Abstract: In contemporary India homoerotic love has a precarious status, as actual practice, as a conceptual issue and a subject of representation. The issue then in question, however remains the same—that of righteousness of an outrageously overt physical-sexual act, morally, socially and genetically prohibited so far in cultured and so called traditional society. This sojourn examines Kapur’s representation of lesbian and bisexual love with their implied transcultural and lesbian imaginative spaces while seeking to disclose discursive homophobic notions. By this overt attempt of retelling traditional tale of marital discord and deviations from the set societal norms, Kapur traces the homoerotic in the cultural unconscious of a consciously heterosexist world and the east in a consciously west-centric world.
Keywords: heterosexual discourse, lesbian identity, lesbian sexuality, subversion, lesbian imaginative space, patriarchal society
Lesbianism, by implication, gets a broader and less laconic a definition than that of a mere sexual practice, as a riposte to the acknowledgement of women centred power, energy and solidarity, a determination to disentangle the mandatory yoke of moral respectability and institutionalised heterosexuality, as well as to change the complexion of power relations between the two sexes. Women’s politically conscious choice of women as allies and companions corresponds closely with the eponymous state of a ‘lesbian continuum’, as suggested by Adrienne Rich:
I mean a lesbian continuum to include a range through each woman’s life and through history-of women identified experience; not simply the fact that a woman has had or consciously desired genital sexual experience with another woman. If we expand it to embrace many forms of primary intensity between and among women, including the sharing of a rich inner life, the bonding against male tyranny, the giving and receiving of practical and political support— we begin to grasp breadths of female history and psychology which have lain out of reach as a consequence of limited, mostly clinical, definitions of ‘lesbianism’.(631-660)
In contemporary India however, homoerotic love has a precarious status, as actual practise, as a conceptual issue and a subject of representation. The issue then in question, however remains the same— that of righteousness of an outrageously overt physical-sexual act, morally, socially and genetically prohibited so far in cultured and so called traditional society. This sojourn examines Kapur’s representation of lesbian and bisexual love with their implied transcultural and lesbian imaginative spaces while seeking to disclose discursive homophobic notions. Burdened with the honour of the nation, community and the family; directed to play all the stereotypes of the family all her life; the obedient daughter, the good wife and the caring mother; having one’s every movement scrutinised, being groomed into compulsory matrimony, to live as a woman in India is difficult. Constant negotiation and fashioning of a woman’s impression and expression of space and female identity then comes into play. At the same time collective identities, which are also imagined and socially constructed, reflect and support particular power relations, which exclude those who are not willing to repress particular parts of their persona (Anderson, 263).
The land where the institution of heterosexual marriage is strong and almost unchallengeable, a family born out of heterosexual union is considered sacrosanct. It is in this socio-cultural context and the changing laws for gay and lesbian community that A Married Woman needs to be located. Manju Kapur’s A Married Woman, apart from being a first attempt of an indigenous and innovative Indian writer at writing a contentious overt issue, attempts to intertwine the theme of a women’s search for self-definition. Her horizon of study other than the much talked about gender issues and female burdens and subjugations broadens in this novel into the untouched and formally unheard field of study namely the sexual and physical emotionality and its undertones in women characters. The novel can then said to be playing with the idea of lesbianism while challenging as well as manifesting traditional conceptualisations of gender and hetero-normative models of women’s identification, at the same time suggesting that any ostensible stability of identity marks a repression of individual attributes. A first quick reading suggests some underpinned similarity or subtle drawing from Audre Lorde’s Zami, a novel similarly exploring the bonds of female sexuality, through a loud exploration of the theme of Lesbianism and its sonorous dimensions. One can also find and compare similar overtones in Deepa Mehta’s film Fire (1996) which depicts a lesbian romance and Karan Razdan’s film Girlfriend (2004) which deals with lesbian binding on the butch-femme model. Shamim Sarif’s novel The World Unseen (2001) and Shobha De’s Strange Obsession (1992) also suggest that lesbian love exists as a mad alternative to real life and has no validity in normal everyday conditions. At the same time talking about power relations describing lesbian transcultural spaces, Kamala Das also explores this territory thus:
I am a freak. It’s only
To save my face, I flaunt, at
Times, a grand, flamboyant lust.
