Niranjan Kunwar: Queering the story
When Niranjan Kunwar talks about Bollywood, his body language shifts: he sits tall, his face brightens up, his hands flit about in flowery circular motion, and his speech quickens.
“I sometimes joke with friends that I have a PhD in 90s Bollywood and they believe me. Because if you asked me who won the Filmfare Award for best actor in 1993, I will tell you, ‘Sharukh Khan, of course, for Baazigar.’” He laughs.
Born on June 9, 1981, Niranjan always knew he was different. When being sent off to boarding school, instead of the usual reluctance, he was eager to leave his parents. As a young boy, he was close to his cousin sisters and dressed in their skirts and performed for them. “I feel like I have lost that part of me,” he says. “I want to reclaim it.”
In December of 2020, amidst lockdown and pandemic, Niranjan’s memoir, Between Queens and the Cities, became the first queer memoir in English to be published in Nepal. Although readers may expect the typical coming-of-age or a coming-out story, the memoir is not that.
Poet Ocean Vuong once said that queer lives in literature always seem exhaustible because their stories end when they come out of the metaphoric closet. In the same vein, Niranjan’s memoir is instead an honest and heartfelt record of the important, confusing and mundane parts of one queer life set between Kathmandu and New York City, that is not representative of all Nepali queer stories in and neither does it claim to be.
Niranjan says, “I chose to write nonfiction because I knew that I wanted to document this story as ‘real’ and I wanted to visibilise it, as most queer stories are often made invisible.”
He writes: No one counts our blessings. No one blesses us. We exist outside religion, outside society and culture. We are too Western or too wild. We don’t fit into their traditions. Their rituals don’t guide us. There are no magical mantras for us. Their divine deities don’t do anything for us. Our Dashains and Tihars are forever incomplete. The puranas don’t mention us. No one tells our tales.
No one writes poems about our courtships, our commitments, our crimes. Our longings don’t turn into lyrics. No one composes lines about our heartbeats. No guitar strums for us. There is no harmonica; no piano converts our musings into music.
In this month’s Lightroom Conversation, Niranjan and I talk about the fears and gifts of being queer, about rescuing hidden selves, re-authoring certain dominant narratives, and about male anger, the complexities of that emotion that we often do not talk about.
Niranjan Kunwar: There’s a story that my relatives recount how I wanted to be a cow herder when I grew up. In a way, I had a streak that was a bit unusual; I wanted to be adventurous. I wasn’t attached to my parents. When I was going to Budhanilkantha at age nine, I was eager to say goodbye to them. The appeal for me was the school’s sprawling jungle and all the new friends I would make. And whenever my grandmother used to go to our village in Chitwan, I would follow her. There, I would graze cattle and run around all day.
Muna Gurung: Tell me more about Chitwan. What was there?
We have an old house there and my grandmother would visit regularly. We would go on a local bus, the roads were bad and I would get carsick. But despite that, I would fight with my parents if they didn’t let me go with her. There was no electricity in the village and I liked that because we would eat under the light from a lantern and there were delicacies like khatte, which was puffed rice deep fried in butter. I realise now that I feel calmer in nature and it was a striking juxtaposition with my life in New York, a culture that had very little space for animals, nature, pets. I used to love animals, but in the city, I felt myself hardening. It’s like in literature, we read about how the city hardens you. I guess that is also the queer experience, that sense of distance that is created between you and yourself.
But there is one line in your book where you say that you had forgotten about the ‘gifts of being queer’. What were and are the gifts of being queer?
As a child I was very influenced by my three female cousins and Bollywood, so I would frequently wear their skirts and dance for them. They also encouraged that behaviour and I remember walking all the way to Chabel Chowk to get a Bollywood film tape in a skirt! When you’re a child, adults accept that, but only to a certain extent. Even in Budhanilkantha, I would wear skirts and perform, but then when the bullying and teasing starts, that’s when you begin to suppress and conform. By 9th and 10th grade, I had begun to conform and even act ‘macho’.
Between Queens and Kathmandu, Sahina Shrestha
The thing is, the story of young boys dressing up as girls is not uncommon. I have countless cousins and nephews who do that, and it is celebrated even. But as you said, only to a certain extent, after which they have to become a ‘boy’. Sometimes my family also rationalises a young boy’s ‘femininity’ as simply the remnants of their previous life, as in he must have been a woman before.
This is making me think about how perhaps in many janajati cultures, gender queerness is more accepted. For example the maruni dance where men dress up as women and dance is an important part of most Gurung cultures and even celebrated. But that too is perhaps only relegated to that space. I don’t know how much of this has been investigated.
You write that because you read a lot as a child, your queerness did not feel strange to you. What did you read as a child that affirmed your being?
I would listen to my grandmother tell stories from the Mahabharat or the Ramanyana, but I was especially taken by the month of Swasthani, when my grandmother would read one chapter of the Swasthani tale a day and I would also read chapters with her. The stories were always full of possibilities like gods chopping off heads, or people reincarnating and becoming different; that immediately is a message that one can change form or travel far, or have magic powers. What does that mean for kids?
