Being Tree-Queer

All the world is different to me than what you see. A shadow here, a bird there. I am aware of things that you cannot even dream of imagining that exist on the Earth. They are silent, noiseless and next to you in a single breath of a hummingbird. These creepers are not friendly, neither are they your enemies, but like me like for them, beware.

But I ramble. You were going to tell me how you were different, yes? You have been telling me that since you were a kid. I watched you grow, play and study, usually alone. I know that people are uncomfortable around you, they talk about you behind your back. They try, and try very hard to exclude you. I know that you have gone begging after them to include you, and they have refused to listen. I know that you have cried, alone, just because you saw pictures of them out and about, without a care in the world, and have wondered how hard would it have been for them to invite you? You have lay awake in bed, believing that the reason for this is that you’re boring, uninteresting and plain weird. You will never fit in, and you will never deserve to fit in.

Let me tell you something about me. Did you know that there was a species of tree that could walk and talk, like humans do?

“No.”

They lived till very old ages, and they were not quick. They went about their tasks, slowly but surely. They helped the trees that were beginning to wilt as soon as they were born. They helped plants throw their seeds to the far flung corners of the world. They made sure that the immobile trees had a long and healthy life. They would use the bodies of the dead trees to nourish the the trees still standing. They protected us from humans. But not all trees loved them.

“Why?”

They were envious of the fact that the Walkers could roam around the world, and see sights the other tress could not have imagined. They could meet trees they never knew existed. They could bask in the rain of separate lands while the immobile ones had to endure  repeats of the same minerals and nourishment every single year. The trees did not have kindness towards them, and if the Walkers were hurt, they were often left to die.

“You were a Walker?”

Yes. I am stationary now, but I had experiences that would not have been fulfilled in my wildest dreams if I was not so. But the hate I received from my fellow trees took a toll on me, so I left. I travelled the breadth of this world and the next, and saw many things, adorable to unspeakable. But when I returned, I saw that I had shirked my duty. I had refused to help others. And the hate I received was no excuse. So now both the stationary trees and the Walkers shunned me. Now I stand here alone, in front of your house waiting for death after a long age of loneliness.

I know humans have an affinity for death, and I have seen you harm yourself more than once. But I beg you to not. I know you’re different, but you will find your brethren one day. And they might hate you for taking so long, but at least you will know the joy of being lovable.

Biology Versus Beliefs

TW: Description of medical gaslighting, medical transphobia, details of conversion therapy

I’m always surprised by the amount of absolute irrelevant things we were taught in school. As a 27-year-old I stumble all the time while figuring out basic life skills. I wish a lot of adulthood essentials were taught to us in these educational institutions. I’m still unlearning a lot of the trauma of my formative years and relearning better ways of living, alongside my therapist, support group and queer-affirmative friends.

As long as I can remember, I had a fascination for biology and ended up studying dentistry for 3 and a half years because of this inquisitiveness. One of the things that fascinated me the most was the innate nature of living things wanting to survive. A group of inanimate molecules come together under the right conditions to form the first living cells? Sounded no less than magic to my teenage brain. Biology was the subject that allowed my teenage mind to be empathetic to all living beings. It taught me how wonderfully complex all life forms are.

In high school I used to think of myself as a gay boy (over the next few years I accepted my transness). I remember finding a biology blog that said over 1,400 animal species exhibit homosexual behaviour. This fact slowly helped uproot a lot of my hate towards myself, as I realized that my feelings weren’t unnatural. This feeling of me being some sort of oddity came from the fact that queer visibility in India was very restricted during the first decade of this century. Whatever queerness I did see represented in the media was vilifying or mocking it. Biology on the other hand made me realize that the feelings I felt were natural and an innate part of life itself.

The variations and diversity in all of nature and living beings were taught to us. What wasn’t taught was that people vary too. Diversity isn’t an anomaly. Able-bodiedness isn’t the norm. Queerness shouldn’t be written out of school textbooks.

A lot of my friends are doctors and dentists (former college mates) and have a lot of inquisitiveness around my transition. They ask me questions regarding my queerness and instead of asking them to google it, I am patient and explain. I make this exception of not telling them to self-educate as I studied the same books that they did. These books make no or rare mention of intersex people, yet have paragraphs on one-in-a-million diseases. Our medical schools aren’t equipped to pass on the knowledge that may help the students to one day be of actual assistance to trans or intersex people. Recently I was handed out a form for an appointment and not seeing my gender on it, I ticked the ‘others’ box. The lady who handed out my form crossed it out and wrote ‘male’ on it. My gender probably didn’t have any bearing on my ear infection, but the fact is that hospital staff and caregivers refuse to acknowledge that the ‘others’ might be people like them. People who actually exist and aren’t just a box, meant to not be ticked. People who they are supposed to treat and heal instead of causing agony for. I asked her to cancel the ‘male’ and write transgender on it.

Nature is bizarrely, beautifully diverse. The desire to pass on inherited data on to a newer, slightly more evolved progeny is universal in most living beings. The multitude of ways in which this reproductive urge manifests is divinity itself. Oysters are born male, turn female to lay eggs and often change their sex multiple times. A female Komodo dragon can produce offspring in the absence of males. If starfishes are broken into two, both turn into new individuals through the process of fragmentation. Many snails are hermaphrodites and when they mate, both can produce hundreds of eggs. Other hermaphroditic invertebrates can self-fertilize as they have both male and female organs. The ways in which organisms thrive on this planet is too voluminous for the scope of this article. The point I’m trying to make is that science continues to study and celebrate all the ways of living, except for one species. Transgender and intersex people find little to no mention in med school books. Asexuality is written off as an ailment.

The onus of educating my psychiatrist and psychologist on queer issues often falls upon people like me. I’m lucky to have queer-affirmative health care providers, for the most part. A few years back I was struggling with the disease of addiction and had to be admitted to a rehab. The rehab counsellors and owners, on multiple occasions dismissed my transness, ridiculed it and said that it is ‘a part of my disease’ that needs to be cured. Other trans friends of mine have had similar or worse experiences. Something like Lesch-Nyhan syndrome, that occurs to 1 in 4 lakh people is taught at length in med school, but intersex people (1.7% of all births) are ignored. As a person with a background in medicine and access to relatively better healthcare systems, I’m lucky. I can help my doctors understand me better and when they say something they shouldn’t, I correct them. I still wonder about the gay friend of mine who was forcibly taken to a doctor by his parents to ‘cure’ his homosexuality. He was prescribed a heavy dosage of medications given to people with schizophrenia and was locked up in a room as suggested by the doctor.

We perhaps don’t question the variations in nature because we were taught about how wonderfully diverse nature is. The same sense of acceptance and wonder can be instilled in young minds by teaching them that there is no ‘one mould’ for being human. People are diverse and not meant to be alike. That would be an evolutionary disaster. Kindness is missing from the curriculum. This inadequacy in education leads to hate and hurt towards anyone who does not fit in with the majority. Thankfully education does not end with institutions. After all these years, I am still learning to love myself unabashedly.

Navigating Love, Heartbreak And Hate Through ‘Yeh Duniya’

Mystical Shayari’s latest offering ‘Yeh Duniya’ is what happens when you bring together heartbreak, the loneliness of belonging to a world that can’t seem to make space for you, and well, spunk. So it comes as no surprise when Zulfi, one-half of the two-member band says that they have been inspired by P!nk.

In 2018, before Mystical Shayari was even born, Zulfi penned down ‘Yeh Duniya’ after significant heartbreak. “It was about the philosophy of heartbreak, as much as it was my way of announcing to the world that I choose this life and I yearn to make it happen,” they say. The spunk, KC-J adds, acts as a way to self-heal; it’s a way to put together the broken pieces of your heart together.

While Zulfi had all but forgotten about the song, KC-J found themselves in love with the melody. “It just stayed on with me and I kept playing it on my ukelele,” they say. ‘Yeh Duniya’ is a reference to a world that is keeping people apart, as much as it is a statement about those crisis moments in life where you have to make choices about having to leave a few people you love behind because they are unable to move forward with you.

Musical Shayari, the duo says, was born out of a commitment to each other on this path they have taken.

“We have been friends and have worked together since freshman year of college. Art can reveal the injustices in the world and it helps the world cope with them. We wanted to fight and respond to the world and bring together our talents and love together to do so”.

says KC-J

In each other and in their art, they were able to find themselves. Their first song, ‘Ascending’, was about taking the dirt and the anger and making it light, they explain.

Mystical Shayari is supposed to be a force against evil or injustice. “It is a way of communicating that you can be different,” says Zulfi. As two people interested in mystical poetry, albeit of different eras, it seemed only natural that they name themselves ‘Mystical Shayari’. “We follow the Shayari culture of sitting around and sharing poetry. We start our performances with an open mic so in a way, we are also a platform. We are an open band so we have different backing in different shows and cities,” they add.

Coping with hate

For them, the plan was always to return to Pakistan and make music. However, the hate can be heartbreaking. “It just reiterates the fact that the world doesn’t have space for us, the way we want to exist,” says KC-J.

A few weeks ago, the band posted photos of themselves posing at Quaid-e-Azam Monument in Islamabad. The post, however, met with such outrage that the band deleted their Instagram. “There was a concern for our safety recently. Not just ours, but also our collaborators. When we welcome them, their safety is a promise we offer. But, so far, we have been unable to ascertain their safety,” says Zulfi. However, just as much as they are forced to retreat, they look at these instances with a steely resolve to return stronger. “We go back to the drawing board. We plan, re-strategise and sing even louder in closed rooms. We are [an] underground feminist movement in every way,” they add.

Mystical Shayari and its work exists in a space of navigating between good and evil or life and death, says KC-J. “In that battle, we are in the space and time where shaithan is winning, and we have to deal with it and learn to overwhelm that hate with love.”

This hate, they add, is not consistent with the dream of Pakistan – the vision Jinnah had for Pakistan. “We represent the minority they are trying to suppress and we may do that wearing sequins, but no one said that was illegal!”

As difficult as things get, they are nowhere close to quitting. ‘Sure, we think of running away to Nepal sometimes, but we have never questioned the decision to come back. For us, it is not just about the art, it is about the audience. We want to play for those who are denied the room to express,” explains KC.

For them, the hardest part is getting their family and friends to come around.

“It is difficult when our loved ones try to reassert the idea that we need to stop on the heel of such instances. But, we knew it would be difficult. We are still, as a nation, healing from the bruises of the Partition. But, if we weren’t here, doing this, we would never have known that there is so much more than the haters,” they add.

At the moment, as the two recuperate from the anger, they are also waiting to release their third single as well as the music video for their second single, ‘Disco Ran’. Their album, ‘Gulistan’, will most likely hit the stands by the end of the year. And, in the end, they choose to deal with the hate with the same tune of spunk that they choose for their music. “All we have to say to the haters, especially the men, is that we expect you and we eat people like you for breakfast,” says Zulfi.

Accessing Gender-Affirming Healthcare Services In India: A Lived Experience

After being alive for a couple of decades and some more, I was finally in a position with enough autonomy and knowledge to access gender-affirming healthcare at the age of 20-something. The privileges I was born with and have accumulated along the way ensured that I was able to knock on the doors of some doctors, medical service providers and the like. But, I slowly realised that the struggle had just begun.

Maybe I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me start at the beginning.

To begin with, one has to decide if they will head to a government hospital or a private one, to get a gender dysphoria certificate. Going to a government hospital means subsidised services, but long queues and not the best patient service. Broadly speaking, if one can afford to, one would prefer going to a private hospital in India.

This is not a steadfast rule, however. The botched surgery and resultant institutional murder of trans-woman and public figure from Kerala, Anannyah Kumari Alex, goes to prove that private hospitals are not the safest bet either. She was a radio jockey and the first trans-person to file her nomination papers for the Kerala state elections.

Just a regular woman with a hint of something special… gone, nay, snatched from us too soon.

Her boyfriend died by suicide soon after. Is this what we have to offer trans people, and by extension their loved ones, in India? This when our health services are regularly advertised as an attraction for international, medical tourists. But, aren’t we still failing to provide life-saving healthcare and dignity to our own (trans) citizens?

Make this make sense to me.

Given that hospitals operate according to their own convenience when it comes to trans medical care, we have whisper networks to warn each other of such hospitals. By that I mean, hospitals who look at you as a way to maximise their profits and don’t care about your comfort at all.

Those who have access to other trans-people, legal aid and the language of transness, have access to some of this acquired knowledge. But those of us who aren’t privileged enough, socio-economically and otherwise, often get left out of these tightly gatekept (sometimes for security and confidentiality reasons) circles.

I can fight back because I know I deserve to be treated equally, but for those of us who have no idea what that feels like, how are we supposed to ask for it? In theory, sure, we may have an inkling about equality. But what about practice? I am armed with all that the Internet has to offer and yet, I was helpless when I first visited a hospital.

The thing you have to do as soon as you make it to any hospital is to fill out all your biographical details on a form. The hospital uses these to maintain a record i.e., your medical history. The name I wrote was the name I gave myself and not the name that was given to me.

Little did I know that this would cost me dearly. Once the mental health department discovered that my documents still had my deadname, they forced me to run from pillar-to-post to change my chosen name back to my deadname.

I did this while having an out-of-body experience of sorts. I kept deadnaming myself, with a smile on my face, as though I wasn’t talking about me. I was performing. It was a play. A theatre of the bizarre.

One thing is for sure, I definitely didn’t feel like the hero of this story.

I wasn’t calling the shots. My psychologist withheld her reports of our session, saying she wouldn’t give it to me till I got my name changed. So, of course, I was going to do what was ‘required of me’ to move on to the next step of my physical transition.

What an adarsh balak! The whole experience was traumatic, to say the least.

Lots of trans people go by names which are different from the ones on their legal documents. But many-a-time, hospitals will insist on officially referring to you using your deadname. They treat their trans clients differently even though we pay the same money.

“If you prick us, do we not bleed? if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not [seek] revenge?”

Since we are supposedly seeking ‘medico-legal’ care, hospitals want to protect their interests by erring on the side of supposed caution, whatever that means. This is to be understood as them willing to err on the side of caution even if it means causing emotional distress to their trans clients.

I almost broke down in the hospital, but I didn’t want to give them the satisfaction of seeing me cry. How am I supposed to feel safe in a space that fails to address me by my name? Doesn’t that mean that they are refusing to see me for me?

By way of explanation, I was told that the reason the hospital has such a policy is not for people ‘like me’, but because they can’t trust the “uneducated, trans-women” who come there… seeking help, might I add. 

The audacity of cis-people to talk down to a trans person about other trans people! I was neither shocked nor saddened, given that I’m used to hearing ignoramuses spew such venom on the daily.

I need a healthcare system that centers my needs. Providing healthcare is not just limited to medical interventions such as testosterone injections and mandatory counselling sessions. It is about the all-important little things that go a long way in making us feel seen and heard.

If the hospitals are dismissive of our realities, how are we supposed to fight back? They cite formalities, but fail to see beyond the physical form of the person in front of them. The courage and conviction it takes to assert yourself as a trans person is inexplicable.

It is like swimming upstream when one doesn’t know how to swim and while the tide is high.

Our Haven Today

The moment I arrive home, Diana pushes me against the door and greets me with a hungry kiss. I drop my keys to the floor in surprise, but I sink into the kiss as her lips move softly over mine. I’ve missed her. Her hands are all over me and she runs her fingers through my hair while our tongues dance feverishly. I slide my hands over her hips and realise she’s wearing nothing under her silky black robe.

“Looks like someone missed me,” I whisper between kisses.

“I always do, Princess,” she says and nuzzles my neck with even more kisses. I kick off my shoes and drop my bag to the floor and she pushes my jacket off my shoulders. Her lips are still on my neck when I reach to undo the belt of her robe. But before I can pull the knot, she takes my hand and leads me inside.

“What are you up to?”

She grins and pulls me to the bathroom.

I smell rose and lavender upon entering. The tub is filled with soft bubbles. It is dark except for the flickering candles in the corners of the room. On the floor sit a bucket of ice with a bottle of Moët in it, two empty flutes, and a bowl of chocolate covered strawberries.

“This is our haven today, Love,” Diana says as she opens the champagne.

While she pours, I finish undressing. Her robe hits the floor as I unhook my bra. I watch as she steps into the tub and lowers herself in. As many times as I have seen her body, I’m still amazed by how exquisite she is. She raises her toned arms and knots up her hair into a loose bun on top of her head. A few strands fall forward and frame the sides of her beautiful face. Her high cheekbones tinge pink from the warmth of the water.

She sinks into the water and relaxes against the tub. Her breasts are hidden beneath the foamy bubbles around her. She moves her eyes down my naked body and gestures to me to join her. I kick away the rest of my clothes and eagerly step into the tub, settling between her legs, my back against her chest.

Diana wraps her arms around me, her breasts brush against my back. She pulls my earlobe between her lips and sucks it. I sigh and enjoy her touch and the warm water lapping around us.

“Did you miss me, Princess?” she whispers in my ear.

“I did,” I breathe. She holds my breasts in her hands.

“I’ve been thinking about you all day,” she says and kisses the back of my ear.

“Have you?” I ask, turning my head to face her.

“All day. Of your lips,” she whispers before she kisses me. “Your fingers.”

She strokes my breasts.

“Your tongue.”

She grazes her teeth on my neck.

“Where did you miss my tongue?” I whisper.

“On my lips,” she whispers, kissing my cheek. “My neck.” Her lips move across my jaw. “My nipples.” She nuzzles my collarbone. “On my clit.” Her fingers tease my nipples.

I tilt my head back and moan. I stretch my arm back to run my fingers through her hair. “What else did you miss?”

“I missed your body against mine,” she whispers, sliding her hands down to my belly. “Your soft skin under my fingers…”

Electricity shoots through me as her fingertips trace slow circles on my stomach.  

I turn my head to face her. Her icy blue eyes are ablaze with desire; her fingers softly stroke my thighs. “I missed your moans at my touch,” she says.

I moan at her words.

Her voice is soft and breathy in my ear; “Did you miss my tongue, Princess?”

“I did.”

“Did you miss it here?” she asks, and flicks her tongue behind my ear.

“Yes,” I pant.

“What about here?” She runs her tongue along my neck.

I sigh and water splashes out of the tub with my squirms. Her teasing is torture. I need her now.

“Here?” she whispers, pressing her lips on my shoulder.

“Diana, please,” I beg.

“Did you miss it here?” she whispers. Then finally, she slides her hand between my thighs. Her fingers reach my clit.

“Yes!” I moan, grasping onto her hair.

Her lips are on my earlobe; she grazes my skin with her teeth. She moves her fingers slowly over my clit, and with her other hand, my nipple. Goosebumps rush over my skin even in the warm water.

“Oh God!” I gasp.

I can hear the smirk in her tone. “God is so formal. Diana will do.”

She presses her fingers down further, until they easily slip inside me. She begins to pump them slowly and the heel of her palm massages my clit.

I grip the edge of the tub. “Diana! Don’t stop!”

I start to move my hips to meet her thrusts. She groans and I realise that my bottom is rubbing against her clit.

“I love it when you do that, Princess,” she whispers before burying her face in my neck. Her free arm wraps around my waist, pulling me closer while she moves herself against me.

The water and bubbles splash out of the tub as we move together in sync. Is the water growing warmer, or is it just heat rushing through my body? She curls her fingers inside me and I rub myself over her clit. Her fingers move at just the right speed and rhythm. When they find the right spot, I throw my head back and moan. Her face remains buried in my neck as the euphoria radiates through me.

Her fingers slip out of me and I open my eyes slowly. She grinds against me still. I move my hips to meet hers and soon she’s moaning. One of her hands moves away from my hip, and then I can feel it between us, between her thighs. I’m aching to turn around and watch her but her other hand tightens around my waist. Her fingers dig into my hips, her mouth presses on my neck as she reaches her release.

She lays back in the tub and pulls me close, my back presses against her chest. We lay together panting for a moment.

Diana slowly and gently runs her fingers through my hair. She leans close and breathes into my ear, “You know something, Princess?… I’m not sure whether to hate that you’ve been away all week, or love the fact that I get to welcome you home like this…”

Discovering Gender Neutral Treasure At The End Of This Capitalist Rainbow

For aeons now, clothing and fashion have been one of the most popular tools to express oneself. Thanks to the intervention of capitalism and colonialism, clothing has also been differentiated based on gender. Despite the arbitrariness of these categorisations, we have a variety of clothing options for myriad occasions like casual, formal, cocktail, weddings, semi-formal, and so on. And also because it’s Pride and a massive opportunity for the fashion industry to make more profit, we also have the rise of a new set of clothing that caters to the concept of gender neutrality.

Recently, we have seen quite a few celebrities asking the world to stop misgendering them, like Elliot Page who came out as a trans man, and Demi Lovato who came out as non-binary. It seems like more and more people are feeling confident in using their platform to break out of the gender binary. There are also several trans models who are making a name for themselves in the fashion industry, like Geena Rocero – a Filipino-born American model and trans rights advocate who will be releasing her memoir, Open The Light, soon. Loiza Lamers is a trans model from the Netherlands who won Holland’s Next Top Model Season 8, and is the first trans model to win in the history of Top Model. Alex-Mariah Peter also recently won Germany’s Next Top Model Season 16 and is the first trans model in Germany to win this award.

Looking for people closer to home, we also have a few trans models in South Asia who are making a name for themselves. Kami Sid is Pakistan’s first trans model and a very vocal advocate for trans rights. Anjali Lama is another trans model from Nepal working under the fashion agency Feat.Artists. She also won the Fashion Excellence of the Year Award (2020) in an award show hosted by Dream Search Agency.

Jin Xing, a trans model from China will be collaborating with Dior on their new fragrance campaign. A ballet dancer and an army colonel, she was the first person to proudly talk about her gender-affirming surgery in China. Nana Youngrong Kim, a gay man from South Korea is making a name for himself as a drag queen despite the negative reactions from the conservative society.

Despite these amazing models doing amazing work in the field of fashion, to me, it seems like gender neutrality is the latest trend for clothing and fashion – a capitalist move instead of being genuinely inclusive and progressive. Honestly, what on Earth does “gender-neutral clothing” even mean? Clothes do not have a gender. They are meant to cover our bodies and protect us from the weather. And in the process of finding beauty in something so utilitarian, we converted it into a market, and we called it art and made specific clothes for specific genders to make more money. I am not a fashion enthusiast, but from what I see, gender-neutral clothing is just regular T-Shirts and pants and skirts but looser, flowy, has more fabric and comes in boring neutral colours. Maybe because loose clothes hide your physical body, and so they hide what sex you are, it is somehow classified to be beyond the binary.

Ground Y, for example, is a Japanese brand by Yohji Yamamoto. The concept is to create “genderless and ageless” styles and it’s mostly monochromatic clothes in white or black. The clothes are oversized, flowy and have an asymmetrical cut. But it’s interesting that although the description says “genderless and ageless”, there are still categories of “men” and “women” one can filter through while shopping on their website.

Stella McCartney, Gucci, Adidas and so many other popular brands are releasing their own gender-neutral clothing line, and although they are more colourful and bright, I think they’re only looking for a new demographic to sell their products.

Designer Angus Chang, Ogilvy (an advertising agency) and Conde Nast Taiwan joined to create gender-neutral uniforms for Banqiao High School in Taiwan, which is basically just really loose clothing, and the boys get to wear skirts. Their agenda for this move was to promote gender equality. Equal pay for all the faculty members regardless of gender, a comprehensive sex education syllabus, allowing the use of the student’s desired name and gender on school documents, and so on are probably much better, feasible steps to gaining gender equality within the campus, but maybe that’s just me.

All these mainstream brands use words like “genderless” and “beyond the gender binary” and “self-expression” to promote their clothes, but all it does is reinforce the idea that the only difference between men’s, women’s and gender-neutral clothing is the manipulation of language for corporate gain, and the arbitrary assignment of labels. These mainstream brands that are capitalising on gender neutral clothing are also the very same brands who perpetuate toxic beauty and body standards for people, especially women. The models employed are also mostly straight people and not non-binary, genderqueer or trans folx. These companies also look at non-binary as a fixed identity, not as a fluid and dynamic label that is used to express identities beyond the binary. It’s problematic that people understand “trans” or “non-binary” to be fixed and universal experiences for queer people.

Gender-neutral clothing also has a lot of layers, textures, and fabric which can be overstimulating to neurodivergent people. Studies also show that a significant chunk of neurodivergent people experience non-typical gender and sexual identities. So at the end of the day, gender-neutral clothing isn’t actually beneficial for enbies who are neurodivergent and this also makes it ableist.

What I find ironic is that when women wear suits, they are often called powerful or boss women, but if men wear skirts, they are either labelled gay, or called the epitome of positive masculinity. But this is restricted to white men or celebrities like Ranveer Singh, Karan Johar and Harry Styles. But my dad wearing his dhoti or lungi around the house is considered to be a part of South Indian tradition, or Scottish men wearing traditional kilts are not Instagram worthy fashion icons. Men wearing skirts or what is traditionally feminine clothing, are said to be participating in cross-dressing or in drag, but the same isn’t said for women who wear traditionally masculine clothes. If skirts are for women and pants are for men, then kurta and leggings shouldn’t be my college dress code and my mother shouldn’t be allowed to wear her comfy churidars. Because the classification of men and women is so rigid, gender-neutral clothing is the new attempt at being “woke” by the fashion industry.

Western clothing markets have a double standard for clothing and fashion, and popular fashion brands are up and centre for fighting for equality, authentic self-expression, and breaking the normative gender binary only as long as they have monetary profit in it for themselves. I’ve also noticed news articles about these new trends concentrated only around Pride month and not sometime random, like February. Where is my gender-neutral winter wear that apparently is an accurate expression of the fluidity and the complexities of my gender? Since these brands claim to really care about the LGBTQ+ community, I would like to see receipts for all those massive donations they surely must have made in secret to the various organisations and NGOs working for the equality and rights of the queer community, especially considering the heightened violence the trans community in America has experienced over the last few months.

Cishet patriarchy dictates that there must be a clear and rigid classification of the genders, and capitalism decided to monetise it. Gender-neutral clothing still dictates and reinforces the gender binary and others anyone who doesn’t identify as a cis man or woman. It’s not really blurring the lines of the gender binary if the fashion industry is making separate sets of clothing for separate genders. They’re simply creating a market for a new trend. It’s another way for cis people to control the gender identities of other people.

Agha Shahid Ali: A Lover And A Poet

Source – Google

On dark cold days when you seek your lover’s warmth by the window with a cup of tea, or when you feel that aching loneliness of being misunderstood, or when you feel detached from yourself and the pain and the heartache is almost crushing, poetry is the one thing that brings you peace. Poetry makes strangers fall in love, brings friends closer to family, and brings yourself closer to a more wholesome world.

Of course, like any text, poetry is open to interpretation. More so than any other text, in my experience. But contextualizing a poem is just as important. One thing I’ve learned about meaning and interpretation is that the silences speak louder than what is seen. And these silences and hidden codes are what make poetry all the more bewitching than the most obvious meanings we are told.

Agha Shahid Ali is one such poet, whose silences and secrets call you in like a siren at sea. He was a gay Muslim man who was born in Delhi, brought up in Kashmir, and later moved to America. His intersectional identity factors heavily in his poems which makes them more raw and captivating. However, the multiplicity in his identity is often ignored and reduced to simply that of nationalism and loyalty to Kashmir. He was controversially named the ‘National Poet of Kashmir’, but in an essay by Amitav Gosh, he declined being called a ‘nationalist’ poet which makes a lot of difference on his identity.

I decided to speak to three of my friends- Meghna, Yashwant, and Parth, who are much bigger fans of Shahid than myself who could tell me more about him as a queer poet. Parth came across Shahid when he was reading Amitav Gosh’s essay on Shahid, The Ghat of the Only World, where he talked about how Shahid was okay with being called a national poet, but not a ‘nationalist’ poet. He says that the ambiguity and the beauty in Shahid’s poems and especially his ghazals are what kept Parth so interested in Shahid.

Meghna said she first came across Shahid in 2003 when she was teaching at Stella Maris College but the first introduction to him did not reveal his queerness. They learnt more about him as they engaged more with him and eventually did her Ph.D. on him. She could connect Shahid and Micheal Ondaatje (a Sri Lankan- Canadian poet) with Salman Rushdie’s notion of the ‘Imaginary Homeland’. “Because my family is all over the place, I don’t really have roots in one place, so I worked on these two writers who have hybrid identities and that’s okay”. What stood out to her was that for someone who doesn’t feel like they belong anywhere, the space of the text itself can be home. Shahid magnified that a lot for her, because the space of poetry is so revolutionary and political, where nothing normative holds.

Yashwant started reading Shahid because of Meghna. She recommended Country Without a Post Office when xe asked for a depressing writer. Yashwant’s personal exploration of pain and suffering inspired xis B.A thesis which was the idea of emotional sadomasochism found in Shahid’s poetry, and also xis Masters dissertation topic on borders (both physical and metaphorical) also based on Shahid’s poetry. Meghna and Yashwant agree that although Kashmir is a prominent presence in his poems, it is not chauvinistically imposed. Rather, Kashmir becomes a place where Shahid is from, but it is not his only identity.

Meghna expressed how Country Without a Post Office, one of Shahid’s most famous works, is so explicitly queer, and yet, people unsee the lover part. The narrative goes that the speaker goes to Kashmir, even though it was a place ridden with violence, looking for his lover. Although missing, he finds letters that were written by his lover that never reached the speaker because there were no postal services to deliver those letters. The speaker says. “…Phantom heart, pray he’s alive. I have returned in the rain to find him, to learn why he never wrote…”  and “…I see his voice again: “This is a shrine of words. You’ll find your letters to me. And mine to you…” Meghna adds that for her, the experience of reading the poem is vivid and cinematic in their head like a movie, and this dramatic effect is found throughout his poems, like how he writes, “It’s raining as I write this. I have no prayer. It’s just a shout, held in, it’s Us! It’s Us!”.

She also talked about how much she loves Shahid’s connection to the planet because, for her, ecological spaces are queer because these are spaces where there is no imposition of societal rules and regulations and there is a blurring of the binary between nature/culture; in that no one owns mountains, deserts, the ocean and so on. “Like in the poem Stationary, the desert is seen as a space of liberation for the speaker, and even in Snow in the Desert, the bond between the speaker and the planet is so strong because he is losing things, and so is the planet. There is no need to conform to a certain identity here, one is free to be themselves without judgment.”

Yashwant pointed out how while xe was doing xis dissertation and had to do a literature review, there was little to no material on how Shahid’s poetry is queer. There are mostly only readings of his poems from a nationalist point of view, or interpretations relating to violence and colonization, even though his poems are obviously queer. In reference to Country Without a Post Office, xe found it interesting how Shahid presents the idea of border crossing, how the letters can’t be transported to the speaker, and even if the speaker were able to get the letters, he wouldn’t be able to write back because the lover is missing, so where should the letters go? And it’s the same thing with physical borders as well, we require a passport to cross them depending on how borders and nations are decided.

In Stationary, the act of writing becomes a means of crossing borders and the speaker asks the lover to take elements from nature, like the desert and moonlight, and write to him.

The moon did not become the sun.

It just fell on the desert

In great sheets, reams

of silver handmade by you.

The night is your cottage industry now,

the day is your brisk emporium.

The world is full of paper.

Write to me

~ Agha Shahid Ali

Yashwant said that what happens while interpreting Shahid is that there is an emphasis on nationalism, on physical borders, but his identity as a gay man is completely put aside, even though both these identities are parallel. “People say that since the text is open to interpretation, the author can also be writing from the perspective of a female narrator, like no, don’t rob us of the only few queer poets we have by assuming it’s a female narrator. This is the problem with Indian academia, that stuff on Shahid is so normative that one biography did not even mention the fact that he was gay, and this is shocking and sad and unfair to his works also,” Yashwant lamented.

When I asked why Shahid’s queerness was ignored then, Yashwant thinks that it is mostly ignorance on the part of people, and there is also an insistence on focusing on one identity tag at a time, instead of recognizing a multitude of identities coexisting simultaneously. For example, Shahid is a queer Kashmiri-American poet, but people only do a surface reading of him. And it’s also because of the heteronormative structure we live in. Even for Urdu poets like Ghalib, popular interpretations overlook the lack of gender, or how it’s written from a feminine perspective, and the readings done mostly conform to a heteronormative lens. Even though Ghalib is called the Shakespeare of India, people don’t realize that Shakespeare was queer too.

When I asked about how his lover is represented in Shahid’s poetry, Parth says he uses a lot of metaphors from Urdu poetry like the lamb, the moth, the bulbul, a nightingale, and other such images to represent his lover. Yashwant believes that Shahid is very private about whom the poem is dedicated to, so although there is an actual person, it’s not made explicit who that person is or what their relationship is. And in most cases, the speaker and his lover are not destined to be together.

Shahid doesn’t make it explicit in his poems about the speaker’s gender or sexual identity. From what I’ve read (and I haven’t read all of his works yet), the speaker is seen from an ambiguous first-person perspective, and their sexuality and gender aren’t made explicit. And neither is the person the speaker is writing to. We get the sense that the speaker is addressing a lover, but we don’t know who it is. And so, it’s easy for people to assume that the poems depict heterosexual relationships, especially given our socio-political context. Like the phrases “Write to me” or “Phantom heart pray he’s alive,” we don’t know exactly who the speaker is or who is being addressed because no one is named, and their relationship is left to the understanding of the reader.

Parth said he found it interesting that in ghazals, although the predominant theme revolves around a young male lover, there is a lack of an explicit gender or sexuality being assigned, and this ambiguity pushes people to assume things for the poem, which results in subsequent straight-washing. Adding on, Meghna thinks that there shouldn’t be specific queer readings of a poem when the poem is inherently queer. They think that since Shahid is already from a marginalised and controversial space, a queer narrative would be detrimental to the cause of nationalism. “Like in India, we have the problematic category of the “third gender”, but even when it comes to trans people, we don’t often talk about nonbinary or gender fluid people, it’s like a certain kind of queerness is allowed, but not others.” For Meghna, Shahid is someone she goes back to talk about intersectionality and erasure of queer identity.

Yashwant also brought out the idea of ‘strategic essentialism’ which was proposed by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (Indian literary theorist). Xe explains that in Shahid’s case, interpretations mostly look at his roots of him being a Kashmiri, but there is a notion that because they are looking at his roots, they don’t look at his queerness. The point is that Shahid is looking at his roots while also having a queer identity, and his homosexuality cannot be ignored just because he comes from a homophobic culture. When Shahid worked on translating Faiz Ahmed Faiz, another Urdu poet, even though Faiz’s poems were already queer, the translations are further queered because of Shahid’s identity as well. For example, instead of ‘Laila’ in Faiz’s version, Shahid translates it as ‘lover’ which makes it more ambiguous and queer.

Meghna said that one of Shahid’s favourites was Emily Dickinson. She adds that people like Audre Lorde, Shahid, and Dickinson, and even the romantic era poets, have in a way, reinvented the cannon and established a space for queer poetry to blossom, and inspire the present and future generations as well, because there is so much to read in between the lines that mainstream or traditional interpretations don’t capture. So much of poetry has been straight-washed because of political and cultural contexts, that we miss out on queer interpretations because we are taught not to look for them.

When I inquired which poem of Shahid a beginner should begin with, Parth recommended his Ghazals or The Butcher or Stationary, which are his personal favourites. Yashwant recommended Country Without a Post Office. For Meghna as well it was that or The Veiled Suite where interestingly, his lover is presented as a doppelganger. She says that each poem, according to her, reads as a separate narrative instead of a continuation. And based on the context of the poem, the speaker and the lover are different characters.

Personally, when I was reading The Veiled Suite, I think the speaker and his lover are on a time limit for how long they can spend together, and so they meet up in this discreet apartment where they are hidden from the rest of the world. The speaker is desperate to get more time with his lover and so he wants to merge the two of them together to make sure he won’t be forgotten when they part. Shahid is someone you savour and soak in until you are drenched in his misery and his sorrow and his joy – until you forget your own. He is not someone you can breeze through, and his poems speak volumes about queerness, nationalism, colonisation, heteronormativity and so much more that it’s impossible to read him multiple times and not discover new meanings.

Pink Flamingo, A Photo Series To Create Awareness On Pomosexuality

Photographs by Manab Das

At the very start of June month, I was preparing for the rainbow marketing and pinkwashing to kick-off, as is expected every year to cash in on Pride Month. As part of this month-long campaign, all the brands, organizations, people and communities change their logos, adopt rainbow branding, while conducting talks, shows and much more every year to keep the conversation going on the inclusion of people of marginalized genders and sexualities. As with every other year, all the spotlight that is deliberately kept away from me for the remainder of the year, suddenly falls on my face, as I am a queer performer in occupied spaces. Each of these spaces become a battleground for me to re-tell the story of my gender, sexuality and the significance of my existence.

While this was going on, I always had a 100% clarity on my sexuality. Initially at the age of 5 I experienced attractions to only two genders and came out as bi, but as I grew, I started getting attracted to folks from across the gender spectrum and began identifying as Pansexual. I always stick to my Pan identity firmly, but did not realize that even that would be invalidated.

As I started connecting more emotionally and physically with my current partner, who belongs to the ‘opposite sex’, and my interactions increased, I realized that there is no patten to my physical interaction. Now, I was intended to settle that pushed another alienated idea of connecting romantically with a certain gender and aromatically with another. These emotions were indeed confusing as I wasn’t fitting into the conventional delineations of pansexuality, since my sexuality applied even to agender and xenogender persons and sometimes to cis-gendered people as well.

Sometimes these labels of sexuality caused me more stress and trauma. It led me to the idea of defining all my partnerships and prove time and again my position within the LGBTQIA+ community. My sexuality has been validated with my choices and redefining it with a label was something which was upsetting and deteriorating to my well-being and I believed that it’s more than just a mere definition.

This was the time I came across the term: “Pomosexuality”. Pomosexuality describes people whose sexual orientation isn’t represented through conventional terms, such as homosexual, heterosexual and bisexual. Some pomosexual persons may be queer, or questioning, while others may not. As and when I read further, I understood that Pomosexuality, also called Labeln’t, refers to someone who denies or does not fit any labels for a particular kind of attraction. A pomosexual person rejects, has an aversion to, or does not fit any commonly-known sexual orientation such as gay, straight, bisexual, asexual etc.

