Aparna likes to tell stories - through words, visuals and performances. She likes listening to stories even more. She tries to live in the moment, without regret. She also runs a couple of media companies that create content for television and the development sector. If she has any time or energy left, she conducts workshops on Communication.
“It was evening. About 8. A Wednesday. The date was 19th May, 1993.”
Vijay paused, a shy smile playing on his lips, a blush threatening to burst forth. He looked down at his perfectly manicured hands and looked back at the camera.
“That’s the first time Naseem and I met.”
Vijay looked at me and collapsed into a fit of giggling. “Cut! Cut!” he commanded.
It was the summer of 2002. A year ago, the Naz Foundation, a non-profit organization working on AIDS and sexual rights in India, had filed a case in the High Court of Delhi. The petition challenged a nearly 150 year old law which criminalized homosexuality in the country – left behind as part of their legacy by the British. It was a bold move to make in a country very uncomfortable with anything queer. The Foundation was up against not just a conservative government, but also a people who preferred to brush such uncomfortable, supposedly taboo topics under the carpet.
Self-righteous indignation, along with other absurd positions, was quick to come right in. That this was ludicrous – in view of the rich legacy of homegrown folklore, mythology, literature and even historical facts about queer men and women within South Asian culture – seemed obvious to just a few. Self-appointed guardians of ‘morality’ and ‘Indian culture’, often at loggerheads with each other over matters of religion, caste and class, became unusually secular over their distaste for homosexuality. Being gay, they said, was a ‘western’ phenomenon. It was ‘unnatural’ and not in keeping with our common South Asian/ Indian ethos. Certainly not something that they’d want ‘good’ Hindus, Muslims and Christians to be thinking about and – horror of horrors – practising!
“We come from an old royal family… a good family… from the Chandni Chowk area”, said Agarwalji, “Brahmano jaisa parhej karte hain… hamare ghar mein koi mutton nahi khata… hum shudh shakahari hain”.
His wife came in, carrying cups of hot tea, the kind that is made by boiling the leaves with the water and the milk mixed together. His daughter-in-law followed, carrying little plates of Marie biscuits, pakoras and potato wafers. Agarwalji looked at them, indulgent pride written all over his face.
“My daughter-in-law also comes from a very good family. Convent educated. BA in English. But very cultured. Very respectful.”
The daughter-in-law adjusted her pallu so it covered her head properly. She tucked one end of it behind her ear.
“My friend arranged the marriage. He did so for all my children! Infact, I have no idea how to marry off one’s sons and daughters. My friend and his wife have always taken on this responsibility.” Agarwalji’s wife smiled and nodded her head, “I don’t know what we would do without Bhaisaab and Bhabhiji”.
That summer Amrit, Arunima and I were asked what we wanted to look at in our final graduation documentaries. How would it be, we wondered, if we looked at two gay men or women, who were quintessentially Indian? So ‘Indian’ – and it was, and still is, a loaded term – that no viewer would again claim that homosexuality was a foreign import. Veritable sons and daughters of the soil.
It wasn’t simple. For starters, while everyone was quite happy to admit to their gay side to us in private, talking about it on camera scared everyone off. Women were especially conspicuous by their absence. We had access to many articulate, English speaking men and women – some of them intrepid activists of the queer movement – but we just couldn’t find anyone who was comfortable only in the local language and came from a conservative milieu. Someone who could not be accused of having been influenced by ‘foreign’ values.
Ordinary men and women with not-so-straight lives.
Rotund, bald and swarthy. Affable. Worldly, wise. With a way with words. When we first met Agarwalji, it was like we had run into the owner of the neighbourhood corner grocery store. Someone who could advise one on which brand of cooking oil to buy, discuss politics over the counter, overcharge at times and give unexpected discounts too.Someone who could shout at the store-help one instant and smile at you the next. The quintessential friendly neighbourhood ‘uncle’. As it happened, his own reality wasn’t very different from the image he portrayed. He was the proud owner of a small grain store in the wholesale market area of Sadar Bazaar in Delhi.
Our first meeting was at one of the weekly anonymous gay group meetings we had started attending regularly. Already in his sixties by then, Agarwalji was the oldest amongst the group. With his easy manner and sense of humour, he was also the favourite.
