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The queer zine that brought “dykedom” to the forefront in India

The queer zine that brought “dykedom” to the forefront in India
A snippet from the cover of the July 2006 issue of Scripts. The issue was themed around "Hair". Photo: Provided by Chayanika Shah and Shals Mahajan

For almost all issues of the queer Indian zine, Scripts, the editorial was signed off with one closing remark: “Till dykedom come.”

In the zine’s two-decade lifespan, there were fifteen multilingual issues, each curated with precision, love and care. In that time, the zine left an indelible impression on its many readers and on the history of queer collectivizing in India.

Writing By, For, and About Queer Women

At the dawn of the new millennium, Iravi* – who would eventually become a longtime Scripts editor – was working on a film and wanted to feature queer women. To get her started, her friend had gifted her a copy of Facing the Mirror, a 1999 anthology of lesbian writing from India.

“I read the book, and then, I was facing the mirror,” Iravi told LGBTQ Nation.

She soon wrote to the anthology’s editor, Ashwini Sukhthankar, and asked where she could find more writing from queer women, all while being discreet about her renewed understanding of her own sexuality. Sukhthankar told her to reach out to Lesbians and Bisexuals in Action (LABIA), a Mumbai-based collective for lesbian and bisexual women and transgender men. Since 1998, LABIA had been publishing Scripts, a zine that put the voices and concerns of queer women front and center.

In that moment, a memory sparked for Iravi.

“I had bought two issues of Scripts earlier that I had never read, much to my later mortification,” she said. “I wrote to LABIA saying that I’d love to come and learn more about Scripts. That became my official pass to reach out to the group, and I never imagined when I bought it (and didn’t read it) that one day I would be so closely involved with its production.”

Iravi would eventually go on to edit issues of Scripts for more than two decades. 

The cover of the first issue of Scripts (1998). Provided by Chayanika Shah and Shals Mahajan

LABIA was created in March 1995 as Stree Sangam (A Confluence of Women) in Mumbai, rechristening itself in 2002. The original name allowed members to draw support from the rising feminist movements in the country and to take up queer concerns without explicitly saying so. 

Members of Stree Sangam used to receive letters – many posted anonymously – from queer and questioning women from across the country. While they would try their best to respond, many would eventually lose touch. Over time, the members realized there was a vacuum in India when it came to writing by, for and about queer women. In 1998, Scripts was conceived as a newsletter to fix this.

“There are lots of women out there who do not have access to written material about women who love women,” the first editorial of Scripts reads. “And there is nothing like this written by les-bi-ans for les-bi-ans in India.”

Curated and designed on an individual’s laptop and printed in a local photocopier’s shop, the first issue had twelve distinct pieces, including two editorials – one in English and the other in Hindi.

The pieces included original poetry and fiction in both languages, a film review, and several pieces the editorial proudly claims as “lifted.” These included an excerpt from Audre Lorde’s “The Master’s Tools will Never Dismantle the Master’s House,” news briefs in the two languages and several queer cartoons. 

Since its first two issues, published in 1998 and 1999, the zine grew in its form, content, politics and popularity. In 2018, the final issue of Scripts was released online in response to the decriminalization of homosexuality in the country. 

 

Tasks of the editorial board, from the 1998 issue of Scripts. Provided by Chayanika Shah and Shals Mahajan

Provocative Themes

One of the striking features of Scripts is the plethora of themes explored in each issue. While the first two issues were non-thematic, the third began the zine’s journey in exploring themes. Dated October 2003, it was centered around Larzish, India’s first international film festival on “sexuality and gender plurality.”  

The layout of the Larzish issue documents the creative imagination of the editorial. Read from one side, the zine documented the festival’s schedule. Read from the other side was the zine itself, this time offering pieces in English, Hindi, and Urdu, and filled with posters, pictures and comics. 

The editorial for the Larzish issue ends with the Urdu poet and author Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s revolutionary poem – Bol ke lab azaad hai tere (Speak that your lips are free). It is provided in English, Devanagari (the script in which Hindi is written) and Urdu.