This can either be because one finds the typical way of describing sexual orientation wearisome. It caused a huge burden on me when I was expected to define things like “I am attracted to x”, “I like to romantically kiss x”, or “I am repulsed by x”, and in Pomosexuality  this approach is not applicable to my  sense of identity. This is also to indicate that a pomosexual person may or may not feel sexual attraction, but is not interested in specifying whether they feel it, or to whom. They do not want or need a specific label.

I also dig up the history behind this word and learnt that the term was coined in 1997 by Carol Queen and Lawrence Schimel. Pomo is short for postmodern. The term was never meant to replace LGBT+; rather, the LGBT+ community with its own labels and theories serve as the starting point for the concept of Pomosexuality. They draw parallels with the postmodernist art movement, stating that the beauty of Postmodernism (a la pomosexuality) cannot be appreciated without looking at its roots in modernism (much like the LGBT+ community). Their book acknowledges that the “neatly organized” sexual orientation labels found within the LGBT+ community might fit some, but not all people can find themselves in those labels.

My quest to define my sexuality has finally met a satisfying end. This was a moment for me to redeem my true self and own my feelings, attractions and affiliations, while receiving validation. I believe that there was not a correct word in English to define my sexuality all this while, and pomosexuality was something that came along at the right time.

When I started coming out as pomosexual to people, that’s when the struggle started. Some believed that I was misspelling the word ‘homosexual’. Some others believed that this is a fancy word to define my sexuality or attributed it to having a fear to come out as a homosexual, due to which I was probably using this word to hide my sexual relations with men. Some even ridiculed the entire existence and called me an attention-seeker.

When we are still fighting for the acceptance of lgbtiqa+ and marginalized genders in the very first place, my sexual identity is completely invisibilized. Alternative sexuality acceptance still has a long way to go and the fight has not even begun for pomosexuals. This was the time I realized that there is something which can reach faster than my voice of explanation. There is something which can make people intrigued to think about the word Pomosexuality and that was my art.

I really wanted to celebrate my true sexual identity and as a tribute to many such people who identify with me; I wanted to create a work of art to stick into the context of the present narrative. I have always believe that sometimes art has more power and acceptance than words and hence, used my secret weapon.  I wanted to use my Drag sensibilities to talk about the journey of self-acceptance of my own sexual orientation. As the pomosexual flag sports the colours of ponk and white, I wanted to create a look inspired by these colors and present an image of pomosexuality. I took the help of Manab Das, a friend and a photographer who helped me recreate what I had imagined.

Using major shades of Pink, white and blue I decked up in a soft saree, and an open sleeve. I expressed my sexuality by showcasing my upper body bare while some parts were covered. I used objects like A soft Panda toy (an object of indescribable gender and sexuality) to show the idea of ambiguity of my attractions. The imagery was majorly focused on recreating a look inspired by the Pomosexual Pride flag and we titled the work, Pink Flamingo, a reference to the older Hollywood movie where sexuality and gender was destroyed by John Water and Divine.

This persona made me sync with the acceptance of my sexuality and helped me sink into self-acceptance. The imagery was clicked as a photo performance to bring in the performative art of Drag. This was my way to send out the message of acceptance and importance of self-declaration of gender and sexuality and accepting people for what they want to be identified as. There may be a fair chance that as we progress there may be many alternative terminologies to describe various sexualities and genders, so much so that every individual might have their own pronoun and sexuality. But even if that’s the case, there is a need to acknowledge our collective responsibility to respect and identify people as they identify themselves. Only with this thought process can we make this world a better place for everyone. It’s important to remember that there is no queer liberation until the very last queer person gets their right to live with dignity and that is the true meaning of Pride that we need to celebrate.

“Almariyaan” Is A Refreshing And Humorous Take On ‘Acceptance’

One of the English translations of ‘Almari’ is ‘closet’, which is largely used in the context of ‘coming out’. It’s considered that only LGBTQIA+ people have to come out of the closet and tell the whole word ‘who they are’—as if heterosexuals don’t come out every day by introducing their spouses and talking about their love interests with people in their everyday life.

Also, post coming out, there’s one more step in the process waiting to close the loop: acceptance.

The discussions around closetedness, coming out, and acceptance have largely been topics of much interest for those studying queer theory, which is why it’s often too much — read boring, uninteresting — for allies and potential allies to digest the meaning and essence of the process.

Pop culture doesn’t help either. It’s often marred with bad storytelling, flawed viewpoints, and uninformed opinions; therefore, there’s an urgency to produce content that resonates and engages with people from varied lived experiences. FNP Media’s short film Almariyaan, inspired by Ajay Krishnan’s sketch, fills this gap quite effectively.

Karan’s woke parents and their teacher Jagoo

Written and directed by Jiya Bhardwaj, Almariyaan stars Pranav Sachdeva, Supriya Shukla, Shrikant Verma, and Rajesh Sharma in the lead roles. The short, in just over 18 minutes, does what most full-length movies are unable to: meaningfully engage the audience on a sensitive issue.

Its opening shot offers a prelude to the perceived reluctance of the protagonist Karan (Pranav Sachdeva) to ‘open up’ to his parents. The way he looks in the mirror convinces you that he’s hiding something. It’s because that’s what movies have taught us.

But to undo what they have been conditioned to think and do (being homophobic, for example), Karan’s parents — Aarti (Supriya Shukla) and Rajesh (Rajesh Sharma) — are taking coaching from Jagoo (Shrikant Verma). They find it an opportune moment to exhibit their wokeness and implement Jagoo’s lessons when their boy, Karan, asks them to assemble as he has something to share.

Their excitement knows no bounds. For this anticipated ‘coming out’ occasion, the mother brings paraphernalia to celebrate it. Seeing this, the annoyed child requests their parents to behave like a ‘normal’ person, but the trained mother blurts: What’s normal for us may not necessarily be normal for others. The father nods in agreement.

This movie perfectly presents parents’ struggle to ensure that they don’t end up hurting their child. It’s heartwarming to see that; however, their ignorance towards their child’s agency to come to them willingly makes space for humour that’s enjoyable.

‘The Art of Acceptance’

Jagoo sir’s interesting tutorials on becoming aware of LGBTQIA+ people’s struggles and helping parents master ‘the art of acceptance’ are hilarious. Shrikant is a delight to watch. Each time he appeared, I broke into a guffaw.

Inspired by their teacher’s strategies to help make coming out easier and encouraging for their child, Aarti and Rajesh start singing a pride rap — ‘mera chanda layega ik banda’ — by Dev Bhardwaj. When it gets too much for Karan to bear, he shuts them up and ‘comes out’ as homophobic.

This makes for a funny ‘tables have turned’ moment that leverages a reverse-psychological conversations conversations to present an empathetic view of LGBTQIA+ people’s alienation by society. Without being preachy, and using humour as an instrument of change, the scenes towards the end convey the timeliness and importance of this movie.

On FNP’s website, I found Pranav Sachdeva’s confession, in which he says that he was “borderline homophobic before Almariyaan happened.” He further shares how he “transformed as an individual after doing this film,” as for him “the role was internal, not just as an actor but as a human being.”

As an ally, to admit their ignorance and to contribute — through any means, in this case, a movie — a viewpoint that may help kickstart a perception shift in the society are decent first steps that Pranav has taken. He exercised a choice that Jagoo left us with to make when this movie ends: Mera gay hona meri sachhai hai, aur aapka homophobic hona ik choice. Ye farak mat bhooliyega. (My being gay is my truth, but you being homophobic is a choice. Don’t forget this difference.)

Still III

I do not want to go back to the start
To days torn open
By a crumbling heart.
In this still night,
Breaths so hollow and far,
Every move I make
Will leave me with a scar.

So, redo it, then —
A hundred thousand and twenty times
Somehow, I’m still here
Struggling to get it right.

(You could not be real
But you touched me like you are.)

And how can I be brave
What is bravery in a stupid world?
In a still night like this, we lay
Afraid to say a word.
Two robins in a gold cage
But when have clipped wings ever worked?

So, here we are, then —
A hundred thousand and twenty times later
Somehow, I know now,
In the stillness of every night:
I will always be here
I will never get this right.

(You could not be real
But you loved me like you are.)

Haseen Dillruba: India’s Nice-Guy Fantasy

*Spoilers Alert

Haseen Dillruba, at first glance, seems like it’s just a lazy attempt at recreating lurid pulp fictions set in small towns, however it is much more dangerous than that as it gives us the ultimate incel (portmanteau of ‘involuntary celibates’ referring to a member of an online subculture of people who define themselves as unable to find a romantic or sexual partner despite desiring one) fantasy, where the ‘nice guy’ comes out on the top, merged rather nicely with the Indian fixation with bhabhis.

The film is populated with our everyday misogynists without any meaningful criticism levied at any of them: the casually verbally-abusive and tharki neighborhood boys, the misogynist-stud Neel who takes non-consensual photographs and publicly broadcasts intimate liaisons, the friend-of-the-husband who thinks women ought to be trained and our very own protagonist nice-guy who’s the quintessential incel with his ranting about ordinary nice boys going unnoticed and his barely concealed scary, violent rage.

The film introduces Rishabh or Rishu who’s the small-town nice guy and Rani who’s the wild, untamed, big-city girl. Rishu’s niceness is displayed to us by the fact that he is shy and introverted, doesn’t know how to talk to women, does house chores and isn’t sexually forward. The film makes sure that we know he’s the nice guy by introducing us to another character, Neel, the not-nice guy. Neel is supposed to be everything Rishu is not, sexually active, extroverted, able to talk to women, and, ofcourse, a not-nice misogynist, who lies to Rani and runs away, along with disclosing the details of their sexual escapades to the neighborhood boys.

Neel’s characterization is important to understand the way in which Rishu has been constructed for us to like and root for. In the face of Neel’s abandonment of Rani, we’re supposed to not see Rishu’s mistreatment of the woman he brought into his home and then ignored, or the violence he unleashes on her after, and instead focus on the fact that the ‘stands up for her’ despite taunts from the family and neighborhood boys and values her love, unlike Neel.

The violence — its placement and the treatment in the film — is important because it serves to show us, first, Rishu’s vulnerabilities, such as when he gets beaten up by Neel, and then to show us the ways in which he triumphs over both his wife and the man she was unfaithful with. The scene at the end of the film where Neel’s arm is cut off has the camera linger and Rishu’s face is brimming over with righteous rage.

The story, then, is of the nice guy that avenges his wife’s betrayal by winning her over, rather violently and viciously, and who triumphs over the not-nice guy, again rather violently, to get his happy ending. He does, despite his protests to the contrary, become the ‘hero’ of the story. It’s a dangerous fantasy of masculinity and its victory.

Rani, for the first half of the film, fills in the Indian Savita Bhabhi trope, and given the constant and obvious references to the Dinesh Pandit and his saucy crime thrillers, one hopes the film will challenge this trope in some way. Instead, the film abandons the trope, after indulging it, once Neel’s betrayal is brought to light.

Rani, who’s introduced to us as a woman aware of her desires and able to wield agency, such as when she insists that she doesn’t like to, therefore would not, enter the kitchen and cook, is seen shedding each of these aspects of her personality in the course of the film, just as the best-friend had recommended to Rishu.

We see long sequences of her trysts in the kitchen as she begins her relationship with Neel, sequences that also show Rishu falling in love with her anew now that she is taking on the appropriate wifely duties. We also see her shed her sexual desires, calling them unnecessary and recognizing them as being far-fetched and as asking for too much in the sequences post the Neel-betrayal where she’s now seen vying for Rishu’s — what had previously seemed inadequate — love. There is also the dangerous insinuation that the love is now more appealing because of the violence heaped upon her.

The film is thus also the story of a woman tamed. When her transformation is complete into the subdued wife, she finally receives the mother-in-law’s approval which had been withheld all this while that she was un-wifely and therefore lacking, and now all is well with the world.

The passing of the ultimate test of the good woman is revealed to us at the end of the film where we realise that she has suffered through accusations against her moral character and even custodial beatings, all because she’s a dutiful wife following the plan her victor-husband formulated so he could save her from the punishment (read: jail) she rightfully deserved for the crime (read: betrayal of nice guy) that she had committed, but which he had benevolently forgiven her for.

Appropriation Of Voguing And Queer Culture

Voguing has been an important part of queer identity for decades. It is a liberating form of self-expression and identity for the community, an essential element of pride. Thus, it is a celebration that should be honoured during Pride Month.

The art of voguing, much like the tradition of Pride, comes from the Black and transgender ballroom scene of New York in the 1980s, a safe space for people who experienced discrimination. Black and Latinx queer communities of Harlem birthed the dance form. Between the 1960’s and 80’s “balls” were held in New York, which is what we would understand today as drag competitions. They transformed into elaborate pageantry and “vogue” battles. Black and Latino voguers would compete in battles for trophies, and to uphold the reputation of their “Houses”. The house names were inspired by fashion Maisons of Paris and Milan, with family members taking them as surnames. The mothers or fathers of the houses became safe parents for people ostracised for their gender, sexuality or race.

The balls were a space of joy for the community that experienced homelessness, sex work and abuse. The contestants walked an imaginary runway in elaborate outfits. They would be judged on their look, dance moves and “realness”. In its sudden poses, hand contortions and the iconic dip or “death drop”, where a dancer falls dramatically backwards onto the floor, voguing mixes athleticism with attitude and one-upmanship.

The inspiration behind the dance were the models of Vogue magazine, Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics and gymnastics. The personae often parodied white femininity while glorifying and subverting ideals of beauty, sexuality and class. Voguing was a tool of storytelling and survival, a way of responding to the AIDS crisis while still being satirical and comedic. Through dance, drag queens performed gender – they pretended to put on makeup or “beat face”, style their hair and put on extravagant clothes. Through dance and pantomime, voguers “read” each other. It was a performance battle, with the winner being the contestant who ‘threw the best shade’. Drag competitions between the 1960s and 1980s turned from pageantry-style balls to voguing battles. Contestants competed for trophies and the reputation of their ‘house family’. Most poignant of the categories were where they walked as executive businessmen or Hollywood starlets, dressing aspirationally beyond what was permitted to them.

For many trans, queer and gay contestants, excelling at vogueing was like earning a college degree. The underground queer culture of New York, where most of these elements were popularized, was a stigmatized, criminalized and brutalized space. The terms and drag elements were crumbs of acceptance in a world that largely mocked and disowned them.

In 1990, one of the earliest examples of queer ballroom culture going mainstream was Maddona’s music video “Vogue” and its performances. “Come on, vogue, let your body move to the music…” The video featured dancers from competing houses facing off. The single made people see voguing as dance, fashion and subculture. It got further popularized through the 1990 documentary Paris is Burning and then through shows like Pose. Inevitably, voguing attracted a star-studded following. Through Madonna’s single ‘Vogue’, the art became a worldwide phenomenon. It became famous, yes, but lost its cultural origins in mainstream dialogue. People were trying it and celebrating Madonna, but the queer, Black and Latinx ball performers felt disenfranchised. Voguing was an element of survival and acceptance for many Black queer and trans people, but a cisgender heterosexual white woman gets credited for its popularity today.

In Jennie Livingston’s Paris is Burning, a ball participant said: “Balls to us are as close to reality as we’re gonna get to all of that fame and fortune and stardom and spotlight.” Thus, the popularization caused more cultural harm than good. After Madonna’s “Vogue” era ended, the art became a fad instead of being respected as a source of livelihood and pride for underground performers. Using Black and trans cultural elements, like voguing and the terms “the house” and “shade”, and labelling their terminology “a trend” removes the celebration or acknowledgement of their historical roots. Black queer people are removed from mainstream dialogue in these acts of erasure. The language, culture and history of marginalized communities are highly political; the people who fostered the roots faced punishment until the majority decided that these aspects are good enough.

Queer culture and history are filled with beautiful elements which should be celebrated. Vogueing and usage of queer terms is not inappropriate for cisgender, heterosexual people. However, it is essential to respect the history behind them. From Harlem to an intergenerational community, queer people perform Voguing now in countries where LGBTQIA+ existence is illegal. From the underground clubs of New York to a source of homage to the victims of the Orlando Nightclub Shooting (2016), Voguing is still a tool of acceptance and community for ostracised queer people. After decades of its origination, it is still a space for queer survival, an expression of freedom and identity.

Lines Drawn: A Critique Of The Film Devi (Goddess)

The 13-minute film starts with a clash between Tara and a man. Amidst the commotion we hear a man calling her names, of which one that translates to “dyke cunt”, a mostly homophobic slur, in an effort to mock her ‘boyish’ ways, can be made out. After pure rage, brutal name calling by both of them, Tara (Aditi Vasudev) is left battered but unbroken, bolstered by her sense of righteousness. But it really is one thing to stick up for one’s own rights, reinforced by the confidence of youth. On the other hand, what happens when somebody else’s are at stake?

After the fight, as they enter home, we hear the classic song ‘Dil hai ki manta nahi’ dissolving into the background, immediately placing you in a house that has imbibed the warmth of its residents for years.

Tara’s mum, Lata (Tanvi Azmi), is bemused by the “adventures” of her child, and in particular by the bruise she’s got on her face. We sense that it’s not the first time that Tara has been in trouble, and her mother sees this as a revolt for her sake as well as others, and that she’s scared of what could happen to her daughter. Indeed, Devi (Priyanka Bose), the house help who helped raise her, tells Tara as much, attempting to justify that her mother is not unwise.

Their conversations circle so naturally around each other, it has to be the result of a bond that only means to grow. It is commendable how Karishma Dube manages to capture the nuances of family life, when one member of the family is thought to be fast asleep but are actually awake and listening in on the happenings of the rest of the house.

We also sense the tension between Tara and Devi. Late in the night as they lean out of the window, while Devi smokes a cigarette, it’s clear that something has changed between them. The streetlights fall on their face just as they do on you. The traffic is heard by them just as it is by you and the cigarette puffs are just as mournful (probably more so).

One night, when the guests are over for cocktails, Devi is seen working in the kitchen. Tara, finds herself out of place and walks in, kisses her unexpectedly, and Devi kisses her back.

They are seen by one of the guests, and Devi leaves. We later learn that Azmi is informed of this occurrence. The three women, share the living room space sitting in silence. Devi sits down, like she always must have. The confrontation is quick, with Tara quiet throughout. Azmi states that she has considered Devi, like her daughter while Devi stands up to say that she hasn’t harmed her child in any way.

The next morning, breakfast is served to the mother-daughter duo and it is observable that the help has been replaced. The scene artfully cuts to the credits and we have a dark souvenir in our hands.

Their kiss would be a romantic triumph in a Western perspective, could be in an Indian one too. But what happens when desire is met with class and caste discrimination?

Theirs seem to be an educated Bengali family that is likely from a dominant caste, living in Delhi. They don’t typically fit into the traditional mould of an Indian family. However, the three women struggle to re-establish what they are to each other when confronted with an uncomfortable truth. Indicating how through India, patriarchy runs through as a measure of what is acceptable in societal realms – wealthy or not.

Having someone assist at home is very typical in middle and upper class households in India. This informal job market forms the functioning of many households. Filmmaker Karishma Dube states– “This film is my attempt to better understand this familial relationship I have witnessed with our domestic help in India. It confused me as a child, and it still does so now.”

The film aims to explore the topics of class and identity within the framework of the contemporary Indian family – where culture and social status equal all, and where autonomy and western power are derided and admired in the same breath. When Devi and Tara are found together, the three women must instantly redefine who they are to each other according to the standards of society, exposing the relationship to what it truly is (transactional? Divided by caste lines?).

The film is beautifully personal and universal in its tensions, its desires and attractions and how they can work anomalously, often in violation of what is socially appropriate. The relationship between Tara and Devi is not easy to describe, and that was interesting to me… Dube executes the scene with sensitivity to show us something implicit to us that can often be absurd to most.

The warmth and tenderness between two women are often evasive to the inattentive. The maternal side to lesbian relationships is the flowering buds of countless movies. Women are protective of women, regardless of their sexuality and when it does come to their sexuality, you can see it manifest into a mothering of each other. One must not mistake this for being territorial, these relationships are anything but that. Maybe it is even common in most queer relationships. Maybe we seek to parent each other to softly release the shackles of society and a family that withdraw its love at the face of love.

To dwell solely on Devi’s character, I believe that she clearly draws the lines between her acceptance, survival, and the family. The title thus spells irony, an irony decipherable of parallels – what could be and what they are.

The title highlights how everything within the Indian society derives from the crevices of divinity. As a consequence, at the subconscious stage, the title may be extracted from how Devi’s character fills in the space of both a mother and a lover to Tara. The blooming of the former relationships is divine but the latter is not. To spark a debate within, I wondered – what is the point at which the relationship ceases to be important?

For Tara and Devi, their relationship will never exist, particularly within the paradigm of caste and class. Yet their connection is real and protean. 

It’s also primarily a coming-of-age story, where the protagonist ultimately struggles to do what’s ‘right’. Unfortunately, by the end of the film I could only think how much worse it could be for Devi, particularly because she belongs to a historically oppressed caste and class. We can’t fix the problems in the film, but it does lead to a discussion that is typically evasive. And the film accomplishes this.

The firm pressing of their lips has been the undoing of so many. Love that goes deeper than kohl, yet the kohl continues to oppress.

Watch now, and let us know how you feel.

Meet The Influencers Living Life Stylishly Outside The Binary (A Two-Part Gaysi Series)

Part 1

Aman Pal, 21 (he/him)

Aman Pal creates his looks from a place of power – a place of not letting anyone tell him how to be him. The professional model and aspiring actor from Kolkata lets his clothes speak for his comfortability with himself, and lets his love for aesthetics do the rest. Nothing holds back Pal, whose highly editorial and artistic looks takes inspiration from current and past fashions.

How would you describe your vibe/style/fashion sense?

All things aesthetic. My style usually varies from Parisian to tropical and Japanese street fashion.

What is your personal approach to fashion and curating looks?

My personal approach has always been to invest in statement pieces. I also love overlaying clothes and I’ve recently ventured into buying sustainable/eco friendly clothes, hence thrifting vintage items has been my number one priority.

Who/what are your inspirations?

David Bowie, Ezra Miller, Alexander McQueen & Karl Lagerfeld. I draw inspiration from cinema, music, nature and artists that inspire me.
 
What is the significance of being named a “queer influencer” to you?

To be named a queer influencer signifies that I get to represent my community. I get to express my suffering and pain through my art and also [free myself from the] norms and prejudices held against people like us. I want to inspire the people from my community to be comfortable in their own skin.

Nature and the outdoors seem to feature a lot as backdrops and props for your very sophisticated looks – is there a significance to that?

I love to be out and about in nature. I’m part of Mother Nature, but I’m sometimes treated as an alien because of my sexuality (some people adhere to the notion that homosexuality is unnatural). I like to use nature in my art because I want to prove a point that we’re not freaks of nature.

Freebie last words:

I just want people to not let others define their worth and be authentic to themselves. I have been a victim of severe bullying during my school days and that really disrupted my mental peace. I would really encourage [you all] to speak up against bullies and also to not let them belittle you. Through my art, I really want to convey that clothes have no gender. Over the years, I have come to love myself and I really want to uplift my brothers and sisters who have been oppressed and bullied for being different. Yes, we do exist and yes, we need to make our voices heard.

Yuvraj Acharya, 17 (genderfluid)

Coming in hot and into their own is Delhi born-and-based student, Yuvraj Acharya. Having recently come to the conclusion that they no longer need to dress within the confines of the binary, Acharya’s looks and content are a big “F U!” to all the ways in which we restrict ourselves in fashion. A big fan of traditionally feminine pieces as a medium to express their gender fluidity, Acharya is “degendering fashion” one cute outfit at a time.

How would you describe your vibe/style/fashion sense?

My style is all about androgyny, breaking the gender norms or degendering fashion, and just celebrating my individuality authentically with a touch of being extra.

What is your personal approach to fashion and curating looks?

[Fashion] is something that gives me joy. The only thing that has changed is that, before, I had to dress like a “man”, as they say, to fit [with]in the binaries of masculinity. But later, when I gradually started experimenting with “feminine” clothes, I found myself. I found what I am and what my style is. I have never been happier. I use my fashion to channel my gender fluidity or [androgynous] style and just to feel myself to the fullest.

Who/what are your inspirations?

Strong queer people and women are my inspiration, but I inspire myself too. I am my inspiration.

What is the significance of being named a “queer influencer” to you?

Being known as a “queer influencer ” in the fashion space feels so strong. It reminds me [of] how strong I have become. When other kids and people slide into my dms and let me know that [me] and [my] work has inspired [them] and it has helped [them] accept [themself], trust me it’s the best feeling!

Your bio includes the term “#degenderfashion” – how much does gender itself, and all of its restrictions and norms, play or not play a role in the way you curate looks?

As a boy, people always told me to be, look or behave like a “man”. Anytime I did or wore something “feminine” , I was taunted by others. Slurs and names were thrown at me. But, I chose not to let their words affect me. I celebrate my individuality authentically. I believe every human being can wear whatever speaks to their liberation. By #degenderfashion, we put out the idea that clothes and fashion are not caged only in gender binaries; it’s much more than that.

Freebie last words:

Our sexuality or gender does not define us. We are much more than that, much more to explore, experience, discover and celebrate. We are here and we are queer!

Neel Ranaut (he/him)

A star on the internet and also in his village town of Teliamura, Tripura, devil-may-care Neel Ranaut is an innovative force to be reckoned with. Discarding the name his parents gave him at birth and referring to himself after his favourite colour (neel) and favourite actress (Kangana Ranaut), Ranaut’s geographical location doesn’t stop him from harbouring a red-carpet vision he brings to life with everyday materials. Ranaut makes about 2 outfits a day, given the time and effort it takes to put these looks together, bringing fashion to Teliamura in a way he doesn’t see currently.

How would you describe your vibe/style/fashion sense?

I began by using whatever I could find around the house – my dad’s kachcha (underpants) or lungi or other things. Since Sandeep Khosla-ji started giving me compliments on Instagram and encouraging my work by liking my work or sharing it, I have felt more inspired with my designs. I’m very grateful for the motivation and opportunity given by him to me.

How do you approach fashion?

Ever since I did a show with Abu Jani-Sandeep Khosla in Delhi, my family has been very supportive of me and my career. Before that they used to scold me a lot and the villagers used to say that I had no future at all, they would not even let their children mingle with me. But now, I don’t care about what others have to say about me or my designs. In this village, there’s no fashion scene to speak of. Everybody just thinks that going to college and getting a government job is the be-all and end-all. I want to inspire other people in the village who feel differently, like me, to follow their heart.

How do you decide what materials to use for your looks?

People sometimes criticize me saying that I destroy the flowers in my design. I want to point out to those people that flowers and other plant-based items are used in functions and ceremonies as well! Besides, the flowers that are blooming on the plants today will wilt and fall off their branches tomorrow. If I use them in my designs, then what’s the problem? How’s that destroying nature?

What is the significance of being named an “influencer” to you?

I don’t know if I’m a fashion influencer, but if people are feeling inspired by me then I’m happy to note that. I don’t purchase fancy materials with a lot of money or anything. I use things that I find around my house to design the outfits that I share. I don’t think I can be any sort of fashion guru or anything yet. I’m inspired by other people’s work, in fact.

How do you deal with the backlash, living in such a conservative place?

Since I was in school and college, I have faced a lot of bullying and name-calling. People say that I behave like the ladies. It’s probably the same people who now make fun of my designs and the videos/pictures that I post on social media. I have nothing to say about them.

Freebie last words:

I don’t get a lot of praise from the locals, but people from Mumbai and Delhi praise my work and that’s heartening. I have just one life and I don’t want to get caught up with the nay-sayers. I want to do exactly what my heart pleases.

Priyam Yonzon, 19 (they/them)

Priyam Yonzon brings all our Tumblr and Pinterest vision boards to life with their always-on-trend, but extremely personally curated fashion. A Delhi college student from Darjeeling, Yonzon’s fashion changes with their mood and we’re just all really lucky that that mood is at least constantly stylish!

How would you describe your vibe/style/fashion sense?

Unrestrictive. I never settle on one particular aesthetic; I love to play with different styles and I tend to constantly change it. Sometimes, I get fully glammed up and [other] times, I don’t do much. Basically, it depends on [my] mood [and] how I’m feeling about myself that day.

What is your personal approach to fashion and curating looks?

My personal approach towards curating looks is genuinely about how I feel about myself. I like to play around with clothes [and] dress up for myself, wear what I feel the best in – [it] doesn’t matter how extravagant or loud it is, or how simple. I look for lasting fashion more than constant new trends, which fade away [quickly]. I know keeping up with trends is essential, but once you know what look suits you best, you can make it blend with the trends.

Who/what are your inspirations?

Everyone I see around me: virtually [or] in reality, I try to  learn a lot through what I see.

What is the significance of being named a “queer influencer” to you?

“Queer influencer“ makes me feel good; I genuinely mean it! I feel celebrated, loved, appreciated, respected, and I realise that there people constantly looking out for me at all times – especially when you’re queer and being queer is considered “unhealthy” [by our extremely conservative society]. Sometimes, it is annoying and frustrating when people just pick on you solely for being queer, but I’m happy [with] how we’ve evolved, society too. I’ve experienced it changing over the past years and I hope it gets better.

Freebie last words:

It’s up to you, it’s your choice how you want to appear to your audience and how you want to fold in your identity!

Roshini Kumar, 28 (she/her)

Roshini Kumar – a Mumbai-based fashion photographer, visual artist, creative director, activist and entrepreneur – wants us to feel freedom in our fashion, and that’s exactly what her looks are inspired by. With a fashion sense inspired by everything that came before but a vision for a future where everyone can be whoever they want to be, Roshini brings drama, feistiness and a whole lot of POP to both her looks and her activism. 

How would you describe your vibe/style/fashion sense?

It’s vibrant, fun, no boundaries, no boxes, just a lot of FUN!

What is your personal approach to fashion and curating looks?

Fashion to me is self expression; it’s not trends, it’s not what seasons, it’s not celebrities, it’s about bringing out ME. My personality, my identity, my true self & that is an extra af bitch who doesn’t have any boundaries and fear to explore. It’s really colourful, quirky, and very retro because I basically still live in the 80’s and 90’s. Its been a tool for me to express my queer idenity as well as become free with my body. I don’t like wearing too many restricted clothes in the name of fashion; I used to, but I realised it only made me feel more uncomfortable. 

Who/what are your inspirations?

The 60’s to 2000’s: I get inspired more by eras than people, honestly. But now, I like getting inspired by myself and exploring where that takes me.

What is the significance of being named a “queer influencer” to you?

It’s lovely to see people naming me as a queer influencer. I take the tag of an influencer very seriously because my activism is what drives me to do more everyday, so it’s absolutely amazing to see me get this tag. I thank everyone who thinks soo!

Your looks stand out as casual, but with elements of drama. You’ve said you’ve recently started getting into drag – has that had an effect on your style or has your style had an effect on your drag? 

Candy, my drag persona, is just an extension of Rosh. She’s definitely more sassy and MORE extra. But, I think Candy is more free in terms of expression and what Rosh would love to be able to wear and do everyday but unfortunately can’t.

You talk to your followers through your posts and have roped in your family to fashion as well. It seems like your fashion isn’t just for you but also meant to be a collective experience.

I want people to realise fashion is more bringing out parts of you, your confidence, your identity than just following trends. So I like styling people in ways I see them and get them out of their comfort zone and SEE that they CAN wear whatever the fuck they want. There are no rules! It breaks my heart to see fashion being used as a tool for exclusivity, and also a tool to shame certain people and not use it as a means of liberation and freedom. Fashion currently puts unnecessary standards on people, and too many boxes that make people question themselves everyday. I’ve definitely been on the other side and it’s horrible. I hated myself because of what fashion was. I want to free people from that cage because there are truly no rules, you make your own and that’s it!

Freebie last words:

Always remember you are absolutely valid, your feelings are valid and you can make your own damn rules and live on your own terms; there are no boxes in reality. Everyone, absolutely everyone, deserves to live their truth, whatever that might be.

Subculture: A Brand That Defies Norms With Leather Fetish and Fashion

In a country like India, where sex and sexuality are subjects often relegated to the sidelines of any conversation, concepts like kink and fetish are far-removed from the public’s collective imagination. Thanks to a limited (and possibly warped) understanding of erotic fetishism and how individuals include kink in their lifestyles, the practice has been further alienated from the mainstream dialogue on sex and wellness. In such a scenario, the emergence of a brand like Subculture is a refreshing deviation from the norm. Founded by designer Randhir Singh, Subculture is a unique platform that seamlessly blends leather fetish, fashion and utility. A brand that believes in breaking stereotypes and reimagining leather as kink, Subculture offers a range of products in leather including harnesses, corsets, handcuffs, chokers and lots more. At the heart of Subculture is a desire to start a revolution, the kind that prioritises sex-positivity and “celebrates all kinds of love and all shapes of people.”

Speaking to Gaysi, Randhir Singh explains the inspiration behind this revolutionary new brand: “Six years ago I was in my second year of university at NIFT Delhi studying Leather Design. I looked up to Madonna, Moschino, Lady Gaga among others, and I wanted to dress up like them. I wanted to wear those harnesses and to my surprise, I couldn’t find a single Indian brand that would make those beautiful body harnesses let alone dabble in fetish with utility.” He continues, “ I started researching about it and at so many points wanted to include it in my collections at college. As I understood it more, the more I wanted to explore it and it eventually became my passion. It was then a dream that someday I would introduce this whole new culture to India that [has] existed in the [contemporary] west for decades now. Therefore Subculture was also born to fill the void in the Indian market.” 

With the help of social media, Randhir was able to successfully spread the word about Subculture and build a loyal customer base. “I started promoting and reaching out to friends on social media through behind-the-scenes, posts with Indian cultural references on sex positivity and even through opening conversations at the parties. The word started to spread about my brand and more people started to connect with me,” explains Randhir.

Establishing Subculture hasn’t been a journey without its hurdles. Randhir was inspired and keen to start his dream project but it took him a while to find the right artisans who were willing to learn and experiment with him. He says, “In January 2020, after a trip to Bali, I was determined to start my dream project. I even began practicing patterns, designs, and techniques to make leather body harnesses. However, I had to trial different artisans for months before I could find the right match. The pandemic further slowed down the process. Finally, in February 2021 I launched my first trans-seasonal collection that we called ‘Culture by Subculture’.” Randhir has also ensured that his brand works with local artisans and craftsmen who are open-minded and curious. “I work with a family of six where each of them is trained to be able to take certain tasks. Unfortunately, insufficient pay and lack of demand have driven many craftsmen from their generational craft to cities for corporate jobs or to work for larger companies. My craftsmen are passionate about their work and I make sure I pay fairly for their time. Together we experiment with modern techniques & contemporary designs.”

When it comes to working with models for Subculture, Randhir believes that they aren’t merely mannequins for his products but brand ambassadors that are “bold and ostentatious”. The models that work with Subculture have beliefs that align with the brand and Randhir hopes to continue working with more such progressive individuals. “For our first campaign, I worked with Nimisha, Shilo, and Omkaar. None of them are models by profession but they all have strong and unique personas. Nimisha is a metaphysical anatomy practitioner, Shilo is an artist & activist and Omkaar is a designer. Our fourth model Sher is our professional model and brought his style of showcasing the commercial aspect of Subculture tying the show together.”

Some might see Subculture as a controversial brand given the products and lifestyle it chooses to endorse. Has this led to any significant pushback from society? Fortunately for Randhir, Subculture has been well-received so far. “I get so many messages from people telling me what a great revolution it is and it was time it finally happened in India,” he says. “There have been no pushbacks so far, part of the reason also is that either people understand it or they just don’t and the ones who don’t aren’t my customers.” Randhir is on a mission to help destigmatise erotic fetishism through healthy conversation via his brand. He believes that “change doesn’t happen overnight”, but in time the India market will acclimatise to a brand like Subculture and all that it stands for. “I make sure to reference how ancient Indian history was far more open about sex and sexuality and hope that more such conversations will change the way people think today.”

As a queer person himself, Randhir believes that the radical nature of kink and BDSM bares a resemblance to queer culture and their fight against refusing to succumb to heteronormative expectations. According to Randhir, the intersection of queerness and kink is about community-building. He says, “The BDSM and kink community has long been a circle within which queer individuals of various orientations and backgrounds have engaged. Queer people have always been at the forefront of the sex positivity movement. Queerness bleeds into kink for so many individuals because it allows us to determine the parameters for our sexual behaviour in a world where the rulebook does not apply to us. Queerness can be about lust, love, or both, but by that same token, kink, leather, and BDSM aren’t exclusively about sex; to a large extent, they’re about community-building.”

For Randhir, kink is an integral part of queer history and offering a safe space for the queer community to explore kink is what he endeavours to do. “It is important to centre kink as a valid part of queer history—because, without it, we are erasing an essential part of our heritage. Offering this kind of safe space for exploration is one of kink’s great virtues, as it provides another option for relationship-building and sexual expression that doesn’t subscribe to traditional notions of how these structures should exist,” highlights Randhir. Subculture has made important strides in offering erotic fetishism and BDSM a valid platform that individuals in the kink community can seek out. The brand and its products are not just about fetish, fashion and utility but a symbol of inclusivity for all kinds of sexual preferences and desires. 

What We Lose When We Praise ‘Gender Benders’ with “Go Girl! Give Us Nothing!” Energy

If the jumping off point to describe anyone’s “gender bending” style is “Harry Styles-inspired” – completely ignoring and essentially both cis- and straight-washing the global and local histories and realities of androgynous and genderfluid fashion – then you’re already off to a rocky start.

Vice India’s latest cultural piece on Indian fashion influencers Komal Pandey and Siddharth Batra positions them as pioneers of “gender bending fashion” – the catch-all terminology used to describe cis girlbosses in suits and cis men in skirts. But more than that, apparently Pandey and Batra are also “gender bending” gender as we’ve been conditioned to know it. This, apparently, can be credited to Batra being allowed to play both cricket and with toy kitchen sets as a child. Frankly, that just sounds like a kid being allowed to do more than one thing; queer, trans and non-binary kids have been allowed to do far less and have still come to the conclusion that gender binaries suck.

