As the novel progresses, in a strange but tragic turn of events, Mahmud loses his entire family—his parents, wife and two boys—in an accident.
As the novel progresses, in a strange but tragic turn of events, Mahmud loses his entire family—his parents, wife and two boys—in an accident.

'Mahmud and Ayaz' book review: The gay gaze

Despite centralising queer experiences in a post-377 India by highlighting the everyday negotiations involved in living a non-normative setup, the book makes for an unappetising read.

Any form of queer expression doubles up as an archiving exercise. In India, it is akin to giving shape to a desire that’s deemed unworthy of legitimacy in both real and imagined landscapes. The evidence supporting this argument can be found in poet and novelist R Raj Rao’s latest novel Mahmud and Ayaz, which attempts to unearth the relationship between Sultan Mahmud of Ghazni and his Turkish slave-cum-lover Ayaz.

One of the principal characters of Rao’s tale borrows his first name from the ruler; he stays in Ajmal Mansion, Bombay. The restaurant, on its ground floor, is called Kasab Restaurant. The wordplay cements not only the kind of uninhibited politics the writer’s fiction champions, but also signals the playfulness of his prose.

It helps that the author deliberately makes Mahmud Fakhar a colourful character, with all his flaws. Mahmud was “forced” to marry Zohra at 21. Rao writes, “He was a pragmatic young man. The marriage would be a formality. And in any case, it was not his responsibility to make it work. It was the responsibility of his parents and the woman who needed him for a husband.” This social contract turns out to be “an eye-opener to him. It finally made him realise that he preferred men to women”. The author underlines how he came to terms with the fact that he was a “launda”—“a beardless, fair-complexioned youth who wore his hair long and sported a cap, seductively titled at an angle. His hair showed through his cap and was curly. Was that why Mahmud was so eagerly sought after by grown men in local trains and railway station toilets?”

As the novel progresses, in a strange but tragic turn of events, Mahmud loses his entire family—his parents, wife and two boys—in an accident. While he doesn’t like to be a lone survivor, he carries on, especially his “secret gay life” and his PhD research on Mahmud of Ghazni. Along the way, he meets a Hindu boy, Pandurang—the son of a “tamasha dancer”—gets him to convert to Islam, names him Ayaz, and calls him his slave because he literally “buys” him off.

Despite centralising queer experiences in a post-377 India by highlighting the everyday negotiations involved in living a non-normative setup, the book makes for an unappetising read. It seems that Rao was invested in channelising mesmerising events for this novel, but was little concerned with the fact that his novel could read like a report, which it does on several occasions. Then, it collapses when it changes gears from Bombay to Kashmir, as both its inventiveness and imaginativeness fade away, and one can’t help but witness it approach the end abruptly. Mahmud and Ayaz is like a ‘quickie’; without much promise, but not without its exciting possibility, and the adrenaline rush the hypersexual gay subculture is known to seek for.

Mahmud and Ayaz

By: R Raj Rao

Publisher: Speaking Tiger

Pages: 272

Price: Rs 499

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