19. Forbidding the Eastern Wind | Blog van Joost Overhoff

19. Forbidding the Eastern Wind

India outlaws gay sex (again). Right there, where the Wheel of Life is thought to turn round and round, they are trying to turn back the clock.
This week I received an e-mail, through someone I don’t know, containing an open letter by Ms.Leila Seth. I do know her however. She is the mother of the highly acclaimed writer Vikram Seth.
The letter arrived while the cycle of my own mother’s life is slowly closing. It is a process that comes with its side effects, like going through old papers. So, last week, I came upon an article I wrote about Vikram. Thirty years ago.


Let me translate the part of the article describing how I met The Honourable Mr.Seth. In China.
(After last weeks ‘Airport Concert’ one might get the impression I specialize in unusual encounters).

Huangshan, April 1982.
I whirl once more in the incredible luxury of a real bathtub.This rather grubby looking thing is filled to the edge with thermal hot water, that springs from this famous mountain area.
My muscles, tightened by miles of stony stairs, are just beginning to relax when someone in the booth next to mine starts singing, beautifully, but puzzling. Apart from my Chinese-American fellow traveller I haven’t noticed any other foreigners around. While the singing continues, I conclude it cannot be a westerner either. I decide to take a shot at it, in Chinese.
‘Dear Singer, I bet you’re not Chinese, are you?’, I say out loud.
The singing stops, leaving the air filled with a mix of silence and surprise.
‘No, I am not’, it comes back.
And, so, a conversation starts from the anonymity of our individual bathtubs.
Ten minutes later I stand eye to eye with a small, sympathetic Indian: Vikram Seth.

We became friends, and some time later he came to visit me in Beijing, together with his mother and his brother.
Only someone who could mistake a diamond for a pebble could fail to notice that Vikram was brilliant, but I had no idea that Vikram was gay. Not being gay myself, I lacked the right sensor. (Now, after having lived for many years in Amsterdam, my eye is fully trained).
In failing to spot homosexuals then I wasn’t alone. It came up as a topic of conversation among foreign students: ‘The Chinese gays, where are they?!’ Quite a few Chinese were convinced that homosexuals in their country didn’t exist. That was hard, if not impossible to believe. Moreover, gay sex was a criminal offence, pretty meaningless if gays didn’t exist. But it was certainly good enough for them to keep a low profile, to the point of trying ‘not to be’.
Since ‘97 gay sex is allowed in China. More recently it was declared legal in India as well. Not anymore. That is what drove Ms.Seth, as a judge and as a mother, to write her letter.
Forbidding gay sex is like, say, forbidding the wind to blow from the east. It is, in one word, ridiculous. Gays have always existed, everywhere, and will not go away whatever law you may throw at them. (As a matter of fact, I would be interested to know whether there exist any statistics about a ‘Brilliance to Gay Ratio’). In any case, gays can’t be expected just to wave at each other until The End.
When I first arrived in China, news broke about a new phenomenon: AIDS. Back then, it was rather often seen as a just punishment for lewd, ‘unnatural’ behaviour. At most, that line of thought could be excused as far as certain excesses in the gay community were concerned. But to forbid people who love each other to express their love physically is not only ridiculous, it is inhumane.
India, you are too great to be either.


The letter by Ms.Leila Seth