This isn’t to say that Batra deserves the hate that he gets for playing with fashion the way he does, or that it’s invalid in any way. Everyone’s just really over influencers feeling like their enlightened path to pushing back against boundaries, couched within the safety of their social and financial privilege, is somehow novel, radical or worth even writing about. Trans women and the hijra community in India “bend” and compel us to re-evaluate conventions of gender everyday, by merely existing and doing amazing community and education work – with very little online or monetary love to show for it. Crafting a story then around how an influencer finally started to empathise with women, after being “ogled at” in his girlfriend’s skirt for a few minutes, just seems especially trite.

And because this article really focused on Batra’s and Pandey’s more Western fashion sensibilities, why was there no mention of when it was first quite revolutionary, and scary even, for women to wear suits, shorts and pants? Where was the mention of Western male musicians of the late 60s and onwards who went out there and donned peasant blouses and flowy pants, zany, out-there latex onesies or floral baby doll dresses just because they were trying to do something bigger than themselves? Why is there not even the slightest mention of the actual garments or assistive clothing that gender-diverse people wear, like binders and jock padding, and how that’s contributed to a sense of self and a sense of style? What about the drag queens, the butch lesbians, the ‘cross dressers’, the gay men and trans people in India and abroad who have actually revolutionised high and street fashion because it was truly part of their gender expression and identity to do so, and not some gimmick to beat a social media algorithm? Instead, all we’re saddled with is an irrelevant fun fact about how heels used to be a status symbol for Persian men, trying to unsuccessfully pass as historical analysis. This is all you get when an article attempts to frame wearing “opposite gender clothing” as groundbreaking.

Focusing on how Pandey and Batra make out in their videos and what that says about what the modern young adult Indian wants to see on their screen would have probably been a much stronger, albeit similarly cringe, story. At least that’s something we can actually give them credit for. But to run a story on how they’re “taking on centuries of gender norms” – as a deliberately gender and sexuality-ambiguous, societally palatable couple – when there are many queer, trans and non-binary Indian influencers who do this for a living (but also for more than the likes), during Pride month of all months, is actually incredibly insulting. If anything, for the lack of actual effort put into just thinking the idea through.

What’s most unfortunate is that lost in all of the haphazard analysis and pointless quotes is the actual star of this piece, Neel Ranaut. They’re referred to as a “genderless fashion influencer” by the anthropologist interviewed for this piece, but with no clarification from Ranaut, we’re taking this identification with a lot of salt. Introduced only at the very tail-end of the piece, Ranaut is a self-described “village fashion influencer” from Tripura who uses elements of their every day to recreate actresses’ red carpet looks from literal scratch. All they got was a couple of lines at the end. If that isn’t the most apt metaphor for how predominantly cis, straight media outlets completely miss the point and credit cis, straight people for something queer and trans people have been doing better forever, we don’t know what is. It just seems like it’s not even enough to pluck at the lowest hanging fruit anymore, media outlets just want to run with anything they find in the dirt.

Fat. So? Fatphobia. NO.

TW- trauma, fatphobia

Individual acts of self-love and acceptance are often termed as radical and rebellious, even as we seek to normalize such behaviours, especially among those of us who have been marginalized due to our socio-economic locations. Nevertheless, often emancipating oneself from normative binds result in some sort of resistance from those who perpetrate these toxic normative standards. Take, for example, fatphobia; the irrational fear of being fat. We are sent conscious and subliminal messages that being thin is a requirement to aspire for beauty, health, and love. We have to fight to earn and deserve that love. We are constantly surrounded by myriad capitalist forces like movies, magazines, fashion, and more that reiterate being thin as the ideal. So even when you want to accept yourself, you are hindered in this journey because you can’t find clothes in your size in stores, or a family member is being judgemental, or you’re being bullied by a medical healthcare provider, or a hundred other things screaming at you that you ought to become thin. Pallavi and Ameya are two individuals who know these struggles all too well and have taken it upon themselves to publicly combat these notions through their podcast called Fat.So?

Each episode starts off with both of them proudly proclaiming that they are fat and that they love eating a favorite dish or wearing that sexy dress or kissing that cute person or doing something else that society thinks is only for thin people. Each episode is a conversation about fatphobia and toxic societal standards that includes both systemic issues and personal experiences. It’s their contribution towards building a community of anti-fatphobic people that dismantle normative notions like fatness being equated with being unloved or being unhealthy.

It all started when one sassy fat person met another sassy fat person and they decided to be sassy and fat together. Ameya and Pallavi are two scintillating people who have the heart of a rebellious teenager and the collective experience and knowledge of someone who has lived through over 4 decades of malevolent body expectations being thrust upon them. They met at a plus-sized women’s gathering in 2019 and each felt an instant attachment towards the other which led to the creation of the podcast. Their idea was to help other people like themselves in their individual journeys of self-love and acceptance, disregarding whatever the world is saying to recognize that they are wonderful and beautiful just the way they are.

While sharing their story with Gaysi, Ameya said that she was fat since she was 8 and that although it started with overeating, she has continued to remain fat which led to differences between her family and herself as they would try to tell her to eat less, bribing her with Barbie dolls, and asking her to exercise more. She adds that although her family was supportive of her as an individual, it was the kids at school and her crushes that were brutal. Things changed when she had to go live in New York where she could wear that sexy dress and date that cute boy.

Pallavi was as young as five when she was put on a diet. She said that she was constantly made to believe that no matter her intellectual or social achievements, she still wouldn’t be worthy of love if she continued to be fat. These kinds of things have long-term mental and emotional consequences that both of them have to deal with even after all these years, and so, their journeys of self-acceptance are just that – journeys that they are going through with both bad and wonderful experiences.  Both of them recognize that they’ve come a long way and so this podcast is a way for them to provide a safe space for other people like them.

Both emphasize the systemic teachings that act as the root cause for fatphobia. We are surrounded by family, school, healthcare, and other systems that influence our thoughts and actions. Even if we are not explicitly told that being fat is bad, we see other people going on diets, refusing to eat certain foods, we see that the protagonist has a thin body and the hottest person of interest is in love with her. Children pick up these things and internalize them which means that they learn that being fat is bad and that lesson sticks with them as they grow up.

Pallavi suggests that medical practitioners need to be actively involved in conversations regarding fatness and health since neither being thin nor fat guarantees health. Unhealthy scales of measuring weight loss like the BMI (Body Mass Index) continue to be used across gyms and other fitness centers. In an episode dedicated to fatphobia in the medical field, Ameya and Pallavi discuss how doctors have dismissed their health concerns and asked them to lose weight and have also pushed them to get fat reduction surgery even if they had personally decided against it. Pallavi adds that schools also need to talk about diversity in all body types without being judgemental that being fat means being unhealthy, lazy, unworthy, etc. Ameya says that we need to normalize the use of fat as an adjective rather than a mark of character because language plays such a significant role in shaping our identity and this is something that is emphasized multiple times throughout the podcast as well: to stop using fat as a slur and casually commenting on someone’s weight. Ameya also suggests that public seating should cater to bodies of all sizes, which is why armless seats are always better according to her. 

But where did fatphobia come from? “Back in the 19th century black women’s bodies were cast as “wrong”, and there began a push to differentiate chaste and Christian white women from the sexualized, “impure”, “dirty” black bodies. Curly hair, dark skin, and bodies with shape [besides thin] and fat became bad things” Ameya says. “And racism has its roots in a movement in the Western World where people felt that they could gauge a person’s character and personality and “fit to a moralistic, virtuous” society based on how they look. So everything that was “not white skin”, curvy, curly, etc became a terrible thing to have”, Pallavi explained.

Am I surprised that the West is involved in toxic standards? Not really. Even now, after all that we have been through because of this pandemic, Ameya thinks that it’s a time where we are more vulnerable to eating disorders because our body is trying its best to cope with this stress and anxiety, and being stuck at home means we have more and more goals about what we eat and how we look. Pallavi thinks each individual has their own unique lifestyle and stress response and so the increased attention on our bodies to look thin is more in focus, which means even with social media content on the exacerbation of mental health being more important than whether one gets fat or thin doesn’t radically change our perception of being healthy and fat. Pallavi also adds that being fat is seen as something people have “control” over, so it’s easy to criticize people about it.

Speaking of social media, the representation of fat people needs to be discussed. In one of their episodes, Pallavi and Ameya talk about how fat people are usually represented as something negative and that their beauty and joy come only when they become thin. Pallavi also talks about how there is this assumption that fat people are automatically submissive and people pleasers because they are fat and ashamed of themselves. Both of them emphasize that representation should involve a fat person content with themselves and the focus should not be on their weight or their size. Ameya adds that although having a fat protagonist is the first step, we need fat people just doing their thing as friends, extras, and other humans in the world.

We also need to normalize body diversity and all body shapes and sizes. Standard clothing sizes at malls need to change as a first step to include all sizes. In the podcast, Pallavi talks about her lovely tailor who makes her all the kinds of clothes she wants when she can’t find her size and Ameya laments that for her to find her size, she usually looks at international brands because Indian brands don’t stock clothes for her size. She suggests looking at Universal Standard, a brand that has clothes for every body size.

Being in love with oneself shouldn’t come with a standard for being a certain shape, size, or weight, but thus is the product of socialization. And though Pallavi and Ameya can’t relate to the experience of being queer and fat, Ameya imagines it’s worse for queer people because they are further marginalized and offers her opinion that gay men likely encounter fatphobia more than straight men, for instance.

Their discussions about body neutrality particularly resonated with me. That being okay with one’s body is important because we are always surrounded by so much hate that loving it might be difficult and requires a lot of effort and time. To free oneself from normative body image, Ameya suggests that one needs to get used to looking at their body, especially naked. Pallavi suggests researching on fatphobia, fat liberation, and so on, especially from fat people who create this kind of content instead of “experts” who aren’t fat and don’t experience fatphobia. They both add that looking for a community is important. Especially while online, exposing ourselves to all kinds of body types and learning to be comfortable with that is a crucial experience in these times of containment. Self-love and acceptance aren’t easy and it takes time and effort and there will be relapses, but we must take deep breaths and stick with ourselves because we are worth the effort.

Listen to the podcast here.

A Gaysi Guide To Queer Anime

Despite the categorization on OTT platforms, Anime is more medium than genre. As a medium, it primarily sets itself apart from live-action counterparts with genres and sub-genres that are technically and culturally diverse. There’s maho shojo or ‘magical girl’ anime, featuring fantastical transformations and female friendships, and the spin-off ‘magical boy’ anime – sub-genres of Japanese fantasy and science fiction. The larger genre includes narratives that can be classified as mecha, usually associated with Giant Robots, and more familiar supernatural or paranormal stories of vampires, ghosts and other non-human beings. There’s also isekai, which involves being transported into a parallel world and harem narratives, as well as reverse-harem narratives (which may or may not be echhi, or anime with sexual innuendos, often comical in nature). You can also find more commonplace themes like mystery, romance, comedy, drama, historical narratives, sports, thrillers and so on. Anime is often based on video games, even dating-sim-like otome games. More often than not, anime is a combination of some or many of these genres and subgenres, or a subversion or deconstruction of the tropes itself.

And while original anime series have only grown since their introduction, the genre is often an adaptation of narratives from manga and novels and, as such, is also a literary as well as artistic form. Some anime is highly literary, some highly technical, and some highly artistic. It all requires some getting used to.

At the same time, anime is also an industry, and the genre and style is often determined by demographic information like gender and age—shoujo or anime for young girls, shonen or anime for younger boys around the age of ten to eighteen, josei or anime for older teenage girls and adult women, and seinen for men of a similar age. Unsurprisingly, shonen is the biggest market everywhere. Anime is also marketed to a larger, more international (i.e. American) audience, brought up on a diet of Disney and superheroes (as American as it gets). Plots and styles are changed to make it more accessible for this milleu, along with subtitles and translated English dubs. There is less moral ambiguity, more action, and more fan service.

Fan service may refer to anything: from intertextuality to robots to the sexualization of women of all ages. Whatever appeals to the fan(s), insensitive or not. Not surprisingly, queer narratives fall primarily into this category of fan service narratives, as B/L or Boys Love (relationships between men) or Yuri (relationships between women) romances. The first is marketed to women, and the latter to men. And while it is common to blame all the ills of the anime industry and its insensitive representations of women and the queer community on fan service (“Blame the fans, not the industry”), examples abound to contradict this. Like the Class-S genre of young women in romantic relationships with each other, but only as preparation for a real heterosexual pairing. Discovering positive, complex narratives about queer individuals in anime can be a difficult task. To some extent, it requires accepting the limits of representational politics, and enjoying television even when it is problematic. But if you are really interested in that specific representation, this Gaysi guide has you covered:

Queer Romances

No. 6

A dystopian narrative about two very different young men, Shiori and Nezume, who genuinely care about each other. Nezume hates Shiori for wanting to save the world that tried to kill him, but also is probably in love with him. Also features Inukashi, a non-binary character who is so loving and so cruel that the main narrative is often purposely distracted by their story development.

Given

Guitar practices, stardom, trauma and a lot of yearning among an all male, all gay cast. More than any other anime I’ve watched, the queerness in Given is also about a community—older gay men advise and thump the backs of their younger friends in crises of love. Includes the most heart-wringing kiss and confession of love there is.

Whispered Words

A complicated romance between two young women, all about independence and heartbreak. There are lots of crushes within one world of non-normative sexuality that slowly opens up for the main characters.

Bloom Into You

A surprisingly beautiful critique of the Class-S genre of Yuri anime. The narrative is full of the joyous discovery of attraction and the subtle touches that become internal monologues of unparalleled complexity, It captures very well the angst, despair and hope of being a young, teenage girl.

Revolutionary Girl Utena

Anything by Kunihiko Ikuhara will promise to pare down tropes, genres and characterization into both pastiche and critique. Revolutionary Girl Utena does just this for magical girl anime, folktales and heroism, and contains some of the most intense romantic scenes between Anthy and Utena. Probably my favourite.

Culinary Therapy: Queer Folks And Their Relationship With Food

Cooking can be an incredibly therapeutic experience. While a lot of us shy away from experimenting with cooking, others find a unique solace in the kitchen. The ability to create something from scratch is a rewarding experience and cooking offers everyone a way to be more patient and mindful. The kitchen transforms into a sanctuary for those who are passionate about cooking, allowing them to feel accomplished and fulfilled. A report by the Wall Street Journal highlights how psychologists believe that cooking and baking fit into a type of therapy called “behavioral activation”. In this form of therapy, “activities alleviate depression by increasing goal oriented behavior and curbing procrastination.”

Irrespective of how skilled you are in the kitchen, culinary therapy can benefit your mental health by promoting mindfulness, offering you an outlet for creative expression and a way to raise your self-esteem. Cooking also helps you build a sense of community and connect with your loved ones through the dishes that you make. We got in touch with queer folks who have an intimate relationship with cooking to understand how the process has changed their lives and boosted their mental health. While some of them are accomplished food bloggers, others have begun small home businesses so that they can bring joy to more people through their cooking and baking. Read on to find out the many ways cooking can rescue you when you least expect it to!

Sauparnika Sajjan

26-year-old Sauparnika is a home baker extraordinaire. From delectable tarts to sumptuous cupcakes, artistic cakes and fresh bread, Sauparnika does it all. What started as baking for close friends and family for Sauparnika, soon evolved into a deeper passion for baking. She is now an accomplished home baker, successfully delivering delicious goodies across the country. Instagram has helped her find a platform to showcase her talent and has allowed her business to bloom, something she is incredibly grateful for.

What initially drew you to baking?

My mom was a great cook and I used to enjoy trying out new dishes along with her. She passed away when I was a teen and then I got into sports and forgot about cooking completely. In college, I hurt myself and had to be on bedrest for years and that’s when I found my way back to the kitchen and reignited my love for cooking and baking.

How has baking helped with your mental health?

I definitely see it as a way of destressing. I started baking when I was deep in the realms of depression and it gave me a sense of purpose and happiness. It became my glimmer of hope as I struggled with being bedridden and seeing my dreams crash in front of my eyes.

What is your relationship with food and how does baking help you navigate the world in more meaningful ways?

My relationship with food has unfortunately been a rocky one due to body issues. It’s funny that I’m a baker with an eating disorder, but feeding others brings me great joy and helps in feeling connected with my folks and other people who share a love for food. I’ve been able to deepen my bonds with my friends and family as cooking is my way of showing love, and sitting down to eat together and sharing love and lessons has been a great way of forging connections.

Who are your greatest influences?

I don’t think I can name someone in particular as an inspiration but browsing through the plethora of talent on instagram sure gets me driven. Also as I like to travel a lot, going to different places and finding new ingredients and ways of cooking sure helps my creative juices.

Dimple Gulrajani

Most of us are eternally grateful for the life skills we picked up in college. While some of us understandably spent our days getting by on a steady diet of anything we could find, others, like Dimple, discovered their love for cooking. Living in Munich on a student budget encouraged Dimple to experiment in the kitchen. She’s now an accomplished amateur cook who dabbles in a range of new dishes whenever she gets the chance.

What initially drew you to cooking?

Honestly just feeding myself on a student budget. I had to start cooking for myself in my second year of university, and luckily had flatmates and neighbours from different parts of the world who loved to cook together and share recipes. My mum had also equipped me with the very basics of Indian cooking and my very own masala dabba.

What’s your journey been like so far?

I cooked a lot during university, then didn’t get much of a chance after I moved back home. Not complaining about my mum cooking for me though, especially now that I have to feed myself again while also maintaining a full time job and adapting to a new country again. Right now, I’m enjoying experimenting with the staples from the grocery store and also some foods from local markets in different areas of my new city.

How has cooking helped with your mental health?

When I have time and space to cook, I can spend hours doing meal prep for the week with some music in the background. I also love cooking with other people – something I hope to do more after getting vaccinated. It’s de-stressing but it’s also instantly rewarding because you get to eat something amazing if you’ve actually put some thought and effort into what you’re doing. Some days, I need recipes and some days I like to be creative.

What is your relationship with food? Does cooking help you navigate the world around in more meaningful ways?

Cooking has definitely made me think more about local produce in the different places I’ve lived. It was also kind of what made me become vegetarian, I couldn’t even look at the raw meat section in the supermarkets in the UK because the sheer amount was so overwhelming. So, cooking it for myself was out, and then I just started ordering it less frequently from restaurants as well and my taste developed around that choice, I think. One of the things I love about moving to a different place is finding all the good restaurants, so right now I’m enjoying that!

Who is your greatest influence?

My mum is #1 in most categories, including this one.

Brad VanDyke

Brad’s journey with cooking began 7 years ago with a 30-day dietary experiment. Excited to take on a new challenge, Brad began his own Instagram page – ‘A Pinch Of Pride’ – which has transformed into both a creative outlet and platform to represent the LGBTQ+ community. Based in Portland, Oregon, Brad has spent the last seven years mastering the art of cooking and is now successfully running his own food blog and continues to conquer new frontiers in the culinary space.

What initially drew you to cooking/baking?

Several years ago, my partner Jon asked me if I’d be willing to complete a round of Whole30, which is a 30-day dietary experiment that focuses on your relationship with food. I was quite hesitant, but am always up for a challenge so, [I] decided we would try it. To hold myself accountable, I created an Instagram page, known today as A Pinch of Pride.

I wanted to build a space that both served as a creative outlet and to represent the LGBTQ+ community within this Whole30/Paleo niche of the foodie world. Visibility is so important and I wanted this platform to promote education, collaboration and serve as a safe environment for those within the community and their allies. Cooking and learning about new techniques and ingredients popular within other cultures quickly became a passion of mine.

What’s your journey been like so far?

Incredible. Years ago, if you had told me that I’d be creating content for prominent brands, have recipes published in a New York Times Best Selling cookbook and have thousands following along on this wild ride, I would have never believed you. The opportunities that have presented themselves have been so rewarding and fun. All this to say, it has been a lot of work but I look forward to what’s to come. The future is bright!

How has cooking helped with your mental health?

Cooking has definitely eased my mental health, especially this past year. Spending so much time at home, in a studio apartment mind you, has been challenging but cooking has given me a creative outlet to help pass time. One of my accomplishments during quarantine was the launch of my food blog, apinchofpride.com! I spent hours upon hours researching, taking online courses and talking to other food bloggers.

What is your relationship with food? Does cooking help you navigate the world around in more meaningful ways?

I’ve definitely learned a lot about food over the years. I try challenging myself to diversify who I follow online and learn about unfamiliar ingredients or cooking techniques. One thing that I continue to educate myself on is equity within the food industry and how access to food is systematically more difficult to certain groups of people. I consciously try to think about accessibility and affordability when developing recipes and incorporating the use of certain ingredients. 

What are your greatest influences?

I think my greatest influence is my passion for the LGBTQ+ community. Food is something that we all enjoy and I find it a great common denominator in promoting healthy conversation and education around equity and inclusion. Performative allyship, for example, is common among any industry. Companies and brands that slap a rainbow on their product during the month of June, only to tally their gains and move on in July. Being a voice to help challenge the status quo while working or educating these brands has been very rewarding. I think that’s what influences me the most to keep going.

How has social media helped further your ambitions as a chef?

Without it, I would not be where I am today. Social media has given me a ton of exposure and in turn, presented me with so many fun opportunities. (I don’t think I’d be participating in this interview today if it wasn’t for social media.) Furthermore, I’ve been able to connect with so many creative and unique individuals from around the globe – some of whom I talk to on a daily basis. I absolutely love being part of this incredibly passionate and kind community.

Beena Noronha

After working for 15 years in the fashion industry, Beena realised that her true passion had always been cooking. Deciding to make her passion into a full-time profession, Beena quit her job, did a culinary course diploma and is now the proud founder of ‘Makha Pao’ – a restaurant that delivers home style, authentic Mangalorean and Goan food across Bombay. Beena’s unconventional journey into the culinary space is an inspiration to everyone looking for that one sign to pursue the things they truly want to do.

What initially drew you to cooking?

Ever since I was seven, I’ve really enjoyed cooking and eventually [wanted to] become a great cook. But growing up as a girl, I was never encouraged to become a chef. It was assumed that a girl would only cook well for her family. I eventually took up fashion design and pursued it for 15 years. My friends always told me that I was in the wrong profession. I was always aware of the joy I got cooking for other people and I finally realised that this is what I want to do all the time. I quit my job, did a culinary course and worked at a Michelin star restaurant in France for a while and eventually set up my own brand, ‘Makha Pao’ in Bombay.

What has your journey been like?

To be honest, it hasn’t been very easy. The hospitality industry is not very well paid and I earn nearly one-third less than what I did when I was working in fashion. But I decided to do this for my own fulfilment, I’m not chasing money. It was difficult shifting from a traditional 9-5 job to longer hours. But if you’re determined, you can do anything.

Also, there are hardly women in the kitchen in the hospitality industry and I’ve faced [my] share of discrimination and [have] been subject to insensitive remarks because I’m a woman and a queer person. But I’ve found a way to navigate it in the best possible way, so it doesn’t get in the way of my aspirations in the culinary space.

How has cooking helped with your mental health?

Cooking is incredibly satisfying to me. Ever since I was a child, the feeling of being able to create something for someone else that brings them so much joy has been very rewarding to me. I want the people who eat the food I make to be able to have a unique experience, that’s what captivates me and brings me the most satisfaction.

How has cooking helped you navigate the world in more meaningful ways?

Food has taught me so much about people all over the world and their unique cultures. That has been extremely enriching.

Who are your greatest influences?

Chef Atul Kocchar, who was one of the first Indian chefs to receive a Michelin star has been one of my biggest inspirations. I have always admired how humble he’s been and the way he treats the food he creates. Chef Amninder Sandhu is another great influence, she fought against her family to become a chef and her journey really inspired me to pursue my dreams against all odds. Ultimately, I believe we are going to be judged by the courage we have to do the things that we want to do.

 How has social media helped further your ambitions as a chef?

I think social media gives you a lot of visibility. These days, because of the variety of great food pictures available online, people eat with their eyes before their mouths. Great pictures of the food you make creates curiosity and encourages people to try out your brand. It’s a great platform to get people interested and build a customer base over time.

Marvel’s Captain America: A True Masterclass In Queerbaiting

Disclaimer: This essay is highly opinionated, if you’re easily offended by people shipping two fictional characters of the same gender, then skip this one buddy, this isn’t for you.

Steve Rogers and Bucky Barnes do not need any introduction. Even for people with no knowledge of Marvel movies, Captain America and the Winter Soldier are names that we have seen floating around on every fandom website ever; in fact, these two figures are almost always in the top 10 list of most shipped pairs on Tumblr and several fanfiction sites. Portrayed by the hunkiest of hunks, Chris Evans, and the ever so sultry Sebastian Stan, Steve and Bucky’s relationship has been a point of major controversial discourse in the Marvel fandom ever since the first Captain America film dropped in 2011. It’s only increased tenfold after Captain America: The Winter Soldier was released back in 2014.

The quarrel is about whether the super-soldiers are just two lads being dudebro pals together or if there is definite homoerotic tension brewing between the two. Unsurprisingly, the majority of the Captain America fandom is straight men who are seemingly incapable of understanding queercodes, and most likely err on the side of being very homophobic. The other side consists of queer folk and some straight women, who possess the power to understand complex emotions. It goes without saying that I clearly belong to the latter side. And before anyone says, “Oh this is just another one of those UwU girls who loves to ship two guys who are friendly with each other,” or that I “want to do away with toxic masculinity but won’t let male friends be close with each other,” I’m here to confirm that this is not one of those situations. I am viewing this relationship solely under the light of tragic romance tropes as a queer, aspiring writer. Let’s begin.

A very noticeable aspect of every Captain America movie is Steve going out of his way to choose Bucky: be it disobeying direct orders from his Colonel and marching straight to the enemy’s base to rescue Bucky back in WWII, or throwing away his shield – the symbol of his power and everything he stands for – and backing away from a combat for the first time in his life because Bucky was the one he had to fight, or becoming a fugitive and enemy of over 117 countries for Bucky, all the while fighting his Avengers team to protect him. Sure, there were other motives at play, but it’d be remiss to say Bucky wasn’t at the centre of it all. And as for Mr. Brainwashed-Soldier-Turned-Assassin, it took Steve calling out his real name once for him to break away from 70 years’ worth of brainwashing, manipulation and torture. Just a mere, “I’m with you till the end of the line” for the Winter Soldier to remember everything he’d once known. (Needless to say, it is only because of Sebastian Stan’s acting prowess that a neglected and underutilised character came to life the way it did.)

Steve & Bucky’s relationship is reminiscent of Achilles and Patroclus, and even Alexander the Great and Hephaestion – a tale of two tragic lovers separated by the violence of wars and the eventual pain of death. Another commonality between these pairs is the erasure of their queerness by straight, male historians who omitted every bit of intentional homoeroticism from their stories, only to name them ‘best pals <3’. So, straight men now doing the same for Bucky and Steve is par for the course, really. Keep in mind that none of these discussions undermine the pre-existing friendship between them AND the relationship Steve had with Peggy Carter (possible bi icon, anyone?). But saying that it is just that, a friendship, is a very limiting way of perceiving fictional stories.

However, these quarrels did not deter the Steve-Bucky fandom from biting down on their opinions and holding themselves back from expressing their feelings towards the two characters. Actors Chris Evans and Sebastian Stan have only added more fuel to the fire by constantly calling the other’s character their character’s soulmate, implying a few times that it’s a love story wrought with pain (in reference to their arcs in Captain America: Civil War), and that Steve would choose Bucky over everything he’s built over and over again without question. It is evident that even the actors do not shy away from discussing the status of their characters’ relationship. That further indicates that there is a level of queercoding that they perhaps have added themselves, allowing for more nuance in their portrayal and strengthening our belief that Steve and Bucky are definitely more than friends. It’s a relationship so nuanced, it doesn’t require an ‘I love you’ to seal the deal; one may even argue that the dialogue, “I’m with you till the end of the line” is a declaration of love and a vow wrapped together in one heart-wrenching gut punch.

Unfortunately, the conclusion to Marvel’s Infinity Saga, Avengers: Endgame, left Steve-Bucky fans with a sour taste in the mouth. By having Captain America go back in time to live out his life with the woman he knew for a little while (a woman who had already lived her life happily without him and wished for him to move on and be happy as well), the Steve-Bucky endgame came to, at least, a cinematic close. That particular move feels not only like a supremely out of character thing for Steve Rogers to do, but also like a last-minute, scrambling attempt at a ‘no-homo’ cop out to ensure the sanctity of their beloved Captain’s straightness. Many fans of the movie have tried to justify this move by explaining (rather ‘straightsplaining’, if I may say so myself) that Steve’s decision is rooted in self-motivation, and that it is a very nicely tied bow at the end of his arc. It’s him allowing himself the chance to live out his life like he wanted.

My counter argument to this is simple: Steve, a self-sacrificial, moralistic character, continuously made that same decision every time he chose Bucky. His entire arc revolved around either helping, saving or protecting Bucky, and this isn’t even me reading too much into this stuff. That’s literally the whole plot of the Captain America trilogy! Not to mention that Avengers: Endgame was a massive disappointment when it came to actual scriptwriting and execution – finishing off arcs for shock value and hype and completely disregarding the pre-existing storylines. But, that’s a whole different conversation. There is just something extremely insidious about going back in time to marry a woman who lived out her whole life happily, complete with a loving husband and children, AND whose niece you kissed the same year she died a fulfilled, old woman.

But, I guess that’s how straight sells, because why else would they be willing to support this nonsensical way to end one of the most beloved superhero’s story, right?

My point is, that the Steve I’d come to love would never abandon his soulmate when his soulmate had finally and fully come back into his life. Even if you think they’re friends, no friend would work so hard for decades to protect his truest friend – only to skedaddle back to the 40s and leave that friend hopeless and lost. “I’m with you till the end of line, pal. Unless I can go back in time. Then I will leave. And dance with a happily married woman. Haha no homo. Lol okay bye <3”

The question has to be asked, what was the point then? What was the whole point of all the homoerotic subtext if they knew they were going to end Steve and Bucky’s arc in the most ‘no-homo’ bro-i-est way possible?

My guess is, pressure from the higher ups. Disney bought Marvel Studios back in 2009. So, this cop out comes as no shock to us devoted fans, because we’re aware of Disney’s tendency to be “lowkey” homophobic and highkey problematic. We’re fully aware that when it comes to queercoding characters, there’s tonnes of material. But, when it comes to providing enough evidence or dialogue to confirm their sexualities, zilch. Be it the animated movies or be it Marvel, Disney has always had a peculiar way of queerbaiting its audience. A not-so-fun-fact: Taika Waititi and Ryan Coogler, who are amongst Marvel’s first few directors of colour, were made to cut out scenes where they had implied romantic relationships between women in their respective movies. Truly, it does not seem very out of character for Disney executives to make sure that the star of their franchise, Captain freaking America, does not come off as queer. Because God forbid the poster boy for American ideals be anything but straight. They’re okay with borderline incest, but two men in love is where they draw the line. As American as it gets, baby!

People like me never expected anything more than a simple acknowledgment of their love, we never expected Chris and Sebastian to have a full make-out session in their tight, superhero costumes. Even we were painfully aware that they would never allow their Captain and the fierce assassin to be queer. But my question is exactly that; why is it that young queer folk have to settle for mere crumbs in the name of representation? Why are we not allowed to envision a queer Captain America? He’s not even a real person, so why do we expect him and other superheroes to be inherently straight? People who question this binary are mocked and ridiculed with “nOt EvErY pErsOn iN a MoVie Is gOiNg tO bE gaY!!” Yes, but then why are they all straight? Every single time. In every movie or show. “wHaT aBoUt EuPhOrIa AnD MoOnLIgHt?” Beautifully crafted, but that does not mean homophobia in Hollywood is over.

Regardless of how anti-racist these studios seem and claim to be, it took Marvel several years to start producing shows and films that centre around superheroes of different races: Black Panther, Shang-Chi, Ms Marvel, Moon-Knight. Tessa Thompson’s character, Brunhilde (Valkyrie from Thor: Ragnarok) is now canonically bisexual, becoming the first LGBTQ+ character in the MCU, but only after repeated allusions to such by Tessa Thompson. Imagine… this happened only in 2019. It took a film studio as far-reaching and impactful as Marvel Studios 10 years to start caring about race and sexuality. It’s a start, but it is surely not enough. This endeavour does not rectify their past mistakes, but rather only displays their negligence when it comes to dealing with queercoded characters. Marvel needs to buck up and enrich their stories with openly queer characters of diverse backgrounds.

I don’t care what people say, Steve and Bucky are together and in love. This sentiment is Sebastian-Stan-approved.

Making Space For Trans-Mascs To Speak Their Truth

Cover Art by Sai M

Representation is an important part in the process of recognizing the self through another; especially in today’s world, where the state is set on boxing us and silencing the media, representation becomes all the more pertinent not just to find your authentic self, but also in terms of the larger democratic status we don on as a country. Since the trans community, in particular, is often poorly represented in the mainstream, many folx are turning to self-advocacy.

Prithvi Vatsalya

If you’re looking for an authentic, wholesome transmasculine podcast to listen to (and perhaps feel seen?), Transpeak is exactly that. It’s a podcast you can find on SoundCloud that was begun by an effervescent 25-year-old trans-masc from Mumbai, Prithvi Vatsalya. Their podcast is like a refreshing glass of cold water when you find yourself lost in a desolate desert. Although the themes are broad and captivating like trans joy, navigating educational spaces, transitioning, privilege, love and comprehensive sex ed, the conversations are not just edifying, but personal and relatable. For me, the podcast embodied the relief of finding community and kinship within the confining walls that I occupy amidst the second wave of the pandemic.

Thanks to the Ideosync UNESCO Information Fellowship Grant that Prithvi qualified for, this podcast emerged as a media project carried out between Oct 2020 and March 2021. Prithvi’s aim was to mainly spread awareness about the transmasculine community, their struggles, joys, victories and every day experiences which although seemingly insignificant to others, has significant impact on how one views and accepts themselves. Although this is only a scratch on the surface, the podcast provides a very holistic perspective on not just being transmasculine, but also being a trans person from different socio-economic backgrounds.

Since this podcast specifically represents the transmasculine community and their ideas, Prithvi made sure that the production and execution involved only members of the community, “From the music to the cover art to the participants who helped to research and also appearing [as guests] on the podcast itself, everyone was paid thanks to the money from the grant”. They spent a lot of time communicating with various trans-mascs to find out ideas they want to hear, issues they want to bring to focus to, and what they want others to know about them and their experiences. This blossomed into 6 episodes that came to be the first season of Transpeak.

Prithvi speaks both Hindi and English throughout the podcast, an act deserving appreciation because language constitutes a very important part of our identity, our access to knowledge and our journey of selfhood. “Labels can be extremely empowering when we pick them ourselves, but can be dysphoric when we are assigned to them”, says Prithvi. This is why they believe we need to expand our vocabulary (especially that of our native language) to be as inclusive as possible. Words are made up and meanings are assigned, which means they are ever-changing and evolving. Prithvi points out that “Even the argument of they/them pronouns as being grammatically wrong is false, because someone’s discomfort with grammar does not equal the amount of pain and struggle trans persons have to experience [when misgendered]”. And let’s be honest, no one cares about the English grammar when it is taught to us in a school classroom, or when we’re frantically texting people, or when we’re scrambling to meet deadlines, so it shouldn’t bother us when someone makes a conscious effort to disrupt the dominant grammatical syntax to feel accommodated and seen. Prithvi also gives the example of their native tongue, Telugu, to explain that all the words they know are derogatory in some way and there are no empowering words for the trans community (or queer people in general) in Hindi as well. This is why they use the English word ‘transmasculine’ to express their identity, since a lot of people are already familiar with the word and for those who aren’t, Prithvi’s explanation depends on their comfort, safety, the other person’s intention and so on. Smart and sensitive about their own boundaries, Prithvi sure knows how to engage with any person in front of them!

However, this wasn’t always the case. Growing up, traversing their own educational space was not easy. Since the Indian education system is not the most inclusive (and continues in this much-critiqued tradition), Prithvi said that it was hard for them to understand what they were feeling and experiencing in terms of their identity as a kid, which made it hard for people around them to understand as well. Nonetheless, even though their school friends didn’t exactly throw them a pride parade, they were the pillars of support that Prithvi needed to get through school. College, on the other hand, was a very enlightening and liberating experience. Dating, meeting new people from various socio-economic backgrounds, reading and engaging with new texts and having access to an expanded vocabulary helped Prithvi to slowly understand and embrace the confusion within, which led to them slowly socially transition by choosing a new name, coming out to their friends, colleagues and family. This process is fairly recent for the 25-year-old, and they consider their transition as ongoing and potentially a never-ending process in their journey to find their most authentic and content self. They hope to soon medically and legally transition as well, and we can only wish the best for them.

Aryan & Prithvi – Post Recording Episode

Speaking of transitioning, Prithvi also shared their two cents on the Trans Act that came to be in December 2019: “Although [public] activism has now halted due to the Covid crisis, our main focus should be on the members of the trans community to raise funds for trans people from various caste/class backgrounds, supporting organizations like Pinklist India, Nazariya and so on”. For instance, the rule of online registrations is presently being imposed to access vaccinations. In this scenario, we need to acknowledge that it further marginalizes the community as there are people who cannot access formal identification, the internet or a device to register themselves on time, even as they find themselves vulnerable to its spread. Prithvi also pointed out that not having proper documentation might mean that those who have socially transitioned may still have legal documents that contain their dead name and gender assigned at birth which could hinder their access to the vaccine. They emphasized that if you have the privilege to access the internet and a smartphone or a laptop, you should consider registering for someone else as well, since four registrations are possible from the same mobile number.

Prithvi does have plans for another season for the podcast. Personally, I am excited to see if they speak with more gender fluid people, maybe an episode on how to build courage to come out to people, how to deal with the consequences of a negative reaction and the mental health issues and trauma that comes from being trans in a transphobic society.

