Formerly of Fiji and Australia, Shobhna S Kumar is sitting in her north Mumbai office, surrounded by cartons full of books which she is couriering to bookstores. Kumar, an indie publisher, has brought out a collection of stories that is selling well, with a novella in the offing and ambitious plans for expansion. She runs India’s first LGBT-dedicated publishing house, Queer Ink.
In 2009, when Queer Ink was purely an online bookstore, her web presence enabled her to tap into LGBT-themed demand from Indian cities. Soon, customers were clamouring to her for Indian books.
“They wanted to identify with Indian characters and situations,” says Kumar. To meet the demand, last year, an enthusiastic Kumar turned publisher with 'Out!', a collection of LGBT-themed short stories from writers from within the communities.
'Out!' is being distributed by Crossword, a sign of LGBT literature acceptance in the mainstream. Queer Ink has emerged as a definite agent of change for queer communities.
“In Hyderabad, which is a closeted community, lesbian women read the whole book in the bookstore. They used to come and read for an hour a day. They wrote to me, saying that they could not buy my book but wanted to express their support in this way.
That is why we’d decided not to cellophane-wrap the book,” she says.
Mumbai, larger than life, is a character in some stories in ‘Out!’, as it is in Kumar's upcoming manuscript, a novella with a “Bollywood masala” theme, she says. Whether it is about closeted actors or directors, she won’t tell just yet.
When she moved here initially, she was a change management consultant. In 2008, she was helping the grants wing of ICICI move to Pune. After suffering a leg fracture during that assignment, she found herself bedridden for a long spell.
Looking for something to read on online, she found just a few LGBT-themed books that could be shipped to India. An unacceptable situation for this advocate of the LGBT cause, she founded Queer Ink in 2009, an LGBT-dedicated bookshop, and now a publishing house. The advantage of Queer Ink, she says is that “people can browse from the privacy of their homes.”
Privacy is crucial because the mainstream is apprehensive about ‘queer issues’. Often, she says, “distributors would refuse to import, saying LGBT books are porn.” And of course, homosexual relations were a crime then, with Section 377 still in force.
That has changed, though social mores are change at glacial pace, and lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgenders must find each other covertly in today’s Mumbai. But Kumar is ecstatic about the move towards inclusiveness, gradual though it is.
Her cultural antennas firmly extended, Kumar says she is struck by the rapidity with which Mumbai has been urbanised and gentrified. When she visited the first malls in Malad, she saw people hesitating to take the escalators. The moving staircases were as new as the consumerist shrines they were housed in.
But Mumbai adapted to the socio-economic change, she says, and developed an adaptive mindset. “People are entrepreneurial about their lives," she says. Also, more assertive. "Today, with the internet economy going high, people are more aware of their rights as a consumer. They say, I don’t want s^*&y service.”
A gung-ho Kumar sees potential for growth in India. Her long-term plans involve taking on staff and publishing writers from regional languages as well. For now, she is planning to hold workshops on non-fiction and fiction writing to inspire new talent from the communities.
A decade ago, she hadn’t known she’d do this work or call this city home. “Love brought me to Mumbai,” says Kumar.
From accidental Mumbaiite to a publisher who made a splash, Kumar holds the potential to be a dot connector between the LGBT and the hetero, mainstream spaces.