(Das ‘The Freaks’)
These small voices were crucial to lesbians, simply as a recognition of their existence. These novels and films played a multilayered role in lesbian culture, existing as descriptions, as witness, as evidence, as connection, as representation and of course as pleasure. Kapur presents the issue with a kind of sensual spirituality, an obdurate anti- essentialism that offers “a critique of the naturalising labels that men have put upon women” (McIntosh, 30-52). It narrates the story of Aastha, a married woman exploring all limits of debarred sexuality in search of self-expression and self-empowerment. Flirtations with two young men at a tender age, becoming aware of an aroused sensuality and a male world around, and later exploring it with husband Hemant reads like the story of any next door modern age girl. “She was prey to inchoate longings, desired almost every boy she saw”(Kapur 56). Her marriage spells freedom as is generally thought of in Indian context.
A deep seed of happiness settled in the pit of her stomach, she was married, she didn’t have to be the focus of her parent’s anxieties any longer. She was now a homemaker in her own right, a grown woman.(Kapur 72)
This illusion was further illustrated by the sex making and initial joy she experienced on getting a man to herself. She feels “a woman of the world, the world that was covered with the film of her desire, and the fluids of their sex” (Kapur 83). The point of divergence comes when she senses a kind of dissatisfaction in her married life and desires to break free from the clutches of her perception beyond the suffocating mundanely of her earthly existence.
It becomes pertinent here to peep into the lesbian theory as such and then form a view of its playing in this novel under study. In Indian context there is virtually no lesbian theorising, failing which these texts are to be understood in the light of western theory further involving contentious issues of identity, history and community. In the early years of lesbian movement and lesbian literary theory, a ‘lesbian’ was often considered to be a woman whose main affectional and sexual desires were focussed on other women. For Terry Castle in the early 1990’s, the lesbian continued to be a ‘woman whose primary emotional and erotic allegiance is to her —own sex’(Castle 15). Monique Wittig goes a step beyond in saying that lesbians were not women (68).
This feeling of dispossession amidst the hostility exuded by the place of Aastha’s inhabitation make her all the more possessive of the notion that ‘home’ has to be the site of a metaphysical retreat, a haven for one’s primal instincts of belonging, unsullied by the gnawing need for worldly assets. Along with this comes her constant questioning to Hemant about “her money”- the money that her mother left her. She feels distraught and left out as Hemant does not feel the need to ask her or involve her in important money matters. She tries in vain to seek for refuge in her political Sampradayaktha Mukti Manch and painting, both serving as platforms to bring out her identity. Her fantasies, even at this stage, revolve around the prospects of having a soul mate with whom to share the innermost wellsprings of her effulgent affection. She desires for recognition and ‘pure love’. The only experience which assuages her emotional wilderness is the inward looking recognition of her creative ability, wherewith she can paint her innermost self on the canvas.
Painting gives her a respite from the feeling of alienation that affects her in the face of blatant societal prejudice that manifests itself in myriad ways with increasing intensity-right from her first lover’s rejection, her second lover’s callous indifference towards the recognition of her ‘being’ and Hemant’s increasing denial of her very existence. She desperately cries out “I need more space” (156). Her politically getting involved in the activities of the manch is to exorcise the demonic shadow cast on her life by the society’s non recognition of herself.
Aziz’s, a fellow teacher’s show of warmth and trust starts her search for companionship and camaraderie outside marital bonds, later extending to Reshana and Pipee. Sexual encounters with Hemant became dissatisfying as she craves for “more space” and something more out of marriage than just a bed. It becomes apparent to her that the overpowering essence of masculinity imparts nothing but a blow to her self-esteem as she begins to feel disenchanted with conformity to the established norms of heterosexual relations.
