A Song for the Caged Bird

Ankit Khadgi | January 1, 2021
Credit: Ubahang Nembang

Halfway through Niranjan Kunwar’s memoir, a sense of familiarity envelops me. The beats of his song, his book, resound with mine.

The emotions he goes through, the yearning for companionship, the value he accords to his friends, and the trauma he experiences because of a word tossed out casually by his family in a rush of anger – they are all familiar. 

Released in the first week of December, Kunwar’s memoir, Between Queens and the Cities, is a coming-of-age account of his transformation from a shy, timid teenager living in Baneshwor to a young, vibrant but aimless wandering soul in New York, and finally to a mature and more sorted-out man in Kathmandu.

The experiences he writes about are not just his. Like him, I, along with many others who are navigating their lives in this cishet world, have faced rejection and discrimination, found more solace in the company of friends than family, and often battled deeply distressing situations. His song is ours. 

But as a writer, Kunwar doesn’t spend a lot of time just talking about what it means to be queer and the subsequent difficulty of living life without succumbing to cishet norms. We don’t just read about his lonely nights, the cigarettes after sex, the discomfort with family and friends. Rather, equal amounts of space are dedicated to the challenges a writer faces, the identity crisis faced by an immigrant, the experiences of working in the Nepali art scene, and the value of friends. 

There is almost a generation in the age difference between Kunwar and I. He is only five years younger than my mother. We were brought up in completely different worlds, but the intergenerational trauma faced by men who try to live life on their own terms by not adhering to cishet norms persists, creating a hostile and suffocating environment.

Publishing the country’s first queer memoir in the English language is a big responsibility and the pressure must have been substantial as Kunwar is not just representing himself but the entire queer community, which hasn’t found much space in the Nepali literary scene. Kunwar has done a fair job, as just sharing his story, with all his vulnerabilities, virtues and vices, could help other queer people, especially gay men, as well as cishet readers, to relate. Much of what he writes about is universal.

For instance, Kunwar talks about how he once used casual flings simply as a way to feel the touch of another. The excitement and thrill of someone wanting you, the flattery and compliments, and the fluttering of the heart that finds a semblance of calm in the warmth of another’s body. Seldom do we see this kind of casual hookup in this light. But writing about such incidents can be tricky, since many Nepalis may not be accepting of causal sex. Rather than focusing solely on the pleasure, Kunwar writes about power, love and warmth filling an empty heart that is yearning for companionship.

Given the insensitive representation the queer community suffers at the hands of the Nepali media, Kunwar is self-aware about the consequences of his writing. He tries to make the best use of his platform by breaking with the usual voice when it comes to queer representation. When queer writers tell their own stories, their writing is often filled with anecdotes about feeling ‘different’ or ‘abnormal’. It is understandable that queer storytellers would perceive themselves to be ‘different’ – that is how cishet society tends to make them feel. But Kunwar attempts something different: there is hardly an instance where we find him telling sob stories about his sexuality.

When Kunwar announces his sexuality to his family, he spends around three pages talking about it. That day must have been one of the most difficult times in his life, as his parents, although educated, are still guided by orthodox values and norms. But we don’t get anecdotes about what he was going through, the emotions that he was channeling in his heart, or the melodrama of his family members. Rather, we get a summary of the day, where we learn of his father’s reaction – that Kunwar should change – and his mother’s inability to understand.

When I first read this segment, I was disappointed, since I was expecting fights, drama and tense moments. I was expecting to cheer for Kunwar standing up for himself and finally telling the whole truth to his family. I too had been trained to think of ‘coming out’ as a big deal. But re-reading the segment, I found it poignant, poetic and refreshing. 

Moments like these come and go, but the narrative begins to totter as Kunwar’s self-indulgence in telling his story overpowers the heart of the subject matter. There are many things he mentions casually, but for someone who is not friends with him or knows him personally, these details can be tedious. Kunwar relies on short, simple sentences that reflect his ever-changing thoughts and emotions, giving us a peek into both his inner and outer worlds. But the 300-page book will test the patience of readers, as much could have been edited out. An entire section, where he writes for pages about a family trip to Bangkok, could have been easily removed as it has no impact. The same goes for other vacations, of which there are plenty in the book.

Kunwar is so immersed in himself and his writing that he sometimes forgets to explain major events that help to build the plot. For instance, an important moment arrives when he writes an article for Himal Southasian about a deeply personal experience. His retelling feels emotionless. We simply see him writing the article one day and receiving appreciation and feedback from readers the next. What went through his head while he was writing it? What were the emotions, the dilemmas and the challenges he encountered? We don’t hear about any of this. 

Similarly, he mentions many friends, the names of which can be tedious to keep up with. For Kunwar, his friends are his biggest support system. They are his source of inspiration and his chosen family, and he makes this clear by dedicating a lot of space to writing about them. Sadly, he fails to provide any depth to them or even justify the strong bond they share. They appear and disappear, leaving little impact on the narrative.

Furthermore, in the final chapter, ‘No one sings our song’, we read accounts of queer activists who have inspired Kunwar with their lives and contributions. While this chapter is his way of giving a platform to queer individuals who might not be as privileged as he is, the treatment is lacklustre. The writing is bland; one feels like one is reading a news report.

Kunwar’s book isn’t perfect. There is restraint in his writing, even when he’s telling his own story. He has set boundaries that forbid readers from crying, being happy or feeling the emotions and sentiments he writes about. His mental and emotional torment, the blossoming of love between partners, his lonely nights or how writing pacified his inner soul – we don’t read about any of this. I wanted to cry with him, get inside the mind of a writer who is also queer, and understand the difficulty in expressing oneself. But Kunwar’s writing doesn’t often allow for such opportunities. We get to know him but not closely enough.

Kunwar’s story is definitely that of a privileged man, brought up in an affluent family, and who, unlike many of his queer peers, has more power. Still, he was made a migrant in his own home, country and society. These structures still can’t see him loving another man and living his life the way he wishes to. The writing of this memoir – as a queer writer in a landscape where queer individuals are discriminated against, harassed and even murdered for who they are – is an exemplary effort.

“No one knows about our dreams, no one knows about our nightmares. We don’t enter anyone’s imaginations. We don’t inhabit their conscience,” he writes. These words echo Kunwar’s sadness at not being lucky enough to read queer stories. With this memoir, he has paved the way, signaling to queer writers that their stories are equally valid. Kunwar sings a song for me, and for all those queer individuals who have been waiting like caged birds for someone to come along with a heartfelt lullaby. Although Kunwar’s lullaby is sometimes out of tune, it is still poignant, and inspiring.

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