“You are dead to me,” my father’s voice boomed like an Amrish Puri character. What does one do with the violence embedded within these words?
Born and raised in Canada, like thousands of others, my life does not resemble a Karan Johar NRI movie. I did not grow up in a mansion; I grew up in a house in the middle of the woods. My father did not go to office in a suit; he went to work at the mill in steel toed boots and construction hat. While my mother did cook us hot chapattis, it was before she started work as a maid at a motel.
My father migrated from Punjab to British Columbia in 1970; ten years later, he brought back a wife from the motherland. The town in Canada, in which they have spent the majority of their lives, has a sizable desi population from the Doaba region that has been established since the turn of the 20th century.
Growing up in the non-urban west meant that my community recreated the culture, language, religion, and food of rural Punjab of the 1970s, by any means necessary. To a large extent this was resistance to the immense level of racism that we faced within this rural setting, and in part because they feared what they perceived to be the morally bankrupt culture of the west. In effect, I can make sarson da saag with makki di roti from scratch, a skill that few women of my age bracket can do in India. I speak an archaic Punjabi dialect, a language that is dying like other regional languages. Unfortunately, the expectations of all aspects of my life are equally stuck in the 1970s rural Punjab.
Amongst many other things that no parent should ever say to their child, they told me in plain and simple language that they are ashamed of me. They interpret every act of self determination over my body and life, as a slight to their way of life; be it short hair, thick eyebrows, and the increasing permanence of my unmarried state. While there has not been an official “coming out,” much of how I live my life is seen as an affront to their culture. Of course, they believe that they own the culture and that I cannot until I am married. I know that this is not a unique story; unfortunately it’s all too familiar to many irrespective of where we are from or what colour we are. One would think that there are many examples to follow in such situations.
In the west, at least in urban areas, it is often considered a given that “coming out” happens as a teenager or early 20s. Amongst desis who are born and brought up in India, it sounds like it is not that simple. Being in Canada, looking for support, it seems like one has to choose between the gays and brown people. On one hand, it is in circumstances like these in which the language of “backward” brown people often emerges even in the most progressive queer circles. On the other hand, second generation people of colour often end up being apologists for the behaviour of elders in our communities. In short, race becomes an excuse for homophobia.
In this past year, I have returned to India with the specific mission to meet other queer Indians with whom I could talk about how they live and negotiate their lives. I found an India that contains a bundle of contradictions regarding sex and sexuality, on one hand, I draw inspiration from the parents of my friends who love them unconditionally to the extent that they have filed a petition advocating for decriminalising same sex activity in the Supreme Court. On the other hand, it is alarming that so called “honour killing” are seemingly on the rise.
At this point, I do not want to talk about the abstractions of movement building, I want to talk about changing a culture which allows for the killing of children (physically or metaphorically in my case) who choose to follow their love or lust. I wonder, will the legal victories in India trickle down and change attitudes? Do my parents even know about 377 or Dostana? Are they aware how many contradictions that “Indian culture” contains today? It seems like winning legal victories is the easy part, how do we win the hearts and minds of people whose culture is based in a version of family values in which love is reserved for obedient heterosexuals? How do we bridge the gaps between what happens in India and what happens in the diaspora? I want to find a way to in which I can communicate with them that my homosexuality is not a betrayal of my Indian culture, but in fact making sarson da saag can co-exist with being gay.
Indu Vashist is a queer feminist based in Montreal.
This article was originally published in New Indian Express and can be found here