Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Babur Ki Aulad: Medievalism and Section 377

Today, the honourable Supreme Court of the Republic of India criminalised (or rather, re-criminalised) homosexuality. You can read an NDTV report on the matter here.

The court hid behind the argument that only Parliament can make and amend laws, not the judiciary. Technically correct but hugely hypocritical given the spate of judicial activism that's been the norm for some time now.

The reaction from the chattering classes was immediate and it was sharp. Social media dropped like a ton of bricks on the judgement and rightly so. In this charge, one of the more common adjectives used to criticise this judgement was "medieval". Here are a few screen-grabs from Twitter:

While a lot of humanity has certainly gotten better since medieval times, the use of the adjective "medieval" is simply inaccurate here in this context. India has never criminalised or stigmatised homosexuality, and certainly did not in the medieval age.

This here is a passage from Babur's autobiography, the Babarnama:

In those leisurely days I discovered in myself a strange inclination, nay ! as the verse says, 'I maddened and afflicted myself for a boy in the camp-bazar, his very name, Baburi, fitting in. Up till then I had had no inclination for any-one, indeed of love and desire, either by hear-say or experience, I had not heard, I had not talked. At that time I composed Persian couplets, one or two at a time ; this is one of the them : 

May none be as I, humbled and wretched and love-sick;
No beloved as thou art to me, cruel and careless.

From time to time Baburi used to come to my presence but out of modesty and bashfulness, I could never look straight at him ; how then could I make conversation (ikhtildt) and recital (hikayat) ? In my joy and agitation I could not thank him (for coming); how was it possible for me to reproach him with going away? What power had I to command the duty of service to myself? One day, during that time of desire and' passion when I was going with companions along a lane and suddenly met him face to face, I got into such a state of confusion that I almost went right off. To look straight at him or to put words together was impossible. With a hundred torments and shames, I went on. A (Persian) couplet of Muhammad Salih's came into my mind:

I am abashed with shame when I see my friend ;
My companions look at me, I look the other way.

That couplet suited the case wonderfully well. In that frothing of desire and passion, and under that stress of youthful folly, used to wander, bare-head, bare-foot, through street and lane, hard and vineyard. I shewed civility neither to friend nor anger, took no care for myself or 'others.

Out of myself desire rushed me, unknowing
That this is so with the lover of a fairy-face.

Sometimes like the madmen, I used to wander alone over hill and plain; sometimes I betook myself to gardens and the suburbs, lane by lane. My wandering was not of my choice, I decided whether to go or stay.

Nor power to go was mine, nor power to stay ;
I was just what you made me, o thief of my heart.

As is quite clear, not only does Babur have romantic feelings for a person of the same sex, in the society of the time they are completely "normal". Babur has written of them openly in his autobiography. Not only that, 50 years later, his grandson, Akbar would have this translated from the original Turki to Persian by his courtier Rahim (him of the dohas) and even then no one found anything in the Baburnama that was illegal or would cause embarrassment.

This Indian attitude that we have towards homosexuality is a uniquely modern affliction. No use randomly slandering the blameless medieval age for it.

Note: The Baburnama translation used is by Annette Beveridge; first published: 1922

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