The queer movement has gained visibility and a measure of acceptance in metropolitan India. But the rainbow has only just begun to hover over the rest of India. In Bhadrak, Barasat and hundreds of other places, queer folk are waiting and watching, says Pawan Dhall
In 2001, Madhu Hijra, aged 23, was Biswanath Nandi, a struggling IT professional. Barasat, the district headquarters of North 24 Parganas in West Bengal, where she lived, did not have a Kolkata pin code. The most successful legal campaign against Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code was still at least a year away. But through Biswanath and a few other queer individuals who were members of the support group Counsel Club, the rainbow had already begun to hover over Barasat and its neighbourhood. Still, Hotel Anandalok, one of the two or three liveable hotels in town, was scandalised when the group wanted to hire a room for a meeting.
It was not because the group was queer. Coming out to the hotel was not on the agenda, never mind the sexual linkages that may have existed at the individual level with the hotel boys. The scandal would have been to allow a woman, a Kolkata-based sociologist associated with the West Bengal National University of Juridical Sciences, to be part of a meeting with 19-odd adult men in it. If anything, the queerness of the situation was a revelation to the group and the sociologist about what they were trying to change.
In 2011, Madhu is a monitoring and evaluation officer at an NGO in Kolkata. Apart from her parents’ home, she has her own place to live in, recently acquired after due propitiation of the Goddess Kali. Counsel Club has stopped functioning, but the Barasat police are now well aware of an HIV intervention project run by a state-level network of queer community groups. If and when the Supreme Court announces its verdict in support of the Delhi High Court ruling on Section 377, there will be many queer and supporting voices cheering in Barasat as well.
Yet, street violence and sexual harassment against women and transwomen, or anyone who appears fair game, has not disappeared in Barasat. If anything it seems to have increased, or is perhaps being reported more frequently.
For Madhu, the greatest solace comes from being the grand-daughter of Hema Haji Hijra, head of the Barasat hijra community. Somehow the queer support groups, whether Counsel Club or the ones she joined later, did not address the deep-seated loneliness she felt as a transgender person. Not that they didn’t try, or that they lacked transgender membership. But perhaps they could not fill the chasm created unwittingly by Madhu’s parents when they forced the only son of the family to undergo shock treatment for being “girly”. Madhu remembers her father often referring to her as “pet pichla” (unwanted child). “It still hurts,” she says.
About 275 km from Barasat, in Bhadrak town, Orissa, SMG is a peer educator in a male-to-female transgender support group called Santi Seva, which is about to turn five years old. In 2008, SMG withdrew into a shell when she tested positive for HIV. She stopped attending group meetings and left home following a disagreement with her family about the marriage of her younger brother. She shifted to the shrine of a pir baba (Muslim holy leader) in Charampa, not far from her home, and stopped taking care of her nutritional needs. This led to a gradual deterioration in health, and she developed complications. But she refused to admit this and would not return home or take any medicines until her wish had been granted by the pir baba’s spirit. SMG believed the baba’s spirit would appear in a dream and grant her her wish.
A few members of Santi Seva pooled their resources and took turns visiting SMG with fruits and other nutritious food. After repeated attempts, they convinced her to at least go for a health check-up and start taking medicines. Without revealing her HIV status, they informed other holy men at the shrine and elsewhere in Bhadrak that SMG had a serious illness. They requested them to tell SMG that her spiritual mentorwould have wanted her to take care of her health. If she did not stay healthy, there would be no point in her wish being granted.
It worked. SMG agreed to be tested for CD4 cell count at the Beherampur ART Centre. She was provided support to travel to Behrampur, prescribed medicines, and advised precautions by the ART Centre.
In 2011, SMG remains a core group member of Santi Seva, continues to work as a peer educator, and runs a small trade facilitated by the group’s income-generation programme.
Back in Bengal, Asansol (the second largest urban centre in the state) is just about three hours away by train from Kolkata. Asansol is one of 11 Indian cities among the 100 fastest growing cities in the world (http://www.citymayors.com/statistics/urban_growth1.html).