Prithvi shared that although making this podcast wasn’t an easy process, due to reasons like: a lot of conversations resonated with them personally, some episodes had to be recorded more than once, some people were uncomfortable appearing on the podcast. They said that it was hard to distance themselves at times from the conversations for the sake of professionalism. The team at Gaysi wishes them the strength and ability to produce another season in the coming months.

You can listen to the first season here

‘White Tiger’, Entrepreneurial Chickens And The Stories We Tell of Greatness

Perhaps the most profound scene in White Tiger (2021) is of Balram Halwai (Adarsh Gourav) – the ‘entrepreneur’, the survivor of the ‘rooster coop’ that is indentured servitude in India – setting his arrest warrant aflame. It serves as both exposition and a forceful reminder that Balram believes in one unequivocal truth: that the only way is up, and that he must continue to do what needs to be done to get there. What outwardly seems like a dramatised portrayal of Indian neo-feudalism, corruption and the impacts of increasing globalisation on an “underdeveloped” nation is, strikingly, also a story of the spoils of a certain kind of brutal entrepreneurialism. The Priyanka-Chopra-Jonas-produced movie is a dark ‘rags to riches’ dramedy that viewers are familiar – and perhaps a little too comfortable – with.

Based on Aravind Adiga’s book by the same name, White Tiger is a story about a scrappy underdog who uses his smarts to beat all the odds to come out on the other side, bigger and better. That last part, “bigger and better”, is key – not only to the depiction of Balram’s journey, but also to the narrative the movie attempts to spin about individual prowess.

Driven by the desire to leave his village behind, Balram’s singular focus is to become an indispensable resource to the powerful, land-owning Shah family. Driving for this family is a ticket to somewhere that isn’t the lot Balram was ungraciously handed in life. We watch as he tries to do everything he can to prove himself to employers that see him as nothing but an exploitable convenience – not an entirely incorrect characterisation of how most Indian families understand their household help. But an honest come-up story doesn’t make for good TV, and definitely doesn’t sell the international story of India’s “dark underbelly”. So, we curiously follow, and (are persuaded to) forgive, his ruthless and calculated attempts at getting ahead.

One of these attempts entails Balram threatening to reveal the Muslim identity of the Shah family’s #1 driver if he doesn’t resign, letting Balram move up in his place. This, in addition to when Balram surely sacrifices his entire family when he kills his young master (who, fairly, was willing to throw Balram under the bus for a crime he didn’t commit), makes this writer wonder what we are willing to forgive, turn away from or think justified in the path to success and greater status. Which is not to say that it wasn’t particularly delightful to watch Balram literally stab Ashok Shah (Rajkummar Rao) in the back; that this doesn’t happen as often is perhaps testament to what Balram/Adiga had to say about the ‘rooster coop’ and the violent means and lies we use to keep people in there. It is to say, however, that as much as we are allowed to make up our minds about Balram’s actions, we are also force-fed the narrative that “making it” in the “Third World” comes with undeniable, human collateral damage – all ultimately necessary and worthwhile.

Reveling in Balram’s success leaves a bitter taste in the mouth, especially considering he sacrificed people just like himself in order to accumulate wealth and power. Whether intentionally or not, it’s a story that inevitably celebrates using the master’s own tools and tactics to make one’s own version of the master’s house. It’s not an idea novel to White Tiger; this undergirds the unglamorous but glorified rat-race for basic security and happiness within capitalist society. White Tiger merely does a really good job of reiterating that this is not only the only thing to do, but also the reasonable thing to do if you are poor and possess even a modicum of intellect. It begs us to reckon with multiple questions: what kind of ambitions are “white tigers” allowed to have, especially those from low-income backgrounds? How much does our being “riveted” by the singular pursuit of a certain kind of financial ambition limit the imagination of what anyone, let alone a “white tiger”, can aspire to? What are we willing to forgive or, worse, accept unquestioningly in realising these ambitions? And how do the stories we champion about singular greatness and success impede our ability to answer any of the above?

White Tiger attempts to sell the story that cut-throat entrepreneurialism is the key to getting out of the rooster-coop, when in reality, it further solidifies the material bounds of the coop itself. Stories like this, both on and off screen, get us to focus on the little chicken that dared, and blur out the chickens rotting in a cage with almost no way out. They take the existence of the coop for granted, and often choose not to interrogate how our current socio-economic system both encourages and creates opportunities for more like it to be continually made. The underlying assumption then, both in life and celluloid, is that the smartest chicken (or tiger) knows the coop is here to stay and does all they can to break free and make something of themselves. Anything outside of that is not just uninspiring, but nonsensical.

The egregious analogy would also have us believe that being stuck inside the coop is due to a “lack of rebellion”, chalked down to lethargy and an unthinking “trustworthiness”. It obviously didn’t strike Balram/Adiga that it might have something to do with the dearth of real opportunity and the material, often fatal consequences that come with trying to break free and organising others to do the same. In this almost glamorous way, we’re made to dismiss this basic truth and become enamoured by the ‘rags to riches’ part of the story. It’s the perfect set up to finally sell us on all the ways the Indian entrepreneur has to forge ahead. Unlike the story’s own yin-yang-esque characterisation of the Indian entrepreneur as “straight and crooked… sly and sincere,” it seems as though there really is only one way to be, to succeed. White Tiger is able to convince audiences of this, only because of its not-entirely-inaccurate appraisal of all the forces stacked against the little entrepreneur who could.

We’ve come to enjoy stories like this as an enlightened, privileged audience too. We not only root for him, but feel vindicated when the little guy tricks the man on top. It doesn’t strike us at all that we might actually be the person he’s trying to take down. Stories like White Tiger, in its misplaced sincerity, keep that dissonance alive a little longer. That’s just par for the course with stories about climbing out of the trenches of poverty, that are written by people who have little to no idea what that would actually entail. Case in point: the material influence of caste – a major, if not primary, factor in the maintenance of so many people in poverty in India – is reduced to a throwaway joke about men with “big bellies” and “small bellies”. Perhaps, we must give Chopra-Jonas and Adiga the benefit of the doubt and accept that the spectre of caste is assumed. Regardless, it definitely isn’t alluded to thoughtfully or intelligently. That Adiga himself was “impressed” by the intelligence of the poor people he spoke to goes to show that there’s an absolutely abysmal understanding of the source material itself; any story that then attempts to both entertain and inform is bound to fall into the trap of romanticisation, condescension and plain, old inaccuracy.

It’s not that we shouldn’t make movies like this at all. White Tiger (2021) is, cinematically, quite an enjoyable piece of work. It’s that we should interrogate the formula of the stories we feel the need to put out there about poverty and overcoming adversity in the Global South specifically. Refusing to question the myths we want to be reality, or taking at face-value the sensational narratives we propagate and consume, has real impact on how we perceive in real life the things we watch on-screen. There was seemingly no attempt to do either with White Tiger (2021). What could have been an extremely self-aware movie inevitably becomes one of the tired many we will continue to see about how cunning, grit and the inclination to self-serving entrepreneurialism is what gets you past the butcher waiting at the latch.

These Queer Poets Are Reimagining Resistance In Southeast Asia Through Poetry

Poetry retains the essence of self, who we are, whom we wish to be, what we try to conceal. Even in the most absurd and oppressive realms of our lives, resistance and reclaiming identities remains a spectacle in poetry, while finding new means of articulating the connection to self, culture, and language.

I recall Joyce in these times—”Squeeze us, we are olives”—generating a new poem for the tragic, the wounded, the abandoned, and those left unattended.

Poetry with a voice is everlasting. So, I reached out to 6 young queer poets from Southeast Asia to ask them what poetry meant to them, and how their words mark their resistance.

Performing poetry and exploring intersections of our identities

The distinction between performing and writing poetry is essentially subjective. However, performing poetry awakens words and manifests in the unique voice and tone of their creators. Seeing audiences captivated by the recitation in the flesh is a vibrant affirmation of how poetry works as an exchange between the poet & audience, one of deliverance and expectation.

Among many Singaporeans queerness continues to be taboo. I remember reading an article about the ways in which queerphobia pervades modern-day Singapore, with the country’s Prime Minister calling the demand for Gay Rights as an “uneasy compromise.”

Despite this, Ng Yi-Sheng, a gay man in his early 40s,  seems to have found his niche of ‘performing poetry’ in the city-state since 2003. He paints himself as an attention-loving theatre kid who often performs wearing “coke-bottle specs and school uniform shorts.”

Ng Yi-Sheng is a Singaporean writer, researcher and activist. His books include the short story collection Lion City and the poetry collection last boy (both winners of the Singapore Literature Prize), SQ21, Loud Poems for a Very Obliging Audience and Black Waters, Pink Sands. He tweets and Instagrams at @yishkabob.

According to him, poetry helps reclaim a path of understanding of our own distinctiveness. It is often transitional and tries to establish a balance between the predominant ideologies and the evolving. For instance, Yi-Sheng’s poem “Lan Caihe” refers to a Taoist historical account about a beggar who is a queer icon and an “androgynous [person] singing in the street”, making a modern commentary about gender freedoms in the region. 

Like Sheng, Delhi-based student and performer, Anureet too believes that poetry can help queer individuals “morph into something else” than what is imposed. For them, poetry has become a language to explain their own identity.

Anureet Watta is a poet based in New Delhi. Their works have been published in South Asia Today, the Bombay Review, Esthesia magazine, Marias at Sampaguitas, Ghost Heart Poetry journal and several other platforms. Currently they head the Delhi based artists’ organization, Forbidden Verses. They have recently finished their first collection of poems and hope to get it published someday. IG @alooreet.

Quoting Jeanette Winterson- “Poetry isn’t a hiding place, it’s a finding place,” Anureet highlights that many queer poets, including themself, use their art to flesh out their identities by breaking the barriers of language as well as the normative barriers surrounding their identity in the real world, to weave their own narrative that represents both the real and ideal.

This is in the hope that they can offer encouragement to other queer folx to explore these worlds themselves or better yet, eventually find and make their own.

Play of language in communicating queerness

We are often told that there are myriad rules for writing any sort of literature, but there’s always a way to know them and then bend them deliberately. For instance, then play with the words and overturn what they say. Many non-native English writers tend not to italicize their native words, in the present day. This questioning of language itself is a tool, a weapon for questioning everything as we know it, everything that has been taught. It makes us all reconsider boundaries and what breaking them, especially in poetry, could mean to us communicating our identity.

Singaporean poet and linguistics graduate, Marylyn Tan believes that this is “both a tool of insurrection and of comfort, of familiarity and of potential. The language we use or reject paves the way”.

Marylyn Tan is based in Singapore. She describes herself as a delicious, slutty, large-beasted, queer linguistics graduate, poet, and artist, who has been performing and disappointing since 2014. She is invested in good girls, bad queers, enabling legally-ambiguous hijinks and shenanigans, and alienated, endangered body parts. Her first child, Gaze Back (published by Ethos Books; Lambda Loser), is both bible and shitpost. The same book was nominated for the annual Lambda Literary Awards, a prestigious U.S. grant for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender works. It is nominated in the genre of lesbian poetry category, won by great poets like Adrienne Rich and Audre Lorde. @marylyn.orificial.

Dwelling on how poetry reflects cultural idiosyncrasies while remaining universal in experience, Sanah Ahsan, a Pakistani poet and psychologist says that poetry has given them “a means to constructing and authoring” her own reality. Sanah’s work reflects the various multiplicities of being, while having a marked sense of distinctiveness. It indicates that her own blended identities are a mosaic. Ahsan says “poetry has given me a means constructing and authoring my own reality.”

Like many queer poets of colour, Ahsan’s poems serve as a work of both “imagination and resonance”. Ahsan hopes that her poems offer others a “space for landing as they grapple with the same issues.”

Sanah Ahsan is a Queer, Pakistani Muslim womxn, a HCPC registered clinical psychologist, an award-winning poet and all-round disrupter. Sanah’s psychological practice is rooted in liberation and community psychology, her poetry has been published in several anthologies, and has been featured on Channel 4 and BBC 2. @sanah_ahsan.

A contemporary queer poet’s efforts to write is often inspired by the need to rethink and, sometimes, revisit the vacuum of invisibility that coloured queer women and non-binary individuals are often relegated to. To be intersectional is to explore the blind spots of exclusion in the politics of identity and the spaces that they produce. To strike a line or doodle through the blended maps of culture, religion and queerness often help poets and other word-weavers to navigate the intersectionality of their history and their evolving self.

When Ahsan performs the poetry written by her, she “breathes life into it, [transforming it into] a prayer and creates room for connection”.

Poetry as a means of active resistance

Resistance in queer literature aims to create a new brand of aesthetics and emotional mechanisms that lead to new languages appropriate for the expression of emerging energies of defiance. It is fundamentally opposed as it operates against hegemonic values and status quo systems, while still seeking to build on the shoulders of the old to transform it into something new and needed. It becomes an agent of self-awareness for the culture – if not an agent of transformation – under the strain of time. It marks the early whispers of resistance in society, without announcing its intentions  out loud.

Topaz Winters remarks that poetry is not enough on its own.

Topaz Winters, the pen name of Priyanka Balasubramanian Aiyer, is 21 years old. She was born in the United States and now attends Princeton University. She is the author of three novels, “Heaven or This”, “The sound of heaven before thunder” and “Portrait of My Body as a Crime I’m Still Committing.” Making her the youngest author to be published by Math Paper Press and the youngest Singaporean nominee for the Pushcart Award. @topazwinters.

She highlights the importance of the word-weavers as they inspire and pulley real change into action. Poetry, beyond its beauty, should question our own biases, strive to reform laws. It is, after all, a narrative of our effort to emancipation, without being its sole purpose.

Writing poetry operates not only at the scale of concept or material but also via its form and presentation, that galvanizes the resistance its expresses. That’s probably why the avant-garde remains relevant in protest poetry as well as in other art forms.

Parth Rahatekar makes an effort to process visibility of queerness in performance poetry. They state:“When I say, ‘I am here. I am who you didn’t want to see’, people are confronted with the reality that they’ve tried to ignore.”

Parth is a poet and visual creator from Pune. Their work is almost always stuck in a summer haze by the sea, and explores queerness, cities, and the many ways heartbreak finds its way into all of our lives. “If my poems heal people along the way of my own healing, I’m happy.” @parthrahatekar

Contemporary Indian poetry by people of marginalized genders, dalits, queers and other activists are revolutionary, not only because they raise fresh problems, but that they explore buried and obscured themes of inclusion, societal rights, self-love and sometimes the utter naturality of all sexualities and genders.

As Parth aptly summarized it: “I have always believed that the existence of queerness is transgression…Maybe it is against the cis-heteronormativity and  it’s black and white mundanity or against the romanticizing of the travesty that is the monsoon”.

Sunday: A Queer Short Film On Closeted Desire

Opening with a dark frame and a softened track, Sunday, a short film written and created by Arun Fulara, immediately establishes its central theme. Kamble (played brilliantly by Shrikant Yadav), a middle-aged man, can be seen applying lotion to his face, presumably to feel more presentable in the eyes of his barber and crush, Jaan (Prakash Joshi), to whom he plans to pay a visit. The movie revolves around Kamble’s anticipation for his meeting with Jaan- which the viewer witnesses as Jaantrims Kamble’s beard and massages his face, with every moment slowed down and emphasized. While watching Jaan massage Kamble’s face, one is taken back to the opening scene, where a voice is heard serenading the one they are devoted to to “forever remain in front of my eyes”.

Seemingly insignificant interactions in the short film speak volumes about the queer experience, specifically Kamble’s, with each one wittily adding depth to the viewer’s understanding of this overarching theme. Kamble is welcomed to the barber shop with a private conversation between the young, fellow customer seated next to him and his beloved on the phone. The callous nature with which he is publicly conversing about their intimate relationship contrasts with Kamble’s compulsion to hide his own romantic desires. He is surrounded by displays of apparent heteronormativity, be it the father-son duo playing video games on the shop’s rustic sofa, or his own wife and daughter waiting for him at home.

The film leaves a bittersweet taste in the mouth, perhaps more bitter than sweet. The moments when Kamble’s face is being massaged feel incredibly voyeuristic to watch— almost like peeking into a closeted queer’s subconscious without permission. Though there are no intimacies shared between Kamble and Jaan, the tension in the scene is palpable. LGBTQIA+ viewers may find themselves relating to Kamble’s wishful thinking, as well as the lonely feeling that a world where one’s love is requited could only be imaginary.

The cinematography and lighting deserve praise of their own, especially for the shots of the hustle and bustle in the barber’s shop, as well as for the closing scene. The scenes where Kamble is found alone can be said to depict a formalist kind of filmmaking approach. What Kamble perceives as unimportant, or has distaste for, is intelligently blurred and pushed into the background, while Jaan remains at the forefront of the camera – just like Kamble’s face as he walks away from the barber shop, clear and in focus. This is Fulara’s debut short film and is available to watch at MovieSaints. His upcoming short film, My Mother’s Girlfriend, a story of a romantic relationship colliding with a parental one, is set to release later this year. You can support the film here.

Ajeeb Dastaans Review: Ghaywan’s Geeli Pucchi Is The Anthology’s Saving Grace

Dharmatic’s latest Netflix anthology Ajeeb Daastaans begins with Khaitan’s Majnu which is dull, at best, and painful and problematic, at worst. The short, set in a rigidly patriarchal rural household of a politically-connected family, shows a striking lack of understanding of its own milieu.

Its characters are inconsistent and incomprehensible — simultaneously deeply entrenched in the social mores of the setting (character-establishing opening dialogues such as ‘live as befits the bride/woman of a respectable house’ or ‘I wasn’t asked whether I wanted to get married’ establish expected gender boundaries between man-woman and the patriarchal social-order where the son must obey the father) and flouting those mores, seemingly for laughs (such as the exchange between the titular Majnu’s parents or the bride Lipakshi’s sexual advances towards strangers that are met with no consequences), without any coherency of either narrative or character design — making the film neither an attempt to reimagine a slightly altered world-order whose characters make tradition-defying choices nor a well-researched and rooted commentary on society as it exists.

What we end up with, instead, is a confused haphazard narrative (if one can call it that) that is difficult to place or buy into and one is left wondering why the filmmaker chose a setting whose intricate social arrangements they are clearly unfamiliar with.

To make matters worse, its plot hinges on the reveal that the central patriarch is a gay man whose lover was murdered by the father and who was then forced into this political marriage, thereby explaining his general conduct and his neglect of the wife for all these years and, possibly, providing the basis for justifying his uncharacteristic generosity/kindness towards his wife at the end of the film.

Babloo, the husband, is written as someone who casually dips naked people into boiling vats of oil for transgressing boundaries and making (from what we can see, consensual and reciprocated, although both the film and the husband treat this with a degree of irrelevance, so we can’t be entirely sure) advances towards his wife, beats up his mentor and closest ally on the suspicion that he’s having relations with this wife and is willing to have same wife murdered for now making far-too-many transgressions and yet we’re to believe that he has a change of heart at the very end (softie deep inside?) when he finds out she’s pregnant and he (and she) have been betrayed by the man he (and she) have come to love.

While it is shameful that we’re still using the look-a-gay-person as a plot device in this day and age, it is unsurprising when one realises that it comes from the same director who took a film about caste and remade it by taking caste out of the narrative (read: Sairat turning into the wasted opportunity that is Dhadak) or who featured a “humorous” sequence of the lead character finding himself in a situation where he feared being sexually assaulted (read: the film Badrinath ki Dulhania).

The film serves to re-emphasise the need to situate our storytelling in an actual understanding, and an empathetic one at that, of the contexts in which these narratives evolve, and to re-examine our gaze, especially now amidst the growing trend of the gory drug-and-other-crime-thrillers that are filling up content-streaming platforms.

It’s more of the same in the short that follows — Khilauna, directed by Raj Mehta — with its caricatured depiction of the cunning-and-seductive househelp and the laughably trite ending with the murder of a child by another child where the filmmaker substitutes shock-and-gore for insight or profundity (mildly reminiscent of the Oscar shorts lineup of 2019, almost all of which featured gory child-deaths in order to qualify as sufficiently grave).

Ghaywan’s film Geeli Pucchi catches you off-guard as you emerge, a little disoriented, from the first two films in this anthology, making it a little difficult to comment on it in isolation, with any amount of objectivity or distance, and it stands out particularly starkly in this otherwise abominable line-up.

The film shows us just how much can be done within a limited setup (the majority of the film takes place in a factory) and timeframe (the usual excuse for badly written shorts is that there is little time to do enough context-setting or write sufficiently nuanced characters) when one has a thorough understanding of the characters one writes.

It packs in a nuanced commentary on the institutionalised privileges and oppressions of gender, caste and sexuality, and the ways in which each of these aspects of identity interact and compound each other, one sometimes more prominent than the other — without taking any time “away” from the story, as is sometimes the lament of the people that get critiqued (“we’re just writing stories, not social commentaries”) — simply by writing characters that are not divorced from their social circumstances/ who reflect the experiences of the identities they inhabit and this only makes the narrative richer.

Konkana is not just a woman in love with another woman, but also the Dalit factory worker being denied a promotion on the basis of caste which the woman she has begun to love receives and neither of these circumstances exist in isolation — she must navigate both these experiences that exist simultaneously for her (this is, of course, a simplification of Ghaywan’s much more nuanced narrative, but I put this here just as an example of the terrain and dynamics explored).

The last film in the anthology Kayoze Irani’s Ankahi features an odd, though not uncommon romanticization of disability that leaves one, or at least me, with a bad taste in the mouth. Perhaps I’m doing it injustice in clubbing it with the rest, and perhaps I’m wrong, but I could not get past what seemed to be an oversimplification , and injustice, that resulted because of the use of Manav’s character Kabir as a prop for Shefali’s Natasha, the role he’s made to occupy in the narrative and the nuances he’s disallowed.

“Woh Kya Karlenge?”: Everything Queer Games North East Is And Wants To Be

Ya_All, an NGO based in Imphal, continues to achieve the unimaginable. With the latest edition of Queer Games North East turning out to be a huge success, Sadam Hanjabam – founder of Ya All – speaks to me about expectations, anxieties and achievements of the queer community in Manipur.

Q. What was the motivation behind organising Queer Games for the first time?

We cannot do Pride walks in Manipur. In midst of conversations around religion, AFSPA, human rights and other concerns – queer issues are sidelined. So, we have been using sports. Through sports, we hope people accept our identities.

Holi, in Manipuri we call it Yaohsang, is celebrated for five days. It is one of the biggest festivals in Manipur. In every locality, five days of sports events are celebrated. Games are conducted for boys and girls, men and women.

We, at Ya_All, realised that even during Yaohsang, which is a celebration of colour and sports, queer people do not have the space to be themselves. We are not included. Especially trans persons – who are mocked at. Most queer persons end up not taking part in such games. Even if they take part, they are usually brought in for entertainment purposes.

In March 2018, we organised the first Queer Games in Imphal to show how a whole section of society is left out. There were so many games, and so many people came out to watch it. They were curious. It gave us hope.

Q. What sets this edition of Queer Games apart from previous editions?

This time we received more moral support from local startups and organisations. Earlier, we did not receive that kind of support. We don’t live in a big city where corporates and CSR come out to support our events. This time, many smaller organisations started sharing their resources with us. Some provided uniforms, some provided refreshments. We went to them to discuss our event and they agreed to support us happily. They were very welcoming. Even though resources were limited, this kind of moral support is very encouraging.

Even though the pandemic situation caused a lot of trouble, the players who were interested stayed back and more players started joining in. They felt that this is a safe platform, and is supported by many people hence [it] can be trusted. We are proud we are doing something out of a small state like Manipur, which doesn’t have a lot of visibility or support in terms of LGBTQI+ concerns.

Local clubs were also very supportive of the game. The club that was hosting the ground also offered to support us in every way possible. Last time when we tried to approach another locality to play on their ground, they refused to provide us the ground. They said that, “transgenders ayenge, halla karenge, woh kya karenge?” which was very disheartening. We had to pay money to rent a turf. We had to sensitise them and then they agreed. Even this time, we sensitised everyone on-ground. We told them that a trans woman will open the ceremony and light the torch. Which is a big step, we never see trans persons holding a torch.

This time, many people, startups and organisations started joining and supporting us through different resources like providing uniforms and refreshments, writing articles and it feels like what we’ve been doing for the last 4 years is bearing fruit and this team can do a lot of things.

This time, the U.S Consulate General herself came from Kolkata and inaugurated the event. The Director of CDC was also present. It was a very big thing. People started recognising the importance of our event. It gave everyone something to think about.

Q. What are the various athletic events being featured in this edition? Have they been chosen for a specific reason?

In the first editions, we included track and field and other sports but eventually, we chose football only. In North East India, people love football. We realised that if we have to mainstream our issues, we have to choose something which binds people. In Manipur, every locality has a football ground. We use football to attract people, highlight our concerns and set an example. There are many players who want to play other games but it is difficult for us to organise multi-disciplinary games because of the problem of resources. We might include other games in the next edition. 

Q. What were the biggest challenges in organizing the Queer Games this time around? 

Covid has had very harsh consequences for us. It has been very hard to keep the team intact. In the last one year, we have provided our team with financial support, ration and sanitary kits. We have been supporting them morally and mentally through counselling services.

There were very low expectations from us. People thought we would just kick a ball and call it a day. Even when we went to the local authorities to ask for permission, they didn’t see it as a very important thing even though we got permission at the last hour. We got permission after the game ended! Everyone doubted us. When the event was over, everyone was surprised at our success. People started saying we should do it at a regional level next. In fact, we want other teams to come out. Our time might be the first team but we want other teams to come out and play with us. If we are the only Indian team, it will be a big failure for us.

Q. Do people hesitate in participating?

This time around, players came to us on their own. Earlier, we had to call the players so that they could play. We are providing a platform, right? For them to play. But in the earlier editions, they did not get any time to practice before the game. It was more like, they were also not able to give consistent efforts because of lack of resources and time. In addition, they were doubtful about what this team could achieve.

This time we had training sessions which players attended happily. Earlier only 2-3 players would turn up. Even though there was a break during the peak period of Covid, the players said that they wanted to play and it motivated us even more. They would come to the field at 5-6 AM and play skillfully. We are confident this team is ready to play with any other team. Even the audiences wanted us to start early and waited eagerly. Young trans men played so well that audiences were surprised at the quality of the game.

We are hoping we can represent India in Gay Games 2022 which will happen in Hong Kong. There are no other teams from India. We are really looking forward to it, because we have a complete team now. Everyone is absolutely ready for it. We have one more year to practice. This is something out of our expectations. The players really want to showcase their talent. They want to go outside and play with other teams.

Q. What is the importance of inclusivity in sports?

In Manipur, trans women are very visible. They earn their own by running parlours and doing make-up. Trans men and other queer identities are always invisibilized. We use our event and our platform to visiblize trans men.

We are dealing with a community of people who have been discouraged at every level and not given a platform. Even though some of them are open with their families and friends, they don’t have any support. Everyone always asks “Why don’t you join a women’s team? Why are you asking for a trans women’s team?” There is no recognition in sports. There was a common question we had to face from everyone. The question was why we wanted separate teams for trans persons. They wanted us to register teams according to biology. This isn’t about how we look, this is about who we are and how uncomfortable we are in that body. There are so many issues like sharing changing rooms, dormitories, washrooms which make them uncomfortable and ultimately less productive. There are also cases of sexual harassment which come out. Trans persons are always scared. When they have their own team, they feel so free and can play without inhibitions. When we explain all this, people realise and give us a chance.

Q. How does local media report the event?

I will be very honest, last year we were only reported by only one local newspaper. We didn’t get much coverage. We were covered globally but we still have to fight for the local media to cover us. No one has written a story for us in local papers till now. Last year, one or two papers shabbily published a translation from another paper on the last page. They didn’t reach out to us or interviewed us. Some media houses like The Hindu, Scroll, The Print started doing stories on us. Local media is not interested. Many initiatives get erased because local media isn’t ready to document it. We want them to acknowledge us a little bit more. We have created the first transgender team in Asia and second in the world, we want authorities to respect that. 

Q. Do you expect to see any changes in the attitude of governing bodies towards LGBTQI+ concerns through events like this?

The only thing we can do is that when we have such events, we invite them. None of them have turned up properly. We have tried to invite various authorities but they are still doubtful. We know it isn’t a one-time thing where we play and they attend, but we have been playing for four years. Funny thing is, when we went for registration, they knew about our team because we were in papers, but they didn’t know where and how to include us.

Q. What message do you hope to send out to the sporting world?

The supreme court has acknowledged trans persons as “third gender” – which we aren’t happy with – but it is a welcome move. However,  it is just the beginning. Trans persons need to be included in healthcare, livelihood, education and sports. That is why we started with sports. Let’s talk about inclusion in sports on ground instead of on paper. Why are there no categories for trans persons in sports? Is it because they think that there aren’t many players? Is it because they think we cannot play? That is the question. We need a space of our own in sports too.

Catharsis, Divinity & The Breaking Of Genres: A Conversation With Aish Divine

Photo Credit: Lia Larrea

As someone who is always looking for meaningful conversations, speaking with musician Aish Divine is magical — or, for lack of a better word, divine. Based in New York, the musician and songwriter is enthusiastic, warm, and meditative.

These are also qualities reflected in his music: Aish Divine’s debut album Mother is heavily orchestral, and encapsulates themes of accepting his queerness, and contemplating over his turbulent relationship with his family and motherland. The singer’s newest record, The Sex Issue, is more textured, with electronic influences that flow magically alongside chamber music. The album has a variety of songs: from the heavy Sadness, to the more poppy, danceable BBC, and the retro-inspired title track.

With a background in Hindustani classical music, a BA in composition and a minor in vocals, there is no doubt that Aish Divine knows what he is doing. He has also studied jazz and improv among other things — as a result, his music relies on a variety of sounds from all over the world, and is, in his own words, masaledaar. Experimentation, change, and individuality is important to Aish Divine; he sees his albums as beings of their own, and himself as a parent letting them out into the world. In a world with endless art, there is no doubt that Aish Divine stands out brilliantly, and is an artist who has managed to break through the boundaries of music, and transcend.

Q: You released The Sex Issue late last year. When did you start working on it, and did Covid-19 have an effect on your creativity or working style?

The album came out on December 4th, and the virus did affect it — but I had written the music before Covid hit. The thing that Covid-19 affected was the release date. I wanted to release the album earlier and tour on it, but that wasn’t possible anymore, and we had to push it by six months. I am writing a new album now, though: the sound is very different, and Covid does impact my process. It’s hard not to see other people, but it’s bringing a whole different sound to my music.

Q: I’ve seen a lot of artists experiment more boldly and switch to drastically different styles during Covid. Is that something like what you’re doing?

It’s a different sound, but it being a different sound isn’t because of Covid. If you listen to my first album, for example, it’s all big orchestral strings. The Sex Issue is more electronic. Every album is its own being, its own person — and just as people are individuals, so are albums. So, the third record is a very different sound because it’s an individual of its own.

Q: Even within The Sex Issue, every song has a different energy, and there’s a great variety. Did you have a specific sound in mind while creating the album? Any influences?

I wish I could give you an influence, but I like to think of it more in terms of inspiration, like a spirit that embodies me. The people who inspire me — and who sometimes possess me, if you will — are David Bowie and Nina Simone. Nina Simone is a very real, direct, reflective artist. And David Bowie has fun with whatever he makes. Every record of his had a different sound, a different personality, a different character. My inspiration is to that extent. I really wasn’t thinking of a genre while creating the record — I think that genre is dead. I wasn’t thinking of a certain artist to sound like. I want my work to be free. I don’t want rules around it. But the closing track The Sex Issue sounds like it’s straight out of the 80s. What I get from it, often, is that it sounds like A-ha’s Take On Me. I love that song. I thought about how to make it more contemporary, that’s why it’s so minimal and sparse.

Photo Credit: Joe Martinez Jr

Q: When you create music, does it feel scary to put yourself out there? Or is it a cathartic experience for you to just sort of get it all out?

There’s catharsis any time there’s humans. If not for art, what are we living for? We can all find ways to resolve our basic needs, and every other species on earth does it somehow. But what we can do — the divine, magical gift we have — is to make something so evolved, something so artistic. That’s a gift that needs to be done something with.  So, catharsis is such a personal thing. Any time I make art, there’s something that possesses me, and that’s catharsis. It’s the catharsis that could be talking about an experience that happened to me, or resolving something that is happening to me. The Sex Issue is about that — it’s part autobiographical, part cathartic. And that catharsis is mine. I cannot expect you to feel the same catharsis. In fact, if you do feel catharsis listening to this music, I hope it’s your own catharsis, in your own way, of your own experiences. Although, when I was younger as an artist, I released my first album very, very slowly, because I was so afraid to let go. As a parent of my work, I was afraid to let go of my children. The album — Mother — was very personal. The Sex Issue is a lot more dancey and boppable, it’s got a lot more texture to it. But Mother is a very vulnerable album, it’s heartbreaking, it’s about how my family broke apart. To put that vulnerability out did feeldenuding, like I was naked in front of people. It was difficult. But with the second record, I ran out of fucks to give. I knew there’s going to be angry people, trolls, people who love it — and it’s their choice to feel the way they want to. As I’m growing older, I’m more secure about my work. As you get older and do more work, you start to care less about what others think, how people feel. You just start to care about how you can make that thing you’re creating the most beautiful that will make the listeners feel something.

Q: How do you hope your music makes listeners feel?

That’s a tough question because we’re sentient beings, and we have a different way of processing and creating. Art and technology are things that separate us from a lot of other beings. That doesn’t make us superior. What makes us able to make art is the fact that we can sew or embroider our feelings into what we create. And that, to me, is divine. So, for my art to get to a listener, is just a magical idea. I have made some frequencies, and it is reaching your body through your ears, and it is invoking a certain feeling in you. That is just divine. Sure, there is physics behind it, but isn’t it magical? I want people to feel that magic. I want them to feel blood flowing through their body when they listen to my music. I want art to move, and I wouldn’t go beyond that because our feelings are so personal to us, and my art is a child that I made, but I have let go of it. So anybody can feel any way about it. I respect and appreciate people who love it, critics who may not love some work. I appreciate trolls too, who haven’t even heard the music, but the look of it, the idea of it, is difficult for them. So, I don’t have an expectation. Just as when you raise a child — it’s a very hard thing for a child who was raised with expectations to be someone, or make somebody do something or feel something for themselves. That’s how I feel about music. I don’t have an expectation of how people should feel. All I want for my music to do is make people feel something.

Q: Was your process of creating The Sex Issue different from previous music?

Yes, it was very different. Before I went solo, I was in a band, and it was a different process then. My first solo album Mother is very orchestral, and the process tends to be that you write strings, then you put a beat — the recording process is very different. Strings are a very living, breathing thing, and when you combine them with electronics, it has to sound just right, otherwise it’ll sound very cold. You have to mess with electronics to make them sound warm, and like they’re a part of the music you’re playing live. The writing process was also different because for Mother, I was writing from a place of grief and heartbreak and loss. It was very focused because I was dealing with a lot of depression at the time, and I had to work some stuff out. For The Sex Issue, I would just walk in with a beat and sing phrases to it, and the writing would be done in the studio. That’s why it felt much more immediate. For the first album, I’d been writing at home, and turned my poetry into songs.

Q: I was talking to a friend about this, and the reason that I like The Sex Issue so much is because it’s so vulnerable. And there’s something so special, I think, about queer vulnerability especially — because it takes so long to be at peace with yourself. Do you think your music will connect more with a particular group of people? Do you have a specific audience in mind?

I don’t have a particular audience in mind. Going back to the analogy of children: if I had a queer child, would I expect them to be only in queer circles? No. I’d expect them to go everywhere, and be exactly who they are, and let the world interpret them in whatever way, as long as they’re secure of who they are. I don’t write music thinking “this is for queer people” or “this is for straight people.” I can’t speak for India, but in the US, queer people’s rights have really accelerated beyond even black people, whose rights are still being encroached upon. For queer people, there’s still a long way to go — but it didn’ttake that long for us to become legitimate, and for the public opinion to change in favour of queer people. And that’s because we are intersectional — we are brown, black, white, poor, rich, male, female. Queerness cuts across all sections of society. Being queer is a part of me, but I don’t expect it to be a part of my audience. What I do want to do is kill the line between what is queer music, and what is not queer music. I want to live in a world — and this might sound post-progressive — where we aren’t so concerned and consumed by identity. I don’t want to be listened to because I’m a brown person. That being said, the queer perspective definitely comes through because that’s who I am. I don’t write about a queer perspective, I just write my perspective.

Photo Credit: Jaclyn Gramigna

Q: That’s something that a lot of artists have talked about: not wanting to be pigeonholed into this one section of music or pushed into stereotypes, and only be marketed to one specific type of audience.

What bothers me is it’s when people go “oh, this is a queer artist, this is a brown artist, this is a black artist, and we must have them because we need to be diverse.” It’s like putting an ointment on a problem that’s much deeper. It’s tokenizing. And it vanquishes my identity as an individual. Now, I’m only under layers and layers of blankets of identification. It’s good for some artists because there is a systemic issue in the industry, and once you get a foot in the door, you get to mess with it, and shake it up. And particularly a legion of black artists have done that.

Q: Do you think the industry treats people of colour or queer people differently?