The women in order to achieve her freedom seeks marriage as an alternative to the bondage created by the parental family. The simple need to be independent eventually becomes a demand of the inflated ego and takes shape as the love for power over others. She (Aastha) resents the role of a wife with the hope that her new role (with Pipee/Manch/as a painter) will help her in winning freedom. (Sathupati 17)
This is the time when Pipee the widow of Aziz comes into her life. Pipee leading a desolate and dislocated life of an ‘unanchored floated floatsam’ (Bhabha 289) at that time had already once experienced a relationship with a girl. When Pipee meets Aastha, it’s almost as if she is looking at a mirror image of her own self through the prism of a glass which reflects her own tenderness and sense of romance, her own creativity and soft easy going manners, her own sense of melancholy and insightfulness. Both are attracted towards each other as Pipee says, “There are many hollows in my life, and I wanted them filled” (202). Their ideas, their inward condition draws them towards a stage where Aastha feels the need to “know her better”.
The idea of the ‘normal’ as a central concern comes into play in A Married Woman after this interaction. What begins as a lesbian feminist Utopia soon takes the shape of a dystopian nightmare both emotionally and socially for Aastha. Both utopia and dystopia are conceptually related to the real through allegorical associations and represent possibilities to be accepted or avoided. However, in rejecting the idea of a separatist community, Namjoshi moves through the “non- conceptual”(29), a movement described by Rosemary Jackson as the opening up of “ a space without/outside the cultural order”(43). This cultural order once again gets disrupted by the new bond formed between the two women in the story. It transports the reader to an alternative world, or a ‘secondary world’. Jackson describes it as “a duplicated cosmos—relatively autonomous, relating to the ‘real’ only through metaphorical reflection, and never or rarely intruding into it”(279).
Once again, the trajectory of her quest for self-definition takes her close to Pipee, where she seeks to realign her selfhood with her sexuality through a relation with Pipee, forgetting the subvert implications and tags that it carries along with it. Aastha derives a sense of sensual gratification in her physical relation with Pipee, yet she constantly thinks of her husband and children who are left behind. She stands a divided self between Hemant and Pipee, children and work. Pipee’s recognition of Aastha’s needs – physical, emotional and mental, her craving for satisfaction further mitigate the stature of Hemant as Aastha cries out in anguish to him “ I need to be independent – I am always adjusting to everybody else’s needs” (Kapur 227).
Aastha feels complete at the times of love making with Pipee as they are in no hurry to reach any conclusion. They were enclosed in a circle of silence, the only sound the sound of their breaths, close together and mingling. (Kapur 230)
At this point, one may feel the need to arrive at an indepth cognizance of Lesbianism as an aspect of women’s sexuality which is not confined merely to its physical ramifications, but as a diffusive energy that may fulfil a woman truly and completely, helping her to evolve in her strength and generosity through a mutual exchange with another women who matches up to her fearless and forthright enjoyment of a loving relationship. This physical relation sans power and dominant undertones is what the person in it wants to derive at, forgetting its physical and genetic taboos at that nick of time which when Aastha remembers she feels restless and wants to escape( lesbian panic) back to her family and kids (Smith 567-607). Had she derived the same coziness and warmth out of the relation with her husband she would probably not have revolted against her own sexuality. Being a woman and being attracted to other men is in her sexuality from the beginning. Had she betrayed it then in a relationship with Pipee or is Aastha merely diffusing her energy to get hedonistic pleasure or even jouissance out of a relation she knows is not right?
