In 1960, a boy was born to a Bombay Parsi family, The Kangas.
They named him Firdaus.
Firdaus Kanga would grow up to be famous – and also, to write the first Indian English novel that talked about being gay, as an aam baat.
It was also the first Indian novel to depict the sexual life and fantasy of a disabled person.
But first, Firdaus had to contend with being born with an incurable condition: osteogenesis imperfecta.
Osteogenesis imperfecta makes your bones extremely brittle and stunts growth.
It meant that Kanga stopped growing after a height of four feet.
“There were many things I could not do as a boy - the most absurd of these was not being able to break a biscuit. There was something about the sound, the snap that always reminded me of those moments when I would crack a rib or break a hip, which happened almost as often as the festivals that sprinkled the Indian calendar.” - Essay for the BBC
As Kanga grew up, it was in books that he found the kind of characters he was missing in his life: gay characters.
“I certainly knew no gay men, except in the sublime stories I found and read - those by James Baldwin, E.M. Forster and Iris Murdoch.” - Essay for the BBC
Kanga studied law, but gave it up to pursue journalism.
He enjoyed writing short stories.
He entered one of his stories in a competition and won.
(Fun Fact: One of the judges here was the novelist Amitav Ghosh!)
This story went on to become his breakthrough novel: Trying to Grow.
It was published in 1990 and was based on Kanga’s own life!
‘Trying to Grow’ tells the story of Darius Kotwal - nicknamed "Brit" (for brittle-bones but also Parsi Anglophilia).
Darius, struggles with many identity binaries, much like Kanga did:
Indian/Parsi | able-bodied/disabled | straight/gay
Pehle pehle Brit’s sexuality conforms to convention. And phir!
He is consumed by his sexual attraction to the handsome Cyrus.
Kanga etches Brit's sexual confusion with the precision of a gleaming knife. In one scene, Brit caresses Cyrus’s girlfriend Amy’s hair, pretending it is Cyrus's.
He understands that his attraction to Amy is because her body has been the site of sexual pleasure for Cyrus.
Kanga’s visits to London were.
It was here he posed like the gay journalist Truman Capote for a photograph. And finally bought Gore Vidal's ‘The City and the Pillar’ (about a young man discovering his own homosexuality), a book he had been looking for since he was 16.
In 1997, Kanga made London his home. The move helped him come to terms with his own sexuality, as well as his disability.
“The attitude here is very different - for me it is very rewarding to be considered absolutely ordinary”
– India Today article
Kanga’s CV is a bit too impressive! (Don’t get into an existential crisis, agents).
1990: Published Trying to Grow, got rave reviews
1991: Published second novel ‘Heaven on Wheels’ about his travels around England
1992: Wrote and staged a play called ‘A Kind of Immigrant’
1992: Narrated for ‘Double the Trouble, Twice the Fun’ - a television docudrama on disability and homosexuality by Pratibha Parmar
1993: Talks about Hinduism's attitude towards disability, again in Parmar's documentary - ‘People First: Taboo’
Here he challenges the karma-oriented belief: ‘The suffering of disabled people is the result of actions in a past life.’
Alt text: The card features a short video which is a clipping from the movie Sixth Happiness. In the featured scene, the character Cyrus is looking out of the window, while standing on the bed in which Brit (Kanga's character is lying down.) He suddenly trips and falls down on Brit, and panics thinking that Brit is hurt. When Brit doesn't respond to his worried enquiries, he starta to kiss Brit, in order to get him to respond. Brit says, "When I come so close to a fracture, I become small again. And I vanish. Everything goes. Even sex," Cyrus then glances down, presumably at Brit's erect penis, and says, "Doesn't look like it ." They both laugh and start kissing again.
In 1997 Kanga turned (lead) actor and screenwriter for an award-winning BBC-BFI British film, called ‘Sixth Happiness’ directed by Waris Hussein, based on his first novel.
Kanga lived in a home specially adapted for disabled people in Islington, London.
Then, in 2006, the landlords decided to convert the shared accommodation into a care home for young people. They offered to re-house Kanga and his fellow tenants into single self-contained flats.
Kanga fought a landmark battle against this – a legal one, instead of literary and cultural—to keep his home.
12 months later - he won!
“Kanga doesn’t want to be cut off from people. It’s all about comradeship, friendships and support. Not everyone wants to live on his or her own” – Zina Rohan, novelist and Kanga’s friend
We leave you with some beautiful quotes from Firdaus Kanga:
“Homosexuality was the different part of me that gave me pleasure, allowed me to hug my body - if rather gingerly- rather than fear it, fear the pain it brought me... Coming out was easy for me as I had been stared at all my life - now I turned heads for happier reasons.” - Essay for the BBC
“Growing up disabled, you get fed up with people asking you to be brave, as if you have a courage account on which you are too lazy to draw a cheque. The only thing that makes you stronger is seeing somebody like you achieving something huge. Then you know how much is possible and you reach out further than you ever thought you could.”
(After meeting Stephen Hawking)
- A Visit to Cambridge’ chapter from ‘Heaven on Wheels’
Sources: ‘A visit to Cambridge’ chapter by Kanga, BBC article 'Broken bones and a broken heart' by Kanga, paper on Kanga by Niladri R. Chatterjee, Islington Tribune article 'Actor's eviction drama', India Today article 'Disabled writer Firdaus Kanga makes waves in London.'