Yes and no. I think anything that happens between two entities is a co-construction. Look at Freddie Mercury — he was never a queer artist, never a brown, Indian artist. I mean, he was fair-skinned so maybe he could pass. But maybe, it’s a function of time. Maybe identity wasn’t such a big deal at that time. So, the expectations on Farrokh Bulsara or Freddie Mercury did not exist. Now, the industry has realised that it’s not diverse and there’s a problem with it. There have been people who’ve shown themselves to be brown, queer, etcetera, but not individuals to cut through and become a part of the main idea. I’ll give you an example. There’s the band The White Stripes, they’re quite big in the rock scene. For my first album Mother, I talked to a record label executive here in New York. I used to live in San Francisco and I flew all the way to New York with my dreamy big eyes, thinking “Maybe I’ll sell this record to somebody.” Little did I know I had walked into one of those offices of, you know — straight white man, looking to make money, no bad intention, he’s just a businessperson. And he’s like, “Do you know who just walked out before you came in? It was Jack White.” And I said, “Wow, I love Jack White!” He said, “Jack White has something special about him. He comes from a family of upholsterers. He knows everything about upholstery. The sofa he’s sitting on — he told me about what kind of layers, what the technique was — see, that’s different about him. What is different about you?” And I just looked at him and I thought: you have no idea, I have travelled across continents, I am an immigrant, I didn’t have the same stepping stones, and my music is nothing like Jack White’s. He is definitely not making orchestral music with electronics. All that went through my head, and I thought okay, I get it. I went back to my studio to my producer who I love. He’s a straight white man from Wisconsin, and I told him about it, and the first thing he said was, “Oh, yeah, Jack White. That’s what we need. Another white man with a guitar.” It didn’t even occur to me that that was going on, and this other white man was able to see it. All these white men with guitars, and they keep coming up. So, there is a problem. These people aren’t bad people, they’re just scared. They’re scared because they don’t think they can sell. Another example would be Beyonce. Beyonce doesn’t do interviews often, and she did an interview and took over the cover of Vogue in around 2018. In her piece, she told Vogue that even now, people tell her “black don’t sell”. If that’s happening to the number one pop star of the world, what do you think is happening to everybody else? So, yes, there is a systemic issue with how people are treated. But I also don’t want to pander to tokenization. I’m not going to ethnify my music. In the first record, there’s zero South Asian influence. In this record, there’s a lot, because internally, I’m reconstituting my identity. I’m trying to figure out what these pieces of my identity are. I’ve been separated from my family for a while, and I haven’t been to India in about 15 years. But I recognise that I’m Indian as I get older. So, my work will be different and as a result it will be treated differently.

Q: Do you ever feel the pressure to represent since there’s so few mainstream Desi artists?

No. Because if I represented Desi, queer, South Asian, brown artists, I’d be doing them a disservice because I’d be erasing who they are. You and I are different people. You represent your brownness in a very different way than I do. And if I were to represent you, then I’m erasing you. Also, the pressure to represent does unnatural things to your work. It’s not real then, it’s a performance. And who can connect with work that is not real? I do feel the need to make room and pave a path. Any opportunity I get, I will help somebody who’s good and underrepresented.

Q: Do you think the industry is changing in an authentic way, or does it still feel like tokenism?

I think it’s just the beginning. First, this problem wasn’t paid attention to because the market was for white people, and there was a whole separate market for black music. There were very segregated markets. As a result, we found very segregated genres like country, rap, hip-hop. What’s killing the genre is pop music. Because pop is a vehicle you can do anything with. Anything can be pop. For example, Lil Nas X and Billy Ray Cyrus — they did a thing, and that’s an example of how, culturally, two different genres integrated and killed the genre, as a result. When genres get killed, the industry starts to see a little shake up and movement. Established markets are being usurped. So, yes, the industry is changing, and now, the people in it are scrambling to figure out what they should do. As millennials, I think — or at least, I personally — don’t care as much about identity. I care about a diverse taste, like my album has so many flavours. I want a landscape. People in my generation and younger want that variety, we seek that variety. So, the establishment is getting a real shakeup, the future market wants different. It’s just the beginning of a much larger change. And I feel very grateful and lucky and proud to be at the forefront at it.

Q: Have you been to India, by the way?

I went to high school in Delhi, and I would go to Bombay sometimes. I think it was the 90s. I found New Delhi to be a bit of a difficult place to be, but Mumbai — the people are incredible, it’s so progressive. It’s a whole different kind, it felt so safe.

Q: What is your relationship with India like?

I have a really interesting relationship with India. I love the land — in Mother, I’m asking the questions: what is motherland, what is homeland? When I was in New Delhi, it was such a cultural shock. People weren’t kind. And when I stepped out of New Delhi and went to the mountains or even Mumbai, people were so incredible. So I have a very conflicted relationship with India. Also, being a kid who was different — I was somebody who had an accent, somebody who was chubby, and hadn’t realised they were gay. I did ‘act queer’, in a way — I was quite creative, I had a very specific sense of how to dress. I just didn’t know how and why that was the case. So, I was bullied a lot, even outside of school. And my family had a really hard time with me being gay. A lot of people would randomly make jokes about queer people in an unkind way. There was also a lot of violence. But, India is still supposed to be the motherland, it’s still supposed to be a gift. So many incredible things came out of India. A lot of history of the world is based around finding India.But I still haven’t found it. So, I have a very conflicted relationship with India.

Photo Credit: Joe Martinez Jr

Q: Your vocals are so powerful, and I was wondering if you had training for music, how you got into it as a career — the whole origin story.

Once music is inside you, it doesn’t leave you. I studied music, I went to college for music. I have a BA in composition, and a minor in voice, which is more rooted in the Graeco-Roman traditions of Western music format. And I studied Hindustani classical music as a child in Bhopal. Do you know Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan? He’s a huge name in the East and the West, in Sufi music — he’s passed away, unfortunately. They come from a gharana, from a school of Sufi Hindustani music. And from the same gharana, there’s another famous act called the Ali Brothers. And I studied with Sukhawat Ali Khan in the States. Then obviously, learning in California — a more progressive place — in Berkeley, I learnt about the gamelan, which is an Indonesian instrument. That was more experimental, on the ethno-musicology side. I also studied jazz and improv, which is more from a blues perspective. So, I’ve studied all these forms and as a result, you get what you get. And what you get is a very different, spicy, delicious, masaledaar product — never a dull moment.

Q: How soon is your next project coming up? Any hints?

I don’t have a date. It’s still in the making, I’m still pregnant, and I don’t know how long the gestation will be. That’s why I’ve sort of taken a step back from being on social media, because I’m in another world right now. The next album thematically is going to be much more surreal. You’re going to see guitar, you’re going to see experimental sounds, you’re going to see surrealism. David Lynch is one of my favourite filmmakers, and he’s absolutely surreal — this show called Twin Peaks, this movie called Mulholland Drive — it’s weird. But he gets his dream sequences into film, and he weaves it into a story. So, the next record is going to be very surreal in that sense.

Q: To conclude, what is your dream collaboration?

My dream collaboration would be with David Bowie. I want David Bowie to be my producer. I will sing, and be in the video. Maison Margiela would be the art director and design the costumes, David Bowie will be the producer, David Lynch would be the director of the film, and my co-writer would be Fiona Apple. My voice coach would be Asha Bhosle. My spiritual coach would be Anohni. My final blessing would be Nina Simone.

Parmesh Shahani’s Queeristan: An Entertaining And Enlightening Peek Into The Indian Corporate And Queerness!

Queeristan by Parmesh Shahani is labeled as a business book, however, it is much more than that. Aptly subtitled ‘LGBTQ Inclusion in the Indian workplace’, it highlights the lags in the Indian corporate with respect to LGTBQ friendly work environments and suggests measures that need to be taken to ensure an inclusive and comfortable workspace for all, irrespective of  gender, class and caste. However, it doesn’t restrict itself to being just a business guide but rather contextualizes the need for the book in line with understanding the historical and social realities of the queer community in India. This is Parmesh Shahani’s second book after Gay Bombay: Globalization, Love and (Be)longing in Contemporary India (2008) and here, he extends on his engagement with the queer community and their realities in the Indian context.

The book, although labeled as a business book, reads like part memoir and part manifesto. Shahani doesn’t throw words and concepts in the air, but rather explains them through real-life experience which makes it more believable and practical. Also, unlike other business books, this book doesn’t employ any technical or theoretical linguistic tone; rather, it is conversational and colloquial in nature. We see the use of many anglicized Hindi words and also references to Bollywood in numerous instances. This makes it different from other business books, and makes it easier and entertaining to read even as it imparts valuable information regarding the creation of safe spaces in the workplace.

In 2018, when the Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code was read down, it was a celebratory moment for many who had been working towards creating an inclusive society. However, winning legal battles does not necessarily translate to social changes, especially in a patriarchal and conservative society like India’s. It requires conceited and intentional measures to create a society which is accessible to all equally, and this book rightfully outlines some of the measures which might help create an inclusive atmosphere, at least in the workplace. It is important to note here, that the workplace is the centre of attention in this book and rightfully so. Much of living and sustenance is based on a good working atmosphere, and the Indian workspace is mostly marred with unequal and biased measures, so creating a balanced atmosphere is of utmost need in the present. This book not only outlines the measures that will help create an inclusive workplace, but also provides us with examples of how the author himself has initiated measures and programs in his own workspace to ensure that everyone can access benefits and a safe working environment equally. Here, Shahani is leading by example – rather than just throwing suggestions in the air.

The first section of Queeristan titled ‘This Book Is Personal’ gives us a peek into why the author started the journey of writing his thoughts about the workspace and queerness, and also provides us insight into his own life as an activist and frontrunner of causes related to queerness. The second section, ‘Being LGBTQ in India – An Overview’, historicizes queerness as it has existed throughout the years in India and also provides readers with information on the legal aspects of homosexuality in India. It further tries to suggest to parents and peers about loving and accepting people irrespective of sexual orientation and gender identification. The third section, titled ‘LGBTQ Inclusion Makes Sense, Whichever Way You Look At It’, attempts to present the multiple benefits of creating an LGBTQ friendly atmosphere in the workplace and also outlines how it creates better productivity and better yield, in addition to being a morally justified step. ‘A Five-Step Guide for Making Your Workplace LGBTQ Inclusive’, the fourth section in the book,  is the most important section, and directly outlines the steps that companies and individuals need to take to make an inclusive and friendly atmosphere for the LGBTQIA+ community. The fifth and conclusive section is titled ‘Queeristan – A Call to Action’ and presents how a queer-inclusive atmosphere yields change and encourages companies to start on the inclusivity journey as soon as possible.

Shahani stresses upon the need to change the system from within to ensure real-life implications for the queer community. Here, he introduces two important topics – Jugaad Resistance and Cultural Acupuncture. Through Jugaad Resistance, Shahani insists that individuals have to be part of the social structure to change it, and cites his own example of how he made changes in the company he has been working at. Through an interesting linguistic play of words, he presents to us ideas which he believes can make real change in society. The word ‘jugaad’ has often been used in the Indian context for ‘innovations at a lower-cost, and add to that a word as heavy as ‘resistance’ and it brings about a significant relevance. He notes that in order to change a system, one has to be a part of it and hence, creating changes from within starts by being part of the system you would want to change. It is interesting to note here that many activists have opposed capitalism as a mode of exploitation; however, they have not suggested any measures to change the same. Shahani, on the other hand, shows us how we can change the exploitative nature of capitalism and use it to our benefit. He further notes the components of Jugaad Resistance, namely, infiltration and cultural acupuncture. By infiltration, he simply means that one needs to infiltrate or intrude into spaces that have historically excluded certain groups or individuals. For example, Shahani mentions how he used the media to further his agenda of inclusivity and thus used a space that has historically erased or misrepresented the community. Similarly, Cultural Acupuncture is a term used solely for the creation of platforms which could take forward the success of Jugaad Resistance. He mentions that he has derived the word ‘cultural acupuncture’ from the Harry Potter alliance and writes how changemakers within the structures have to create and enable spaces that can further create and solidify an inclusive atmosphere. He specifically cites the example of Godrej India Culture Lab, which was created under Shahani’s supervision, to enable a one-of-a-kind space for everything inclusive and forward-looking.

Another aspect that Shahani puts focus on is the need for anti-discrimination policies at companies to ensure better, less volatile working atmospheres. He mentions how LGBTQ+ employees need special care because of their history of marginalization and violence. He cites numerous examples from the company he worked in, Godrej India, to further present the relevance of these policies. He mentions in one instance how senior leaders at Godrej called for inclusion, and how one of his bosses, Nisaba Godrej, invited ‘partners’ of her employees irrespective of gender for an event. He expresses the joy that it made him feel and calls for such little initiatives which could be significant for queer employees. He also mentions the Godrej Gender Affirmation Policy which helps trans people claim up to Rs 500,000 for non-cosmetic surgeries and Rs 60,000 per year for hormone replacement therapy. He mentions how Godrej One headquarters in Mumbai has two all-gender washrooms. He also reiterates how these little feats call for bigger changes and are a wonderful beginning towards an inclusive and safe workplace. Through these examples, he provides the readers with insights into how to make a better environment for anyone working in any company. Here, rather than just suggesting measures, Shahani again cites real-life examples which make sense to and have a lasting impact on the reader.

What I also loved about the book is how Shahani recognizes his privilege (which most of us, especially authors forget to do). In one of the sections titled ‘Some Thoughts on Privilege’, he details the notion of privilege and how the mic needs to be passed down to the marginalized. He calls against hogging of spaces by privileged people, and stresses upon the need to create spaces for the voiceless. He gives examples of his privilege, and tries to justify how he has helped people by training scholars under him through the Godrej India Culture Lab to use the voice that they have. In another section, he mentions the notion of structures within the queer community, and talks of the layered marginalization in view of class, caste, and other groups. He also calls for intersectionality in discourses, especially when dealing with policies, however, ironically, he mentions his audience in binary terms, such as ‘brother and sister’, rather than a more gender-neutral term. However, we can conceive that as an anecdote for the structures of the real world, where gender continues to be seen in binaries despite severe criticism from activists around the world.

Shahani writes with utmost honesty and transparency, and that is evident with how he talks about the corporate world. He is real and unbiased. Despite writing from the corporate world and about the corporate world, he doesn’t shy away from mentioning its ills. One particular instance that many of us have been talking about is how tokenism fails the cause of inclusivity, especially through the promotion of queer visibility only through representation and not through opportunities. Shahani also touches upon this topic and says how companies use tokenism, especially during Pride Month to further their agenda of inclusivity without any real change in policies to make a better workplace for queer individuals.

Apart from writing about the corporate world, he also details the nitty-gritties of the queer community in India. He talks about the notion of chosen family and of abuse within biological family structure. He cites examples of iconic figures of the Indian queer community who have created space for the present to exist. He mentions the journey of Gauri Sawant, a transgender activist, as an anecdote towards inclusion, and mentions how motherhood is behavior rather than a gender expression. Any discussion on queer issues is incomplete without the discussion of familial structure and motherhood, since the community grapples with these issues on an everyday basis. He mentions in one section how Indian queerness is closely tied to the idea of family and community, and how we are not one self, but many selves – each being conditional and contextual, navigating life according to the situations. He also connects the issue of family to a motivation of having a better workplace because family also becomes a space of identity erasure of many Indian queers. Hence, the workplace becomes the space of negotiating identities, and if a company harbours an LGTBQ+ friendly atmosphere, the person might prosper. He heaps praises on the lawyers Menaka and Aditi, who were two among many to have fought the battle of Section 377 until it was read down. He mentions how important the reading down of Section 377 was and cites the example of the first meeting on UN’s Standards of Conduct for Business focused on LGBTQ inclusion in workplace in 2016 where only 10 companies showed up out of the 30 invited and none of them were publicly ready to acknowledge their presence. He notes that a shift in the attitude of the general public happened after the Section 377 verdict. For a similar meeting at Godrej’s A Manifesto for Trans Inclusion in the Indian Workplace, about 300 business leaders came in and were eager to implement the measures. In this ‘business’ book, he is also educating people about pronouns, and provides a powerful anecdote of Goddess Durga to explain the concept of they/them in reference to the Hindi word ‘Aap (??)’. The book is a balanced view of the personal experiences of the author and the political need of the hour. Shahani successfully manages to take the reader through a historical account of queer visibility in India, the efforts made by icons to ensure a present, the present successes and lags that need to be filled and also the ways to make the future better. In a conversational tone, Shahani manages to also hold the attention of the reader and make it an entertaining read through episodes like his endearing love story at Kasish 2016. Although he does the work that the book intended to, which is suggesting measures about making queer-friendly workspace, he also presents a rounded outlook of queer visibility and queer social reality in India. Indian queerness, to him, is circulatory and not something formed out of tension between the global and the local. It is ever-evolving. Shahani also doesn’t shy away from engaging with political intolerance in India and mentions the social, economic and political differences that play out as everyday realities. Shahani’s Queeristan is an important book and not only because it suggests measures for a better future; it gives us an insight into a world (that of Shahani’s and his company, Godrej India) which is inclusive and equal and so, hopeful and promising! It is a must-read odyssey of the Indian corporate and its potential.

That Which is Young Aand Full Of Promise: A Review of ‘Euphoria’

Filled with trippy red and violet lights, catchy pop songs, glistening make-up and very distinct cinematography, ‘Euphoria’ is an atypical teenage drama that captures the problems that today’s young adults grapple with. Its portrayal of issues like drug addiction, self-harm, sexual harassment, homophobia, bullying and online dating is raw — it’s anxiety inducing, discomforting, awkward, and emotionally intense. Which is why it’s a show about teenagers, but not necessarily for teenagers.

It would be a sin to talk about ‘Euphoria’ without praising its cinematography, which is carefully planned  by Marcell Rév, André Chemetoff, Drew Daniels and Adam Newport-Berra. Cinematography becomes the most essential means to drive the ‘emotional realism’ of the show as Marcell Rév puts it. In episode two, when Rue (Zendaya) is asked by her teacher to stand in front of her classmates and talk about her summer, we see how lighting becomes a tool to reveal  her emotional landscape. Two big spotlights are focused on her; it’s almost as if the lights are attacking her, just like the judgements of her classmates.

Sunlight or yellow-orange lights are employed in scenes where Rue and Jules (Hunter Schaefer)  are falling for each other -symbolic of the amount of light and hope they bring in each other’s life. Apart from this, the camera veers away from one setting to another, mimicking the fleetingness of our thoughts. At other times however, when characters are stuck in discomforting situations, the camera is closely fixated on their faces, transferring the unsettling, uncomfortable feeling from characters to viewers.

At the beginning of a new school year, Rue has just come out of rehab and meets Jules who is new to town. Rue is sort of a recluse who doesn’t have many friends because of her addiction. Jules, on the other hand, has a history of hooking up with homophobic men who treat her pathetically. Her being a trans woman is completely normalised in the show; she doesn’t openly talk about it until episode seven where she says, “If I can conquer men, then I can conquer femininity.” The idea of being with men in some ways makes her feel more feminine. When her friend Anna asks her, “Why do you need a guy to make you feel more feminine?” she doesn’t have a direct answer to the question. She is aware that she is seeking validation for her femininity from men, but at this point, she is enslaved by the societal definition of womanhood.

Rue and Jules’ relationship is dear to most fans and rightly so. They meet each other at a point in their lives where they have drifted apart from other people. Rue’s relationship with her family and friends has suffered because of her addiction. Jules comes in Rue’s life like the light at the end of the tunnel — suddenly and full of hope. While Jules is only close to her father and is still making new friends in town, Rue becomes Jules’ safe space. She doesn’t feel judged for being herself in her presence. They have each other’s backs in the way that women often do — they listen, share their darkest secrets, and watch out for each other.

HBO recently released two special episodes from Rue and Jules’ perspectives. Levinson’s own experience as an addict and Zendaya’s personality really shape Rue’s character – which is why she comes as close to reality as a seventeen year old addict can get. In this episode, we see Rue’s vulnerable side and the loopholes in her narrative. She relies too much on Jules to stay sober in the season finale; when Jules leaves town, she relapses and blames. She had essentially replaced the euphoria of  drugs with the euphoria of falling in love, and now she was back to square one.

In Jules’ special episode, the viewers get some insight that  was missing in season one because it was focused on Rue’s story arc. She says, “I feel like I’ve framed my entire womanhood around men, when in reality I am no longer interested in men.” We see her reach a state of self-awareness and acceptance from what she said earlier about conquering femininity. Rue plays a very important part in  bringing this shift from chasing men to realising she is not interested in them anymore. With Rue, she feels that she can be the sincerest version of herself. She believes Rue sees the real Jules who’s hiding under the layers of personalities she has stolen from other people. She doesn’t need to fit into any specific idea of what a woman should be, as she learnt to do with men. Her femininity is something deeper than her outward appearance, it is something personal and even spiritual. The dialogue in this particular episode perfectly captures this newly discovered approach to being: “I think of beautiful things, that are also broad, and deep and thick and I think of something like the ocean. I think I want to be as beautiful as the ocean. Cause the ocean is strong as fuck and feminine as fuck.”

Oscar Wilde once said that “to define is to limit”. Jules provides  us a more liberating alternative for people who find comfort in definitions. Linking her womanhood to something as vast and complex as the ocean, she is refusing the culturally accepted idea of femininity and defining it in her own terms. Gender can be defined limitedly or infinitely, and Jules chooses the infinite definition giving us a new philosophical, spiritual – and most importantly – a personal approach to gender. ‘Euphoria’ pushes us to broaden the boundaries that society has created for us and swim far into the  ocean of possibilities that you can create for yourself.

India’s First Documentary On Queer Sikh Folks: Sab Rab De Bande, A Sorely- Needed Film

Sab Rab De Bande showcases the stories of queer individuals who are proud of their Sikh identity. The documentary begins with a narrative of the roots of Sikhism, tracing its path over time and its current status, globally and in India. After a vibrant introduction to Sikhism, we venture into the core premise – What does Sikhism have to say about being queer?

The 28-minute film dives deep into the lives of five Queer Sikhs living in India. Produced with a budget of 2,000 USD, the money was raised via a crowdfunding campaign that met its goal within 10 days of its launch, said Sukhdeep Singh, the director of the film.

The movie provides a peek at the bigotry that LGBTQ Sikhs face. The voiceover guides us through the unique setting in which each of the subjects discuss their gender identity and sexuality. Interviews of other queer Sikhs discussing their experiences are interspersed as well. The individuals appear alone, we are not introduced to their families but focus just on their thoughts and love for Sikhism. We meet Ritika from Delhi, Amolak from Kanpur, Ekampreet from Haryana, Puneet from Punjab, and Sukhdeep himself, from Kolkata.

One of the topics discussed is the image of the quintessential Sikh man – macho, brave, muscular, long-haired. Such stereotypes are a battle for many LGBT folks to disrupt as the default idea of being a part of the Sikh community.

Sukhdeep added that he had grappled with the issue of not knowing any other Sikh gay man while exploring his sexuality in college or other individuals from the queer community.

As the years progressed, he joined apps like Grindr, where he experienced discrimination even within the LGBTQ community. He got random messages that called him a hypocrite for practicing Sikhism and being gay. This in turn triggered his self-critical anxiety.

Like many Sikh men Sukhdeep embraces his turbaned head and stache, but as metrosexual appearances are considered more in vogue on such apps… it made him doubt himself. However, sharp comments online asking him to cut his hair and not wearing the turban did not stop him from expressing himself.

I believe this indicates how tough it would be for any queer Sikh person to let dynamics of sexuality and religion co-exist. Amolak and Ekampreet’s stories elaborate on this dichotomy of being themselves as well as practicing their religion.

The widely-accepted image of a Sikh man leaves little room for effeminacy. Amolak and Ekampreet challenge the radical conceptions of their faith, garnering hate from their own community. As a gay person, Ekampreet finds this hegemonic notion restrictive because it doesn’t represent or embrace his sexuality.

Describing childhood encounters with his family, he speaks about how any sign of “femininity” was scrutinized. He too encountered religious discrimination when checking for dates on apps. He said, he was welcomed well when men received photographs of him below his face while revealing his turbaned hair and bearded face often turned them off.  

“I think that gay men are especially racist against the Sikh community,” he asserted. But with the right people he feels accepted for who he is, not just for his appearance.

The Sikh community is tough to navigate for its queer women and trans-women as well. Patriarchal traditions often treat daughters as a burden and women are hardly given any agency to live as they want. However, after being engaged to a friend, Puneet realized she wasn’t attracted or drawn to him in anyway. She broke it off and came out as a lesbian years later. Surprisingly, her parents were understanding about it.

Ritika spoke of being “a misfit” and the abuse she endured when her family did not want to embrace her as a trans woman. She was forcibly sent to a drug de-addiction camp for three months where she was sexually and mentally harassed. Her family has disowned her but still expect her to give them their monthly allowance. Despite their actions Ritika has chosen to be humane in her values, which drew her closer to her faith.

Sab Rab De Bande effectively captures the struggle that queer people go through when considering their faiths and religious identity. The lack of clear representation of Sikh queer persons in regional as well as popular media poses the difficulty of feeling included in their community. Even though Sikhism and its teachings state nothing queerphobic, the gatekeepers of the faith often misinterpret absence of it as refutation. 

Albeit, all the queer folks featured in the film are the ones who are proud of their Sikh identity as well as their sexuality… I wonder about Sikhs who feel conflicted about where they stand trying to embrace them both.  I also felt intrigued by the queer women and was curious to know more about their twin challenges of religion as well as systemic patriarchy, and whether they felt included in broader LGBTQ+ spaces.

After learning about their lives, I was eager to understand the beliefs of those held in esteem wjthin the paradigm of Sikhism.

The film captures this through an interview with a Sikh priest who states that homosexuality is an offshoot of other wrongful vices, deriving from lust and selfishness. He goes on to say that marriage is only meant for a man and woman. However, Ekampreet argues against this by pointing out that, in Sikhism, marriage is between souls, and Queer Sikhs are included because “souls are genderless.”

The 5 queer Sikhs featured definitely portray the main idea that the faith accepts and embraces us all. The beauty lies in how all of them have taken refuge in the same faith in its truest form and manifested Sikhism’s main teaching that all are equal, enabling them to be as they are.

Wonder Woman 1984: It Is Good, But It Can Be Better

Wonder Woman 1984 offers an excellent 151 minutes of escapism with a shock of 80s nostalgia and a neon outlook. Patty Jenkins has worked some awesome feminist undertones within the movie, but a peculiar aspect is perhaps the departure from the “the third act epic fight” – typical in almost all superhero movies. Jenkins chooses instead to maintain Diana’s humanness through a monologue about ‘truth’ above any and all elaborate and cohesive action sequences. The prime focus here is Diana’s decision to not indulge in violence.

The movie opens with an athletic race. It sets up the rest of the movie as one involving any way to not devolve into a perfectly enacted action sequence, and, instead, places us on a path to discover the power of “truth”. Truth as a “superpower” isn’t exclusive to the immortal, punch-wielding heroes. It is an inherent and known quality to all of us. And that’s what sets ‘Wonder Woman 1984’ apart from similar movies – it builds on a superpower that resides in all of us, a divergence from ‘masculine superpowers’ of male superheroes. This feminist subversion builds upon the long, feminist struggle against war and violence.

‘Subverting tropes,’ as a concept, makes sense with a woman superhero led franchise. Superhero movies have traditionally catered to a male audience with an emphasis on superbly choreographed action sequences with much flare and destruction. ‘Wonder Woman 1984’ turns that on its head. In one of the first action sequences of the movie, we get an “I hate guns” from Diana, as she gracefully and comically stops a robbery at the mall. She does not fight in a suit designed to cater to fetishism by the male gaze. Instead, she works her way by preventing violence and destruction – protecting everyone from harm, even the bad guys. Violence (and the promise of it) are superhero movie givens, and we have become accustomed to it being used comically as well, like in the ‘Deadpool’ and ‘Thor’ franchises. This attempt to move away from the path of least resistance not only makes Diana seem more of a superhero but more human as well. Personally, it adds more of an adrenaline rush to the action sequences because Diana is trying to do the most with the least disturbance – no easy feat for the conventional superhero who thinks he is a cut above the rest. However, this tweaking of some stereotypes but not others didn’t lead to the smoothest of translations on screen, as we watched ‘Wonder Woman 84’ stumble through quite a bit of it.

The movie doesn’t subvert the idea of the antagonist in even the slightest way. The lowest point of the movie is the very weak character development of its villains, Maxwell Lord and Barbara (also referred to as Cheetah). Lord wants to be a billionaire, and in this pursuit sways further from his family. Barbara, on the other hand, wants to be like Diana – strong, powerful and popular. Their stories are woven around the maxim, “Be careful what you wish for”. They both get what they want, but at the cost of their humaneness. Diana’s story is interwoven within Lord’s and Barbara’s as she wants to be with her lover, Steve – a human tendency portrayed as such. But on screen, this is messy, entirely ridiculous at some points and even harder to keep track of. Soon enough, everyone in the world wants something and they all start getting it one by one and that’s when the chaos sets in, both in the movie and for the movie. Maxwell Lord keeps on accumulating wealth and prestige, and solving problems of world leaders to gain political favours. Barbara becomes like Diana and evolves into a hybrid of human being and cheetah, to become even more powerful than her.

Diana starts losing her power as she gains Steve back. She allows the world to turn to dust to have what she desired. This does break the stereotype that superheroes should be ‘selfless’, reinforcing a human quality of Diana’s but, it is also devoid of logic – as Diana, who tries her best to prevent wreckage, knows of the disastrous consequences better than anyone else. Yet, she consciously chose to look away, even if for a brief time period.

The movie works well by focusing on Diana as a person and exploring her journey in a world that’s changing rapidly. Diana is a human and hence prone to human weaknesses. The emphasis on not using violence makes it superior to conventional superhero movies. However, messy character development for its antagonists and some glaring loopholes render it less effective than it tries to be. In the end, we can look at it for its brilliant message of the power of truth and the feminist themes which mark it so different from all the other movies of the genre. Maxwell Lord’s words ring very true: It is good, but it can be better.

A Rather Critical Review: Secret Cities In “Chippa”

TW: Transphobia

Chippa is occupied with the refusal to give oneself away entirely. Riding pillion with a policeman through the lanes of Park Circus in Kolkata, a young runaway (after whom the movie is named) offhandedly asks whether the cop could read Urdu. The question is posed casually, tight-lipped but with a cavalier hope; the child does not offer any explanations when the policeman replies that he doesn’t.

The Netflix film, which released in June 2020, follows the child through a small part of the city of Kolkata over a single night. Chippa (played by Sunny Pawar) meets various locals and confidently announces his ambitions, while cautiously underplaying the trigger that set him on this journey. Earlier that day, he had received a letter addressed to him from his absentee father. The letter was written in Urdu.

But why shouldn’t he be unceremonious about his quest? Safdar Rahman, the director, remarks in an interview that “Almost every child I know has threatened, at some point of time in their lives, to leave home. Sometimes you pack your suitcase, sometimes you even get as far as the neighbourhood street corner. Chippa is a homage to that spirit.”

In Rahman’s film, the letter is only a vehicle, often providing direction and otherwise treated as an excuse, for Chippa to continue his journey. Chippa had been scolded by his aunt that morning. He had left, stealing into the night with a pinched wallet, with a sense of righteous indignation.

Freedom is represented through many subtleties in the film, and a lot of these escapades depend on Chippa and his imagination. In the lashing rain, Chippa imagines a boat and in his solitude, he sketches the Eiffel Tower behind a classical colonial structure. When Chippa does give himself away, it is evocative: the masterful music of Cyrillede Haes plays, line art moves in over buildings, the focus of the camera shifts to Chippa’s back—walking away. His rough line-sketches animate many episodes, transmuting scenes of danger and inevitable peril into emotional expression and playful excess. Chippa makes the entire city his playground.

But the city too is remarkable; it lets Chippa play. Every fraught episode, every menacing shadow and threatening brawl is rendered innocuous and anti-climactic. The people he meets are not threatening, neither the pot-bellied policeman nor the taxi-driver, not the lashing rain or even the cramped truck. He is treated like a traveller, an equal during the hours that people keep aside for rest and recreation, and Chippa is just the right balance of smart and endearing for him to not be coddled or harmed. The only time Chippa’s fears are not allayed is when it arrives in the form of a myth told to children—the cheledhora or the kidnapper, often signified by a transwoman on the streets of Kolkata. Chippa runs as far as he can, and the camera never brings us back to her voice.

But it is within the mohallas of Park Circus that Chippa is left to his devices, which often is the only safety available to a child. It is this nuanced but harmless portrayal of childhood’s vagaries that makes Chippa such a delightful children’s film.

The film unfolds over the city in the darkness of night, which, as we know, is where we can see stray shapes and shadows in the corners. It may be the end of a workday, or it may be that those whom Chippa meets belong to the dregs of an indifferent society, people who are so invisible that they cannot help but allow Chippa such free rein. A friend, Ankit Prasad, remarked after the end of the film: it is an entirely different economy at night in Rahman’s film, and a different political reality. The city slows as time and kindnesses can be indulged.

Chippa is constantly surprising and surprised, but this illusion falls apart in the morning—the innocuous surprises of nighttime become work-as-usual, full of the indifferent and acceptable realities of a day in a modern Kolkata. A bhajan-chanting shop owner kicks him off the curb, and a mob slaps him around. Chippa is beaten until his nocturnal policeman, himself afraid, rescues him and takes him back to the stall and aunt that he calls home. However, even the briefest light shined on this dangerous reality has spelled controversy for the film, and battle-cries of insult and injury to the Hindu community have abounded in the nation that only recently denied citizenship to the Muslim community. At the same time, every review has celebrated Chippa as an unconventional portrait of the city of Kolkata. Cities are rarely ever the sum of their itineraries, but every yellow light and ambassador taxi has signalled for the cultural critics in Bengal to claim Park Circus as its own, and its inhabitants as their community; something to be placed alongside Feluda and Tagore.

But these claims mask the city that Chippa evokes. The denizens of the city at night belong to a losing economy: struggling corner-stores, a taxi that is all but heritage today, out-of-work marching band members, snail-mail, informal workers and stray animals. It is a city where Urdu is no longer a relevant language but a dangerous one. It is not a nostalgic Kolkata, but a Kolkata that struggles to remain alive in its mohallas. Through Chippa, we have a portrait of survival through exploitation, a changing economy and political oppression. Freedom in Chippa can only be an escape through imagination or wit, it is never change or recognition.

When Chippa finally finds the lone newspaperman who reads Urdu (played by Chandan Roy Sanyal), the danger of all the tight-lipped emotions bubbles under the surface of a mostly monosyllabic conversation. Neither the son nor the father gives anything away to each other. The language too keeps its secrets. Another abandonment lurks in the twisted spiral staircases—another minute and newfound family will be lost. Each step that Chippa takes to learn the trade of the newspaperman is another step back into dawn.

In any case, few escape when morning comes. In a nation like ours, inclusivity through a politics of respectability and art only goes so far. In this, the film lacks the gritty detail despite being committed to its depictions—its political aesthetic is not one of dissensus, but of the impossibility of sustainable community. In this too, it is a good children’s film. It keeps its secrets well.

Marathi Film “Umbartha”, Through The Queer Lens.

Umbartha, directed by Jabbar Patel in 1982, is the first lesbian film of the Marathi industry.

Where depictions of homosexuality are concerned, has Indian cinema come a long way? Personally, I can’t say an assertive yes, but in the last five years, films like ‘Margherita with a Straw’, ‘Aligarh’ and classics like ‘Fire’ have made their mark as reflective films that appeal to viewers with their perspectives and portrayals of the queer community.

Feminists like Wollstonecraft, Dickinson, and Mahashweta Devi often portrayed how patriarchal boundaries hold women back from living simple human experiences. This idea of a boundary is alluded to in the title of the film, which translates to “threshold” or “doorstep” – that here which keeps women from realizing their personhood. 

Umbartha is one such classic that follows the journey of a woman, Sulabha Mahajan (played by Smita Patil), who defies her conservative husband and mother-in-law’s wishes and sets out to build her own identity. In the movie, we watch Sulabha Mahajan take on an extremely unconventional job – the superintendent of a women’s reformatory home. Everything is in a deliberately sorry state of affairs; the story unfolds as she learns that the reformatory space is far from what she had imagined.

The film exposes the reformatory home as yet another golden ladder with missing steps that marginalized women are compelled to place their feet on. Upon her arrival at the home, she learns that the former Superintendent prostituted the young girls at the home to the local MLA, and that many of the committee members were more callous than helpful towards the traumatized women. The committee chides women who have been abused and neglects them as outcasts. To them, the very idea of women being “offered” to stay at the home is the biggest help there is. Patil’s character takes on a critical feminist stance against the reign of capitalist and patriarchal culture at the home. She is the only one who believes that marginalized women don’t live in despair; they live despite.

The film includes a story arc that follows a lesbian relationship. It’s still a major question as to how or why the censor board accepted Umbartha’s release in the early 1980s. The dominant audience of Arthouse cinema was the gentry and the learned middle-class. They were perhaps aware of terminology that suggested queerness and of the existence of queer orientations, but it was socially acceptable and proper to be dismissive of overt homosexual depictions. At the end of the film, director Jabbar Patel managed to introduce the word “lesbian” as mentioned by the protagonist Smita Patil. He said in an interview with Reuters that the ‘trick’ may have been to portray the relationship just like any other. 

The two women involved in the relationship are introduced as two masked moons singing in the sky and exchanging glances in the film’s popular song ‘Chand Matala’. In the following scene, they are disrupted by inmates who sneakily seek them out on the reformatory’s rooftop, where they are found embracing each other. The women threaten the couple and report them to Sulabha and demand that they be removed from the home.

Sulabha’s immediate response is to deny the request to remove them. However, it is made evident to us that Sulabha does not intend to make them stay either, because while she believes homosexuality is ‘natural’, it is only because they too are humans who are suffering an “illness” much like what is faced by the other women in the reformatory home. Perhaps here is the answer to our earlier question: that the relationship passed the Censor board because the relationship – and resultantly queerness – is pathologized as an “illness” that women suffer. This framing of queerness as distinct from heterosexuality but simultaneously likened to “suffering” experienced by women turns it into a plausible, watchable plot-point for the times.

In the Legislative Assembly, their relationship turns into a controversy lapped up by the newspapers. The chairwoman then suggests that the women must be sent to another reformatory, which Sulabha objects and assures that they could be psychiatrically treated. She suggests conversion therapy for the women’s supposed ‘predicament’. While the film has no issue portraying Sulabha’s efforts to employ herself and her standing up against her husband’s infidelity and to the Managing Committee as feminist, her reaction to the element of queerness in the film falls very short of that. As path-breaking as the inclusion of the element of queerness is in a regional film, it does more harm than good for it to be portrayed as just another phenomenon that “afflicts” destitute women.