Situated at one end of Bengal’s erstwhile prosperous industrial belt of Bardhaman-Durgapur-Asansol, the city is poised to have an airport in nearby Andal in about a year’s time.
And yet Asansol is not Kolkata. For 23-year-old Rudra’s dreams of a career in hospitality, the flight path was in the opposite direction, towards Kolkata. The big city was where all the hospitality opportunities were. After four months of commuting every day for three hours, either way, to attend classes in Kolkata, what kept Rudra going was not just a career in hospitality. It was also the possibility of escape from a stultifying environment that did not address deep-seated doubts and questions about his early sexual experiences and attraction for other men.
Today, as Rudra begins to settle down in Kolkata with the help of gay friends in the city, he is happy with his new job. But his heart remains firmly in Asansol, his birthplace and the place where he grew up. Perhaps, just perhaps, Counsel Club or the newer queer support groups could have helped Rudra stay in Asansol and still realise his dreams.
Across the Hooghly, on the eastern side, Susanta Pramanick from Gobardanga, not far from the Indo-Bangladesh border, also commuted regularly to Kolkata — for a career but also for love. Susanta was 24 years old when he became one of the first gay men Counsel Club helped find a romantic partner for, in 1996. The relationship lasted all of four years, until Susanta’s partner shifted base to Mangalore. They remain friends. Meanwhile, Susanta continues to commute for work in and around Kolkata. He is always punctual.
Success in his career did not come easy for Susanta, a graduate, who has been associated with queer community mobilisation since the mid-1990s. It took a while for him to give up coaching school students and plunge into social development work. Familial opposition to the choices he made was compounded when he declared that he would not get married; his entire family, even the neighbours, ganged up against him. But support came from the mother of the house. In that, Susanta may well be the envy of several urban queer people desperate for parental understanding. “My mother said outright that it was her son’s decision whether to get married or not. And if she did not have a problem with his single status, there was no reason why anyone else should be bothered,” says Susanta. “After that, no one dared interfere in my personal affairs.”
Friendships, deliciously cooked and plentiful meals, and keeping time are extremely important for Susanta. Life in Gobardanga, a town with one of the oldest municipalities in Bengal and yet more rural than urban, taught Susanta early to be thankful for whatever he had. This resilience proved a lifesaver when flash floods in the Ichhamati and Jamuna rivers in 2000 all but washed away his home and belongings. He and his family survived.
Susanta saved every bit he could from the job he had as an outreach worker in Integration Society, an NGO, and not only rebuilt his house but also helped his neighbours recover some of their losses. A colleague in the NGO, who was also a close friend in Counsel Club, helped him face this adversity, but the group failed him. Later, all was forgiven and the bonds of friendship prevailed.
Years later, even after Counsel Club had closed, individuals associated with it raised resources for survivors of the 2004 tsunami in Tamil Nadu and Cyclone Aila that ravaged the Sunderbans in 2009. Yet, how many urban queer groups have a plan in place for their rural brethren — whether in Bengal, Bhadrak or elsewhere?
Justifiably proud of where he is now as a senior worker with a statewide HIV intervention project, and leader in a queer group Swikriti, Susanta is scathing in his observations about city folks: “City-dwellers tend to be wasteful. I’m invariably more punctual than my colleagues though I travel miles to work. And a fan or air-conditioner is not necessary for me. On a hot summer day, there’s nothing more cooling than sitting in the shade and allowing the gentle breeze to cool you down. And then, who says that fun is to be had only in cities? The greenery and riverside near my home is great for getaways — romantic and more!”
Susanta’s contemporary in Integration Society, Bokaro-born Aamir has become quite an itinerant in his quest for identity and peace of mind. Born in 1980, the youngest of four brothers in a joint family, Aamir grew up amid engineers, doctors and businessmen. Yet, as early as adolescence, he knew he did not fit in. His sense of disconnect with what was expected of him in terms of career and marriage only grew stronger when he found himself attracted to both men and women. A few same-sex sexual encounters within his extended family and circle of friends notwithstanding, Aamir had no one to share his doubts and deepest desires with. The nearest queer support groups were in Kolkata or Delhi, still in their infancy. Ever protective of his mother, Aamir was constantly chided by his father for being soft and not worldly-wise.