And then I encountered Western literature and it was about humans living very different lives in very different worlds. When I was a little older, I made sure to buy every single Filmfare and Movie magazine. Whether you call that reading or just studying pop culture and glamour, or looking at stars being themselves, it was a queer activity. Because fashion is also about people transforming into someone else, or something they are not. Today, I feel like I have lost this side of me, and I want to reclaim it. This reminds me of what the artist Alok Vaid Menon once said in a workshop. They asked, “What part of yourself did you have to destroy in order to survive in this world?” I think we all have to do that and it’s a sad realisation, but I think many marginalised groups, especially women, can relate to this question.
What did you have to destroy?
My feminine side. Whether it’s Bollywood, Filmfare, wearing skirts and dancing as a girl, I think I have it in me. I am definitely not ashamed of it. I think it is a really powerful thing if an individual can be a man or a woman, it’s a skill and that’s also what is actually needed in this world today–the fluidity rather than the rigidity. There was one time that I dressed up in drag in New York and even then, I remember I was not completely at ease. The flipside of the question is how much anxiety and fear there is for marginalised people, starting with women. And because of this fear, so many things are hidden, invisibilised, not talked about. That is why I really appreciate younger Nepalis now who are out there in public being bolder than I am or I have been.
On being bold, when you wrote this memoir, you were filling it with people who are connected to you in real life, how did you balance what to reveal and what to conceal?
I chose to write nonfiction because I knew that I wanted to document this story as ‘real’ and I wanted to visibilise it, as most queer stories are often made invisible. Although I also know that writing about someone’s life comes with ethical questions and one has to ask for permission, I didn’t do that because I knew that I wasn’t going to reveal any personal details of the characters in the story. But this begs the question, why did I write it? We teach in primary school that we have to write about things that give us strong feelings. While writing about my family, I began to write about certain family dynamics that was bothering me and I didn’t think about censoring, I just had to write it out, but it was only later in revising that I began to get anxious about these issues of sharing sensitive information. But how do you ask for permission from your family? It’s a tricky thing.
I can imagine, I mean, the father character. You explicitly write about his anger and your own. It was one of the things that drew me into your memoir because we don’t talk about anger as much as perhaps we should.
I struggled a lot with anger. Anytime I was in despair or depressed, my frustration would just short circuit to one person: my father. There was a time I remember when I was in New York, and say, I got really hungry, I would get angry at my father. If I missed a train, I would immediately think of my father and feel rage in me. And that I knew was not ‘normal’ because he was not even there and it was not his fault. So, what was that about? That needed investigation. When emotions don't get processed properly, or when there's depression and a history of not talking about it, the repressed stuff comes out, you know. I knew it was unfair to him, and that it was no one’s fault. So, I had to write them out and put things in front of me so that I could sift through them and understand better. Some of it was my fault and my immediate situation having a stressful job in New York, or that I was drinking too much… some of those, I had to take responsibility.
But sometimes anger is also important or useful because it moves things, it is an energy.
Some people have told me that sometimes when I am angry, I am my most honest and articulate self, and I say what needs to be said. Sometimes, anger can be a shortcut to get to the truth of a matter. The outburst that I wrote about in the memoir, it needed to happen because it was repressed emotions that had not found an outlet. I was a very angry child but I grew up never being able to express myself. And in New York, instead of finding an outlet, I was distracting myself with alcohol and clubbing. I didn’t write about this part in the book, but the morning after that outburst, my father came into my room and said that it was the first time he had seen that side of me.
The outburst was almost necessary.
Yes, and just the day before, I had another huge blowout with my father. So, I’ve had this anxiety with my memoir because my relationship with my father has shifted and it is better now. When I was writing, I felt like I didn’t care about anything or anyone, I only knew that I had to tell my story honestly. But later, the anxiety started brewing. Even throughout the book launch, I was anxious because I hadn’t told my father about the details of the book and I didn’t know how he was going to take it if he found out. It is also sad because I have written a book but I can’t even share it or celebrate it with him. That is, in many ways, I guess a very queer aspect about having written the memoir. But after this recent blowout, it is almost like that anger ate up that anxiety and I was able to own a little more of myself. This time round, I feel a lot more justified and I don’t feel anxious like before.
What I also loved that you were able to show to the readers was the tenderness of the father character and not just his anger. For instance, when he says “goodnight” or comes into your room the next morning after a blowout. It is a language, a gesture, a slight vulnerability.
The accountability issue is what gets me, though. I would be fine with my father having an anger issue if he were to come around and fix it. You must fix what you break. If only he knew how to apologise. But that just does not happen.
Poet Nibha Shah said that we are not taught how to love, and I was thinking, perhaps it is the same with apology, too. And how much we need that education.
This is why I wanted to become a primary school teacher. One of my first encounters in the US was in a preschool classroom where the kids were learning, through story books, how to treat one another and the people in their communities with respect. I immediately saw that it was completely lacking in my life and in Nepal. It really moved me and when you think about family dynamics or even politics, I maintain that we learn our behaviours in the primary school classroom. If you don’t learn how to listen or respond to each other with respect, you won’t automatically learn it in parliament or after you get married. It’s too late by then. There are many of us who didn’t have this education or opportunity, and it is just something that we have to carry with us and try to do better.
Lightroom Conversation is a monthly page in Nepali Times that features interesting figures in Nepal’s literary scene. Muna Gurung is a writer, educator and translator based in Kathmandu.