How Exile Allowed Shastri Akella to Write a Queer Novel
On Queerness in the Mahabharata and Hiking the Himalayas for Inspiration
The Sea Elephants began with an image that came to me one day when I was hiking by myself in the Himalayan mountain ranges of Uttarakhand. A young man shifts a photograph from one wall, that has pictures of the living, to another, that has pictures of the dead. The few pictures that remained on the wall of the living are surrounded by square-shaped stains.
I dwelled on that image; I saw that the man locked his house and left. Where was he going and what did he seek? I came back to the room I’d rented from an ashram and started to journal, tracing his steps out and away from his seaside town, writing my way into his desire.
And I figured out that what he sought, out in the world, was intimacy, but not the romantic kind. The nature of his desire and his state of being were not unlike my own. I thought, back then, that I was asexual, and I was just emerging from a spell of profound loneliness.
In the months before I encountered this fictitious man, I was living in Hyderabad and working for Google. I was under immense pressure from my parents, who were living with me, to have an arranged marriage. I would often come home from my 9-5 job at Google and see a prospective bride and her parents sitting in my living room, waiting for me.
“Why don’t you show her your books,” my mother would encouragingly say, pointing to the girl with a sweep of her hand. Having deeply internalized the sense of familial propriety that necessitated the keeping up of appearances, I found myself incapable of speaking before these strangers who were prepared to make me a part of their family, but once the girl and I were in my study, staring at the color-coordinated spines that lined my bookshelves, I would tell her that I would be turning the marriage proposal down for reasons that had nothing to do with her so she didn’t see the rejection as personal when she heard the news from he parents.
The departure of our guests was often followed by a showdown: I’d tell my parents emphatically that I didn’t want to get married, and they’d say, “That’s what every boy your age thinks, it’s a fear of commitment.” When I told them I was asexual, they said, “That’s good, sex is anyway meant to have children.”I figured out that what he sought, out in the world, was intimacy, but not the romantic kind. The nature of his desire and his state of being were not unlike my own.
It was a pointless game of tennis, one in which my parents and I had different understanding of what the rules were. I was rarely alone, shuttling between a busy work and a full home, but I had never felt so lonely. Eventually, terrified that I would cave in to the pressure and get married, I spoke to Google and had myself transferred to their Delhi office.
Once I was in Delhi, the immediate relief I felt at not routinely confronting the looming threat of marriage made me want to travel to the Himalayas, as if I wanted the mountains to ratify, with their deep openness, that my freedom wasn’t impermanent. Many picturesque treks in the Himalayas were weekend getaways from Delhi, so I found myself traveling every weekend and the mountains, the air that smelled of pine and cedar, and all the unfamiliar meals I ate allowed my recent past to shed its weight.
The image of the man who sought platonic intimacy came to me on one such outing. I gave him a name. Shagun Mathur. I kept writing down snapshots of his past that preceded his departure from the house: the siblings he once had—whose pictures he transferred to the wall of the dead; the complicated relationship he shared with his parents; the school where he succeeded academically but failed socially. But I was not able to see his future: what happens after he leaves home.
A few months later, I was in Hrishikesh, the humbler twin of the bustling pilgrim town of Haridwar. On my first evening there I got to see a street theater perform. They enacted the story of Chitrangada, a transgender character from, I was surprised to learn, The Mahabharata, censored out of the translations of the epic they were once a part of. (Sanskrit, in which the epic is originally written, includes they/them pronouns that Chitrangada’s character prefers.)
The actors and their audience were not separated from their audience by a stage. The performed by the banks of the Ganga and we, the spectators, stood around them as they wailed, danced, and celebrated. I could hear their breath and smell them. At one point, one of the actors, a man dressed as a woman, met my gaze as he spoke, in the present tense, about war.
I was moved by the nature of this intimacy between storytellers and their audience. After the performance ended, I asked them if I could join them for dinner.
They met me, after washing their makeup off, at that had six benches arranged under a tin roof and served the most delicious vegetarian food that I’ve had. As we dug into our dinner, it started to rain, a heavy summer shower that drummed the roof, requiring us to raise our voices so we could be heard. Mayank, the theater chief, told me that four of the six actors at our tables were farmers who finished harvesting their crop and traveled with him from March through June, performing along the banks Ganga, beginning in the town of Ganga Sagar where the river merges with the ocean, and finishing at Gangotri, the base camp that leads to the glacial origins of the river.
