The Karela Story So Far…

Under a headline saying “Gay party has been exposed”, the local Hindi-language newspaper, Amar Ujala, had published a photograph of 20 frightened-looking men sitting on the floor, many trying to conceal their faces with shawls and scarves.

A series of bullet points beneath the photograph highlighted what the editors presumably thought were the most shocking aspects of the story: a doctor, MBA students and teachers were present; this “indecent” party was organised under the guise of a birthday party at a dharamshala (spiritual dwelling or sanctuary); and alcohol was served.


Last month, out and proud gay men and women marched in Delhi’s annual gay pride march. Many posed happily for the news cameras. Rainbow flags were in abundance, as was western terminology such as “gay”, “queer” (even transcribed into Hindi on some signs) and “LGBTQ”.

As I looked at photos of the event taken by my Facebook friends, I realised that most came from middle- or upper-class families and would have a degree of ease with the English language. I have often wondered about the need to use western models of emancipation such as “gay pride” marches and rainbow banners in cultural contexts that are vastly different.


In so many countries, invisibility is the norm and the preferred option for those who have same-sex desires. I have no doubt that most of the men and women who were busy marching in Delhi waving their banners would not like to be seen at a downmarket venue like the dharamshala in Saharanpur and I am not even sure if many of these newly minted “queer” activists from India’s big cities would find common cause with the small-town types arrested at this “gay party”.

An article by Parvez Sharma (Director: A Jihad for Love) published in the Guardian; filled with questions. And lots of them. Some I have no answers and for the rest, this is what I have to say…

Comparing the Queer scenario in India to that in the West is like comparing Karela (Bitter Gourd) to an Apple. Although both belong to the Edible Fruit family; Apple is what we are trained to like right from infancy…as for Karela, it’s shrugged aside for its ugly appearance, bitter taste and we couldn’t give a damn about all the goodness it contains.

It has been 64 years since we won independence, and today we are polluted, populated, very corrupt, easily manipulated by religion, swayed by cultural norms, burdened by society’s expectations, taken for a ride by those in power and the list goes on…(Yes, a Karela, did not I just mention)

Now, at the expense of being ridiculed by the cynic, I believe in the power of the people (even us hypocrites). And there is no denying that we have cleared many queer-blockages in the last few couple of years. For example, we’ve seen queer characters on the big screen and making a fool of themselves on reality shows, there have been blogs, e-magazines and queer publications, Section 77 of the IPC has been decriminalized by the Delhi High Court and queer events are now out in the open, not “after-dark-only events”.


And Pride marches happen to be one of those very important events that takes place in broad daylight. The aim is not to assert identities or shock the straights by being in their face, but to build a power that can challenge the system. In plain words, this is an effort to mobilize people and turn them into fighters. Therefore to nullify the importance of such marches simply because those participating hail from the middle and upper class is being very naive. Attend one of the marches, or just one of the pre-march meetings and I am certain your misconception will be cleared.

Why do I say this so confidently?

Because I thought quite the same way until Gaysi became part of the QAM Pride March 2011. I found myself sitting next to a non-English speaking transgender, from a non-privileged background. A person who probably starts her day at dawn to earn her next meal while mine is served on silver platter. The communication gap was being filled with ease by committee members (and this includes the newly-minted activists)… and then we were talking about freedom, our freedom. Doing our bit, collectively, as a community.

Even if the said pride marches are dominated by the educated lot, one mustn’t forget that the upper and middle classes play a central role in defending against lesbian and gay oppression through censorship, policing and “family” legislation, and standing up against the minority ruling class that attempts to make a scapegoat of anyone who does not conform to society’s standard of “normality.” It is a real gain to have some point of reference here, even if these are often chaste images of middle-class gay men or lesbians.

This is a situation in which real and important gains for some gay men and lesbians have to be understood in the context of the many queers who have won little or nothing.

It has come through struggle: Queers have mobilized again and again, taking to the streets to protest against state violence, queer-bashing, inaction around AIDS and the denial of our human rights. In doing so, we have changed the world and, perhaps more importantly, changed ourselves into activists. None of these gains would be here today if it was not for this gutsy activism.

Also, small town people have aspirations too. The influx of people from small town to big cities in search of livelihood, education, Bollywood dreams, freedom, stability….now is a daily occurrence. So the scope of learning and being informed through the visibility of Pride marches/events and later taking the same information with them back home can only do good.

I agree there are no substitutes for Western words like Lesbian, Queer, Gay, etc in our cultural context but hey, isn’t there a saying “what’s in a name?”

So yes Karela we are, all we need is a makeover…

[*Editor’s Note : Cross-Posted on QAM Blog]

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