According to the various definitions and connotations that critics and theorists have assigned to the issue of transhistoric lesbian identity, they nonetheless share a common factor in depicting the lesbian as a disruptive, trangressive influence which by rejecting the roles of specular ‘other’ of man and object of exchange conventionally assigned to woman, displays a ‘desire which functions as excess within the heterosexual economy’. ‘Excess’ characterised by ‘excess in moral terms’ as well as by ‘excessive emotional experiences of desire, terror and pleasure’. As per Audre Lorde’s own perception from her essay, “The Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power” such a feeling is omnipresent in, “the sharing of joy, whether physical, emotional, psychic which makes us less willing to accept powerlessness, or those other supplied states of being which are not native to me such as resignation, despair, self-effacement, depression and self-denial” (93). Later on however, Aastha felt strange when the consciousness of a home, husband and children crept in through the mind and reason, which till now had been only a body. Then she
Succumbed to panic, she was a mother, nothing should disturb that, for a brief and guilty moment she wished she was like Pipee, alone and free, but she checked herself. A large part of her belonged to her children, that was how she lived her life. She couldn’t imagine any other way. She was a wife too, but not much of her was required there. A willing body at night, a willing pair of hands and feet in the day and an obedient mouth were the necessary pre requisites of Hemant’s wife. (Kapur 231)
The Lesbian subject lacking a history and a language to articulate her sexual orientation, may feel haunted by emotions which she cannot or dare not articulate, thus becoming a figure of psychic division or ‘double existence’. Kapur navigates through these shades of guilt and shame in depicting a non conventional phase of the protagonists life. Kapur moves beyond bourgeois feminism practised in her time and place. Aastha felt like, “two flies caught in a sticky pool they cannot leave” (241). As Freud’s concept of the ‘uncanny’ illustrates, lesbianism can be said to focus on the subjects’ repressed fears and desires.
By this overt attempt of retelling traditional tale of marital discord and deviations from the set societal norms, Kapur traces the homoerotic in the cultural unconscious of a consciously heterosexist world and the east in a consciously west-centric world. Although her works are a part of a lesbian counterculture, they never resort to cultural separatism. She finds ways to blend her Indian and lesbian identities and heritages like Aastha into the story, which become “prismatic worlds” where the individual is allowed its uniqueness in a community that does not demand homogenisation. The idea of ‘space’ comes along as one of the most crucial factors defining identity and individuality. Employing the concepts of transculturality in the present context, space encompasses more than just being a static concept. It expands its horizon to define flexibility and construction as well, with lesbian imaginative spaces along with the emancipation and liberation movements, having opened the door for more visible bi-sexual and lesbian experience, witnessed through these contemporary writings.
However, emphasis on sexuality implicitly defines a lesbian as a woman whose primary focus of sexual desire is another woman. This is not the case with Aastha, as she is married, has two children, and feels morally responsible and emotionally attached to them. Her commitment to heterosexuality is further reinforced by her steadfastness in continuing with her family irrespective of her meaningless existence. At best she wants to straddle both the worlds, and paradoxically the heterosexual world becomes one of choice and the lesbian world an incidental happening, which she enjoys but which she is not prepared to acknowledge to the world by ‘ coming out’, nor is she prepared to give up on her children, husband and home. This homosexual act can then be seen as that stemming from resentment of her particular situation: ‘When she was with Hemant she felt like a woman of straw, her inner life dead, with a man who noticed nothing’ (Kapur 287) . This fact does not mitigate the stand of some critics who talk about a greater range of physical expression among women, which can not necessarily be connoted as lesbian one. As women’s rights activist Madhu Kishwar argues:
There is danger that many of those exposed to this controversy will learn to view all such signs of affection through the prism of homosexuality. As a consequence many women may feel inhibited in expressing physical fondness for other women for fear of being branded as lesbians. (3-14)
Behaviours and gestures are however conditioned and culture specific, and the many invisible boundaries that surround them, especially where physical touch is concerned, have to be taken into account in describing boundaries in any culture. So was the case with Aastha. Acceptance was not easy, nor was denial of this relationship. Aastha felt as if her, “whole life is a fabric of lies” (Kapur 242). It becomes apparent to Aastha that the nexus between power and sexuality is designed by her society as a kind of socio-cultural construction that clashes with the immediacy of women’s innate sexual sensations and instincts which instills in them a sense of deprivation as well as a fear of difference. Aastha’s perception coincides with Liz Kelly’s broader comprehensive analysis that, “social control is the purpose, and may also be the outcome, of gendered social relations” (28).
There is a vein of incisive satire in Kapur’s dissection of Aastha’s relation with a man as an act of political correctness that fails to bring her happiness. In fact the harrowing treatment that she receives at the hands of her two boyfriends at a tender age is a means to offer a critique of the commonly prevalent adherence to the norms of heterosexual relationships. The relation between gender, inequality and sexuality becomes an instrument for the inequitable distribution of power between men and women, bringing into play patterns of domination and subordination, which perpetuate other norms of discrimination, as well as desire.
