Making sense of queerness before the advent of theory: Syed Mustafa Siraj’s Maya Mridanga and its commonsensical philosophy of sexuality

Dr. Kaustav Bakshi, Assistant Professor, Department of English, Jadavpur University, Kolkata, India


This presentation proposes to revisit the Bengali novel, Maya Mridanga (1972) written by Syed Mustafa Siraj (14 October 1930 – 4 September 2012), which has emerged as an important text in the Bengali queer cultural landscape in recent years with the LGBTQ+ movement taking root in India. The novel is set in rural Bengal of the 1950s, and was published at a time, when there was little or no awareness of non-binary ways of understanding sexuality. Although there was a familiarity with a “third gender” mostly understood in relation to the presence of the hijra community in India, there were no scientific or political discourses on gender-queerness as such.

Syed Mustafa Siraj’s novel, which has as its protagonist a female impersonator (locally known as chhokra) of an itinerant theatre group called Alkaap which travelled through rural Bengal and parts of Bihar (now Jharkhand), locates sexuality and sexual desire in the enigmatic, and sometimes, impossible to intellectualize, realm of maya. Siraj’s poetic novel delves deep into this maya created on stage by men impersonating women, and, makes an attempt to decode and explain away this puzzle of men falling in love with them despite their knowledge of the ‘reality’ behind their feminine  ‘appearance’. The novel while cursorily drawing from the concept of maya, as understood in ancient Hindu philosophy, progressively becomes denser and nuanced in opening up intriguing debates which now informs theoretical discourses of gender, sex, sexuality and the body, albeit in a completely different language.

This novel, published three years before The History of Sexuality Vol. I became available to the western world, was by no means consciously locating itself within the poststructuralist discursive field of theorising desire and sexuality.  Yet, its gujhyo tatwa (or deep philosophy) dwelling on the maya of gender fluidity and desire which cannot be delimited by the biological body and its expected normative sexual behaviour, opens up the possibility of generating a parallel knowledge-paradigm of making sense of same-sex love, desire, and coupledom enabled by art and theatrical artifice.

This novel, as I shall argue, in its queer-positivity provides the current generation of queer individuals in Bengal with a sense of anchor in history and indigenous philosophy, unadulterated by epistemology of sexuality that have appeared in the recent years. This novel lost in oblivion for several years have gained visibility in recent times, when a new edition was brought out, a film was made based on it, and a play inspired by it was released for the commercial stage in Kolkata. Ironically, as I shall show, the novel’s “value” as a queer text was realised with the LGBTIAQ+ movement acquiring remarkable visibility in South Asia in recent years, while, at the same time, the novel has turned out to be a useful text in countering the dominance of western theories in a bid to decolonise epistemologies of sexuality. (475 words)