I asked him if I might join them on the remainder of his journey. I told him I could write for him, relocating the myths into contemporary settings. He liked the idea but added that I must live with them and help with things like packing, loading, setting up tents. I agreed. We set a date and it was decided I would meet him in Uttarkashi, north of Hrishikesh.
“Remember,” he said, before we left for the night. “Myth is always told in present tense.”
It had, by then, stopped raining, and in the silence that followed the downpour, as I watched the actors walk away, their bodies huddled together against the cold, I knew that I had found Shagun’s future. He leaves home seeking platonic intimacy and finds it in a street theater troupe: with his fellow performers and his audience.It took me years to allow myself the grace that having spent all my life in an environment where attraction to men was not an option, it was not possible to consider such questions until someone else posed them.
Google gave me a one month leave on loss of pay and I traveled with Mayank’s troupe, writing for them, sleeping alongside the actors, in their tents when they were performing, in the bed of the truck when we were traveling. Shyam, the actor who’d met my gaze, became my closest friend. My journey became Shagun’s journey and, because fiction about writers is one of my pet peeves, I made him one of the actors.
Like Mayank’s actors, he embodies feminine roles and clothing, and like me, he discovers that Hindu myths abound with queer and trans characters: the masculine prince Arjuna who becomes a woman for year, for instance; Shikhandi, a male character who in a past life, is Amba, a female character, and he retains her clothing preferences and attraction for men. My love for such stories did not make me question my own sexuality or gender identity. It took me years to allow myself the grace that having spent all my life in an environment where attraction to men was not an option, it was not possible to consider such questions until someone else posed them.
After our last performance in Gangotri, the troupe did an eighteen-kilometer trek to the glacier from which the Ganga originated. It was an act of thanksgiving to the river whom they perceived as a goddess; her banks had after all held their stories and brought them to an audience. I joined them, and a day and half later, when we arrived at the glacier, all the actors went charging into the waters. They each picked a block of ice and chomped at it with big smacks as they stepped out. Mayank was in his early sixties but in that moment he looked like a child. Eventually, I got over my inhibition and followed suite.
“That stings,” I complained.
Shyam joked, “Boy, this is how we end our journey, and you have to do it to or you can’t really claim you were a part of it.”
I arrived in Amherst with half a draft of my novel and the intent of working with the writer Sabina Murray whose writing in Carnivore’s Inquiry I loved. In my second semester, I took her fiction workshop. She read my manuscript pages I submitted and pointed to the subtext in the narrative where it was clear that Shagun, asexual in that draft, was attracted to men.
He did not, in that incomplete draft, have a significant other but there was an American tourist, Marc, based on an American traveler I’d met during my stint with the theater troupe. He was fluent in Hindi and he had dinner with us after one of our performance. Where in life, the traveler left the next day, in my novel, the two stay together—as friends.The act of exile, the immersion in myths enacted at a geographic distance from my history and a formal study of creative writing in a different continent allowed me, ironically, to step fully into my skin and realize Shagun’s humanity in all its complexity.
I took therapy and came out on the last day of Sabina’s workshop. I had to, of course, rework the whole novel from the perspective of queer desire from both a narrative and a craft perspective. In the new version, for instance, when Shagun first meets Marc, he is unable to express romantic intimacy despite desiring Marc. And the novel’s plot is driven by this conflict.
I did not come out to my family; rather, I was outed. A family member, a sixty-one year old living in India, who suspected I was gay and therefore refusing to get married, created fake profiles on several dating websites, positioning himself as thirty-year-old gay man living in Amherst. Eventually, he found me on OKCupid and told my family. When I confronted him, he told me he was doing me a favor, and that he would extend his generosity by turning me into gay conversion therapy when I came to India because they would, in his words, fix my spiritual illness.
Consequently, I couldn’t go to India for three years. During that time, isolated from my family, I found a deep community with friends in Amherst who hosted in me their homes, fed me, took me out to queer dance nights, and with the sheer resilience of their love, weeded out all my shame.
When the image of Shagun came to me and I began writing his story, I was unable to see his future because as an outsider to my own life I didn’t have full access to his interiority. The act of exile, the immersion in myths enacted at a geographic distance from my history and a formal study of creative writing in a
different continent allowed me, ironically, to step fully into my skin and realize Shagun’s humanity in all its complexity. My exiles were like that block of ice whose sting was a necessary part of my journey and Shagun’s, what we see of it in The Sea Elephants.
The Sea Elephants by Shastri Akella is available via Flatiron Books.