Patil’s famous monologue highlights that the reformatory home has threads linked to the outside world that can’t be controlled by her. Even if women are safe from harm inside the doorstep of the reformatory, they cannot always fully gain any real personhood because abuse and ostracization insidiously invade this place of refuge. And that applies to their own biases and misgivings as well. To all the other women, the home is a homosocial environment – presumed to be non-sexual. Within the umbartha of the reformatory home, the women feel momentarily displaced from the heterosexual matrix – as if being excused from participating. That suspension might leave room for the relationship between two women that develops, but unfortunately, it does not.

I do not believe the film meant to steal any hope (at least not for Sulabha), but only mirrored a heteronormative society. We cannot dismiss the trauma and abuse queers have faced; we have to navigate these attempts at trying to tell a different story with criticality, but also with consideration to the appropriate context.

Over time the trajectory of queer cinema likens to a forest path clearing up with films depicting queers, unsilenced and claiming. Now, we hold our Elio and Carol dear since we can identify and are intrigued by their strength, questions, philosophies and unfaltering loves. We have stories of hope, stories not set out to fail and we have stories of our own to make. To get here, we had to start somewhere. Although that place wasn’t the most hopeful of seeds, it birthed, through trial and error, some of the most understanding and sensitive of narratives.

Rather Critical Reviews: The Conceit Of Soul

The latest Disney-Pixar release Soul begins with squeaky jazz overlaid on the infamous logo—a voice announcing, ‘Alright! Let’s do something else!’ The scene then changes to indifferent middle schoolers in the classroom of our protagonist, Joe Gardner: a black man, jazz aficionado and music teacher. The novelty of the ‘first Pixar film featuring a black man’ fades as quickly as the self-congratulatory introduction. Of course, you’d expect the film to pivot around jazz and black culture, but it focuses more on death and the afterlife. Neither of its’ focuses deliver anything beyond a few touching moments and the reiteration of a hegemonic mythology: that of the Christian idea of a ‘soul’.

They say those who can’t, teach, but Joe is both a good teacher and a brilliant pianist in New York City. Joe (voiced by Jamie Foxx) plays the piano to inspired gasps, and better late than never, is given an opportunity to be on stage with the celebrated Dorothea Williams and her jazz quartet. It is all he has ever wanted, but predictably (and maybe a little too on the nose), he dies before that can happen.

The main premise of Soul comes to light after Joe’s death. Joe is now rendered an opaque blob-like blue; the film repeating the common trope of depicting marginalized identities as animals or unidentifiable creatures in mainstream animation. Joe is surprised to find himself on an escalator to what resembles an afterlife, known as the ‘Great Beyond’ in the film. This transcendental realm is where most of the film takes place, and where most of the narrative is centered.

There is a great conceit at the heart of the film directed by Pete Docter and Kemp Powers, namely the concept of the soul and its transcending worlds. We never have insight into the Great Beyond or the afterlife, but Joe does take us to the ‘Great Before’, a pastel landscape of glowing infrastructures where souls are randomly assigned a numbered identity, personalities, mentoring, and ‘a spark’ or an ‘earth pass’ before they are born. The conceit of the soul is not new, and nor is its story or the questions it asks of the audience.

Reviews have remarked on the metaphysical concerns and its wide philosophical scope of the film, but the myth the film explores remains shockingly similar to a Christian one—where the essential nature of a person is retained after their death, ascending to higher realms. The soul, the ascent through the escalator, and even the afterlife appear within the theological mould of Christianity.

This is all the more shocking since blobs from other cultures (Inuit, Hindu, Chinese and others) get silently sucked into the electric generator of the glowing ball that is the afterlife. There is no room for an alternative or variant to the Christian myth-making of the soul; any other opportunity to imagine otherwise is absorbed, literally, into the background.

The Christian myth, however, is modernized, but as a Picasso-inspired sketch in the movie remarks, this modernizing is only ‘a rebranding’. The Great Beyond (the afterlife) and the Great Before (where souls are conceived and taught) appear to resemble a corporation or a modern workplace. The location is called a ‘You Seminar’—a pop psychology trick, akin to the games Human Resources personnel play to make workers adapt better to a Protestant work ethic.

The realm of the souls is a corporation where files and accounts accumulate, and personnel conduct, manipulate and program relations in a soothing tone. The modern Christian myth remains unchallenged and furthered by familiar assumptions – made palatable to a younger, hipper audience through gamified tasks, space-age music, and the atmosphere of an informal workplace.

But even the underground and untraversed sections of the Great Before, sections the corporation or the personnel have not (yet) co-opted, seem trite. Joe, a jazz musician is taken to a group of white hipsters to receive their expertise about returning to his body. If Joe’s community and his music had not been side-lined before, these hipsters come in on a ship playing Bob Dylan’s ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’. The periphery of the Great Before is likened to a trip back in time to the 60s, to Woodstock. The directors appear to have forgotten Joe and his influences entirely, as they navigate their white Christian landscape.

Other than a wall of diversity, which contains nameplate stickers of influential and bad mentors in far-flung languages (Hindi, Thai, Japanese, and so on), the Great Beyond is static in its Christian, American centricity. The children’s film is marketed by Disney to a global audience, but the narrative merely tokenizes the rest of the world as stickers. All they do is depict a relatable globalization. And while there are nods to the quantum sciences and non-realist art, the transcendent and omnipresent realms remain stable. It is a comforting metaphysics placed with an easy cartography, not a challenging one.

While the movie is consistent with the metaphors it needs to employ to make this Christian myth relatable, it loses focus when trying to connect art, music and the transitions through the various realms with what’s happening on screen. When Joe runs, he falls through the analogue and into a more digital landscape. The ideas of a historical transition, as Joe traverses the realms of the Great Beyond to the Great Before, are not developed, only remarked upon through meek associations and references. The art in the film attempts to be intricate – in order to depict this movement through the ages – as animation of different forms of music that have changed through the years revealing a too obvious shift from notations to digital manipulations. However, the music itself (by Trent Reznor, of ‘Nine Inch Nails’) does not consider these cultural and technical changes. It is only background noise in the film – a wasted opportunity in a movie where the protagonist is passionate about music.

Joe, in an attempt to make the best of the situation, pretends to be a mentor for unborn souls, sticking on the name-tag of a successful white man to enter an auditorium, and is given a mentee. He meets a young soul for whom he is now responsible; Joe must light a spark within them so they qualify for an earth pass (or birth). ‘22’ is a genderless blob (who Joe questions for sounding like a white woman, voiced by Tina Fey), apathetic and hopeless about all that the earth and birth offers. They have refused to drop to the planet for a long time.

On the other hand, Joe desperately wants a pass and to return to his body to play his career-making gig. After introductions are made and real identities are revealed to each other, the both of them hatch a plan that will work to benefit them both. Joe helps 22, 22 helps Joe—and they decide to go off the uncharted path together.

The film progresses through bounds and leaps; Joe is reincarnated as a cat and 22 ends up in Joe’s body, and they move between Earth and the mysteries of life beyond it. Docter and Kemp are committed to exploring Joe’s relationships, especially the passion for music that keeps these relationships animated. But greater attention is paid to life through 22’s eyes—the young ‘soul’ experiences sensations and colours and discovers how strangely people and trees behave. Predictably after these vivid experiences, 22 realizes that they want to live. They want their life to imitate jazz – enjoying themselves through new and improved means. 

The irony of the genderless blob learning to appreciate the “wonders of life” through Joe’s experiences might get lost in all the mixed metaphors. The conclusion seems even somewhat insensitive when you think about what Joe, a black man, has gone through – denied opportunities as he struggles to even make a working class living – beyond experiencing sensations and the peculiaritiy of trees. It almost insinuates that Joe was never grateful for any of that and pits the perspectives of these souls against each other.

The only redeeming factor of Soul has to be its critique of pedagogy and the ‘self-help/productivity’ ideology. Much in the way that Joy’s character in Inside Out critiqued ‘toxic positivity’ as harmful to an individual, the apathetic character of 22 lightly critiques their own position within the Great Before, and the way it resembles institutions such as schools and families. In the Great Before, unborn souls are numbered personas who are given personalities (‘aloof’, ‘playful’, etc.) at random. They are then, equally at random, assigned an influential mentor (Dalai Lama, Jack Kirby, Michael Jordan, etc.) to help them find a ‘spark’. They lack nothing to be inspired by, and despite the resources at hand, their emotional and social needs are not met. They are profiled and boxed, and their capacity to play is not explored. Similarly, Joe’s single-minded passion for jazz and a career playing jazz, is not a determinant of his own well-being. As the film unfolds, we find that he already possesses a robust community and a vibrant life as a good teacher, son and neighbour.

This critique, however, is not a systemic contention and the attempt is lost in a jumble of metaphors. Joe’s position and circumstances are never quite taken into account, and neither does 22 go beyond their individual experiences with the Great Before. The film remains steadfastly anchored to Soul’s climactic happy end, leaving this implicit critique behind. 

There’s art – and enough to appreciate about Soul, and the life it demands from the Earth – from the pizza rat to the lollipop and Joe’s community – but it ultimately lacks coherence and the resolve to be anything but a stickler for familiar tropes and convenient fictions.

Aadat: A Portrayal of Sexual Awakening In A Conservative, Religious State

Aadat, in the makers’ own words, follows the story of ‘a teenager who dares to hire a male sex worker to explore his sexual orientation in an Islamic state’. However, rather than being just a story about sexual awakening, it also navigates through the convoluted politics of identity, class and their relationships to the state. Writer-director Iqran Rasheed presents a world to us that is grim and secretive but familiar and relatable. The description of the short film mentions ‘daring’ and ‘Islamic state’ – apart from the general sexual awakening arc of the story – and these two points become important takeaways for the audience after they have seen the film.

Kashif, played by Ibrahim Ali Alavi, is a teenager eager to explore and realize his sexuality. He calls a male sex worker, played by Rahil Siddiqui, that he meets at a park and fixes a meeting with him. While on his way to meet the man, we see Kashif changing clothes, as if attempting to embody a different persona for the purpose of this meeting. We are given the context of what is to take place from the beginning as they rent a room at a hotel for a few hours. Kashif is there to have sex with the man and, in process, understand his sexuality better. But what happens during their time together is where desire and vulnerability really reveal themselves. The 13-minute short film is available on YouTube, and is a must-watch for the sheer braveness with which it tells a very intimate story.

Rasheed deserves applause for making such a bold film, considering the social and political implications in Pakistan. It is still illegal to be queer in Pakistan, and to have made such a film about queer sexual awakening deserves appreciation. Legally, the Pakistan Penal Code, 1860 holds severe punishment for ‘unnatural acts’ – similar to Sec 377 in India, which was repealed in 2018. To make things worse, the Hudood Ordinances enacted in 1977 enables the state to either punish same-sex relationships in a legal way or in an Islamic way which involves (but is not restricted to) 100 lashes or death by stoning. The fact that the film’s description mentions ‘Islamic State’ is important, because other than being outright courageous, the circumstances and realities are very particular in a religious state, and the film addresses that as such.  It is a matter of strength and determination towards realising and determining one’s sexuality, taking into cognisance all the risks involved. Exploring one’s sexuality in a nation-state like the one mentioned would take a lot of guts and daring – let alone making a film about it. The film makes an important political and social statement even through its chosen medium.

The title ‘Aadat’ also requires some attention. ‘Aadat’ or ‘habit’ is how all the characters define their sexual preference throughout the film – not only the two lead characters, but also the policemen who harp on the fact that it is a “habit”, and a bad one at that. It reflects the reality of how sexuality is presumed as is and as ‘choice’ in mainstream society, and how ‘sexual preference’ is always tagged as something one acquires rather than is born with. The relevance of the title is powerfully portrayed throughout the film and makes for a thoughtful motif.

The film also deftly reveals the hypocrisy of society. The hotel receptionist doesn’t bat an eyelid despite being entirely aware of why two men might want to get a room together. The receptionist goes so far as to say that he won’t make an entry into the official directory and asks them to leave promptly after. He knows what is going to happen, and takes advantage of the opportunity to earn money for his discretion. It is a very direct reference to how society frowns upon these ‘acts’ and calls them ‘unnatural’, while capitalizing off of its illicitness. The sheer irony of how a society conducts itself is a bag of worms no one is willing to deal with.

Another important aspect is the depiction of state violence, and much like Onir’s I Am and Zoya Akhtar-Reema Kagti’s Made In Heaven, it is through the portrayal of the police machinery. The film is kept open ended, but we are well aware of what happens in such situations when the police discover two men presumably acting upon their ‘bad habits’. Here, at this particular face-off between the state and queerness, we see how class comes into play, as most of the violence is directed upon the sex worker. The fact that queerness is not the only marker for violence is clearly presented through the climactic sequence of the film.

The film is not so grim that it leaves no room for tenderness in its portrayal of same-sex desires. When Kashif arrives to do the ‘act’, rather than actually going about it, he hugs the sex worker and tries to find comfort in him, betraying the true anxiety and nervousness one faces when coming to terms with one’s sexuality. Alavi as the student Kashif portrays this innocence beautifully, with a certain sense of vulnerability throughout. Siddiqui as the sex worker exudes confidence, and offers a transactionary stoicism to the act. His portrayal is raw and unabashed. In one of the scenes, he comes right out and explains that condoms can’t protect one from diseases and if one just washes their private area well with soap then no disease can affect them. His character also presents to Kashif why someone would resort to sex work (especially male-to-male sex work) in a country like Pakistan. He explains that he has been doing the work

Rasheed has masterfully directed the short film, incorporating different elements of society’s apparent but obviously strained relationship with queerness while telling a story of sexual awakening. He has skillfully presented the ground reality of society and has presented scenarios that make us feel present in the physical space in which the story unfolds. From the locations to the people, everything feels real and accessible. His writing – especially of dialogue – is not laden with metaphors or symbolism, but is powerful in its simplicity and its ability to lay threadbare what the individual and society truly are. ‘Aadat’ is a film that portrays reality without censoring or sugar-coating it, and presents to us a world that we live in without realizing our part in it.

You can watch the film here:

Film Review: ‘OUT’ Is Magical In More Ways Than One

“Mom, Dad, I’m…This is my boyfriend, Manuel”, practices Greg, Disney Pixar’s first queer protagonist, in front of his dog, while holding up a picture of himself with his boyfriend. Aptly titled, Out is one of the nine short animated films released by the production house in 2020 via Disney+Hotstar, their streaming platform. I found it to be a heartwarming one, as were Float and Pearl.

Disney+ Hotstar is not the streaming service that comes to mind when I think of inclusive content. Earlier this year, the OTT platform went ahead and released Laxmii, an Akshay Kumar-starrer, despite being widely panned as transphobic by the community. In sharp contrast, Disney’s Pixar is being celebrated internationally for finally sharing the centre stage with the queer community. As an Indian viewer, this dichotomy did make me question whether the company is interpreting its cultural and social stances differently in India than it is abroad.

Out, which was created and intended for international release, is as aesthetically appealing as it is heartwarming. There is nostalgia in its style of animation, with every frame making one feel as if they are looking at a canvas painting gifted years ago by an old lover. This is fitting considering that the narrative evokes the feel of reminiscing old memories on a rainy afternoon with a warm cup of tea in one’s hand. Told from the perspective of a magical cat and dog, Out is the story of Greg, who is about to move to the city with his new family – his adorable dog and loving boyfriend. However, he is not out to his parents yet and has apprehensions about how they might react to this news. While Manuel and Greg pack, Greg’s parents unexpectedly turn up at the door to help him move, causing him to panic even as Manuel urges him to give ‘the conversation’ a go.

Perhaps the best part of the film is the very good boy that is Greg’s dog, Jim. There is something adorable about the way the movie embraces his naughtiness as well as lovability, especially when he tries to help an anxious Greg breathe while he tries to prevent his parents from finding out about his boyfriend. There are also some laugh-out-loud moments featuring Greg’s dad who has settled himself in his backyard. Nothing comes close, however, to the heart-to-heart conversation between Greg and his mother. From the moment that woman comes through the door with food for her son, you know she means business when it comes to being there for him – and spoiler alert – this story has a happy ending.

Written and directed by Steven Hunter, the film is beautiful in the way it represents a duality in its interpretation of magic. On the one hand, there is a literal magical occurrence that adds hilarity and a touch of otherworldliness to the story. On the other, we get a glimpse at the magic of love and acceptance that melts the heart and makes everything softer about the world that we live in. What is also really interesting is that the literal magic is used not to provide a resolution, but to push the plot forward. The ending remains dependent on the humanity of the characters and their real ability to understand and be there for each other. Being just nine minutes long, the film leaves you wishing you had more time with them.

“We Are Never Meeting In Real Life.: Essays” By Samantha Irby Will Make You Laugh, Relate, And Feel The Warmth Of Recognition In Your Chest.

Whether or not you follow Samantha Irby’s hilarious blog ‘Bitches Gotta Eat’, it’s very easy to assume that a collection of twenty essays from the author will more or less be an extension of the same kind of writing. What Irby instead offers the readers is a heartfelt and humorous book, We Are Never Meeting in Real Life.: Essays that convinces you by the last page that you’re both close enough to be best friends now.

Beginning with a fake application for the reality show The Bachelorette, Irby actually goes on to tackle what would otherwise be considered heart breaking issues like being there for the euthanization of too many pets and losing both parents at a young age. In Irby’s hands, however, these moments are stringed together with a series of poop jokes and honest reflections that make you laugh, relate, and feel the warmth of recognition in your chest.

Do not be fooled though- Irby’s magic is not a result of her sugarcoating her words. Her perspective of the world as a black, queer, plus-sized woman who grew up in poverty is what makes the narrative honest and raw. She dedicates an entire piece to her inability to save money because she never had any to begin with while growing up. Her magic, instead, is actually in her ability to write in such a conversational and funny tone that it feels like your friend is sitting on the sofa next to you with a glass of wine in her hand and ranting. There are set-ups and punchlines for sure- but more importantly, there is an intimacy that Irby builds with the reader.

What you learn really quickly though, is that the character that Irby builds for herself in the essays is that of a complainer. With essay titles like ‘I’m in Love and It’s Boring’ and ‘Feelings are a Mistake’, it becomes really easy to wonder if she’s a cynic. It only takes a moment of actually seeing the content under those titles to realize that all her complaints are surface-level running commentaries of the first thought that comes to people’s minds when being mildly inconvenienced, and not rants or complaints about the actual huge struggles that she has had to overcome. It is this bridge between Irby the Author and Irby the Character that makes the book more than a comedy monologue as it is reading between the lines that tells you the whole story.

It seems like no topic is off-limits, including the first time Irby had sex with her wife. She lets you follow her stream of consciousness as she tries to not only remember all the erogenous zones on her own body, but also tips and tricks from glossy magazines. The mixture of novelty and overwhelming dopamine makes that essay one of the best ones in the book, because it is also technically the first time Irby has had sex with any woman. Before that, the reader has been on the journey of heartbreaks and man-children that Irby has had to deal with, and one almost cheers out loud to see her happy.

Another thing that stands out is Irby’s relationship with her cat, who she claims to merely tolerate because she wasn’t given a choice but to bring her home. Any reader with or without a cat will surely love and understand the underlying affection in their dynamic. Cats are obviously important enough to the author for one to feature on the cover. And with good reason, because throughout the essays, we get to follow her pet’s life from before adoption to the moment they had to say goodbye.

Most importantly though, it’s a book about a woman that absolutely hates going out and loves staying alone, inside, on purpose so that she can watch trashy reality shows and eat the snacks she loves. This is what makes it the perfect lockdown read. Even though in today’s case we’re all stuck inside out of necessity, Irby’s essays are an excellent reminder of how those of us that have roofs, internet connections, and warm food, are actually the privileged ones.

‘Loving’ Reasserts That Queerness Has Always Existed, Amiss From Our Hetero-Normative Gaze!

Credit: Courtesy Nini-Treadwell Collection/5 Continents Editions

It is said that images have the strength to explain something that words can’t, and if that is to be believed then the importance of gaze intensifies. The audience’s gaze on an image determines the ways of looking and deciphering of that image. This gaze also determines the things that we miss out on. We oftentimes bypass the presence of queerness in everyday reality, and that is why perhaps two men holding hands on the roads of Delhi isn’t something out of the ordinary. It is a way of showing affection to a friend, but when it comes to the West, holding hands or physical proximity between male friends hasn’t really been a cultural thing. These littlest of queer moments in the history have been compiled and served to us in the photography collection Loving: A Photographic History of Men in Love 1850s-1950s’ by Hugh Nini and Neal Treadwell. The book reiterates the presence of queerness in the human history, while also showing how our perspective and gaze has always been too hetero-normative to recognize these little moments of queerness. An exhaustive collection covering the period of 100 years, ‘Loving’ tries to demystify the notion of queerness as an import and shows with photographic examples the presence of queer love and desire between men from the 1850s to the 1950s. It carries over 2,800 photos, sometimes professional portraits and some others personal and private moments captured, in what seems to be an urge to memorialize these relationships which were unspoken of in the public sphere during that period.

The authors spent two decades to collect and compile all these photos of men which remained unpublished till now. In the collection’s foreword, the authors explain how they stumbled upon a photo of two men from the 1920s in an antique shop in Dallas. They write, “These two men, in front of a house, were embracing and looking at one another in a way that only two people in love would do… The open expression of the love that they shared also revealed a moment of determination. Taking such a photo, during a time when they would have been less understood than they would today, was not without risk”. They found photos in the most unexpected of places like in shoe boxes, flea markets and also in estate sales, online auctions etc. Oftentimes, when collections like these appear, they seem to focus only on the West and delightfully ignore other parts of the world. However, this collection cares to bring in some diversity and covers a plethora of region as the authors spoke about in one of their interviews: “It has photos from all the continents except for Africa and Antarctica”. It includes images from countries like Japan, the UK, the USA, Bulgaria, Canada, and Latvia among others.

It is a diverse collection when we see it from the perspective of relationships as well, sometimes the boundaries thinly drawn and some others times in brazen gutsiness like the one where two men hold a preprinted sign that reads: “Not Married But Willing to Be”. The fluid representation of love, desire and intimacy enables the collection to expand upon the moments of desires in queer spaces and representations. While images of homosociality have been common in the vintage collections of photographs, the authors here stress that they have avoided any kind of instance of homosociality. They note that in order to determine that the image is representation of romantic love; they focused on the eyes of these men and in a rhetorical sense proclaim that two people in love have an “unmistakable look” which they cannot hide. In that sense, the curatorial efforts of the authors are based on both presumptions as well as general universal notions of how people are supposed to act in love. Putting that aside, the photos have other diverse elements including the curatorial effort of covering men from different backgrounds from working class individuals to aristocrats, military personnel to farmers, and more, giving us a rounded outlook of the society, in general, during those times.

These photos also challenge boundaries, for example, the authors have made an effort to include biracial couples into the collection, in addition to how it has covered numerous countries presenting a more rounded outlook. It presents us with intimate desires of men, who were living in a time when desires between people of the same gender was frowned upon and strictly prohibited. These unspoken desires that were played in closed rooms, barracks and hostels were somewhat meekly peeking into the tiniest of gestures in the images. It could be both the men holding hands, or just putting their arms around each other, not explicitly giving way to queer portrayal of desires, but somewhere symbolically providing an outlet to their love. The fact that love is universal and that we share this feeling irrespective of our gender, orientation, caste, creed, colour etc comes to the fore when we see these images. ‘Loving’ speaks to our universal desire for love and longing, but does so with photos of men loving each other when love between them was prohibited.

An interesting way to look at the collection is how it also captures the intricacies of the war period, since it covers the time between the Civil War, World War and other important world events. In an interview with the BBC, the authors mention an interesting anecdote, where they talk about how two soldiers who were fighting during the World War in Germany took pictures of themselves during and after the war ended. The authors note how the first few images they found of the couple were ‘tame’ in the way that they were standing next to each other and posing like friends do. They reiterate that there is one image in particular, from a time after these images, where they are both posing in a meadow with rings on their wedding fingers and in close proximity. The authors note that this is the moment they realized that their suspect of these two friends being more than friends was right and they started looking more into the body language and eye gestures of these men in the photos.

When archival images resurface in the present times, it reflects so much about the times that it belongs to. Similarly, this collection traces the changing social norms, the styles, behavior, and fashion among other things and in that sense it is of an anthropological importance as well. It also traces the journey of photography as it changed throughout the decades. It presents us with a slice of life from the bygone times, and contextualizes how it must have been to live in a time when queerness was not even a concept in itself. People were living queerly even before the inception of the etymological concept of queerness which came in late 1900s.

The collection is an important milestone in the history of photographic collections of queerness as it not only asserts how queerness has always been part of our lives, but also presents an antithesis to the rising monolithic sense of heteronormativity, closely linked to the political changes in the world. It paves the way for the future generations to base their politics upon the fact that queerness is not an import; it is essentially human, existing since time immemorial in crevices of friendships and unnamed relationships owing to societal perception of same-sex bonding. It shifts the gaze from heteronormativity and brings queerness into the history of photographic journey. It is aesthetically pleasing and intellectually stimulating to see images of men in love with each other and expressions of love in a time when ‘love’ was only socially sanctioned between opposite genders. It empowers the gazing audience with the brazen brevity of the men who loved against all odds and memorialized their moments that we witness today. Nini and Treadwell, rightly note, “The subjects of our photos, with the release of LOVING, will publicly narrate their own lives for the first time in history. And far from being ostracized or condemned, they will be celebrated and loved. And the love that they shared will inspire others, as they have us. Love does not have a sexual orientation. Love is universal.”

About the Authors: Hugh Nini and Neal Treadwell are art professionals currently living in New York City.

References:

https://loeildelaphotographie.com/en/hugh-nini-neal-treadwell-loving-a-photographic-history-of-men-in-love-1850s-1950s-dv/

https://www.buzzsprout.com/1020073/6769723-hugh-nini-and-neal-treadwell-loving-a-photographic-history-of-men-in-love-1850s-1950s

https://www.washingtonpost.com/photography/2020/09/28/loving-a-photographic-history-of-men-in-love/

https://www.bbc.com/reel/playlist/through-the-lens?vpid=p08z30tt&ocid=ww.social.link.email

https://thequeerreview.com/2020/11/01/exclusive-interview-hugh-nini-neal-treadwell-loving-a-photographic-history-of-men-in-love/

The Blues Of Lost Love

A home is a space that is meant to signify love, warmth, comfort, and inclusivity. In spite of our tendency to involve ourselves in social spaces and function as social beings, the idea of a home offers a sense of safety, a space to go back to when the outside world becomes too much to handle. Along with the physical space of a home, also comes the intimacy of sharing our lives with a group of people, whom we refer to as a family. Growing up, hardly anything can be hidden in such an intimate space. The ugly, the mundane, all the little joys and the angry lashes- everything is out in the open.

How, then, does one navigate through their queer identity when the home- a microcosm of the outside world – eventually becomes a space to escape from? Are our private affairs exclusive to our homes and the people living in them, or do societal traditions and norms, invade and intrude upon the intimacies of our everyday life, especially in a country like India where one’s cultural identity is so intricately woven with other multiple identities?

These questions have been explored more than a decade ago in Sachin Kundalkar’s debut novel, Cobalt Blue, which is set in the backdrop of a traditional Marathi household that sees the love, loss, and growth of a brother, Tanay, and sister, Anuja, who fall in love with the same man. Translated in English by Jerry Pinto, Kundalkar’s novel begins as a long monologue from the point of view of Tanay and, eventually shifts to a diary entry written by Anuja. What is groundbreaking in Kundalkar’s novel is that having written in Marathi, in 2006 for a regional audience, Cobalt Blue not only begins with the narrative of a queer person but also explores his sexuality without any hesitation. Kundalkar doesn’t hold back when he describes Tanay’s sexual desires and experiences. He describes the intimacy shared between Tanay and the unnamed tenant that the former falls in love with, with a delicacy and the excitement that comes with the experience of first love.

But what shapes Cobalt Blue into this cathartic experience of purging through loss, is the way Kundalkar has weaved the stories of two individuals into a shared but dual experience of pain and the processing of such pain, while existing, surviving, and functioning from the same space of their household and family. In falling in love with the same person, a mysterious, elusive, and unnamed tenant of their house, Anuja and Tanay together experience the excitement of first love. They go through the insecurities, the vulnerabilities, and the feeling of holding, and wanting to be held by, the person they love. They also share the heartbreak that strikes them when he suddenly vanishes from their life, first from Tanay’s and then Anuja’s, without any warning, without even a hint of his intention to leave. Finally, the siblings also experience the process of moving on, not only from this heartbreak but also from the lack of closure that the two undergo.

While both of them go through similar experiences, there is a stark difference in how the two get to deal with them and how their family and society responds to them. Anuja, the outspoken and the bold one, doesn’t escape societal scrutiny. She is judged for having run away with their tenant and when she returns, there is a lot of hostility with which she is met from her family. But Anuja does get to talk about what went down with her. Not only is her family aware of it, but her aunt also gets involved. She is sent away to the latter’s house, for a change of scene, and is also sent to a psychiatrist to heal from this painful experience. So Anuja’s life is out in the open. It is available for the outside world to intrude upon, even for us readers. Her diary, a written word, makes her narrative and the proclamation of her lost love, a public one.

Tanay’s narrative, on the other hand, works as an internal monologue. Before the family took on the lodger, Tanay could explore his sexuality only by stepping out of his house. His sexual and even intimately emotional experiences with the same sex happened with strangers, whom he picked up on his bike and spent time within a hotel during the night. His sexual experiences, then, are also lonely ones, hidden from those who know him very well, away from the comfort and familiarity of a home. It is only when the lodger moves in that Tanay experiences sexual love within his own house. However, the physical expression of their love is only possible within the four walls of a room within his house. So, even within the space of his house, Tanay and his partner had to find a space to escape to. Unlike Anuja, Tanay has to process his grief in secrecy. When Anuja runs away with the lodger, his grief finds social acceptance only because he expresses it as grief for a lost sister, and not a lost lover. Tanay’s love, pain, and grief, then, is unfound and lost in the space of his house while Anuja’s fills the house with anxiety and chaos.

Cobalt Blue offers a nostalgic view of the love and loss of two individuals who have to process their pain while simultaneously navigating through the space of their home, family, and society. The delicacy with which Kundalkar narrates the story of Tanay and Anuja and the vulnerabilities that he presents to us is almost comforting. The comfort, perhaps, is in the knowledge that this pain of lost love is a universal one; that experiences of love, desire, grief, and joy are shared ones, in spite of our different identities. 

In The Mood For Love During Ramadan: ‘Breaking Fast’ Is A Warm Love Tale Trying To Reconcile Faith And Sexuality!

Oftentimes, queer films tend to ignore other aspects of an individual’s personality, and focuses only on the queerness. However, that is not the case with ‘Breaking Fast’, a romantic-comedy written and directed by Mike Mosallam. The film from the set-go tries to deconstruct the notion of how queerness isn’t intrinsic to how one navigates through the path of faith. It tries to show multiple and varied views on how the queer community looks at religion and how one’s own experience shapes their relationship with religion. At the outset, the film has a very simple story, like that of any hetero-normative rom-com, the protagonist has a break up, and finds love in another person by the end, but it is interesting as to how the intimate and intricate details of relationship, faith and family have been explored through a run-of-the-mill love story.

The story follows Mo (Haaz Sleiman) a queer Muslim man who is in a happy and stable relationship with Hassan (Patrick Sabongui). We meet them on an eve of Iftaar during the month of Ramadan, when Mo’s family is visiting the two of them. Mo’s family is ‘unbelievably’ inclusive and ensures that the two feel part of the religious ritual. However, Hassan’s family is not the same and some incidents later, they break up. The film shifts focus to next year, during the same Ramadan month, when we meet Mo, as a single man, trying to cope with the break up. Few parties and conversations later, Mo meets Kal (Michael Cassidy), an all-American man who wants to spend Iftaar time and break the fast with Mo. Mo is pleasantly surprised by the gesture and slowly opens his heart despite the hang-up over Hassan. I will not spoil the film by giving the reader any more details, because you need to see the film to understand how this run-of-the-mill story can be any different from the films in its genre.

If you go to the film’s IMDB page and see the reviews there, you would know why this film is needed. It attacks on two prejudices of people: Islamophobia and Homophobia. Most of the reviews have nothing to do with the film. It only tries to attack how queerness can be attached to Islam, and how a film can depict a queer man who is devoutly religious. The film hits the right note and tries to demystify this issue surrounding Islam and queerness. It provides multiple instances where varied and opposing views on the same have been presented. Mo, a devoutly Islamic man, defends his sexuality and faith over and over in front of people and justifies that Quran doesn’t mention any punishment for homosexuality and that it is an import of the Britishers and the ruling regimes of the Islamic nations. However, Sam (Amin El Gamal) presents an opposing view and narrates his experience of how Islam has always been an antithesis to queerness. He cites examples from his experience and notes how in Islamic countries people are killed every day for the way they are born. In that way, the film doesn’t sound preachy, because it isn’t monolithic in its message. It tries to give voices to both the sides, and lets the audience decide, because every person’s experience would decide their view of religion. The film manages to show a balanced view of how queer Muslim individuals navigate through the intersections of their identities.

Another important aspect of the film is how supportive Mo’s family is of his identity and how it shapes his journey towards faith and relationships. He keeps comparing his family to the families of men in his life, and tries to contextualize their experience through his own, oftentimes to his disappointment. Mo’s family is a rare but real instance of how religiously devout families can be accepting and inclusive of queerness. They are an eccentric lot, with all the bickering and warmth that comes with the concept of hetero-normative families. It is interesting to note that the film explores how the relationship with family can affect romantic relationships. Mo keeps trying to make his partners realize that they should be amicable to their respective families, because his experience of family is all positive. But, he fails to realize that not every experience is the same, and as we see with one of the character’s experience when he comes out, his family makes their distance from him. It is only towards the end that Mo realizes that he cannot live others’ lives through his experiences and starts seeing things for what they are.

The film has a lot of light moments, especially through Sam’s character, who plays the stereotypical best friend of the lead. However, even while playing out this stereotype, Sam’s character is well-evolved and hence, enjoyable. Another comic factor comes in during the intimate conversations between Mo and Kal. Mo who is observing fast has to abstain for any impure, sexual or dirty thoughts, but Kal makes conceited efforts and jokes around about things which make Mo uncomfortable since it leads him to think about things he would not during the fast.  These comic moments are the life of the film as it brings sensitivity even while portraying rituals. The film also manages to shed light on the intimate details of Islamic rituals, for example, the film is based solely during the time of Ramadan, when Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset and break their fasts in the evening. In a comic yet dramatic scene, Sam invites over an American man to Mo’s house for Iftaar, however, the man starts eating even before it is time to break the fast and is stopped by another American, Kal, who teaches him the lesson on Ramadan.

The film is helmed by Mike Mossalam in the most tender and sensitive way. He deals with every aspect of the film to the details, and ensures that a generic rom-com breaks the boundaries of its genre and shifts the narrative to topics that need attention. He is successful in telling a simple, run-of-the-mill story in the most exciting and engaging way. The lead actors, especially, Haaz and Michael, make for believable characters. Haaz as Mo is a grounded, sensible, mature and sensitive practicing Muslim queer doctor who tries to make sense of life after break up, while Michael as Kal, an actor balances it with his humor, lighthearted nature and vulnerable personality. Mo’s stubbornness is balanced by Kal’s patience; Kal’s vulnerability is balanced by Mo’s strength and will.

The film intersperses generic elements of rom-com while also providing a strong message. It has the typical feel-good factor; however, it also makes the audience question and reconsider their views on faith and sexuality. It talks about important issues especially regarding Islam and queerness but never becomes preachy. It brings about the importance of family support and love for queer people, and yet never overdoes it. It tries to keep things as real as possible while trying to send out a message about inclusivity. It makes you believe that a person’s intersectional identity can be navigated through and a resolution can be achieved when conversations surrounding it are healthy. ‘Breaking Fast’ makes way for cross-cultural and inter-religious love in a world of rising monolithic cultural predominance.

Amazon Original’s “Paatal Lok”, A Show With Flawed Characters With Varying Shades Of Privilege.

Warning: Spoilers

Trigger warnings: mentions of sexual violence, caste violence, transphobia

‘Paatal Lok’ is an addition to Amazon Prime’s arsenal and predictably, viewers were instantly swept in by the show, especially since it’s so unfiltered and raw. The show follows Haathiram Chaudhary, a mid-level police officer at the Outer Jamuna Paar police station, as he tries to solve the mystery of an attempted assassination. As a viewer, you’re then taken into the past of the alleged perpetrators- Vishal ‘Hatoda’ Tyagi, Tope Singh, Kabir M, and Mary ‘Chini’ Lyngdoh.

Paatal Lok explores the crime thriller genre brilliantly with its fast paced storytelling and the way it managed to sew together the loose ends with its climax, even if I say so myself. However, the show’s actual intrigue comes from its critique of the Indian polity. It attempts to comment on the prevailing caste hierarchy, Islamophobia, and transphobia in the country. Despite the fact that I enjoyed the show, I say ‘attempt’ because claiming that it fulfils the job of a critique would overshadow the clear privileged savarna perspective. That being said, the attempt might not be perfect but it’s a start.

In the very beginning, Haathiram tells Ansari, the deuteragonist (‘sidekick’) that Delhi is divided into three sections, or ‘Loks’- Lutyens Delhi, or the Swarg Lok (heaven); Vasant Vihar and Noida, or the Dharti Lok (earth), and the place he is stationed is part of Paatal Lok (hell). Our four alleged criminals belong to the third.

The target of the assassination attempt is journalist Sanjeev Mehra who is essentially the face of ‘Swarg Lok’ in the show. He is dismissive of his wife’s anxiety and somehow believes that a meek thank you at the end of the show absolves him of the blame of being an absent, and an unfaithful, husband. Even at the office, he operates with a god complex, with a complete disregard for ‘rules’ and even uses the attempt on his life to gain popularity. He is mixed in a power struggle with a politician and people who want him off the show. He is Haathiram’s way into the Swarg Lok and the wasteful opulence that comes with it.

The portrayal of Dharti Lok is seen through Haathiram and Ansari, and both characters are used to highlight different issues. Haathiram navigates through his life trying to earn his son’s respect while using his father’s mistreatment of him as a shield to excuse his hegemonic toxic masculinity. I spent the show looking for a redemption arc for Haathiram but there isn’t a satisfactory one. There is a scene where he slaps his wife which is resolved just as conveniently when she slaps him back.

