‘Love and Reparation’ by Danish Sheikh: An Excerpt
On 6 September 2018, a decades-long battle to decriminalize queer intimacy in India came to an end. The Supreme Court of India ruled that Section 377, the colonial anti-sodomy law, violated the country’s constitution. ‘LGBT persons,’ the Court said, ‘deserve to live a life unshackled from the shadow of being “unapprehended felons”.’ But how definitive was this end? How far does the law’s shadow fall? How clear is the line between the past and the future? What does it mean to live with full sexual citizenship?
In Love and Reparation, Danish Sheikh navigates these questions with a deft interweaving of the legal, the personal, and the poetic. The two plays in this volume leap across court transcripts, affidavits (real and imagined), archival research and personal memoir. Through his re-staging, Sheikh crafts a genre-bending exploration of a litigation battle, and a celebration of defiant love that burns bright in the shadow of the law.
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An Excerpt: From the Preface
A perfectly insulated room in the student quarters at the University of Michigan Law School. December 2013: the first snowstorm in a winter that would be rife with them.
Midnight here in Ann Arbor; 10 a.m. in Delhi. I am feverishly scrolling across news sites while my study group skims through reading outlines. Any minute now, the Supreme Court of India will declare its verdict on the constitutional validity of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code. Any minute now, the highest court of this country will decide if I am a criminal by virtue of being a gay man.
It has been 18 months since the final courtroom hearings in this matter. I’ve parsed the transcripts of those exchanges over and over. I was in the court through it all. I was there when a lawyer read a searing affidavit about a transgender woman’s sexual assault in a police station. I was there when the judges impatiently asked him about the veracity of this claim. I have been in Ann Arbor for months now, but part of me is still in that courtroom.
10.30 a.m. in Delhi. The verdict is announced.
‘We lost.’ Tone flat with shock as I tell my classmates. The following morning, I walk in a daze to the planetarium and watch dotted points of light connecting in the sky map above me to form constellations. ‘We lost.’ The shock radiates from me in physical waves. This is heartbreak.
That day, I start writing Contempt, the first play in this volume.
Courtroom No. 1, Supreme Court of India. September 2018: Delhi’s monsoon humidity in full force.
Once again, the Court will declare its verdict on the constitutional validity of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code. Victory feels like a foregone conclusion this time, but I did trick myself into that thought the last time and look what happened. Look at these past five years, fighting battles we thought we were done with. Let this be over.
The judges begin to speak. Thirty seconds in, we know it is over. Relief, I should feel relief, I do feel relief, but something else that doesn’t lift. I walk out of the courtroom into an explosion of cameras and celebratory cheers. Later that night, at the biggest queer party this city has seen in a while, we dance. Bodies tangled, breaking apart. Air thick with glitter and sweat. A kiss of wine. Freedom they yell, Freedom ringing in my ears, so much freedom.
But I don’t feel it in my body. Sweat on my arm that doesn’t belong to me, smoke on my breath that isn’t mine, a body, this body, that doesn’t feel free.
That night, I start writing Pride, the second play in this volume.
This is a fairly neat origin story, which also means it is somewhat inaccurate. Let me try again.
This is a book thatbrings together two plays about living with law. Because this is a law that regulated ways in which we love, these plays are also about how to love. About a life where law and love have been inseparably entwined.
I was 13 when I first fell in love with a boy. I didn’t realize it then. I only knew that I was willing to learn ninth-grade Sanskrit without any prior knowledge of the language just to be in a class with him.
I was 16 when I fell in love with another boy. This time I knew what it was, this welter of joy and ache. I convinced myself it was a phase, a one-off kind of love.
I was 17 when I first spoke the words that would slot the jigsaw confusion of the last six years into place. ‘I'm gay,’ I said, sitting in the dark, practising the utterance.
I was 18 when I came across the text of the Indian Penal Code. ‘Section 377: Unnatural Offences’ it said in the index. I turned to the full text of the section and there it was, the description that the law had for the love I wanted so furiously: ‘carnal intercourse against the order of nature’.
I was 24 when I sat in that room in wintry Ann Arbor as the Supreme Court of India delivered the Suresh Kumar Koushal judgement. I was a member of a minuscule minority, these judges said, too minuscule to overturn a law. The very possibility of someone like me possessing constitutional rights seemed preposterous to these men: ‘so-called rights’ they called them. My shock and anger eventually wore off but these words lingered. They fed my shame, they enabled my tolerance of casual indignities in public, of casual cruelties in private.
Contempt was an attempt to come to terms with loss and anger and shame. A minor dissent, then.
I was 29 when the highest constitutional court of my country declared that I was, unambiguously, an equal citizen. That I had, unambiguously, the right to love. It was done, it was done, it was over. Except it didn’t feel like it was over, except that full sexual citizenship didn’t magically whisk away the loss and anger and shame.
Pride was an attempt to come to terms with— what? This time around, the object of my dissent was less clear. All I knew was that I had to write my way through this tangle.
Or, perhaps, to wrought this tangle into shape.