By Harsha Mallajosyula
Mira Nair’s movie adaptation of Jhumpa Lahiri’s “The Namesake” focuses mainly on the immigrant experience. The movie richly documents the fictional narratives of an immigrant Bengali family. The leaving behind of tradition and customs, isolation that quickly sets in, the indomitable human spirit, seeking familiarity with in the unknown, adapting customs and rituals, the birth of a new familial structure and the enduring bonds with the ones left behind. The clash of identities and an immigrant’s effortless navigation between the two worlds which often are at odds with one another.
Familial structures – new and old reveal layers of complexity and loyalty that continue to shape and define the immigrant protagonists’ identity. In one of the defining scenes, Ashima (played by the underrated Bollywood actor Tabu) comes to terms with the loss of a family member in India. The scenes that follow brilliantly capture loss, pain, betrayal and guilt. In grief, familial structures work effortlessly in a self regulating manner – friends and relatives in their host country arrange child care options, drop off to airport, food for the travel and other existential needs. Once Ashima and her family reach India, rigid structures define her spouse’s and childrens’ roles as funereal rituals unfold. There is no room for second guessing. Everyone is aware of their role in the family and events unfold in their propriety. The narrative in its hetero-normative trappings fails to take into consideration the realities of queer immigrants and the imminent burden confining roles and structures play while dealing with grief.
One sunny afternoon, not so long ago I received the dreaded call from India informing me of the loss of a loved one. While grieving, I often wondered why my trajectory seemed so unfamiliar to that of Ashima’s or for that matter my brother’s. Majority of gay men are single and do not have a spouse to come home to. The family structure of support that works so well for couples does not exist here. And even in partnered same-sex relationships, would things look substantially different? In a culture where the passing of a loved one is commemorated in accordance to strict gender and familial roles, where would a same-sex partner fit in? The relative privilege of position ( though its’ absolute privilege can be debated) accorded to my brother’s wife in the ceremonial rites is open to no discussion. However only time will decide how inclusive our rites and rituals might evolve to include the realities of queer South Asians.
In happiness or in grief, our society is structured around gender roles that do not transgress defined boundaries. I find it stifling to engage meaningfully within these boundaries. So when I celebrate or mourn it is often with the family of my choice – a minority of individuals who accept my identity and struggles without judgment. Often blood relatives are excluded, thus the duality of my existence continues even after my coming out. While I am comfortable within these boundaries, I do want to ascertain my rights as a queer South Asian that often are taken for granted by my heterosexual counterparts. I have raised certain questions here, not just in defiance but also to bring attention to realities faced by millions of queer immigrants like me. I do not know the answers yet but I am hoping as societies evolve and cultures progress, the answers to my questions lie in broader and inclusive interpretations of the traditions that have been granted to us as a right of passage.