On the flight back from Bangkok to Delhi, there was an angst simmering within me, but I couldn’t identify a specific person or people to be angry at. I recall it being atmospheric. I felt defeated but was out of words to describe the sense of loss. I wanted to cry but my tears seemed to have stopped in their tracks, like they were done, exhausted!
Even though I was complete as a person in a logical way, I felt incomplete, just like what single people were told if they were of a marriageable age, or like me, older, in the mid-30s. I felt irresponsible, a word commonly used for those who hadn’t married or sustained one. People close to me knew of my abysmal success rate with lovers—four men in five years, none who stayed beyond a year to a year and a half.
The misery was far worse than what I had undergone when I had flunked twice in school, in class five and six, as even those who failed in schools and universities, the most corrupt of people, rich or poor, had successfully settled down. I, as many would say, had everything going for me: a career, living in a South Delhi home, part of a family that had accepted each of my boyfriends as ‘the one’. Thus, every relationship that didn’t fructify into a long-term one questioned how I went about connecting and associating with other gay men.
For several nights, I was morose and aloof, wondering whether there was a formula or template to follow that I had missed. I had gone by instinct, and whenever I felt unsure, I turned to romantic stories in books and films for tips. I had even indulged and invested in capitalist tropes, be it heart-shaped chocolates, cushions and cakes, a bouquet of roses or rose petals spread on a bed in a dimly lit room fed by candlelight, or handing a single rose, which was popularly considered ‘complete’ enough to symbolize love.
Why on earth, I asked myself, was romantic love so slippery, fleeting and momentary? Why was the fullness of hope emptied so easily? Why was my commitment to love, to my partners, so worthless? If there was anything that made me feel better, even a tad bit, it was the fact that I wasn’t the only one grappling with these questions, seeking remedies and solutions.
As a community, a legion of gay men had seen men come and go before the seasons changed. Our joys through relationships were so uncertain and brief that some couples celebrated a one- week anniversary of being together, raising the pitch when a relationship was a month old. We would laugh that off, nervously I thought, in our own queer way, calling these milestones the ‘joy of small things’!
Many of us took solace in each other’s experiences, as we had, sort of, accepted love and heartbreaks, frequently falling for lust instead, protecting our hearts from the vulnerabilities that love had so far provided us. As several psychologists and studies said, and from what I had seen and experienced personally in Thailand, this was a natural option for mental well-being, a means for validation, a counter to depression.
I remember us clinging to songs of hope. Cher’s 1998 dance track ‘Believe’ was huge, telling us that there was ‘life after love’, that we were ‘strong enough’, not needing the one that had left us ‘anymore’. We flipped and wept over Madonna’s ‘You’ll See’ (from a few years earlier), which delved into hurt, hope and break-ups, giving us strength through lines such as this: ‘You think that I can’t live without your love?/ You’ll see’. We even dramatized tracks such as ‘Kaanta Laga’ and ‘Choli Ke Peeche’ for their ability to acknowledge instant love or love at first sight and the hidden, throbbing heart, breaking the norm with what they said, a queerness we could relate to.
But even music was momentary, just like booze at a gay party; after all, alcohol can never be a replacement for the thirst water quenched—a perennial need for life.
My search for a boyfriend started days after I came out in August 1999. The first one lived in Delhi’s Paharganj area, considered an old part of the city. He ‘succumbed’ to marriage, not only since it would lead to turmoil within his family had he chosen ‘us’, but also since he didn’t wish for his mother to go through the trauma of knowing her son is gay. He didn’t want her or himself to face social oppression either.
The next was a tribal boy, a postgraduate student from a Northeastern state whose family had adopted Christianity. He feared coming out, living in paranoia that tied him down, impacting the relationship we shared. The Church, he had said, would not accept him, he’d be thrown out of his home and worse would happen—his parents would be humiliated and mortified!
Just before Non, I was with a ‘working-class’ Bengali, as he called himself. In his late 20s, he flew away to Europe in pursuit of sexual freedom, love and safety. He feared being outed at work (a globally renowned outsourcing company in Gurugram) and home, a household that included his sister and widowed mother. ‘If I stay back, I’d be finished, and my mother would be devastated,’ he had evinced his anxieties.
In all three cases, as you’d guess, the issue wasn’t the lack of love. It wasn’t about compatibility or, as was said, our inability to tango. It was, as one of my queer friends said much later, in a dry, sardonic way, the dancefloor wasn’t ours—a fact that didn’t strike me at the time of the break-ups.
I would always take the blame, believing I had wronged, feeling disenchanted and abandoned. Yet, I wondered what my fault was, trying to locate instances where I could have done something differently as though I could turn back time. I would finally slip into periods of despondency and depression, the phase I had been sliding towards when Non and I had parted ways. I’d usually define my mental and emotional state with the words of Mahatma Gandhi—‘where there is love, there is life’—as I thought it best described the gloom and darkness I endured. I was unaware, though, that these lines had little or anything to do with romantic love and had a far larger context and meaning, something that had a bearing on all lives, queer ones for sure.
