hoshang Merchant comes full circle with his latest offering, Secret Writings of Hoshang Merchant.  A collection of essays ranging from literary criticism and commentaries, memoirs and musings to impressions and observations succinctly tuned to the particular, Secret Writings is political yet intensely personal. Offering a delicious sampling of writings, the collection is a culmination of Merchant’s earlier writing and poetry and one of his most mature works.

The book is divided into four sections – Literature, Autobiography, Sexuality and Matriarchy and the Nation along with an accompanying Postscript. It consists of twenty-one pieces with the first section a reflection on literature and conflict through the works of poets like Tagore, Yeats and Agha Shahid Ali with each poet straddling between two worlds: male-female, past-present, spirit-body; each with its own set of conflicts and choices.  The second, relatively short section uses autobiographical sketches and commentaries for a ‘telling’ of the marginal self of the homosexual who is in perpetual exile, uprooted from the society with no place to call home. Merchant uses the writing of the ‘auto’- self, to inscribe his exiled self in memory where earlier questions like ‘who am I? where do I come from? where am I going?’ give way to a self-individualization which breaks away from monolithic, monocultural and oppressive structures. 

This ‘self’ (in the subsequent sections on sexuality and matriarchy) defies and deconstructs binaries to re-enact a homosexual history not as one of shame and subjugation but that of free exchange: ‘Do not ask who gave, who received in love: only who most enjoyed.’ The essays also trace a brief history of homoeroticism with its varied manifestations in India across time, testing the validity of compartmentalised sexual identities and vouching instead for a politics of desire. Merchant, however, is aware of his own privilege and position as ‘gay but nominally male’ while talking about minority groups under siege and addressing vital questions around gender, masculinity, pornography as well as language itself. 

‘Writing, loving and living are three linked activities in Merchant’s life. Not to love is not to live; not to write is to die,’ explains Akshaya K Rath in the introduction. Although a collection of seemingly disconnected essays dispersed over time, the book reads more like an intermediary genre combining the non-fictional, critical writing with the creative, almost poetic diction and style.  ‘This is no fiction, I have scars on my body and my soul to prove this.’ Merchant says. The book challenges the narrative of oppression and exclusion through creating an archive of memory whose existence in the social context has continuously been denied by the society. This society, with its shared amnesia regarding any sexuality and desire which does not fit its norms forces the homosexual to be a schizophrenic living in two times, both in conflict with each other. The text engages with sex, love and poetry without undermining either, in an effort to understand the self.

Merchant is not one to mince words or hide them under the pretence of a false morality. Although prone to some instances of rather sweeping generalizations, his style is refreshingly uninhibited –deeply personal, yet public. The book has a journal-like feel and in its endeavour to express gay desire evokes images from Roland Barthes’ Incidents. Interestingly, his writing also brings to mind Fowles’ Wormholes in its quirky language along with its exploration of the relationship of literature to life and morality. In spite of varied topics it touches upon, perhaps the heart of the book is in the writing about desire. Merchant’s body gets inscribed in every line, revealing a fascinating mind at work and every word becomes an expression of his desire. The author lives his life through literature, weaving a beautiful and insightful narrative where the dichotomy between the battered body and the longing soul no longer exists and the physical becomes a medium for gaining spiritual salvation. Poetry and writing also provides a medium of engagement, moving from the politics of exclusion to one of empathy.

The book is Merchant’s love song to life and literature It is an attempt to not only write the self, but is more global in outlook, typically delving into vital issues which are to do with the author’s eccentric personal/secret self, yet at the same time have a far reaching impact and importance for many. Literature, which very aptly is the first section of the book, becomes a subterfuge, a way of navigating and negotiating spaces, identity, and reality. So, why write poetry, especially in such times of terror and conflict? Merchant through this book attempts to provide an answer. After all, ‘Love redeems, poetry redeems. There is Light!’ even in the dark night of the soul.

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Wafa Hamid is currently Assistant Professor, Department of English at Lady Shri Ram College for Women, University of Delhi.