There is a common trend in shows where islamophobia is portrayed through violence and extremes and that is what I assumed this show would also do, especially after scenes where a Muslim man was lynched; but with Ansari, the hatred is more subtle. He has to deal with the subtle islamophobia that exists in every sphere. We see it in another police officer’s reluctance to offer him prasad, and in the snide remarks about ‘representation quota’ during his coaching.

Then, we see the dark underbelly, Paatal Lok.

As we delve into Tyagi’s past, we find out that he is wanted for 45 murders and is feared for it. However, it also raises a very important question about the way shows portray sexual violence. Haathiram uncovers that Tyagi’s descent into the world of crime can be credited to the fact that he wanted to revenge his sisters’ rape. There are no actual consequences for the act (legally) and the show doesn’t try to explore the trauma attached to acts of sexual violence.

Tope Singh is a lower caste youth, a Manjaar, who lives in rural Punjab and there are various instances where he is harassed by the people around him for his caste. It’s clear that its not an isolated incident and casteist discrimination is prevalent in society. As a part of his story, we see weapon wielding upper caste men storm Tope’s house and sexually assault his mother as a supposed “retaliation” to an earlier scene where Tope attacks two upper caste men. Again, the scene is used merely to shock the senses and jolt the viewer. In both cases, the assault on women either explains the man’s behaviour or is used as a consequence. I do, however, recognize that it is naive to assume that it’s surprising since women are often used as pawns in patriarchal power struggles.

Nonetheless, it is a decent portrayal of the way the lower caste (the Manjaars, in this case) are treated by the upper caste majority.

If we critique the show from a feminist perspective, it becomes increasingly clear that the show has women but we rarely hear them since they primarily exist as two-dimensional characters with no real story arc. The silencing of women could be seen as a direct consequence of the patriarchal society the show attempts to challenge but it’s no excuse.

Forgive my rushed attempt at touching upon the general issues with the show but I couldn’t dive into my review from a queer perspective without highlighting them.

Paatal Lok also gets another thing right- representation. The character of Mary Lyngdoh is a transgender woman and the character is portrayed by Mairembam Ronaldo Singh who is a trans woman herself. After shows, both national and international, constantly casting cis-het characters to play trans or LGBTQIA+ characters, the fact that the show put in real effort to cast a trans woman for the role is refreshing. Like its portrayal of other issues, the show doesn’t shy away from Mary’s story or use it just as a token.

We meet ‘Chini’ (Mary) as a child abandoned by her uncle on a train where a boy, Kaaliya, finds her and then takes her into their gang of kids who con and beg to survive. At first glance, we see a young boy abandoned in a train but as her story progresses, we see her putting on make-up and Kaaliya sees her and says “jajta hai tujhpe” (looks good on you). I found myself smiling with Mary, my heart warm. Later, we see the gang watching a movie as Mary rests her head on Kaaliya’s shoulder and at this point, I’m smiling even wider. It’s heartwarming and it’s refreshing. However, soon after, one of the boys comes and informs Kaaliya and Mary that Shaakal, a known pedophile, wants to meet the latter. In a scene that follows, we see Shaakal assaulting Mary and is so ‘enamored’ that the child only manages to escape this cycle of abuse when Shaakal is killed.

Her character isn’t two-dimensional; we see the struggles that have shaped her but my knowledge of trans struggles is also privileged and everything I say must be viewed as such.  Eventually, when she is also captured with the three men, the blatant transphobic violence that follows is painful, but not surprising. Haathiram mercilessly beats her for allegedly ‘pretending to be a woman’ and earlier, the woman she was jailed with screamed that she could’ve been assaulted by Mary. People across the police station misgender her and she is also put in a male prison where she is further fetishized when a fellow prisoner masturbates looking at her.

For someone viewing the show from outside, these might seem extreme but there’s no denying the fact that these are only a handful of the struggles that the trans community faces on an everyday basis. The casual misgendering and the disregard for her gender preference, are all situations that the community faces regularly. When the woman in the jail cell accuses the policemen of putting her in danger by putting Mary in the same cell as her, it’s a commentary on how the trans community is demonised. Everyone sees her as a man and treats her as such and it’s infuriating to see, as it should be. Paatal Lok doesn’t mince its words- they want you to see the ways in which Mary is dehumanized for her gender identity because for many people across the world, this discrimination and bigotry is a part of their reality.

The stark contrast between the way she is treated by her friends, especially Kaaliya, and the people she meets as the show progresses shows that hatred isn’t inherently built. As people age, regardless of privilege and class, the bigotry seeps into them and they give in. At one point in the story, we learn that she was trying to save up close to 2 lacs. Kaaliya says he has no idea why she wanted that much money but if you are part of the community (allies included), you knew. A feeling of grief enveloped me when they all sat outside the courtroom waiting for judgement and she tells Kaaliya that she needed the money for a gender reassignment surgery so she could finally marry him. It will break your heart and fill you with anger at the injustice of it all, again, as it should.

Is Paatal Lok worth a watch? Definitely. Like Mehra says during the show, “this town forgets it’s villains soon and its heroes sooner” but the show has no heroes. Instead, it has flawed characters with varying shades of privilege who oppress the women, the minorities (religious and queer), all under the harrowing pretext of collateral bigoted consequence.

The Haunting Of Bly Manor: A Poignant Gothic Romance

The Haunting of Bly Manor follows American au pair Dani Clayton (Victoria Pedretti) as she takes up a job as a governess in a manor in an English countryside. The story is based on Henry James’ brilliant gothic novella, ‘The Turn of the Screw’, and borrows elements from his other notable works as well. The plot, albeit confusing at times, flows smoothly through nine episodes and is held together by unique and layered characters. Amelie Bea Smith and Benjamin Evan Ainsworth (the cutest kids in web series history, I’m convinced) are fabulous in the roles of Flora and Miles Wingrave, the two troubled children that Dani is meant to look after.

In the midst of a bone chilling story that meanders through the unsettling recent events at Bly Manor and its disturbing past, we find out that Dani is a lesbian. And so begins the inevitable romance between her and Jamie (Amelia Eve, I’m swooning just writing this), who works as a gardener at the house.

There is a big difference between portraying a queer love story for the sake of it and actually incorporating it into the plot in a meaningful manner. We are at a point where the former has happened time and time again, and is simply not acceptable. LGBTQ+ characters are not Christmas ornaments that’ll get you an easy ‘woke’ pass. The main challenge before creator Mike Flanagan was to weave the romance into the horror without making it look tokenistic. He had managed this comfortably with Theo Crain (Kate Siegel, more swooning) in the show’s precursor, The Haunting of Hill House, and with Bly Manor, he has once again hit the nail on the head. What distinguishes this from some of the tepid attempts at representation that may come to mind is that the story could have had multiple opportunities for a heterosexual romance to take precedence over Dani and Jamie’s story – and yet, that does not happen. While this by itself is not really a reason to celebrate, I did take some guilty pleasure in it.

After watching the powerful portrayal of Theo Crain in The Haunting of Hill House, my expectations for the lesbian romance in this new season were set extremely high – especially since it is now at the centre of the plot. But just as it did in more or less all other aspects, Bly Manor matches up fiercely to its precursor. Dani and Jamie’s story is one of love, loss, letting go of the past, and standing by the one you love no matter what the odds are (seriously, like life threatening, ‘the ghosts in this house won’t leave us alone’ odds).

Perhaps if there is one shortcoming that still hurts a little, weeks after finishing the show, it is with Jamie. Despite all the stereotypes that The Haunting of Bly Manor challenges, Jamie does not move past her status as Dani’s love interest and an outsider watching the events at Bly Manor unfold. Her backstory is restricted to a few minutes in one episode, while characters like Hannah Grose (T’Nia Miller) and Owen Sharma (Rahul Kohli) are a lot more fleshed out. While Jamie’s separation from the crux of the story seems to be a planned and intentional move, it is a little disappointing, considering how fascinating she is as a character. Whatever little we get to know of her through the episodes leaves us wanting a deeper, more comprehensive dive into Bly Manor’s bold, yet soft hearted gardener.

As one of the characters (I won’t tell you who, that’s a secret worth keeping) themselves says, The Haunting of Bly Manor is not a ghost story, it is a love story. If you’re going into this series expecting meaningless gore, cheap scares, and an easy plot, I recommend you change your expectations and watch it anyway. The show grabs you by the heart, tightens its grip through each episode, and leaves you with a deep, ringing ache. Every cast member radiates their own unique brilliance, and Mike Flanagan brings them together with the grace of an orchestra conductor. If you want to invest all your emotions in one series this year, let it be The Haunting of Bly Manor.

I Like The Wine And Not The Label

A wine metaphor to describe someone’s sexuality is perhaps not as conventional. But Schitt’s Creek succeeds in putting this metaphor across without belittling the identity of a pansexual person and in fact offering us a meaning that defines the openness and inclusivity that shapes the queer community.  A story of a rich, but dysfunctional, family gone bankrupt and forced to temporarily relocate to a smaller town, Schitt’s Creek is a show that represents love and inclusivity without making bold, political statements about the same, especially in the representation of its queer characters.

The scene in which David Rose, Dan Levy’s character, uses the wine metaphor to explain his pansexuality to his friend, hasn’t been dramatized by the creators of the show. It isn’t met with surprise and there are no heavy or emotional pauses. It is instead said in the most matter-of-factly manner and at the same time, sits so perfectly within the conversation and the overall setting of the show. There isn’t a single instance of homophobia throughout the series but at the same time, it doesn’t take away the centrality of queer representation. If anything, the show insists on normalizing the portrayal of queer characters, by ensuring that there isn’t anydiscussion or conversation about it within the show. In an interview with Variety, Levy discusses how he, along with the rest of the creators of the show, wanted to create a world “where things are as they should be” instead of a world that would even hint towards homophobia.[1] The attempt, a successful one, was to show a world where queer sexuality wasn’t an important topic of discussion, but instead just existed as it should.

Perhaps the only moment where the one sees a vulnerable portrayal of a queer character is when David’s partner Patrick comes out to his parents. Only here do we witness a Patrick struggling with his decision on how to tell his parents about his identity as a gay man. That particular episode resonates deeply with the queer community as acknowledging one’s identity to their parents is probably one of the most delicate and important matter in their lives. But even here, when Patrick’s parents find out from a third person that their son is gay, what bothers them isn’t that he identifies as gay but the idea that their son was somehow afraid of coming out to them. The response that Patrick’s parents have when he finally comes out to them is one that every individual deserves. The onus then, is not on queer individuals to ‘explain’ their identity but on their loved ones and the society to accept who the person identifies as, unconditionally.

What makes the show so popular amongst queer circles is the romance between the two male characters. Their relationship isn’t unconventional nor does it have to overcome the struggle that two gay men might otherwise experience in any society. The initial friendship between them, the lowkey flirting that they engage in, their romantic relationship accompanied with tons of cheesiness and even the minor differences between the couple – all offer a brilliantly crafted show that blankets its audience with warmth. It would be difficult for lovers of the romantic genre, queer or not, to not melt when Patrick sings a song for David in front of a bunch of people, or during his swooping proposal, or even during the heartwarming wedding vows that they exchange. The portrayal of their romance doesn’t negate their sexuality. Like any other individual, the characters of David and Patrick visibly enjoy their sexual experiences. At one point, they even contemplate indulging in a threesome with a man whom David has previously been with sexually.

Schitt’s Creek shows no compromise in representing the unconditional and wholesome love between two men. It ensures that their relationship engages with the audience in the same capacity as any other heterosexual relationship would. The creators of the show insisted on ensuring a world that has no place for hatred, for homophobia. Perhaps this world is too ideal or even too far away from reality. But it isn’t unbelievable. Without even talking about it, the show encourages people to imagine a world that is primarily filled with inclusivity and love by simply offering us such a world. It resonates so beautifully because of the hope it provides and because it speaks to the desire that perhaps everyone has, to live without the fear of being shamed for one’s identity.  


[1] https://variety.com/2017/tv/features/actor-daniel-levy-1201970016/

“april is lush” Takes You To The Poet’s Inner Mind And Warrants Emotional Engagement

In “The Waste Land”, TS Eliot had said that “April is the cruelest month”, on the contrary, young poet Aditya Tiwari proposes a different view of April. He contextualizes the title in the beginning of the book and says, “april is the month of light, rediscovery, love, passion and balance”. The collection of poetry, from the very outset, tries to instill belief, love and assurance in the readers. Much like a self-help book, it tries to give you words as forms of comfort, reassuring your belief in yourself.

“I just hope you are everything you believe in”

The collection of poetry doesn’t pretend to be a mainstream literary piece, but is rather an emotional and creative outlet of a person who pours out his experience in the forms of words and tries to encourage the readers in self-belief and self-love. Similar in vein, to the works of Rupi Kaur and other Instagram poets, they do not necessarily follow a particular structure, and aren’t laden with high-handed, complicated words to express simple emotions and feelings. And that’s where the beauty lies, in the way; Aditya has expressed his feelings and thoughts in the simplest of words and sentences, conveying what he wanted to do, without confusing the audience with complicated structures or language. It can be read by anyone and everyone without feeling the exhaustion of interpreting metaphors and symbols, oftentimes a case with poetry.

The collection is divided into sections, dedicated to facets of life, namely, love, loss, heartbreak, trauma, LGBTQIA+, women and self-worth. Most of the poems dealing with love, loss and heartbreak deal with queer loneliness, the transitory nature of human relationships, the challenges faced by young queer individuals in a society that looks down upon anything or anyone who is ‘different’. Reading through the poems, the readers might feel like reading a personal diary or journal, and that personal, private quality of the poems add to their relevance and relatable quality.

The poems range in topics from broken friendships to forgotten lovers, mending heart to raging thoughts. In one of the poems titled ‘love’s like a coffee violence’, he even compares the act of love with the metaphor of coffee and mentions mature issues like violence in relationships which we often shy away from while writing personal narratives. Some of the poems also deal with the obsessive nature of love, that many of us have gone through, especially in the poem ‘crave’, where he writes,

“you like cigarettes
were not good
for my health
yet
i craved for
you
knowing that
you’d harm me”

In some of the other poems, he has utilized metaphors of ghost and supernatural to instill the feeling of loss of people from one’s life. He explicitly examines the nature of these relationships and how empty they make you feel once it is over. The general transitory and impermanent nature of relationships is a constant theme in the collection and you would stumble upon poems which evoke these feelings inside you.

Aditya also explores the issue of masculinity and opines that toxic masculinity is something that ruins every other gender. In one of his poems, ‘dear men’, he addresses the men and tries to educate them on their mentality and their conduct in real life. He goes on to explain how we all come out of a woman’s womb, and end up traumatizing the same women because of the set notions of patriarchy in the society. In a scathing criticism of the patriarchal society, Aditya also includes stereotyping of gay men wearing ‘pink’ and demolishes the set notions on what it takes to be a man.

In another poem titled ‘let boys be feminine, boys can be divas too’, he writes,

“you told me
to tone it down
tone down my femininity
but how can i tone down
something
i was born with
loving the feminine parts of me.”

Gender becomes a key point of discussion in many of the poems like ‘androgyny’ where the poet talks about the confusion and anxiety that comes with the feeling of un-belonging, but like many of his other poems, he tries to end it with the reassurance that if nobody else, then at least he would be able to love himself as he truly is. It also comes with a sense of security that once you know who you truly are; the road to conquering the world is not too far.

“some days
i am the man
who will
hold you
and some days
i am the woman
who will
destroy you—tear you down.”

One of the most powerful sections of the collection is the one that deals with ‘women’. In most of these poems, Aditya uses powerful symbolism to reiterate the strength of women. However, he isn’t only dealing with the power of women, but also their powerlessness and how that energizes the patriarchal norms. In his poems on ‘women’, the women rage and rise against the autonomy and claim their spaces, the women are not just tokens, but are forces to reckon with. The women are creators and also destroyers. In poems like ‘god is a woman’, Aditya tries to reinforce the long tradition of the divine feminine and re-establish the strength that women hold. In another poem, ‘the entire universe inside of her’, he writes,

“open her thighs
and you’d see
the entire universe
within
strong enough
to
swallow you
whole”

Apart from the issues mentioned above, Aditya has dealt with a plethora of emotions which affect queer lives in India. In one of his poems, he addresses his bullies and tries to reclaim his space from the traumatic experience that a queer person goes through in their childhood. In a country where sex education and sexuality awareness is nil, children become the victims of bullying from the very childhood. It causes trauma and here, Aditya is trying to reclaim that trauma and make it into his strength. He writes,

“to the people from the past
who have bullied me
don’t look at me with your hungry eyes
i am not a piece of meat for you to eat
i am not scared you anymore”

Another facet that has been explored is mental health which has come to the forefront of discussion in the present day, as it should. Mental health is perhaps one of the single largest factors affecting young lives today, and the fact that writers are taking that into cognizance is a welcome change. He deals with depression in one of the poems and tries to explain how one might feel when they are going through a depressive phase. He doesn’t complicate it with flowery, poetic words, but states it as it is, in the rawest form which impacts the minds of the reader even more. In another poem titled ‘anxiety’, he writes,

“you tell them
that you are
fine
but these are
just your
little lilac lies”

He also explores the issue of colour which affects us Indians in our everyday life. The inherent racism in India is not a concealed fact; we being products of years of colonial rule have internalized racism and practice it in everyday reality without even realizing at times. He explores this very humdrum surrounding brown-ness. Aditya moved to New York for his education, and his experience of being bi-cultural in the foreign land led him to these realizations. Perhaps, these ruminations on brown-ness come from his personal experience of being a brown person in a white city. In a poem titled ‘the little boy with big dreams’, he writes,

“dear little brown gay boy
you are enough. you have always
been enough”

More than just looking at relationships, society and everything else, the collection also inspects deeply the concept of self-love. It has poems ranging from talking to yourself lovingly to a sense of disappointment about how mistakes are always repeated. Young poets are looking more and more on the inside and this self-introspection leads to poems which are extremely personal and yet having a universal quality to it. We, as individuals, are getting more self-aware, and that’s perhaps why these poems feel so familiar, and relatable.

“but baby
i have always
been good
enough
not for
anybody else but
for myself.
i will love me if nobody else will”

The poems in this collection do not follow any particular structure, format or punctuation, and are not capitalised at any point, unlike the literary masterpieces which strictly follow the rules of language and articulation. But what the collection does is to convey true, raw and honest feelings in the easiest way without promising any intellectual stimulation. More than being read and critically understood, the collection warrants the readers to feel the words on the pages. Aditya covers a range of issues and does so very honestly and without pretentions of high-handed literariness, the free-verse form adds to the simplicity and makes for a quick and entertaining read.

About the Poet: Aditya Tiwari is a poet, writer and queer activist based in India. April Is Lush is his first collection of poetry published in April, 2019

“Insomnia” Is A Crafty Montage Of A Bisexual Man

From the first scene itself, Insomnia is unlike anything you’ve ever seen before. It is very decidedly NSFW (not safe for work), loaded with dark humour and undeniably queer – none of these are premises that you’d commonly associate with Indian stories that have had a long history of catering only to a heteronormative, fairly conservative audience. The six part limited series follows Nikhil, an Indian American bisexual man who moonlights as an escort and works at a publishing agency by day. Vishaal Reddy, a bisexual Indian American man himself, has written and starred in the series, lending his lived experience to the script.

The series explores a different aspect of Nikhil’s character in every episode, through his relationships with the people around him. Nikhil breaks the fourth wall (like the eponymous Fleabag) often in the beginning of the series, giving context and narrating. As the series goes on, and we find out more about his grief surrounding his mother’s death, it is apparent that the supposed candour was another mask. Nikhil’s family isn’t perfect – his mother died by suicide, and he lives with his sick aunt, who nags at him for his cooking instead of doting over him like most Indian aunties do with sons. Every family has dysfunctions and issues. Insomnia isn’t scared to show us what happens when these issues go unresolved. Nikhil himself accepts help from the stranger who offers him an escort job in a bar instead of talking to his aunt or seeking professional help. It is often tough to process grief and loss in Indian families, and Insomnia gives us a simple and raw depiction of that struggle.

The show is unapologetically desi in other ways too – Nikhil’s life is populated with Indian American friends and even clients. Their conversations don’t feel inauthentic and they switch in and out of accents, making references that are very specific to the culture. It is a refreshing change from the usual diaspora content, which often whitewashes the desi characters or stereotypes them cruelly to the extent that they’re almost unrecognisable.

The comments under the show’s episodes are filled with bisexual people explaining about how they feel seen and represented, finally. In a crafty montage, Nikhil talks about what it’s like to date as a bisexual man – all of the stereotypes that can make you feel isolated and invalidated. There is the “you don’t look bisexual”, the “oh but you’re basically straight/gay, right?” and my personal favourite “which do you prefer?”. In a dialogue that sums it up pretty well, Nikhil says to the camera, “the gays think we don’t exist and the straights don’t know what to do with us.”

The show also deals with sex work pretty well, without demonising it or looking down upon it at any turn, while also recognising the stigma that Indian culture attaches to the profession.

Insomnia is a nuanced show. It incorporates a milieu of heavy themes – grief, sexuality, racism, mental health – and it does so with utmost care. Every element, every dialogue, every look is purposeful and fits perfectly. Vishaal Reddy and his team embraced the multilayered nature of this story and this character and did justice to it, instead of simplifying it. The effort has paid off with a series that tells a sharp, funny, surprisingly hard-hitting and unapologetically authentic story.

Watch the entire show here: https://www.insomniatheshow.com/

This Week In Queer Cinema Recommendations: Handsome Devil

All-boys boarding institutions can be unforgiving to gay adolescence. In the 2016 Irish dramedy Handsome Devil, we have Ned, a scrawny openly gay lad who is put up in one such school, where every interest is effete at the altar of rugby and where atypical masculinities are chewed and spat out. Ned, who writes poetry and plays an instrument, is pretty much jinxed here, pushed around always, and made the target of ridiculously homophobic jibes even if he remains impressively undeterred in the face of such ragging. Handsome Devil opens with Ned feeling somewhat hopeful he may have an entire room to himself this year. That hope is dashed soon as he is greeted by new-fella Connor, a strapping and muscular-kind who is a pro rugby athlete, assigned as his roommate. The first night brings trouble for Ned as he walks into his room to find Connor along with some burly jocks who want Connor to join the rugby team. One such jock who happens to be Ned’s prime bully, coolly tears off a homoerotic poster which Ned had stuck up. And when Ned revolts, he is shoved to the floor. Connor is warned, in no uncertain terms, ‘to beware of Ned, or he may ‘bum’ you at night.’

Nicholas Galitzine (Connor) and Fionn O’Shea (Ned) in Handsome Devil //
(Image Source: Netflix)

Wishing to be left alone and avoid further nuisance, Ned creates a clear divide between his side of the room and Connor’s as they restrict their interactions as first. The ice between the two breaks after they bond over their shared interest in music and eventually become friends. Both are encouraged to team up for an upcoming talent competition by their English teacher Dan, one of the few persons around who doesn’t share the school’s fiery passion for rugby and encourages the students to find their own ‘voice.’ 

Ned and Connor’s budding friendship is put to the test when the latter’s musical pursuit’s clashes with his sporting commitments. Rumors begin to circulate about the nature of their companionship too. As the movie progresses, we find out that Connor may have a secret of his own, potentially jeopardizing his image as the star athlete.

(Image Source: Irish Central)

While being a tad predictable, Handsome Devil wins us over with an easygoing charm that makes for an enjoyable watch. Both Fionn O’Shea (playing Ned) and Nicholas Galitzine as Conor Masters receive the bulk of the credit for carrying the film on their shoulders. Nicholas, in particular, convincingly captures Connor’s repressed angst characteristic to the teenage experience. I did wish Fionn’s Ned had a better redemption in the end, especially after all bullying and gaslighting he had to endure, even if things ultimately turned out well for both the leads. Andrew Scott, better known for his performance as Jim Moriarty in Sherlock, is also a delight to watch.

Do catch Handsome Devil on Netflix if you’ll looking for fresh and heartwarming queer cinema! 

Dice Media’s “Firsts” (Season 3) – Normalising LGBTQI+ Relationships For A Mainstream Indian Audience

The third season of Dice Media’s, Firsts, which launched on their YouTube channel on October 14, 2020 features Himika Bose and Shreya Gupto as Lavanya and Ritu, two queer women who met each on Tinder and moved in together. Although the “moving in together after the second date” stereotype that queer women have earned within the community is blatantly at play here, it’s safe to say that this small nod to our inside joke could have passed straight above the grasp of the heterosexual audience watching.

As for the show itself, Ritu and Lavanya’s journey is a good example of love in the presence of an ever-extending pandemic. Between Lavanya losing her job and their romantic dates in the living room, the show does a fairly good job of representing the normality of day to day queer life. In fact, one of the best features of the show was the simplicity of it. No scantily clad women rubbing their bodies together, not one fetishized aspect of storytelling used; the question of ‘normal’ was very beautifully fought for in this series. When so many of us have to fight regularly for the right to live normal lives, to prove to our oppressors that our love isn’t out of ordinary and that we simply hope to exist as we are, this show depicts the simple life so many of us queer hopeless romantics wish to live, very beautifully.

Another important aspect was the subtle underplay of Lavanya’s sexuality – it is never spoken of during the entire five-part series. We see several glimpses of Ritu’s bisexuality splattered across the screenplay, but Lavanya’s sexuality was not a point of discussion at all, it is not even treated as an elephant in the room, which earns it a few more brownie points for being a well-written script. This, in turn, highlights the most important aspect of queer love: that people do not fall in love with labels, they fall for people and their personalities. Ritu fell in love with Lavanya not because she was a lesbian or pansexual or a bisexual person, she fell in love with her because she was Lavanya. Labels are important to a lot of people, to help identify themselves and feel much closer to their true self, but when it comes to loving someone, labels take the last spot on that priority list.

As mentioned, the other not so subtle emphasis was indeed on Ritu’s bisexuality. Even though the writing here was not very nuanced and lacked subtleties here and there, it is quite understandable why this creative decision was taken. Unlike our western counterparts, the Indian mainstream audience is not at all used to watching queer stories being played out as complex, emotional cinematic experiences. Since there is a huge gap in the Indian market for queer representation (with some exceptions), it becomes imperative to introduce the majorly heteronormative audience to queer love, little by little, even if it means overplaying some of the aspects. Hence, it makes perfect sense for the writers to not hide messages in the cinematography or nuanced acting, lest it be overtly lost on the people who have not seen anything like this before. It is not as if there weren’t subtleties at all throughout the series –  with Ritu’s brother’s silence and Lavanya’s friends’ blatant biphobia, the topic of bisexuality felt nicely handled.

One thing that did strike me personally was a very off-hand, unassuming comment made by Lavanya when Ritu had just moved in with her: “It’s not as if we’ll be bringing any boys around.”  “Yeah, for the neighbours, we’re just two friends living together.” The mere fact that women-loving-women relationships aren’t seen as romantic enough or normal enough to be accepted for what they are, that people will always assume two women to be friends and nothing more, has always perturbed me immensely. Homophobia is so peculiarly different for people who identify as men and women, because two men will most probably be labelled queer for showing affection towards each other, whereas two women would still probably need to scream that they’re queer and in love on the day of their wedding. This stems from deeply-rooted patriarchal and misogynistic ideas that our forefathers left us to deal with, because women are only ever thought to be made for men – as a lover, as a wife. The idea of love in a woman should only exist for her husband, her children and of course, her God (who is also a man apparently, notice the pattern?). The fact that women can love women in capacities beyond friendship is unheard of, and is un-entertained. So, what is left for those who were assigned female at birth is a heavy load of guilt with a dash of imposter syndrome, which truly trivialises their queerness. The fact that queerness in women is felt as a subversion of their default state of heterosexual living is enough to understand how small of a thought is given to the normality and simplicity of queer women and their love for each other.

Nevertheless, Dice Media’s portrayal of queer love has enough moments to warm your heart and make you yearn for a comfort that love and serenity bring with themselves. Apart from definitely being a step forward in the direction of normalising LGBTQI+ relationships for a mainstream Indian audience, it proves to be a sweet watch.

A Journey To Unapologetic Queerness With Sam Smith

It was the year 2014 when Sam Smith rose to fame for their pop ballads Stay With Me and I’m Not The Only One. They were suddenly everywhere: their music was vulnerable, passionate and raw, making the coldest of people feel something.

In a powerful move, Smith came out as gay in the same year, right after the release of their debut album In The Lonely Hour. They didn’t want their sexuality to be the subject of speculation, or leave it up to rumour. After seeing preceding queer pop stars such as George Michael go through the same guesswork for years, Smith had no intention to suffer through it too.

Despite being publicly out, references to Smith’s queerness in their first album were few and far between — you only found them if you knew where to look.

Slowly, this began to change.

In their follow-up record The Thrill of It All, the singer began to be more explicit in references to their sexuality, singing to and about men openly, with tracks like HIM and Pray.

Such changes are seen in the music scene quite often — as with Troye Sivan’s transition from Blue Neighbourhood to Bloom — and are always a good sign, reflective that the queer community and the mainstream media, with it, is moving in the right direction. Confidence and pride in one’s identity takes time, and is especially harder when the world is watching and judging your every move. Just by being out and proud, and fairly public with their relationships, artists like Sam Smith make hundreds of young queer people feel more normal and accepted.

In 2019, Sam Smith came out once again, embracing their gender as a non-binary person, and asking people to address them using they/them pronouns.

Gaining support and love from the LGBTQA+ community and expected backlash from conservatives, Smith continued to shine a light on queer issues, highlighting their own white privilege and supporting BIPOC queer folks as well.

Smith’s newest album Love Goes is perhaps the freest and queerest of all their records. “A celebration of youth and music”, the album has 17 tracks, and is surprisingly, Smith’s first real breakup album. The twist, though, is that it is a feel-good break up album. Although there are a few classic, heart-wrenching Sam Smith ballads, most songs on Love Goes are poppy and catchy, with contrastingly deep poetic lyrics.

This, in itself, is a testament to how much Smith has changed in the last six years. In their early years in the music industry, Sam Smith was often criticised for making music that was repetitive and monotonous. While a lot of these criticisms were unnecessary — it is not Smith’s music that is monotonous, but their voice that is unique enough to make everything sound similar — Smith seems to have grown as an artist, and experimented without hesitation on Love Goes.

The album opens with Young, a classic slow Smith-style ballad about how they want to live their life unapologetically. Young captures Smith’s experience as a queer person, and the pressure they feel due to fame. The song is honest and real, the perfect opening track and the most appropriate introduction to an album that goes on to be unabashedly queer. With lyrics like “If you wanna judge me, then go and load the gun. I’ve done nothing wrong, I’m young” that resonate especially with the LGBTQA+ community, the song is a powerful one.

The track that follows is Diamonds — arguably one of the best songs on Love Goes, and also one of the singles dropped before the album’s release. Darker and moodier than most of Sam Smith’s discography, Diamonds is fast-paced and sings of a material love that was not real. The tune is catchy and fun, setting the pace for the following songs on the record.

Another One, the third track on Love Goes, starts off slow and downcast, before transforming into a more energetic, electronic production. Along with the music, the lyrics also go from a state of dejection to acceptance, becoming less and less bitter as the song progresses.

The fourth track, featuring Nigerian superstar Burna Boy, is My Oasis. A brilliant mid-tempo love song, My Oasis is hypnotic and catchy, with lyrics that deal with the initial stages of love and how scary this time can feel. Described by Billboard as “vastly different from anything else you’ll hear today”, the song is one of the more popular ones on the album.

So Serious and Dance (‘Til You Love Someone Else) are both equally fun and infectious tunes, with deeper lyrics that juxtapose this lightness. While So Serious talks about how Smith often finds it hard to get out of their mind, Dance (‘Til You Love Someone Else)  is like a more sorrowful and honest sequel to the acclaimed Dancing With A Stranger.

A gentle, sweet song, Breaking is one of the most vulnerable tracks on Love Goes. It is a reflection inward, as Smith looks back on their relationship and the difference in power dynamics. “I was giving all my love, you were busy taking,” they sing softly on the track that shows that they broke things off for good reason.

The following Forgive Myself is a simple ballad, similar to Smith’s early style. The song is one of the more traditional break-up songs on the album as Smith sings about an old relationship that they remember often, even as they try to let it go. They ask their partner questions that will never be answered, and sing of how they can’t love someone else until they forgive themselves. The track highlights Smith’s powerful vocals and is impactful with just a simple instrumental backing of the piano and the cello.

The title track of the album, Love Goes, comes next. A collaboration with Labrinth, the song is about the inevitable end of a relationship on good terms. It track is almost peaceful and comforting, starting off slow and quiet before ending with a fuller sound including stunning trumpets.

Much like the album’s name, Smith has explained that Love Goes is meant to be ambiguous in its title. It could have negative connotations — love leaves — or a positive acceptance — love goes on — depending on the listener.

Another fan favourite is the closing track Kids Again. An emotional, nostalgic song looking back on a previous relationship, the song has won listeners’ hearts with its poetic, sweet lyrics: “Do you even think about it? The way we changed the world. And don’t it make you sad that we’ll never be kids again?” It also has a retro sound, reminiscent of the 70s and Fleetwood Mac, and Smith described it as “a bridge to my next record.”

The track is, in a way, a summary of the nostalgic, reflective nature of the entire record, and the perfect ending.

There are also bonus tracks — most of them previously released and well-received. Dancing With A Stranger and How Do You Sleep are arguably some of Smith’s best works. In addition to this, there are collaborations with Calvin Harris (Fire on Fire) and Demi Lovato (I’m Ready) that change the mood of the record. To Die For, originally meant to be the title track of the album, is another remarkable song in which Smith sings about the loniliness they feel without someone to die for.

Love Goes is undoubtedly one of Smith’s best and most diverse works. The sound of it is similar to pop music in the 2000s and 2010s, and it is comforting in this familiarity. In a way, it feels like this album has always been in your life, through love and heartbreak. Smith’s feelings of freedom and eagerness to experiment and create is apparent just after one listen. It is clear that Love Goes is something the singer poured their heart and soul into, and the result is that it holds a piece of the listener’s heart as well.

Maybe Firoz Was The Suitable Boy For Maan All Along

The thing about Mira Nair’s A Suitable Boy is that you turn to it to have an immersive experience but from the first minute itself it seems a little off. By the second, you have already put your finger on what the problem is- none of these dialogues should be in English. While Nair has expressed her frustration as a director over the balance BBC expected her to maintain in terms of language since the show was primarily made for a Western audience, I couldn’t help but wonder “Are we really STILL doing this? In the time of streaming services, subtitles, and Parasite winning the The Academy Award for best film?”. Of course the Indian tongue has been colonized well, and of course I talk to my friends and lovers in English, so why shouldn’t Lata be angry and in love and confused in the language as well? But there is something very unsettling about an Indian parent getting angry about rishtas in English. When Rupa Mehra starts talking about matches and wedding planning, you almost start expecting her to say “My poor nerves” at some point. The fact that she is not a parody of Mrs. Bennet in sarees but a completely different character from a different cultural space does not shine through- the British lens is too powerful from the get go. The dialogues are too apologetic- sometimes they touch on Urdu, Bengali and Hindi, but the words are not brave enough to take the leap.

This seems to be a theme that stays, because the courage to explore the chemistry between Firoz and Maan is also lacking. I will be honest- I came to the show asking to be overwhelmed by the love between Ishaan Khattar’s Maan and Tabu’s Saeeda Bai. I was convinced, before Tabu even graced the screen with her gorgeous acting skills, that my love for Urdu, ghazals, and passionate eye contact will make me feel giddy about the two of them for days. However, it was actually the chemistry between Maan and the Nawab’s son Firoz that swept me off my feet. From the first episode itself, when the two of them are having a conversation and Firoz sweeps a rose petal off Maan’s shoulder, the chemistry is off the charts. Every single time the two of them were in the frame together, I was on the edge of my seat because the sexual and romantic tension would almost become a third character on screen. In one full sequence, they are both on the bed and the comfort with which their bodies are navigating that shared space almost betrays that they have probably done a lot more than that at some point. I have not read the book by Vikram Seth, but I could not resist constantly wondering if there is a story we aren’t getting insight into. If there is a love, a past, a connection between Maan and Firoz that is toned down for the sake of the narrative. While the title canonically talks about a suitable boy for Lata, it is almost impossible not to feel like at the end of the day, maybe that’s all Firoz and Maan long for too- and can find in each other.

Ofcourse, the actual focus on Saeeda and Maan is lyrical and layered, and it is only enhanced by the fact that Tabu and Ishaan are the best performers even amongst a multi talented and brilliant cast. Though much of what will happen to them is quite predictable, it doesn’t end up taking from the experience because you realize that the characters themselves can predict it too- but they are choosing to surf on the waves of love anyway- so you end up wanting to take that journey with them. Theirs is also the story that is most closely connected with politics and social realities- and the show makes multiple statements on privilege through this. There are so many characters and so many sub-plots that some end up not being tied in the most rewarding way, while others make you want spin-off shows. All members of the Chatterji family, for instance, are absolute show stealers. Ram Kapoor as Maan’s father and India’s first revenue minister is also great and had me wishing I could follow him into the parliament and get to know more about that part of the story every time he was on screen.

There is also something unsettling about the communal tension that is captured in the story- through it is a story set in the early 1950s, it could have existed today just as easily. There is a mandir being built, minorities suffering from police brutality, and politicians profiting off the evil of religious division. This theme also makes its way to Lata’s life, as one of her potential life partners is Muslim- and that is almost all the story feels a need to tell us about him. While there are glimpses from his life, they aren’t enough to actually build a complete persona for Kabir. Which I couldn’t help but relate to the fact that Firoz and Maan actually do experience communal violence. The other two suitors for Lata are Amit the poet and Haresh the shoe businessman- just like Maan also has the girl from Benaras and Saeeda- none of whom, by the way, he has long conversations with through eye contact like he does with Firoz.