Catherine MacKinnon makes a pertinent observation on the deterministic overtone of those conventions that define sexuality:
Sexuality, in feminist light, is not a discrete sphere of interaction of feeling or sensation of behaviour in which pre-existing social divisions may or may not be played out. It is a pervasive dimension of social life, one that permeates the whole, a dimension along which gender occurs and through which gender is socially constituted; it is a dimension along which other social divisions, like race and class partly play themselves out. Dominance eroticised defines the imperatives of its masculinity, submission eroticised defines its femininity. (85-87)
Yet, adhering to these theories, not many of the limited works about female-female desire produced in India might qualify as lesbian narratives. In A Married Woman the lesbian relationship functions only as a substitute for an assumedly preferred heterosexual relationship had it been healthy, consuming and non subjugating. The desire is clear- that for acceptance of ‘self’ as an identity and freedom of senses and body, be it any way; through hetero or homosexual means. Linked to the idea of lesbianism as ‘unspeakable’ is the concept of it as ‘unrepresentable’. This too, of course, is relevant to lesbian fiction. As Judith Roof comments, ‘conscious of a kind of phallic pre-eminence, women writers are faced with the difficulty of representing perceptions unaccounted for in a phallic economy in terms of that economy’. The contradictory project of attempting to depict lesbianism in a culture which fails to recognise its authenticity, as well as relating it to the lacanian concept of the ‘real’ also resists representation, returns us to the topic of de-territorialising desire.
What is considered aberrant and immoral in Aastha’s relationship with Pipee formulates in actuality the course of a self-realisation that such a bonding for her is akin to, “an enlightening force within our lives as women” (Kapur 112). Kapur lays bare Aastha’s philosophy on love as a panacea for the ills of society, only to conclude that it offers nothing but an ephemeral and illusionary insularity from the spectre of home, family, traditional society, norms and self-created subjugation. It is then an adhoc arrangement. Aastha opts out of lesbian bonding after some time and settles down as a heterosexual married woman. A woman who lives openly as a lesbian is a rebel, ready to take on society, ready to make sacrifices. But in the said novel while Aastha and Pipee have shared tender moments together during lovemaking, the relationship is not allowed to travel the expected trajectory. The author making Pipee abruptly leave for the U.S. to pursue her Ph.D. is a narrative strategy which Patricia Smith calls “lesbian panic”. She describes it thus:
In terms of narrative, lesbian panic is, quite simple, the disruptive action or reaction that occurs when a character-or conceivably an author-is either unable or unwilling to confront or reveal her own lesbianism or lesbian desire. Caught in this state, the female character indulges in an action which causes emotional or physical harm to herself or others. (567-607)
The novel ends on a note of defeat for Pipee, and for lesbianism, reinforcing traditional marital bonds, oppressive or hegemonic in some cases. Lesbian bonding presupposes that both the partners are prepared to challenge the patriarchal heterosexual power structures, which have invalidated and stigmatised lesbianism/homosexuality. The lesbian pair creates their own world within the larger mainstream heterosexual world and feels proud of it, thereby effecting a crucial reversal in the subject positions. This does not happen in this novel. Instead, lesbian experience is made inferior. Aastha offers clichéd arguments for her inability to join Pipee in a lasting, exclusive lesbian relationship. Aastha wanders in quest for a relationship that would be symbiotic of strength and stability, security and sensitivity to be derived from a woman. It crumbles down like the symbolic structure of the Babri-Masjid. She feels homeless and uprooted not because she does not have a roof above her head but because she is denuded once again of a meaningful human interaction.
