Generation Grandma

As I watched Aamir Khan introduce the topic as a little “sensitive” for parents, I could feel my grandmother next to me widen her eyes and raise her eyebrows with concern.

Artwork by Riya Nagendra

It was a normal Sunday as any other for my family and me. Lazy mornings and late breakfasts were followed by sitcoms or weekend special shows on TV that constituted ‘family time’ for us. This was probably the summer of 2015, when I, a bright-eyed, second year liberal arts student was sitting with my mother and grandmother watching a show we all loved: Satyameva Jayate on Star Plus.

I’d been eagerly looking forward to that particular episode since it would touch upon an issue that was becoming increasingly more pertinent to me: tackling the taboo around the LGBTQIA+ community. As I watched Aamir Khan introduce the topic as a little “sensitive” for parents, I could feel my grandmother next to me widen her eyes and raise her eyebrows with concern. We continued watching with attention as Ghazal, the first guest on the show narrated her story of coming out as transgender and how that changed her life.

“But she was only 5 years old, how can she realize something so huge at that age?” my grandma wondered. I told her to watch with an open mind, mentally hoping that she’ll at least understand the topic, if not accept.

I’d learned by then that people from her generation were firm with their beliefs, and knew better than to even attempt changing them. In any case, the hope remained. She was also shocked when she found out that gender reassignment surgery was very much a thing that existed, and even exclaimed about the physical and emotional toll that a procedure like that must take on a person. The flash of hope brightened in my mind. Ghazal’s story was a moving one, made all the more impactful as she ended her segment by singing “Yeh honsla kaise jhuke…”, a song that suddenly made perfect sense while the words came out of her mouth. I looked over to my grandma who watched with her eyes glued, rapt with attention. Next was the story of Deepak, who realized he’s gay during his childhood and recalled contemplating suicide because of it. Suddenly, the ubiquity of the queer identity dawned on her, that being gay wasn’t something that only existed in modern, white people movies—it was as common and normal as this young man from Ajmer.

Right before the break, Khan asked the audience a question: how they, as parents, would react if their child came out to them. My grandma took this to be the perfect opportunity to pick my brain.

“Rhea…that Deepak situation…does that happen with women, too?”

I couldn’t help but smile at the sheer innocence splayed across her face. My 75 year old grandma was suddenly a 7 year old, inquisitive little girl.

“Of course, Ajji. Women can be ‘gay’, too. They’re called lesbians.”

“Oh…”

She stayed in her thinking mode until the break got over and the show resumed.

Almost as if to answer her question, the next guest on the show was a lady called Divya, who narrated her story of coming to terms with being a lesbian. Ajjis face was the perfect combination of wonder and shock. Wonder, probably because never in her wildest dreams would she have imagined sexuality to be so much more than just a penis+vagina = baby equation, and shock because women can have it, too?! Total news flash.

After Divya came Simran, a transgender woman who left her house at the age of 14 and ended up joining a hijra community in Mumbai. Ajji’s bewilderment continued but with a tone of understanding this time, since seeing transgender women in public was something she was used to as compared to the earlier stories. Bewilderment then turned to anger, disappointment and sympathy as she learned about the atrocities and systemic oppression that members of the LGBTQIA+ community undergo. I could tell it was hard for her to process everything she saw in that episode, and I didn’t blame her either. It’s hard to find your footing again when the ground underneath has been shaken.

Happiness took over her face as the last guest of the episode came to the fore: an adorable old lady named Rani Sharma, who spoke about her gay grandson with such enthusiasm, love and support, it broke out a tear in even my ever stoic ajji’s eye. She looked on with hope and amazement: seeing someone of her generation be so open about LGBTQIA+ issues gave her a sense of company—the idea that she, too, can have progressive ideas. After the episode was over, she waited until my mom and our help had left the living room, and slowly came over next to me.

“Rhea, I-I had a question…”

I’d never seen her so uncertain before, so I asked her what she had on her mind.

“They kept saying LGBT, LGBT, but what does that mean? I accept that community…but what exactly do those letters mean?”

I laughed and hugged her. I simplified as much as I could and explained to her the spectrum of human sexuality, how it’s natural, normal and has been around for ages.

“It’s just that no one spoke about it in your time, that’s all.”

After what seemed like an eternity of silent brooding, she held my hand and softly said, “Even if you ever tell me you like girls, I’ll never see you as anyone but my granddaughter.”

“I’m not a lesbian, or bisexual, but good to know, Ajji.”

Who knew a 75 year old grandma would be more accepting than half the people on my contact list?

About the guest author

Rhea Sugwekar

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