While preparing the zine, creative imagination was also used to tackle roadblocks. For instance, the original Urdu poem by Faiz appears in a white panel pasted on the page after it was printed.

Chayanika Shah, a Mumbai-based queer-feminist activist who was involved with the production of Scripts from its first issue to the last, recollected to LGBTQ Nation, “When we did the original, the poem in Urdu was printed wrong since none of us were Urdu readers. This was a last-minute correction. We have had other such mistakes by us or our printers, which have made us hand-write or redo covers, or binding, or both.”

Since the Larzish issue, the zine explored themes that were provocative, political and at the heart of queer mobilization in India. Notable examples include “Love Letters”, “Hair”, “Humor”, “Censorship”, “Travel”, “Motherhood”, and “Food.” The December 2015 issue – initially proposed to be the last – looked back at the twenty years of LABIA, and was called Bees Saal Baad (After Twenty Years).

Covers of a few issues of Scripts. Clockwise from top: Love Letters (2006), Humor (2008), Censorship (2009), Travel (2010), Food (2012), and Bees Saal Baad (Twenty Years Later, 2015). Provided by Chayanika Shah and Shals Mahajan

When the Supreme Court of India decriminalized homosexuality in 2018, Scripts was revived in celebration. This issue – the only one online – was called Scripts 69, marking the date (the 6th of September) on which the court passed its landmark judgment.

Why such an eclectic choice of themes? Shah said the choice of themes was partly a response to political issues in India of concern to queer people and partly a reaction to the lack of writing that portrayed queer desire, love and worldview.

For instance, the editorial of the 1999 issue talks about the death by suicide of lesbian women and the fiasco that followed the release of the film Fire (1996). The film was one of the earliest Indian films to feature a queer relationship, and the Shiv Sena, a right-wing group, violently protested against it and shut down its screenings. The 1999 editorial responds to the protests by the Shiv Sena, saying, “We should probably send thank you notes to the Shiv Sena for making our task of visibilising our lives easier. At least our existence is no longer in question.”

“In the various protests that followed the act of Shiv Sena, many human rights and other progressive organizations, who had hitherto been silent on les-bi-gay issues, came forward to support our rights,” the editorial continues.

It is important to note that Scripts’ content was not restricted to the Indian context.

The April 2004 issue, for example, spoke about the “rhetoric of this election year, the continuing struggle for justice for the survivors of the Gujarat genocide, the Indian government’s stand on the Section 377 petition in the Delhi high court,” along with “the uncertainty over the Brazilian resolution, the unrelenting abuse in the name of war against terrorism, the continuing occupation of Iraq, the growth in power of the fundamentalist forces around the world and in our country, and the increasing violence against women and particularly lesbians which is unabated as the cases of lesbian suicides rise.”

The July 2006 issue – centered around the theme of “Hair” – demonstrates how the zine was as much about confronting queer dilemmas as it was about facing larger political concerns. The call for submissions of the issue, reproduced in the editorial, goes:

Why hair? Because its roots go deep into our collective psyche, not to speak of individual skins. To cut or grow, to wax or shave or trim or not, to choose from the images and constructs offered to us or to challenge these stereotypes: these hair-raising dilemmas can sometimes be difficult to resolve. Nor does every hairy diktat stem from the straight world; there is a fair amount of hair conditioning, surely, that we imbibe from one another as well.

The call for submissions closes with an invitation to all “desi rapunzels” to “let down [their] hair or attach [themselves] to its silken ropes” and send across “drawings, poems, cartoons, anecdotes, essays or stories about [their] own good and bad hair moments, [their] closest shaves and [their] most hair-centric fallacies and fantasies.”

Indeed, fantasy was crucial to the zine’s imagination, as was the timelessness of the explored themes. For example, just about a decade back, the June 2012 issue of Scripts – centered around the theme of “Food” – referred to “student agitations at Osmania University in Hyderabad where Dalit students (and supportive faculty and others ate beef biriyani in the university” and how this was met with “right-wing…violence against them and against this act of eating beef.” 