The issue of the Babri Masjid-Ram Janam Bhoomi, the political offcolourings and the mobilisations of Manch, painting exhibitions, all become for Aastha a contestatory site of repression and rebellion and she tethers on a counter-hegemonic antipathy towards all kinds of role- playings, even that which prevail among the lesbians towards the end. Lesbian culture in itself is hegemonic to an extent that it de-robes the normalcy of a genetic, sexual and biological culture instilling a secondary power play in turn which again subjugates the underdog. Aastha’s earnest desire to escape the consequences of being a woman in a society dominated by a heterosexist mode of cultural ideology and economic condition, instills in her a realisation that her later orientation towards homosexuality is the only way to subvert the essentialising definitions of womanhood. She herself starts debating on the issue somewhere down the line. In this context, one may refer to the view of a French critic Monique Witting who considers lesbianism to be a concept that lies beyond the categorisation of sex as man or woman on grounds of economic, political or ideological domination or subordination. She argues:
For what makes a woman is a specific social relation to a man, – a relation that we have previously called servitude — a relation which lesbians escape by refusing to become or to stay heterosexual. (Wittig 176)
Aastha designates her belief in the true relevance of feminism only as a level of consciousness rising minus an adherence to the theoretical polemic or political rhetoric concerning the polarities of masculinity and femininity. Aastha thus becomes an escapee from both- marriage as well as true lesbianism. Lesbian panic also manifests itself in the neurasthenic state Aastha gets into after she comes home and furiously starts cleaning up process of the home, symbolic of her guilt towards her body and her betrayal of heterosexuality that is her inherent nature.
In the course of highlighting lesbianism as a kind of problematic irritant, which has been absent from mainstream feminist theory, Kapur pitchforks the transgressive and shadowy aspects of lesbian sexuality and ethnic difference as the patina of challenge to the prescriptive norms of feminist theory. Kapur resents being branded as one of “the hippies” for going against the current of established custom and continued to be loyal to those of her friends who remain defiant and determined for retaining their mutual needs and differences.
A Married Woman cannot be named or termed as a lesbian text because it depoliticises and reduces lesbian sexuality to a matter of ‘private preference which implies that it has no significance outside the privacy of the bedroom’(Hoogland 21). In A Married Woman lesbian sexuality is a private affair between Aastha and Pipee and does not constitute political intervention in the heterosexual discourse. And since the relationship remains private Adrienne Rich’s concept of ‘lesbian continuum’ wavers in proving its validity to a great extent, however it approaches quite near the ‘women-identified experience’ of which Rich writes. It can be called a depoliticised relationship, which exists in the Indian homophobic (or lesbophobic) society, where homosexuality is considered immoral by religion and unnatural by social codes, and Aastha fails to transgress this line of ‘code’ or ‘territory’.
All works are inevitably and inextricably embedded in the cultural context in which they are produced, and are defined by certain borders and boundaries however hated they might be. The politics of power operates at all levels. In transcultural discourse such as the one under study then territories are reconceived not so much as dividing lines which create clearly demarcated entities on two sides but as spaces of sojourn; passages of transition which include the notion that transitions are the norm rather than an exceptional experience. They may also be used as experimental grounds to try out different modes of living. In this sense territories are conceived as spaces of innovation where old judgements or right and wrong no longer apply. Lesbianism in connection with bi-sexual love and desire thus represent a transgression of traditional relations which addresses the concept of relationships as such while calling into question the places from which conventions and rules about relationships are received. This context is constituted by religious-cultural-political discourses which play a crucial role in determining the conditions of production, marketing, reception and canonisation. Politics of location plays a significant part in the life of any work. All writing is shaped, to a certain extent, by the cultural environment even as it tries to make a political intervention in the status quo. The political value and triumph of A Married Woman lies in its subversion of the dominant patriarchal, heterosexual discourse and rendering visible the invisible lesbian and their issues by giving them public space, without labelling the act as right or wrong.
Kapur in A Married Woman attempts to rewrite her definition of ‘home’, of expanding her quest for space and search of desire through which she can explore the relation of her ‘self’ with its cultural heritage and the social implications of going beyond the genetic constrains that change the settings of morality and power play. Manju Kapur represents a woman who has grappled with the marginality of its own ‘otherness’ like her female characters and the dominant modes of cultural ordering through economic, personal and professional independence. Her position as a literary artist is encompassing a discursive articulation of agency and legitimacy, a certain voice and presence, even if it is in a ‘house of difference’ which is resistance of fixity and silence, of void and darkness.
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POOJA SHARMA. Is Lecturer in English, Regional Institute of English, Chandigarh.