What it’s like to be gay in modern India
Sandip Roy/Pahichan- After 20 years of living in San Francisco, Sandip Roy returned to India, a country where everyone wants to know your business and where the idea of a man living alone is baffling “Just come back any time with madam to approve the kitchen design,” the beaming modular kitchen consultant told me.
I explained patiently, again, that there was no madam around. I would be approving my own modular kitchen, cabinet colours and all. He smiled indulgently and said, “But we can wait few days if needed for madam.”
When it finally dawned on him that there was no madam at all, he was aghast. I don’t know what shocked him more – that a man might approve a kitchen design, or that I lived alone, or that a man who lived alone wanted a kitchen.
When I first moved to the United States as a graduate student I could not wait to live by myself. The idea of a town where no one knew your name was just exhilarating.
When I was moving back to India after 20 years in the US, many friends were aghast. How will you manage, they wondered uneasily. Twenty years of San Francisco can change you. How would I adjust to life back in a city without non-GMO Swiss chard, late-night carnitas quesadillas and gay bars?
“Do they have gay bars in India?” well-meaning American friends asked me. Kolkata actually had the first Rainbow Pride parade in India back in 1999. But no, there were no gay bars here, though there were several men-only bars, no Leather Weekend street fairs with paddling stations, no same-sex marriages officiated by the city’s mayor. I knew and I understood that certain things I took for granted in a San Francisco lifestyle would just not work in India. Neighbours in San Francisco minded their own business. Neighbours in India minded your business.
While the gay movement in the US was focused on marriage equality, in India it had its hands full trying to overturn a Victorian era anti-sodomy law that had hung around after the British had packed up and left. India had changed dramatically in the last decade when it came to visibility of gay issues in the media but there was still a fog of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell around issues of sexuality.
But I had not reckoned that what would be truly difficult was being an unmarried man, especially an unmarried man living part of the time on his own, away from family. That was what was regarded as profoundly abnormal. And I wearily had to come out about the lack of a “Madam” all the time. My banker wanted to know if “Madam” also needed to open a new account. The water filter service man said breezily that, even I was not at home, he could install the water filter as long as “Madam” was around.
Even the traffic signal near my apartment plays an earnest road safety message all day that entreats us to “Please cross the road carefully. Remember someone is waiting for you at home”. It made you feel that if you were heading home to an empty apartment you could just carelessly fling yourself into the path of the next careening minibus. Every television soap featured great bickering extended families with at least three sons and their wives all living and feuding under one roof along with a few assorted widowed aunts and hangers on.
Not being married meant not being acknowledged as a responsible grown-up. It’s the biggest failing of parenthood – the incompleteness of the unmarried child.
Family friends squeezed my cheeks as if I was a little boy instead of a middle-aged man. Aunts worried how I’d cook on my own, forgetting that I had fended for myself for 20 years in America.
More people are living solo around the world these days. You can call it a splintering of society. Or you can say it’s because we have better internet connections. 10,300,000 Indians live alone, according to the 2011 Census. In 2001, only 30 percent of those who lived alone were over 60. Now that figure is nudging 50 percent. According to a 2012 study the countries where single-person households are growing the fastest are Brazil, China and India.
That statistic has clearly not percolated its way down to my kitchen design store in Kolkata. This is still not a society set up for living on your own. Living alone means hanging out all day waiting for the carpenter who promised to come at 9 and has not shown up at 11. The courier comes three times a day bringing telephone bills, magazines, invitations to jewellery exhibitions. Everyone assumes someone will be around at all times to answer the doorbell.
It sometimes makes me wonder whether Indians can more intuitively grasp a right to marriage rather than a right to privacy or self-expression. The hot debates around gay rights revolve around consenting adults and their right to privacy. Marriage is hardly on the radar. But coming out in India is really about marriage. In fact, the standard coming out line is “Mom, Dad, I don’t think I am going to get married.”
As same-sex marriage becomes more and more commonplace around the world, that old coming out line is going to inevitably feel out-of-date. India might be a conservative country but if it understands anything, it understands marriage. That might just extend even to same-sex marriage one day. At least he married someone, thank goodness.
I imagine one day a classified ad in the Sunday paper or on one of the matrimonial websites like Shaadi.com will read:
Hindu very well-established Kolkata family invites professional match for son, 32, 5’9”, MBA, Senior Executive in Fortune 500 company. Prospective grooms encouraged to reply in confidence with complete bio-data and returnable photo. Must be professional, under 30, caste no bar.
Stay tuned for the first gay arranged marriage. And the modular kitchen salesman who will say with a knowing smile, “No madam? What about a sir then?”