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Review: Homeless by K Vaishali

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Have you ever been curious about the lives of people who write developer documentation for technology companies? Me neither. Until I read K Vaishali’s absorbing memoir Homeless: Growing Up Lesbian and Dyslexic in India, it seemed like a niche and nerdy area of work completely outside the scope of my understanding and the people involved in it did not pique my interest. This book made me reflect on how individuals are much more than their day jobs.

PREMIUM
“Much of this book is about a search for love in the unpredictable and frustrating world of dating apps through the eyes of someone who thinks of sex as “a road trip with someone you trust”. (Shutterstock)

Homeless tells the story of one person who does not fit in, either at home or in the outside world. She is exhausted by the everyday experiences of homophobia and ableism that structure her life and impact her well-being. As a lesbian, she is unwilling to step into the role of the quiet, obedient daughter who will get married to a groom chosen by her parents. As a dyslexic woman, she is not considered as bright, sharp or intellectually capable as her peers. As a result, she is deemed a failure in the marriage and job markets.

157pp, ₹329; Yoda Press and Simon & Schuster
157pp, ₹329; Yoda Press and Simon & Schuster

Apart from this, she has polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) and dysgraphia. She is terrified of lizards. She is a survivor of sexual assault. She has grown up being fat-shamed by her mother and grandmother. She has dropped out of courses in accounting and economics. She is allergic to dust, mould and pigeon feathers. She used to be a climate crisis denier. She is a coffee snob. She has tried to run away from home. She has pretended to like men when that made it easier to sustain friendships with heterosexual women. Though people around her might not see this, there is a lot more to her life than being a disappointment on all fronts.

Creative writing is her refuge. It gives her a chance to think aloud, and “channel the violence and trauma out (of herself) in small doses”. It allows her to be vulnerable and unsure, and pose questions that others might laugh at. It provides her with some narrative control even in the midst of helplessness. She explains, “I write about dysfunctional families, and I feel lighter.”

Writing reminds the memoirist of what she is good at, and how she can turn that into a source of livelihood. Her vivid imagination and her felicity with language are superpowers in her arsenal. Holding on to them ensures her survival despite all the uncertainty and insecurity.

“The author dreams of a space that is anti-patriarchal and prioritizes nourishment.” (Shutterstock)
“The author dreams of a space that is anti-patriarchal and prioritizes nourishment.” (Shutterstock)

She writes, for instance, about wanting to “live in a lesbian commune run by a matriarch” rather than in her university hostel in Hyderabad infested with rats and frogs, or with her parents who diminish her self-esteem and keep reminding her of how much she needs to be grateful for. The commune is imagined as a sort of chosen family with “women talking about ideas, theories and emotions, eating from a spread of dishes from different regional cuisines”.

The vision that Vaishali articulates is entirely different from how a writer pandering to the heterosexual gaze might depict sapphic intimacy. The author dreams of a space that is anti-patriarchal and prioritizes nourishment; where women grow herbs, draw portraits, make furniture, write poetry, play the veena, do yoga, soak and bathe together. She writes, “We’d design a world for women where nothing would weigh more than what we could carry and nothing was out of reach for us… Nobody would tell us we need a man to help us navigate this world made for women. We could design women-friendly chairs, pants and bicycles.”

The author also has an incredible sense of humour. She narrates what happened on her date with a woman who called herself “bicurious”. Before they could order coffee, she told Vaishali, “I’m not attracted to you.” Vaishali replied, “Yeah, that’s okay, me too. I only find attraction once I get to know someone.” The sass in the book is followed up with a self-deprecating aside. Vaishali adds “I said, like I was an expert in the subject of attraction.”

This woman was utterly surprised to learn that attraction need not be instantaneous; that it can happen over subsequent meetings. She had met Vaishali after going on dates with men whom she did not find attractive, so she thought it might be a good idea “to experiment with women.” Vaishali, like any self-respecting person, did not want to be an experiment but how she says this is hilarious: “She basically wanted to treat me like a piece of litmus paper to see which colour she’d turn while taking no responsibility for my feelings.”

Much of this book is about a search for love in the unpredictable and frustrating world of dating apps through the eyes of someone who thinks of sex as “a road trip with someone you trust” rather than a “daily commute to work” or “weekend grocery run”. Strangely, the author spends a considerable number of pages grieving over her relationship with a former lover who cut off all contact overnight but only a few paragraphs in the book are devoted to her current partner with whom she has bought a three-bedroom house. Perhaps there will be a sequel.

Author K Vaishali (Courtesy the publisher)
Author K Vaishali (Courtesy the publisher)

It would be a travesty to reduce Homeless to a saga of queer suffering. It is a record of how queer people bargain with authoritarian figures. They have to make imperfect, complicated choices that are grounded in the reality of their lives. The author does not want to attend her parents’ wedding anniversary but she agrees to because showing up would guarantee a swift transfer of money into her bank account to take care of her hostel fees.

This book is worth reading for two other reasons. First, the author’s honest reflections on the privileges that she enjoys because of her Brahminical upbringing that makes her extremely averse to “hygiene violations”, her class, family connections, urban exposure, and proficiency in the English language are thought-provoking. Second, her account of the loneliness that she felt in queer circles in Mumbai and Ahmedabad – dominated by gay men and their discussions focused on sexual encounters – throws light on how lesbian women’s concerns continue to be sidelined even in community forums that ought to be inclusive.