Apparently, Gandhiji was speaking about bonds and bonhomie in society at large, a mass of people and their individual freedom, the liberation that comes with love. According to my middle brother, Dwijen (who we called Duji), the quote meant, ‘Each person’s right to be free is to freely love, and through love comes life and light, and a beacon for society itself.’ For a long period of history, he explained, ‘society lacked that kind of love’, as we as a nation were and continue to be divided by caste, religion, colour, region, food, language and so much else. ‘The seeds of love,’ he believed, ‘just like charity, have to be sown and nurtured in homes,’ by households, letting it power through each division, realizing its ability to unify people.
Duji was a liberal, a believer in ‘live and let live’, and a diehard propagator of freedom built on the strength of love, peace and humaneness. Hence, when he did speak of the core of Indian families being arranged marriages, reportedly over 90 per cent of nuptials in India, he expressed his displeasure at the death of individual choice but didn’t rule out that some matches worked. He said, ‘You can’t erase a small number even if it were miniscule and not recorded,’ a fact that I would have shouted out had I been in the Supreme Court when it re-criminalized homosexuality in December 2013, calling us a ‘miniscule minority’, not worthy of being counted.
By the same token, my brother didn’t wish to ignore hard facts, specifically the prevalence of domestic violence. The last National Crime Records Bureau report I came across claimed that of all the crimes against women, 30 per cent were cases of physical assault in their homes, defined in the law as ‘cruelty’ inflicted by husbands and their relatives against wives.7 If we go by a Mint report from April 2018, based on data collated by the government-run National Family Health Survey, we’d have to accept that 99 per cent cases of sexual assaults go unreported and that ‘the average Indian woman is 17 times more likely to face sexual violence from her husband than from others.’8
While some of this data wasn’t available when Duji and I had this conversation, I recall him saying grimly, sort of mourning the demise of love and care, ‘I don’t wish to get into other crimes inflicted on women or children, including mental torture.’ Of course, I was aghast and horrified to know that officially over 100 children were sexually abused every day, in and out of homes.
To put things into perspective, Duji handed me a book by Nivedita Menon titled Seeing Like A Feminist where she refers to a Delhi High Court order of 1984 that said Fundamental Rights had no place in a family. Essentially, ‘if every individual in the family is treated as free and equal citizens, that family will collapse.’ Meaning, she expounds, ‘the institution’, as it was designed, ‘is based on inequality’, perpetuating the hierarchy of age and gender.9
Therefore, given the social compulsions of marrying—a duty and dharma to many an individual—I started to believe that for a majority of people, creating a family was automatically prone to being a dispassionate exercise. It was bound to be bereft of heart and respect, where even children were produced out of an obligation rather than love. And children were brought into a world and families where the denouncement of equality and choice was legitimized through examples set at home.
Excerpted with permission from Queersapien, Sharif D. Rangnekar, Rupa Publications India.
7 Dhawan, Himanshi, ‘Not Rape, Domestic Violence is Top Crime Against Women’, The Times of India, 5 October 2020, https://tinyurl.com/yk6jyspx. Accessed on 11 October 2022.
8 Bhattacharya, Pramit and Tadit Kundu, ‘99% Cases of Sexual Assaults Go Unreported, Govt. Data Shows’, 24 April 2018, mint, https://tinyurl.com/ ydwzymjr. Accessed on 22 September 2022.
9 Menon, Nivedita, Seeing Like A Feminist, Penguin Books Limited, 2012.
Sharif D. Rangnekar is a writer, curator, workplace inclusion consultant and singer-songwriter. He is the author of the critically acclaimed book Straight to Normal: My Life as a Gay Man, as well as the director of the award-winning Rainbow Lit Fest—Queer & Inclusive. A TEDx speaker, Sharif has addressed numerous global and local forums on communications, inclusion and multiculturalism hosted by the Canadian High Commission, the British High Commission, Public Relations Organisation International, International Communications Consultancy Organisation, the American Centre and corporations such as J&J, Microsoft and Cognizant. The creator and frontman of Friends of Linger, his band’s track, ‘Head Held High’ is considered to be India’s first dedication to the LGBT+ community. Sharif also belongs to one of India’s most diverse indie bands, The Original Knock Offs, that has artists from across the world. A believer that communications through discussions, talks, art, literature and music are key to influencing change, he brings together over 30 years of experience in the fields of journalism, research, PR and image management in all he does. He has worked with organizations such as The Pioneer and The Economic Times in the media, and was the CEO and, later, chairman of Integral PR. Sharif is an advisor to the Global PR Trust focussing on social change and has chaired several juries such as those of the SABRE Awards and the Fulcrum Awards