Published: 22nd July 2020
If alive, Siras would have laughed when SC decriminalised Section 377: Anish Gawande on translating the gay AMU professor's poems
Shrinivas Ramchandra Siras, a Marathi professor at the Aligarh Muslim University was humiliated and suspended for being gay. He died by suicide 10 years ago
The story has two protagonists, born around half a century apart. Their paths never crossed, in the 62 years that Srinivas Ramchandra Siras lived. Anish Gawande was a mere teenager, who hadn't heard of Siras, in 2010, the year in which Siras died by suicide. Probably the only similarities they had were both of them were queer cismen.
Siras was a linguist, author, award-winning poet and professor of Marathi at the Aligarh Muslim University. He also headed the university's Department of Modern Indian Languages until his death on April 7, 2010. However, he is not remembered for any of these accomplishments, but for being caught for having sex with another man in his bedroom in the university accommodation. This was eight years before the Supreme Court decriminalised Section 377 of the IPC. Following this, Siras was humiliated, ostracised and suspended from the university. Even though the suspension was revoked and the professor returned to his beloved university, this time as a 'proud, openly gay man', he took his life, a few days after that.
Film buffs may remember Siras through Manoj Bajpayee's portrayal of the professor in Hansal Mehta's film Aligarh, which talks about the incidence. The film also weaves in Siras' poetry and mentions his long-forgotten book ' Paya Khalchi Hirawal (Translates to 'The grass under my feet). However, this lingered on to Anish's thoughts, who watched the film when he was a student at Columbia University. This was probably the first time that Anish, who is now the director of the Dara Shikoh Fellowship had heard about the film.
What followed was a four-year-long journey to find a copy of that book, out of sheer curiosity to read Siras' works and understand the queerness it contained. Today, Anish has translated four poems of Siras' and one of them, 'Rooms to sleep in', has made it to The World That Belongs To Us, an anthology of queer poetry.
Rajkumar Rao and Manoj Bajpayee in Aligarh
We recently caught up with Anish to know more about the journey and to find out if he could tell us more about Siras, that we did not know. Excerpts:
Was there a particular reason why you went chasing the book?
Watching Aligarh for me was a revelation in many ways. For someone who grew up queer and was invested in activism, it was a realisation that here's a man who was publicly outed, shamed and disowned by his university at a time when 377 was illegal.
However, this was after the 2009 Delhi HC verdict (that struck down Section 377) and the country was celebrating freedom. But here's a man who was still being persecuted for being gay, facing stigma and was on the verge of losing his job. While everyone found everything else about Siras and the scandal, very few took the time to uncover his legacy. It was important for me to know Siras the transgressive soft-spoken, yet powerful poet, whose work made him queer. Everything focussed on the pathos of a professor who was ostracised by his university and was on the verge of losing his job, as an individual whom we let down as a community. But it became important to not put him into the book of a martyr. I wanted to rather celebrate him with love and joy.
What better way to do that more than reading their book?
Siras' book Payakhali Hirwal
How long ago did you watch Aligarh?
I watched it a year after it came out. It was a very random pick. I didn't know that it was about a queer professor. But it hit hard.
When did you start the journey to uncover the book?
This is one of those journeys that lay in the back of your mind always. It wasn't a search that led me to the extreme. It was a 'jhatka' that kept going and coming back. Then it became a mad, passionate search. I'd say it was around 4 years ago when I started the search. I was still at University. I'd find out if any library in any part of the country has it. Then I found out that Sahitya Parishad in Pune had awarded Siras for this book. I called up and asked if they have a copy. The said if you want to find, you have to come to Pune and find out. That never happened. Along the way, an assembly of people who got pulled into this. I had messaged the film's screenwriter Apurva Asrani on Twitter who said that somebody in the sets of Aligarh had a copy, but couldn't remember who. I messaged journalist Deepu Sebastian, on whom Rajkumar Rao's character was based, but that too didn't go anywhere. Finally, I found another person Akhil Katyal, the editor of The world that belongs to us, who was also searching for the book. Akhil is the one who finally found an ebook copy of Siras' book. That's when I started reading the book. I always knew that I wanted to translate it but the real push came when the anthology was planned and Akhil asked me if I would translate. I was a student of comparative literature and I studied translation, but mostly from French to English and vice-versa. I gave it a shot and translated 4 poems.
Siras in AMU campus
In this journey, did you get to learn something new about Siras?
The journey itself was a revelation on how little is queer history documented. Despite the discussion, queerness remains largely invisible. I also found these beautiful books penned by his friends and colleagues at AMU. Siras was remembered with so much love and warmth. I remember obsessively stalking footage of interviews that he gave throughout the journey. This was an excavation.
In all these years, did you go to AMU?
I didn't. This is something I wanted to do, but I could not. I was in touch with people from AMU and was supposed to go there. Maybe it'll happen when it has to happen. Probably, the library at AMU will have a copy of the book. I'm sure the Marathi collection isn't impossible to dig through. There are some things that you want to keep as a distinct possibility.
Anish Gawande (Pic: Twitter)
Did you find similarities or could you draw parallels between yourself and Siras?
Not really. He was a soft-spoken man who did not necessarily want to wear his sexuality on his sleeve. The parallels came from the point that his work was powerful. That was what drew me to Siras' story more. I think Siras is queer because his poetry is delightfully queer. Queerness is pushing of boundaries, it is transgression. It doesn't have to be written by a queer person to be queer.
Had he been alive in 2018, how would have Siras reacted to the Supreme Court decriminalising Section 377?
Siras would have laughed. If he'd survived what happened at AMU, the humiliation, he'd have been a powerful voice there. Remember, Siras died after the HC verdict. He knows that the court verdict means nothing. You can still be fired for being gay, discriminated against and actions won't be taken in your favour. Even though 377 was decriminalised in 2018, what did we do after that? Siras' life questions that. The 2018 verdict was a powerful moment for me and for the country. But Siras would have seen beyond it