Over a decade since this issue of Scripts was published, non-vegetarian food continues to be controversial in India.

Solidarities and Conflicts

Scripts brought us together; it allowed us to be who we are,” Shah said.

What began as a way for a group of queer women to get their voices out also became a space to get more voices in. And as more voices came in, the zine evolved.

For example, Mridul, a technologist involved with Scripts 69 – the zine’s only online issue – was also introduced to the larger group through the zine. In 2009, Mridul had just moved from India’s capital, Delhi, to Mumbai, where LABIA was based. It is in Mumbai that he found Scripts and, eventually, LABIA. Almost a decade later, Mridul’s technological prowess came in handy when he played his role in producing Scripts 69.

That the zine was constantly evolving also meant that its issues had a certain “non-standardness,” as Mridul put it to LGBTQ Nation.

As Shah explained when she wrote about the history of Scripts in its 2015 issue, the group’s “anarchic queerness flowed into [their] design elements. Absence of illustration skills was sought to be replaced by a surfeit of fonts. We passed this off as our creativity, much to the horror of those who believed in some design principles for a magazine…There was even a strong agitation to change size and form but at least on that count the staid voice of consistency survived. Any noticeable differences in sizes is thanks to our printers’ whims and fancies.”

“But at least they all look like a set,” Shah concludes.

Two original cartoon strips published in Scripts. Provided by Chayanika Shah and Shals Mahajan

Where there were solidarities, there were also conflicts.

But from these conflicts, many solidarities emerged and strengthened. For example, Iravi and Shah recounted their experience with a submission for the July 2006 Hair issue. A contributor who went by the name of Haseena Zulfonwaali (The beautiful one with gorgeous tresses; perhaps a reference to a 1966 Bollywood song) had sent in a contribution with three images of merkins – decorative pubic wigs. The photos generated varied opinions among the issue’s editors, who eventually decided to reduce its size and resolution and superimpose it with text.

Haseena Zulfonwaali was disappointed. Her claim: it was better not to publish the photographs than to have them in a manner that “starved them, smothered them, hid them, silenced them, erased them.” 

“In effect,” Zulfonwaali claimed, the editorial had “censored them.”

In June 2009 – three years after Haseena Zulfonwaali’s piece had been initially published – the team decided to release an issue on censorship in response to queer people facing “discrimination, censorship and violence daily” for who they were and what they stood for. Excerpts from the conversation between the Scripts editorial and Haseena Zulfonwaali found a place in the issue. 

The editors and Haseena Zulfonwali found an opportunity to explain their positions and engage with each other, and the readers found a chance to deliberate on censorship.

In its two-decade lifespan, the zine never lost sight of its initial vision: to network with more people, with both those who were queer and those who were not. Calls for submissions and an address and phone number left on the back cover were invitations for queer people to connect. The release of every issue was often coupled with a film screening and discussion and also welcomed those who were not queer.

By the time the last issue of Scripts was published, the twenty-page zine had built indelible communities. Dykedom couldn’t be far behind.

Dreams and Dreamers

Iravi, Shah and Mridul are of the firm opinion that Scripts is not outdated and that the conflicts, dilemmas, desires and intimacies explored in the zine’s many pages continue to occupy queer articulations in the country. 

“Many of these stories are still new,” Mridul said.

The trio are currently deliberating how every issue of Scripts could be archived and made available online. The task, although enticing, is more arduous than it appears.

“There is no standard template we can use to put it online,” says Mridul. Indeed, a zine in which fonts change with every page, handwritten corrections appear from time to time, and different queer lives find a home wouldn’t lend itself this easily to the ease of the internet.

But the trio is hopeful. They are, as Shah proclaims in her piece for the 2015 issue, dreamers.

*Iravi requested to be referred to by the name she used while writing and editing Scripts.

Editor’s note: This article mentions suicide. If you need to talk to someone now, call the Trans Lifeline at 1-877-565-8860. It’s staffed by trans people, for trans people. The Trevor Project provides a safe, judgement-free place to talk for LGBTQ youth at 1-866-488-7386. You can also call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

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