For some reason, he took to us. Adopted us, took us under his wing. I now realize that the eventual decision to shoot with him as one of the central protagonists of the film wasn’t ours alone. That he would be part of the film was something he knew and took for granted long before we did.
But the film seemed incomplete with just one story. We needed another voice, a younger person perhaps? Another perspective.
Much later, when we screened the film at various festivals, viewers commented invariably on Agarwalji’s story, expressing their surprise and delight at seeing a man his age proudly proclaiming himself to be gay. One of our favourite lines from the film, for instance, was him declaring, simply and with touching dignity, ‘I am 110% gay!’
Our choice of Vijay as the other central protagonist, though, was often questioned. We were asked why we had chosen to go with the 30 year-old queer man who identified himself as a ‘kothi’, when other stories could have been found. People also asked us if we weren’t stereotyping gay relationships, and gay men, by featuring someone with seemingly feminine mannerisms.
During the course of research for the film, we met many people. The stories we heard were moving. There were stories of not being accepted, of leading double lives, of compromises and of frustration. But what we also started to realize was that most gay men from the backgrounds we were looking at had found a simple way to buy peace at home (and they lived invariably in large joint-families in little, cramped homes), while also continuing with their gay relationships – they would simply get married as per their family’s diktats.
Getting married meant that their sexuality was no longer up for speculation within their family or community. It ensured being looked at as ‘normal’. It gave their parents a new daughter-in-law who could, in keeping with tradition, look after them.
When we asked them how their wives felt about the arrangement, they’d be unbelievably nonchalant about it. The wives ‘understood’, they’d say. They ‘supported’ them, and their gay relationships. I especially remember one person, married and with two kids, who told us how his wife helped him dress up in drag. She had, as he put it, ‘no problems’ with his sexuality. A rare honest man told us the real truth, ‘Shaadi ke baad, joru ko aadmi ki baat manni hi padti hai. Woh kisko kya batayegi? Badnaami to ussi ki honi hai.’
It was as though a cycle of repression, unleashed through a societal lack of understanding for alternate sexuality, had led to a new narrative of subjugation and domination.
Vijay was a rare man who had broken through that cycle. Despite considerable familial pressure, he had not just refused marriage with a girl, but was also one of the few men who spoke out vehemently against, as he put it, cheating an innocent girl.
Vijay was also one of the few people we met who had come ‘out’ to his family. It couldn’t have been easy, given that his widowed mother was a simple, illiterate, first generation migrant to the city, who’d provided for the fatherless family of 6 by selling vegetables. Of course, his family was devastated at the news of his being gay and tried to talk him into getting ‘treated’ for his condition. But secure in his work as an outreach worker with the Naz Foundation, he was able to hold his own. He had also celebrated his gay relationship with Naseem, his partner of six years, with a wedding that was witnessed by their friends from the gay community. It was a rare ‘public’ event, low-key enough to not attract attention from the police and guardians of morality, and high-key enough to make a splash within the community.
There was no doubt that reaching out to unknown men at bus stops, train stations, parks and other public places and talking to them about safe sex practices had toughened him up. It was a difficult job, with the police frequently troubling him, and people unwilling to listen to anything on a subject considered taboo. He told us stories of workers like him being roughed up, abused, insulted and called names. Raped. For in the hierarchy of things, men like him, the kothis, were just one rung above women.
A casual conversation with Vijay wouldn’t ever give one an indication of his depth, his convictions or his incredible, quiet courage. In fact, he came across as rather vain; proud of his looks and confident of his ability to make men fall for him. He experimented with his hairstyles, followed fashion closely, got his eyebrows plucked and his arms and legs waxed. He made eyes at men on the street, was an incorrigible tease, gossiped with me about who he flirted with, shared secrets about his love life. Once, in passing he naughtily told me not be afraid of him stealing my guy away from me! Of course, he was actually head-over-heels in love with Naseem.
Vijay was fun to hang out with, despite (and perhaps, because of) all our cultural differences. He had a sense of humour and took particular delight in shocking us – the three English speaking filmmakers with, as he put it, hopelessly colourless lives – with his talk and behaviour.
Agarwalji, on the other hand, was much more ‘proper’. ‘Meri bachi ke saath tameez se pesh aana,’ he’d warn Vijay and others, and then turn and warn us in a fatherly, protective, almost patronizing way, ‘Ye abhi bhi nadaan hai. Bhool jaate hain kaise logon ke saath baat cheet ki jaati hai. Not surprisingly, his own love story too, was carefully conducted in a ‘proper’ way.