Chintan Girish Modi is a freelance writer, journalist and book reviewer

The views expressed are personal

Enjoy unlimited digital access with HT Premium

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Have you ever been curious about the lives of people who write developer documentation for technology companies? Me neither. Until I read K Vaishali’s absorbing memoir Homeless: Growing Up Lesbian and Dyslexic in India, it seemed like a niche and nerdy area of work completely outside the scope of my understanding and the people involved in it did not pique my interest. This book made me reflect on how individuals are much more than their day jobs.

“Much of this book is about a search for love in the unpredictable and frustrating world of dating apps through the eyes of someone who thinks of sex as “a road trip with someone you trust”. (Shutterstock) PREMIUM
“Much of this book is about a search for love in the unpredictable and frustrating world of dating apps through the eyes of someone who thinks of sex as “a road trip with someone you trust”. (Shutterstock)

Homeless tells the story of one person who does not fit in, either at home or in the outside world. She is exhausted by the everyday experiences of homophobia and ableism that structure her life and impact her well-being. As a lesbian, she is unwilling to step into the role of the quiet, obedient daughter who will get married to a groom chosen by her parents. As a dyslexic woman, she is not considered as bright, sharp or intellectually capable as her peers. As a result, she is deemed a failure in the marriage and job markets.

157pp, ₹329; Yoda Press and Simon & Schuster
157pp, ₹329; Yoda Press and Simon & Schuster

Apart from this, she has polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) and dysgraphia. She is terrified of lizards. She is a survivor of sexual assault. She has grown up being fat-shamed by her mother and grandmother. She has dropped out of courses in accounting and economics. She is allergic to dust, mould and pigeon feathers. She used to be a climate crisis denier. She is a coffee snob. She has tried to run away from home. She has pretended to like men when that made it easier to sustain friendships with heterosexual women. Though people around her might not see this, there is a lot more to her life than being a disappointment on all fronts.

Creative writing is her refuge. It gives her a chance to think aloud, and “channel the violence and trauma out (of herself) in small doses”. It allows her to be vulnerable and unsure, and pose questions that others might laugh at. It provides her with some narrative control even in the midst of helplessness. She explains, “I write about dysfunctional families, and I feel lighter.”

Writing reminds the memoirist of what she is good at, and how she can turn that into a source of livelihood. Her vivid imagination and her felicity with language are superpowers in her arsenal. Holding on to them ensures her survival despite all the uncertainty and insecurity.

“The author dreams of a space that is anti-patriarchal and prioritizes nourishment.” (Shutterstock)
“The author dreams of a space that is anti-patriarchal and prioritizes nourishment.” (Shutterstock)

She writes, for instance, about wanting to “live in a lesbian commune run by a matriarch” rather than in her university hostel in Hyderabad infested with rats and frogs, or with her parents who diminish her self-esteem and keep reminding her of how much she needs to be grateful for. The commune is imagined as a sort of chosen family with “women talking about ideas, theories and emotions, eating from a spread of dishes from different regional cuisines”.

The vision that Vaishali articulates is entirely different from how a writer pandering to the heterosexual gaze might depict sapphic intimacy. The author dreams of a space that is anti-patriarchal and prioritizes nourishment; where women grow herbs, draw portraits, make furniture, write poetry, play the veena, do yoga, soak and bathe together. She writes, “We’d design a world for women where nothing would weigh more than what we could carry and nothing was out of reach for us… Nobody would tell us we need a man to help us navigate this world made for women. We could design women-friendly chairs, pants and bicycles.”

The author also has an incredible sense of humour. She narrates what happened on her date with a woman who called herself “bicurious”. Before they could order coffee, she told Vaishali, “I’m not attracted to you.” Vaishali replied, “Yeah, that’s okay, me too. I only find attraction once I get to know someone.” The sass in the book is followed up with a self-deprecating aside. Vaishali adds “I said, like I was an expert in the subject of attraction.”

This woman was utterly surprised to learn that attraction need not be instantaneous; that it can happen over subsequent meetings. She had met Vaishali after going on dates with men whom she did not find attractive, so she thought it might be a good idea “to experiment with women.” Vaishali, like any self-respecting person, did not want to be an experiment but how she says this is hilarious: “She basically wanted to treat me like a piece of litmus paper to see which colour she’d turn while taking no responsibility for my feelings.”

Much of this book is about a search for love in the unpredictable and frustrating world of dating apps through the eyes of someone who thinks of sex as “a road trip with someone you trust” rather than a “daily commute to work” or “weekend grocery run”. Strangely, the author spends a considerable number of pages grieving over her relationship with a former lover who cut off all contact overnight but only a few paragraphs in the book are devoted to her current partner with whom she has bought a three-bedroom house. Perhaps there will be a sequel.

Author K Vaishali (Courtesy the publisher)
Author K Vaishali (Courtesy the publisher)

It would be a travesty to reduce Homeless to a saga of queer suffering. It is a record of how queer people bargain with authoritarian figures. They have to make imperfect, complicated choices that are grounded in the reality of their lives. The author does not want to attend her parents’ wedding anniversary but she agrees to because showing up would guarantee a swift transfer of money into her bank account to take care of her hostel fees.

This book is worth reading for two other reasons. First, the author’s honest reflections on the privileges that she enjoys because of her Brahminical upbringing that makes her extremely averse to “hygiene violations”, her class, family connections, urban exposure, and proficiency in the English language are thought-provoking. Second, her account of the loneliness that she felt in queer circles in Mumbai and Ahmedabad – dominated by gay men and their discussions focused on sexual encounters – throws light on how lesbian women’s concerns continue to be sidelined even in community forums that ought to be inclusive.

Chintan Girish Modi is a freelance writer, journalist and book reviewer

The views expressed are personal

Enjoy unlimited digital access with HT Premium

Subscribe Now to continue reading

freemium

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