After finishing higher secondary, Aamir found himself headed to Kolkata for further studies. Glad to just get away from the confines of home, Aamir bought into his father’s ambition that he study commerce and become a chartered accountant. That’s until he contacted queer support groups in the city, in 1999, and found a new world opening up, with endless possibilities. Eager to help himself and others in situations like his, within a year Aamir had taken on a leadership role in Integration Society, which he joined as a governing body member.
“What helped me immensely was that for the first time in my life I was able to clear my doubts with my peers and be comfortable with my sexual orientation. It was like a cloud lifting,” says Aamir, now 31 and working at a consulting firm in Delhi. In the decade gone by, he became a commerce graduate but stopped pursuing an uninspiring career as a CA. “I found my calling in social development work. It was difficult, but I managed to somewhat convince my father,” he explains.
But there was more opposition to come. After queer community and HIV awareness work, Aamir felt the need to broaden his horizons and this led to studies at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai. A contented two years later, Aamir had still not found support from his father and disappointed him once again by joining an NGO in rural Madhya Pradesh and later moving to Delhi. Visits home still lead to friction with his father and other elder members of the family who feel Aamir is wasting his life. The only saving grace seems to be his mother’s unconditional and loving embrace. “But I haven’t yet told her or my father about my sexual orientation, and that I may not get married. If and when I do, that will be another battle and who knows what the outcome will be,” he says.
Natural calamities, shock treatment, HIV, sexual abuse, pressure to get married, suicide and loneliness — these are not the only challenges queer individuals in small town and rural India grapple with. They are part of the India that increasingly aspires to cross the divide between the haves and the have-nots — materially and emotionally.
Some of the places mentioned in this story may well qualify as urban spillovers into village India, or ‘spillages’. A few hours beyond them and one could be in the middle of the countryside. For a country urbanising at a frenetic pace, all roads from here lead to the big and bad, shiny yet dirty, spiffy but grimy city. India’s urban population of 340 million, 30% of the total in 2008 is set to increase to 590 million by 2030, 40% of the total expected by that year (http://www.mckinsey.com/mgi/publications/india_urbanization/index.asp). India’s cities are also expected to create 70% of all jobs over the next 20 years (http://www.mckinsey.com/mgi/publications/india_urbanization/index.asp).
For the average big-city-based queer support group, the agenda has always been one of skyscraper proportions. Besides all that they have managed in terms of meetings, rallies, film festivals, claiming pub, disco or media space, legal and policy reform campaigns, helpline counselling, or outreach for health and legal aid services, their task list is far from over. They need to learn to connect with the unique dilemmas of the Madhus, Rudras and Aamirs of queer India.
A majority of participants in Kolkata’s Rainbow Pride Walks (which started in 1999, and then, after a break, again in 2003), barring the last couple of editions, were from smaller towns and districts in Bengal, Orissa, and Manipur. It was only in 2009 that better-off sections of the city’s queer community started matching steps with them. And, in 2008, Kolkata’s more urbane counterparts — Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai and Bangalore — started their own pride marches.
Being places where opinions and policies are moulded, these initiatives have quickly made a mark. But the ‘queer premier league’ also needs to take along the courage unfolding through pride and protest rallies in places like Bhubaneswar, Trichy, Imphal and Siliguri. Does it have the means to do so? More importantly, does it have the empathy? Queer folks living beyond the ‘golden quadrilateral’ are watching and waiting.
Note: Written (e-mail based) or verbal consent was obtained from all the people mentioned in the story. Names have been changed where requested
(Pawan Dhall is based in Kolkata. He works at SAATHII on the sexual rights and reproductive health of people living with HIV, LGBT people, youth and women)
Infochange News & Features, July 2011