It was an incredible story. A chance encounter at the neighbourhood pan shop, a few meetings and then, that light-headed feeling of being in love. It wasn’t the easiest of emotions to feel for another man in conservative India 40 years ago. Agarwalji was married by then, in the way that men and women who reach a certain age in India find themselves to be. But the power of what they felt for each other – an irrational, compelling need to be with one other– brought and kept them together.
It was a strange, intense love. A few years into the relationship, Agarwalji got his ‘friend’ married. ‘I had children, I had a family. But what of him? I didn’t want him to feel lonely at a later point in time. And the way times are changing, there was no guarantee that my children would look after me in my old age, let alone him. I didn’t want him to be without a support system’.
The two lived together with their families in the same house in the great Indian tradition of joint families. The wives brought up each other’s children. The children grew up as siblings. The two families lived, ate and prayed together for 14 years. To the world, and indeed to their own families, they were an example of ‘brotherly’ love. Their friendship – that innocuous word – was upheld as a model to be emulated. ‘Brothers do not share the kind of love we have for each other,’ Agarwalji would say, ‘nor do sisters share the kind of affection that our wives share’. It was duplicitous and honest; beautiful and tragic.
The families don’t know the extent to which the two men of the family loved each other. Agarwalji and his friend prefer it that way.
A few months after their wedding, Naseem married a woman. He told Vijay he had been forced into the relationship by his dying mother. A year later, his wife had a baby. Vijay’s family advised him to get married too. Instead, Vijay broke up with Naseem.
In 2009, the High Court in Delhi announced its verdict on the case filed by the Naz Foundation filed 8 years earlier. Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code was ‘read down’. A consensual physical relationship between two men would no longer be penalized by criminal courts. Agarwalji and Vijay could love freely.
We had asked Agarwalji and Vijay how they thought their lives would change if Section 377 were to be amended. ‘I don’t think it’ll make a difference in my life’, Agarwalji said, ‘I have lived my life. I don’t want to upset the cart now. Our lives have gone off well. We have all been happy. If our families were to learn the truth about us, it could create rifts. It may not too… who knows? Life is strange.’ He was less ambivalent about where we could screen the film, though. Film festivals were fine, he told us. So were screenings meant specifically for the gay community. Television, with its ability to enter homes, was not. Nor was any kind of attention from the media.
Vijay thought differently. ‘I want to celebrate my love’, he said. ‘Don’t I have a right to live the way I want to? Why should I hide who I am? If the Section is amended, I will be able to live freely. India got its independence in 1947. Isn’t it time I won mine?’
The film, ‘Tedhi Lakeer – The Crooked Line’ was screened at film festivals across the world, and I was told both Vijay and Agarwalji gathered a fan following within the gay community, and not just in India. In the years that followed, I stayed in touch with Vijay and Agarwalji intermittently. Vijay came with his troupe of friends for my wedding. Agarwalji would drop into my place of work every now and then.
But a misplaced phone, lost telephone numbers and mundane preoccupations of everyday life have since got the better of us.
I did catch a glimpse of Vijay on television in the celebrations that followed the High Court verdict though. He was dancing with gay abandon – the centre of attention. And then suddenly, he realized he was on camera. He smiled that smile I had come to know so well – mischievous and bashful, provocative and innocent– looked at the camera, and commanded, ‘Cut!’
 We are as strict in our customs as the Brahmins. Nobody in the house eats meat. Only vegetarian food for us.
 Pallu – The free end of the saree, which is often used to cover their heads by women in conservative families.
 Bhaisaab and Bhabhiji – Used to refer to an elder brother and his wife. Used as a mark of respect.
 Kothi: A term used usually in Northern India within the local queer community to identify the supposed ‘female’ in a gay partnership. Kothis dress regularly in drag. We were also invited to the community Kothi beauty paegent, which incidentally, was won by Vijay, our eventual second protagonist.
 What choice does a woman have but to do her husband’s bidding after marriage? What can she say to people? It is her reputation at stake, after all.
 You’d better behave with these kids.
 These guys are a little raw. They don’t always conduct themselves as they should.