While a lot of people have written about how they aren’t happy with the person she ultimately chooses, I had a problem with the criteria of selection itself. The problem for me was that I saw her have almost no chemistry with any of the three men. It felt like the show pitted passion against sustainability and declared only one ‘suitable’- is that what happened with Maan and Firoz behind the scenes too? Were they interpreted as not being suitable for each other because their relationship would be too passionate? They would be too in sync, too in love? Why can you not have the place to grow with someone who you also feel butterflies in your stomach with? While I understand the importance of logical deductions even in the matters of love, there is an argument to be made for the fact that companionate love does not need to be devoid of passion or moments of being swept off your feet. Lata declares in an earlier episode, “We should follow our own hearts!”- and mine, after 6 episodes, has led me down the road of believing maybe Firoz was the suitable boy for Maan all along.

The Baby-Sitters Club: A Nostalgic Trip To The 90s And Early 2000s For Millennials And Older Gen Z Kids.

July 3rd  2020 saw a reboot of The Baby-Sitters Club (BSC) via a Netflix series. Its predecessors include 213 books from 1986 to 2000, a TV series in 1990, a movie in 1995 and an ongoing graphic novel series. A two decade time jump introduced lots of little (and some big) changes in the BSC and its members. Set in the fictional suburban utopia of Stoneybrook, Connecticut, Kristy Thomas has an entrepreneurial eureka. As she watches her mother struggle to find someone to babysit her baby brother, she recognises their suburbia has a need: good, responsible babysitters that are just one call away. 

The answer? The Baby-sitters Club.

Kristy is founder, therefore also President. The club decides to meet thrice-a-week in Claudia Kishi’s room because amongst them, she’s the only one with a landline connection (that came as an extra with a high-speed internet connection, and because underage girls can’t go around giving out their personal phone numbers), making her Vice President. Mary Anne Spiers is Secretary and in charge of the schedule and assigning jobs. Claudi Kishi asks Stacey McGill (new girl in town from New York City) into the club too, and her math genius makes her Treasurer.

The girls’ personalities come alive as they deal with domestic incidents, small things that feel huge when you are 12 years old and in the midst of it all. Kristy is authoritative and as she tries to reign it in a little and be more empathetic, on the opposite side of the spectrum, Mary Anne Spiers tries to assert herself, especially in front of her over-protective father.

The series includes a trans narrative about the importance of gender affirmation for trans kids and the misgendering healthcare professionals are prone to engage in. This is great.

It would have been even better if it wasn’t just reduced to a plot point for Mary Anne’s character development. She sees the child she has been babysitting, misgendered in the hospital and pulls the doctors aside to sternly correct them. Her dad watches this interaction silently in the background, which leads to a turning point in their relationship. Not so great.

Claudia Kishi is an artist and closest to her grandmother, Mimi. When Mimi suffers a stroke, she can only remember the past, causing Claudia to learn about a period of Mimi’s childhood spent in a Japanese internment camp during World War II. This revelation of her family’s painful past enables Claudia to create art that has depth, as opposed to her initial work that focussed on aesthetic.

Stacey McGill chooses to keep her health condition private because of the cruel way it was revealed and reacted to at her old school. Moving to a new, small town meant no one would know. She makes new friends in the BSC, quickly taking her place of that one friend who falls in and out of love with absolute ease. But a rival baby-sitting agency discloses and circulates her health condition amongst the BSC and their clients. Stacey expects her new friends to react the same way her old ones did, but she’s pleasantly surprised. The BSC holds a mature conversation with all their clients, Stacey explains her medical condition and that she can take care of herself, reassuring their clients of the BSC’s excellent baby-sitting service.

Arguably the best thing of the Netflix series is that as 7th graders, the girls act 12-years-old, but they also have real power in their own way as young girls.

While the kid-friendly feminist one-liners are not suprising and even expected, with the introduction of Dawn (newest girl in town from Los Angeles) the show takes an interesting turn. The two-part finale of the Netflix series is set in a summer camp, on realising that certain camp activities require money over the basic fee, Dawn decides to protest. Her proto-socialist character is much needed, but its execution is lacking. The BSC girls have undeniable financial and class privilege, therefore in this protest Dawn and her friends are not the aggrieved party. In both episodes, Dawn speaks for the kids who aren’t able to afford the camp activities that require extra payment. She and her friends even end up negotiating with the camp head on behalf of these kids. To top it off, the BSC members also get rewarded for this by prematurely being made Counsellors-In-Training (CITs), a position for which you needed to be at least 16 years-old.

This entire exchange is worrying.

The fictional Baby-Sitters club members and their very real viewers, have the same financial and class privilege (on account of being able to know about, afford and have the time to watch Netflix). This sanitised revolution and glorification of the BSC members for speaking out against injustice on behalf of the aggrieved, only promotes the saviour complex of the privileged. The marginalised and minorities have the interminable right to lead their own movements. All the privileged are supposed to contribute is their support in numbers, financial and otherwise.

The series also makes an important point about economic inequality. Kristy’s mom and her mom’s fiance are both single parents, but the wealth gap between them is obvious. The boyfriend has generational wealth, with 6 generations of his family being married in the same room of a mansion. As their wedding approaches, Kristy’s narrative points out their upward economic mobility multiple times and the storyline supplements it with Kristy’s second $800 bridesmaid dress and her brother’s BMW. What’s nice about this narrative is that it’s not quietly accepted by either mother or daughter. Kristy questions her mother’s feminist notions about marrying a rich guy, eventually understanding that interdependency in love doesn’t necessarily mean being dependent, as her mother struggles to strike a balance between their old and new life.

The Baby-Sitters Club reboot is a nostalgic trip to the 90s and early 2000s for millennials and older Gen Z kids. While it is unlikely that a book series based on a baby-sitting club is relevant for 7th graders today, maybe it is for the best.

Little Fires Everywhere: A Timely Story Set In The Past

Little Fires Everywhere, based on the book of the same name by Celeste Ng, is produced by Reese Witherspoon’s company Hello Sunshine. The show features her and Kerry Washington in leading roles. Reese as the suburban journalist Elena Richardson with a privileged and problematic perspective of the world is convincing and engaging, and Kerry as the enigmatic queer artist Mia Warren with a calculated but passionate disposition is a pleasure to watch in every single frame she occupies.

It is the vast differences in the parenting styles of these women and the relationship that they have with their children that the show highlights- while constantly making us aware that these decisions aren’t random, but caused by a combination of personal choices and social and economic privilege- or lack thereof. While Mia is compassionate and protective of her daughter Pearl, often spotting ways that she is going to get hurt before she does, Elena has a different bond with each of her children. Lexie, who she sees herself in is her favourite while Izzy who she has trouble seeing eye-to-eye with because she doesn’t fit into the perfect picture of the suburban White daughter gets told “Do you think I wanted a daughter like you? I never wanted you in the first place.” The fact that Mia and Elena’s daughters find comfort in each other’s mothers makes for a great arc, but the show makes it feel organic and believable.

Written as a mystery within a mystery, the show begins with the Richardson’s house lighting on fire and the police trying to figure out who did it. Their youngest daughter, Izzy, who has run away from home is the prime suspect- after all hasn’t she never really fit in all this while? This police investigation gives us the space to go back in time to the moment where Mia and her daughter Pearl first met Elena, and thus the second mystery of Mia’s past starts unfolding as Elena investigates it. To purely categorize this show as a thriller, however, would be a mistake because the beauty of the show is less in its reveals and you-didn’t-see-that-coming moments, and more in the interactions between the characters. In one scene, Mia tells Elena,“You didn’t make good choices. You had good choices. Options that being rich, and white, and entitled gave you.” When before has a show been self-aware enough to critique its characters through each other’s perspectives without sounding too preachy or Ted-Talk like? The characters are written and performed in such a way that you do not constantly find yourself picking a team or sticking to it. The choices in front of the characters are as grey as real life is- and they have to stick with the long term consequences too.

The show is at its realest, however, every time Elena and Izzy interact. While Izzy’s identity is never explicitly mentioned in terms of her sexuality, she is definitely a fourteen-year-old who is struggling due to the homophobia of the children in her school- along with the internalized homophobia of her ex-best friend. Megan Scott captures this feeling of constantly feeling like she is ‘different’ perfectly, down to the moments when she is just looking at her parents in the hope of them loving her anyway- even as they keep failing because in Elena’s eyes her ‘different’ prevents the family from being picture-perfect. The show does not gloss over the fact that Elena so desperately cares about images more than she cares about Izzy. Other actors may have been tempted to tell us through their portrayal that Elena is just worried about protecting Izzy from the world, but not Reese Witherspoon. She captures the spirit of mothers who see their children as nothing more than extensions of themselves meant to help them shine better in society to perfection- and in Elena’s case, there are four. Also beautiful are moments when Mia is not holding herself back- being her artistic self, finding the balance between being compassionate and drawing boundaries, or having heart-to-heart conversations with her daughter. I do not want to give any spoilers, but it is actually worth investing in all the characters because the story rewards you more and more with every episode.

Time is almost like another character in the show, which is set in the late 1990s. However, instead of using the temporal background as an excuse to get away with characters, dialogues, and themes that would be unacceptable today, the show instead uses it as a vehicle to send the message that some things have always been problematic, no matter what- the times are not changing today, they are simply catching up with what minorities have been facing all along.

The Circus Of Books — More Than A Family ‘Bookstore’

August 2020 marked one year of closing of “Circus of Books” bookstore. Though it’s just a bookstore, the three children of the Masons were forbidden from talking about their family business. When asked about what their parents did, their would always be the same, “they run a bookstore.”

It’s because the Masons knew that it was more than just that — a bookstore.

Karen and Barry Mason ran a gay pornographic bookstore, which was perhaps one of the largest and the only one of its kind in the 80s and 90s in the US. Soon, it also became the largest distributors of gay magazines and DVDs, until, as they said “the digital took over.”

Book Circus Becomes Circus of Books

The Masons acquired the “Book Circus,” a shop that’d have closed down because the owner wasn’t paying rent on time and got himself involved in the cocaine trade. Barry recalls, in the 2019 Netflix documentary “Circus of Books,” made by the Masons’ daughter Rachel Mason, that this rebranding was cost-effective, as they just brought the latter half of the signage board to the front and paid only for “of.” 

It could be called jugaad in the Indian sense of innovation, but Barry was a real creative genius. He had invented a safety device for a dialysis machine, whose rights the couple sold to a medical-equipment manufacturer, and had created special effects for Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Karen and Barry met the first time in a not-so-happening party. Half a year later they’re married. Karen, a deeply religious Hebrew, and a former journalist, was at complete odds with Barry, a person whose “default state,” as described by their children, was happy.

The talented Jewish duo, with three children now, were in a fix in the 80s, and were “looking for a stable income source.”

Karen sees a classified by a famous producer of sexually explicit magazines, mostly gay porno, Larry Flynt. Flynt was looking for a distributor, the advert read, and he’ll make anyone who would meet these two conditions: Buys 2,700 copies of the magazine (Hustler) and has a truck.

Karen and Barry gave it a shot. It’s then that they acquired the Book Circus. Circus of Books continued to enjoy a loyal following for decades, but closed its flagship store in West Hollywood down in August, 2019. Followed by its other franchise soon afterward because of nonviability of the business.

No Less Than a Subculture

A former employee, Alaska — stage name of a drag performer and artist Justin Andrew Honard — of the Circus of Books, says in the beginning of the documentary, “Here was this whole section called porn, P-O-R-N, you know.” You might be taken a back and feel that you didn’t sign up for this: watching a documentary about a bookstore running a gay pornographic shop.

However, it’s documentary about a daughter reintroducing to us the champions of gay rights, her parents. It’s about how a family, who’s in the business of selling gay pornography, journeyed from being a conservative to an out ally for the LGBTQ+ community. I wonder if many undergo this transition, which is why this journey was worth getting documented.

In the post-Internet age, I had all that I wanted to read or watch, as a new voyeur in the Gay World. But it’s India, not the US, and I expected that I’ll have to take careful steps when I want to read books on sex, gender and sexuality. But back then even in the “liberal” urban space like California there’s only one safe space to browse gay pornographic material without getting judged: Circus of Books.

“A purveyor of gourmet sexual material for every pervert in America.”

                                                                        — Bookstore’s loyal subscriber

Circus of Books was in its own way a subculture, which is why I think that it’s history should be considered as part of queer community’s aesthetics. It’s the “spot” where gays used to come for “cruising” — most of which happened behind the book stacks. Many of the previous employees reveal how they had their first “encounters” there. For all the right (or wrong) reasons, it’s the most vibrant location, or the “center of the universe in that area.”

For most LGBTQ+ population, Stonewall seems to be the time when protests for equality rights started, but it’s three years prior to Stonewall, when police arrested several same-sex people kissing, that the actual political unrest in the queer community began, which finally led to Stonewall. It’s “Black Cat.” Followed by the 1967 Police Brutality Protests.

Under such hostile environment how could a bookstore that sold gay pornographic materials survive.

A law suite was filed against Larry Flynt and Circus of Books was smut-raided, and Barry Mason was arrested under a sting operation by the FBI. Flynt’s case took its own course, but Barry was let go on a guilt-plea and a fine. But things weren’t going to be better too soon. Their third branch was closed down forcefully because it’s nearby a school; it’s as if Circus of Books will turn children gay.

However, the main retail outlet and one other franchise survived. And continued to charm its loyal fanbase and followers.

It made me fancy the logistics behind keeping the store booming with “fresh” materials for their readers to visit them time and again. But when I saw, in the documentary, Karen going to the Adult Novelty Manufacturers Expo (ANME) and yelling at a booth: “Is this gay?” I was convinced that no matter what she ensured that the latest “gay stuff” made its way into their shop.

Gay in Business Is Fine, But Gay at Home?

“I don’t have any problem with that,” Barry says, but given the religious tenacity of Karen one could tell that she’d have struggled with it.

Masons’ son Joshua comes out as gay, and a fair portion of the documentary also touches upon his growing up days and how even having approachable parents never helped him come out any sooner. He waited until he’s “sure” he must say it.

The story of a denial followed by a reluctant acceptance to a new-found courage to do something was clear on the faces of both Karen and Barry.

“Gay” was the bad word, Josh says. “I definitely perceived it was wrong.” Media called AIDS “The Gay Plague,” “The Gay Cancer” for “homosexuals” practice “frequent changing of sexual partners.”

Karen acknowledges that she thought that god was “punishing” her, and that she wasn’t “ready for a gay child.” Being an educated women didn’t help her address her own conventionalism when it came to her own son’s sexuality.

This is something that came up when I was reading Vivek Tejuja’s memoir (So Now You Know: Growing Up Gay in India) where he writes how “the dichotomy of it all had me confused when I came out. … Was it because it was her son and not a stranger? Did that matter the most? … Correction, her only son was gay.”

Irrespective of the time she took to come to terms with it, she’s sure that she loved her child. At least that’s certain, a constant, in their relationship.

Besides the personal there were newer challenges she and Barry faced when it came to running a bookstore with gay staff members during the AIDS epidemic of the 80s.

In the documentary, she tells the story of a deceased staff member. “Friday he was in office, Monday he died. Children were confused.” She recalls calling his mother, when she informed her, “Your son is sick.” “No, we kicked him out,” was the answer she got.

“Chuck the ‘gay part,’ and accept your kid.” She yells. Perhaps that would not be an ideal stage for acceptance but an acceptable reconciliation, if any, with your child at their vulnerable most. It’s passable as an attempt of caring.

The deceased parents’ sentiments were shared by a larger population of the US back then, needless to say that least has changed in India, too, when it comes to that. Soon the Messe Commission was established “to control people’s reading and viewing habits,” which loosely translated to, consequently, “controlling their sexual habits.”

Flynt notes, who had his own stints with the justice system, “Jail is the worst place to be in but fearing jail is worse.” It’s probably that fear, not of being jailed but the fear of being chided away, disowned and not loved that Joshua was overcompensating in everything he did as a kid. He says, “Realizing I was gay — keeping the secret from the world…,” and gets interrupted by Rachel midway who poses another question: “But did you ever know, see people who’re gay?” He replies that he “actively ignored” them and that he “filled all the gaps in the day’s activities — did everything to compensate the guilt,” along with the “pressure to be strong, to date, to be perfect.”

Toward the end, we see one chapter closing: the bookstore. We see Karen collecting all the archived magazines, DVDs and throwing them into the dustbin. But we do see a new beginning: the Masons started advocating for the Parents and Family of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) and became ambassadors in bringing a change in the behavior toward queer people in the society.

“Parents are a [sic] really smart people for a small window of time,” Karen says with a sly smile. But this language of grief is nothing compared to that of a bookstore, an agency that helped many sail through their own marginalized lives in an hostile country. A bookstore that remained for a long time, their home was their only window toward a world they only dreamt of. Which is why it doesn’t matter if Karena and Barry will remain relevant as parents, but they’ll remain etched in the memory of queer culture as agents of that change that we desire.

Film “Bodies Of Desire”: A Homage To Desire And The Sensuous Nature Of Love

Using Varsha Panikar’s poetry series by the same name, Bodies of Desire is a visual poetry film co-directed by her and Saad Nawab. The visual treat takes the viewers on a journey of intimacy, desire, exploration of self and a yearning for love. The film was released on September 19, 2020 and has been featured in eight film festivals till now, including the very prestigious Berlin Commercial 2020’s Cultural Impact category. The film has also been selected by Nowness Asia, a platform/video channel that features some marvellous works by artists in Asia.

The film begins with a literal buzz in the air. The electricity in the feelings of longing and compassion can be felt in every frame from the get-go. The people in the scenes seem to be mentally prepping for some moments of intense intimacy. The brilliant silent expressions and body contortions really bring forth the jittery nervous energy one feels when they’re in love. Considering the fact that the director worked with actual queer people who had not had any professional acting experience, the actors do an amazing job, especially keeping in mind how difficult it is to signify so many deep emotions without actual dialogues or words.

The film is an homage to desire and the sensuous nature of love. Although the spoken poem is about the journey of love making, with its highs and lows, the choice of not showing something inherently and explicitly sexual is a very clever one. The film does a wonderful job of subverting the “accepted” version of love making shown generally in cinema. It symbolises the intoxicating feeling of being in love by highlighting the little, forgettable moments that hold such unbridled, raw sensuous energy, like caressing your lover’s body, mapping their nakedness and drinking them in just by your eyes, fuelling your inner fires by merely rubbing your face onto theirs.

The film does a great job in bringing up the question of what exactly is considered love making? Is there even a definitive answer?

Sex, whenever spoken in any context, has always meant penetration and release, and most of the times, a woman’s pleasure has never been accounted for in the general, heteronormative explanation of sex. Either that or sex is what causes reproduction. When it comes to queer love making, this limited knowledge of sex arouses several questions in the mind of heterosexuals, and that conversation always has its roots in homophobia and misogyny. The biggest question that Bodies of Desire answers, is, that intimacy is not limited to sex; sex is a secondary part of intimacy. One does not even have to be fully naked to experience an overwhelming sense of intimacy. One does not even have to be with someone to find intimacy and desire burning in their core. Normalising queer love does not only create more avenues of acceptance, but also provides another perspective to the previously considered “normal”.

The poem and the visuals depict love making as a spiritual, emotional and outer-body experience that cleanses the mind, body and soul. The purity in cradling your beloved’s face in your palms and breathing them in with your eyes could hold more depth and intensity than any other act of love. The poem talks about how love finds you even when you’re hidden in the darkest of shadows, how losing yourself in love could help you find yourself; be it the love someone else showers on you or a love you find all by yourself, within you. It answers the question of how nonuniform and random love is, how everyone has a different expression and language of love, and how useless it is to confine it to the binary, the known, when the actual depth of intense love is still unknown. The film asks its audience to open up their minds, to expand their knowledge of what all love, desire and intimacy can possibly mean and entail.

I had the most wonderful opportunity to interview the folks behind this incredible venture. Here’s what they had to say about their filmmaking process.

Q. Sensuality, in its essence, is the electricity disguised in moments of intimacy. The brilliance in cinematography captures that invisible electric nature throughout all the frames. What notes did you keep in mind to make that emphasis as subtle yet powerful as it was?

Varsha: I wanted the film to have a spontaneous and romantic quality like the scattered pages of a diary, or stills that look raw like paintings. One of the most important things was for the characters to look as though they’ve allowed us a peek into their intimate and personal world, like a willingness to submit to another’s gaze, yet be absolutely in control of it.

The intimacy between the characters is something we worked on over a period of time, especially since most of our cast is made up of non-trained actors. We did a series of exercises, from one-on-one auditions where we discussed what intimacy and desire meant to them, what their inhibitions were with self and with scenes of intimacy, what their preferences were with respect to pairing. All this helped build a base of honesty, comfort and trust, which I think is essential before you embark on a project so intimate. These were followed by intimacy workshops, choreography and rehearsals on location which further allows us to discuss inhibitions and boundaries of consent, build chemistry, define the degree of intimacy everyone was comfortable with, which I think allowed the performers to artistically be vulnerable in front of the camera and helped us to create an honest depiction of the character’s individual sexuality and intimacy, which was natural and un-inhibited.

In the end, I think it was all of the prep we did with our amazing bunch of cast, who naturally exuded a vigorous sense of confidence and self-love, and that played a massive role in how authentic it look. That mixed with Kaushal’s cinematic brilliance and the fluidity of his gaze through the lens brought to life the reality we were trying to portray. Eventually, Cornalia’s seamless edit, and Mark’s treatment of the sound design heightened al the emotions and made it into the sensual delight that it is.

Kaushal Shah: “ Bodies of Desire to me was all about tenderness and sensuality, so the camera was in their space and was a part of them. In terms of tone and texture, it had to feel like we were in their environment, one where they could express and allow themselves to be free and vulnerable. Hence, the handheld, and the sort of moody-lit environment where our attention is calculated and put to detail, and hence the extreme -wide use of lensing which is still very close to them. When it came to styling and the look for the cast, I wanted to keep it natural and real, by maintaining the authenticity of the various skin tones we had. I wanted it to look raw and brown in all its glory. I think as a visual artist, it is important to develop a gaze that is fluid and free from bias and prejudices of the world, the society, which allows you to look at the subject in hand in a sort of raw and awe inspiring manner, and that is what makes an image authentic and powerful. The idea of the 4:3 ratio also comes from this very idea, of boxing our mentality, our perception and understanding of thing, and how once you allow it to, within that box you can still explore, evolve, rediscover and create a space, an environment, which has such magic, such emotion, such delight. ”

Saad: Another reason for it being subtle was also the restriction with the budget, but luckily Asawari found us a beautiful location so that helped a lot. Another thing to note, are the alter ego’s that everyone created for themselves during the workshops. The idea was to create an alter ego which would allow them to step into the character and step out of it safely when the shooting was done, and all of the cast including us got to create one for ourselves, everyone had the agency to mould and dictate as per their comfort and desire. It was surprising to see how confident, tender, nuanced and open those alter egos were and I think that is where the electric nature that you mentioned, comes from. Those characters were dynamic and electric, and it came out very naturally.  

The rest of it, is of course, getting on location with the cast and  finding the emotion through the framing and the choices of lens, and then letting pure emotions unfold. We chose wide angle lenses to emphasize solitude so it doesn’t look voyeuristic which  tends to look lustful. That’s where probably the power comes from. Having said that, a powerful imagery is the end result of a whole lot of facets, the action, the emotion, the light, the lens, the edit, the music and the voice, and the wholesomeness and the synergy amongst those facets is what perhaps, makes it powerful.

Q. The background score has an eerie start to it. It begins in a way that the music fades into our ears and then slowly builds up in tempo and pitch as the poem reaches its climax. What was your inspiration behind this creative technique of background scoring, wherein the music’s rise and fall also becomes an appendage to the intimate expression of love making?

Varsha: As is with most things, the text was the starting point, and I created it by stitching together different stanza from the various poems in the series, to give it a seamless narrative structure with five acts. Saad and I, further, broke these down into different emotions and intentions, ranging from moments of longing, of self-contemplation, moving onto to exploration and discovery, leading up to moments of intimacy, of empathy, of love, and eventually, a moment of intense passion, a climax, before ending on an epiphany, a moment of calm, an unabashed boldness and acceptance of self where the poet finally looks back at the audience, leaving them to enquire the beginning and end of things? This graph of emotions and moments dictated the action, the choreography, the edit and hence, the music.

We were trying to create a portrait of intimacy where only the lovers exist, a moment where everything else becomes background noise, and yet the sensuality, the mood, the rhythm of the music had to evoke a sense of raw passion, whether it was with the buzzing of the bumble bee creating a sense of anticipation, or progression in the sound design to reinforce the intensity and emotions of the visuals, it’s highs and lows. It needed to be sensorial and visceral; a sound that had a progression, and an underlying layer of an almost audible atmosphere, like in ASMR. The edit Cornelia Nicol?easa had created was spot on, and the voice over had pretty much been laid out so Mark’s work was no easy task, but he eventually created a sound, that not only retained the mood and the tone of the atmosphere, the poetry, the movement, but elevate the depicted reality and brought it to life.

But this answer would be incomplete without Mark’s POV so here it is.

Mark Spanoudakis : The film is trying to imitate real life which by definition has ups and downs. Additionally, the intimate expression of love making has a certain continuous ‘rhythm’ on its own. Every human being might be different, however, during the love making, we are momentarily synced with each other physically and spiritually. So, my goal was to be able to infuse the score with the same thoughts via rhythms and emotions. To be honest, I always try to be emotional when I make music. This time however, it was quite different. Specific outbreaks were needed in certain parts that should define the amount of unified tension which was challenging, given the fact that the flow needs to make sense and not lose its continuity. Moreover, the poem’s lyrics played a crucial part as well, adding their fair share of emotion and rhythm to the picture. So, my job was to build a set of interesting instrumental sounds that could sync with the VO’s pace and at the same time follow the video editing lead so they could present a mixture of audio-visual rising tension when needed.

Q. As someone who enjoys angst and slow burn in visual and written representations, I have always wondered what is it about the imagery of hands caressing lovingly that poignantly captures the strength of love and simple devotion. Your film is a true testament to the visual expression of that yearning. Why do you think it works the way it works?

We asked all of our prospective cast, 5 things that reminded them of intimacy, and for the majority it was ‘the touch’ and then the smell. When you think of moments of embrace, the touch, the taste, the smell, the first thing that visually strikes you is the touch. The slight brushing of hands with one another, interlacing fingers, their caress on someone else’s skin, their face, palms pressed together, its erotic and romantic, it creates tension, and anticipation.  There is also a certain profoundness and a soothing comfort in touch, and its caress has the power to heal. It is a such a simple act, but it holds great power and has been a subtle metaphor for queer relations for a very long, in literature, art and films. It is fascinating. But in hindsight, a lot of what you see, also came out through the exercises we used during workshops and the choreography, and touching through hands became the language of intimacy, everyone could relate to with ease and authenticity.  I personally consider it as the first instalment of Bodies of Desire – the touch. There is so much more left to express, within those themes, and I can’t wait to explore it further.

Documentary Film ‘Boxed’ Attempts To Discuss The Idea Of Gender Being Something More Than A Binary

‘Boxed’ challenges the gender binary myth, profiles intersections within the trans community and also talks about their vehement opposition toward the Trans Bill of 2019. We spoke to directors Sameeksha Zia and Sumit Raina about ‘Boxed’, and how it came to be.

Q. The subject matter ‘Boxed’ covers seems to span across a long timeline, how did the documentary progress as the months went by?

We shot across a span of 7-8 months last year. The initial idea was to make a short fiction film exploring the subject of gender. But with the movement against the Transgender Persons Bill gathering momentum, and looking at the complexity and vastness of the subject of gender, it became difficult for us to gather our thoughts into a short film. That’s how the idea of a documentary came to be. With this documentary most of our time went into research, to help us stay clear of stereotypes, and not end up offering lazy commentary.

Although we must admit that in the initial stages of the film, be it scripting or even the actual shoot, we placed unnecessary emphasis on the medicalization aspect of gender identity. Only after talking to and being corrected by people along the filming process, we began to look at gender through multiple socio-cultural lenses. Hopefully, that’s evident in the film too. We realised research is not enough. One needs to go out there, talk to the relevant people, and make the film with them as a collaborative effort. There have been many small but impactful changes that we made throughout. For example, many cisgender people use the term ‘trans’ or ‘transgender’ as a noun, and not as an adjective. We often hear someone say ‘she is transgender’ as opposed to ‘she is a trans woman’. We learnt that using the term ‘transgender’ as a noun makes a person’s whole identity about their gender. While a person’s gender identity is an inherent and personal aspect, it is not the only one.

Q. Being cisgendered yourselves, ‘Boxed’ is a collaborative effort with Telangana Hijra Intersex Transgender Samiti (THITS), how did the association begin?

It was Karthik Bittu for us, right since the time when the idea of this film was conceived, he helped with contacting people from the trans community, research, and scripting. It was only because of Bittu that people from the community were willing to talk to us, because there has been a history of misrepresentation and adventurism shown by cisgender people wanting to write or talk about trans people.

We came in touch with THITS through Bittu and then we met more people like Vyjayanti, Rachana, Kiran Raj, Kiran Naik and many others, who not only accepted to be a part of this film, but also put in time and effort to introduce us to more people within the community. We were clear right from the start, due to our inherent biases as cis people, this could only be a collaborative effort.

Q. Is ‘Boxed’ the first project for GAASH? What were your expectations and have they been met, or were there any surprises?

Yes, ‘Boxed’ is the first project for GAASH. We have been very thrilled seeing the response that we got from the people who have watched the documentary. We never expected it to make a personal impact on so many people. Many people have found the content very accessible, and that’s what we intended to do. We are particularly happy with the response we got from the community itself. This being our first feature length film, our biggest fear was a shallow portrayal of the complex subject we were dealing with, thankfully the response has been good so far.

Q. How has the pandemic affected GAASH? What’s next?

Fortunately, not much. We weren’t planning to shoot or do any field work during this time, so the pandemic has not affected work. At present, it’s just the two of us running GAASH and we are doing all the work from home. We recently concluded a two month long fundraising campaign to support trans people, people with disability and people living with HIV in the states of Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Telangana. This was done with the help of multiple unfunded grassroots collectives.

We will definitely be making more films but the idea is to not just restrict ourselves to films. We plan to cover a range of subjects in different media like music, podcasts etc., and collaborate with many people on the way. We will be coming up soon with a project that gives us a chance to interact with our audience. All the details will be posted on our Instagram gaash.is.here. Stay tuned!

You can now watch ‘Boxed’ below.

https://youtu.be/A3pDcJvB_60

‘Boxed’ was screened as part of Vikalp@Prithvi’s weekly online screenings-cum-Q&A, started during the lockdown period.

‘Vikalp: Films for Freedom’ was born as a parallel film festival in the face of censorship imposed on documentary filmmakers during the Mumbai International Film Festival (MIFF) 2004.

To join the mailing list, sign up at www.bit.ly/vikalpform

Girls’ Shorts At Kashish 2020

Six films were selected for the ‘Girls Shorts’ category of the Kashish Mumbai International Queer Film Festival. Reading the category name for the first time, I figured it only included women filmmakers, but no.

Five out of six filmmakers were women. The odd one out, and first in the line up was 6:23 am by Geoffrey Breton (please note that the ‘Boys Shorts’ film category didn’t have a single female director, which is: not surprising). When contacted, a Kashish representative clarified that the film categorisation was solely content-based, irrespective of gender and sexuality (of the filmmaker). Still, the gendered separation of content into categories like ‘Girls Shorts’ and ‘Boys Shorts’ seems at best, odd and so is 6:23 am.

The film’s bio reads: ‘Two women, who met in a club early in the morning, are watching the sun come up together, when one of them realizes something which could ruin everything.’

The story description does its best to signal the stereotypes and cliches that await us in 6:23 am. That one of them has forgotten the other’s name, despite having spent 5 hours together- is the conflict in this film. Here it is important to realise that they met in a (presumably loud) club and probably exchanged names only once. The fact that they spent 5 hours together should mean more than forgetting the other’s name. But no, men love painting women as overreacting to everything. The-one-whose-name-has-been-forgotten even says something on the lines of- oh no I am being oversensitive about it. It seems like it’s every man’s wet dream to have a woman say this to them. Even without the male gaze, the dialogue feels gimmicky, like the two are playing out their parts in a melodrama, and time is running out. The only good thing about 6:23 am is that it’s about 5 mins long and is immediately followed by Babe.

Babe tells us the story of a lesbian couple in South Korea trying for a child.
As they meet each potential sperm donor, director Sylvan Zhao, illustrates three different men (gay and straight) united in their misogyny. One refuses because he is homophobic, the second (who is gay) accepts on the condition that both women get pregnant and give the second child to his partner and him. The third sexually propositions them and goes on a homophobic rant when refused.

In obvious mental anguish, the two women reach out to each other and comfort themselves. A mutual friend is the third female character, whose cafe is a safe space for the three of them. In the cafe, they eat dinner, drink, and laugh, reveling in the warmth of their friendship. Your heart breaks for these women, but it also allows a sense of comfort when you see them in the cafe, at the end of difficult days, filled with love and support for each other.

Babe shines the brightest in this category.

Compared to Babe, the third short film, ‘Touch’ refuses to pacify us with warm moments.

The film’s bio calls it a ‘visual poem of memory, grief and letting go’. Whatever little comfort the film offers us, is snatched away quickly. Shot on 16mm film, a woman drags a chair through the wilderness, climbing past rocks covered in smatterings of turquoise and emerald, looking in between the green canopy and the grass for her lover. At brief moments her memory complies and she is reunited with her, only to be dragged back to reality.

With the visual aesthetic of a sapphic cottage core dream gone wrong, director Noemie Nakai’s silent short fills in the dialogue void with orchestral music, rising and falling with the protagonist. Touch is a five minute long visual experiment that at first confuses and then yields to the viewer’s imagination. It is unlike the visual media adopted by other films in the line up, which is reason enough for its recommendation.

In terms of what to expect, Touch and ‘Knowingly Unknown’ are polar opposites. The fourth film focuses on a mother’s acceptance of her daughter’s sexuality. Kyung Hye -a nurse in her daughter’s school- notices that her daughter, Ye Shin, has started smiling at her phone while texting. This leads to Kyung Hye semi-snooping on her daughter and finding out that Ye Shin likes a girl in her class. An argument between mother and daughter ends in Ye Shin screaming that she is in love with a girl, followed by Kyung Hye’s meek ‘how can you do this to me?’. A few days of silent treatment coupled with Kyung Hye realising there is another gay couple in school, leads to her quiet acceptance of Ye Shin and Su Jeong. She even goes as far as to say that maybe they should invite Su Jeong home for pizza.

While this short film isn’t exactly extraordinary, the chemistry between mother and daughter actor duo is perfect- the daughter’s teenage angst and mother’s despair translate wonderfully from script to film. Also, it is always nice to see a parent accept their child’s sexuality, irrespective of how many times you have seen it before.

In many ways Geoffrey Breton’s 6:23 am and -fifth in the line up- Sparkman Clark’s Greta irk you in the same ways. Greta is about Greta, a depressed employed white girl in New York city, whose parents pay her rent.
The world has moved past the need for another sob story about a rich white girl living in New York, but Clark doesn’t seem to think so. Acting, writing, directing and producing this short film, she tries to go the Fleabag route but doesn’t quite succeed.

This is the film’s bio: “Armed with self-loathing, hopelessness and existential dread, 22-year-old Greta tries to find one thing about adulthood that doesn’t suck. It’s a lost cause until she meets a woman named April. It’s a comedy about depression.”

You are told the film is funny even before you watch it and are supposed to laugh along with dialogues that seem to be picked up verbatim from a Buzzfeed article on Millennials, words like existential dread co-exist with generic rants about adulthood. Greta’s psychiatrist seems incompetent, this may be intentional, as it creates a set-up for another one of Greta’s Buzzfeed sourced dialogues.

The film starts to free fall when Greta’s love interest is introduced. It’s a fan-fic-meet-cute if there ever was one (imagine the awkward = adorable trope, and if you were in any doubt, the dialogue between the two confirms it). Greta’s interaction with her new friend reveals a huge hole in her character. She immediately goes from sullen to talkative. We are supposed to believe that this personality makeover is all due to the new girl in Greta’s life.

I sincerely hope that we, as a society, have tried to replicate heterosexual rom-coms in our own lives enough times to call bullshit on this.

In the end, it seems like Greta tries to advertise a new relationship, jogging on the waterfront and watching the sun rise, as a cure for depression. Apart from the many things that don’t make it Fleabag, Clark’s Greta tries to redeem the main character in the end, which is completely missing the point.

‘And Returning’ is the last short film. As Rina prepares to meet Eli for dinner, you realise something is off right into the film. Before and after talking to Eli on the phone, Rina’s face wears an almost pained look. As night falls they make their way to the restaurant, and reminisce about the first time they ate there. Later by the water, Rina has something to say, the narrative has been building up to this moment, it suddenly starts to feel like it’s the last time they can be together this way. They embrace -hopefully not their last one- as Eli learns Rina is to be married next month.

‘And Returning’ is a mild short about the difficulties of same-sex love for most Asian women, bound by overwhelming societal pressure to marry a man (Taiwan is the first and only country in Asia to legalise same sex marriage) and settle. It gives us a much needed narrative about the arranged marriage scam Asian women are subjected to, and how it is especially unfair to queer Asian women. This short gives us a quiet ending -with just the right amount of melancholy- to the ‘Girls Shorts’ category.

“Moothon” Is An Uncomfortable Yet Tender Exploration Of Love And Loss

Geetu Mohandas’ second venture Moothon opens with a serene sequence by the beach and a lullaby playing in the background, which makes the mood for a tender viewing experience, but do not be fooled by the opening sequence; the film is gritty, dark and violent at times, so much so that it makes the audience feel uncomfortable. But when it comes to exploring romance, the film presents that in the tenderest way, with lesser dialogues and actions and more silences and gestures. It is this dichotomy of feelings that one has to navigate throughout Moothon. It is at once the most raw and brutal depiction of violence in the form of ritual or crime, and simultaneously it is also fantasy-like in some moments like the sequence with a mermaid. One would like to believe in the narration in some of the sequences, but the disbelief soon seeps in making you question the narration. This duality is perhaps the key element that the film has to offer.

The story revolves around Mulla who goes to Mumbai in search of their ‘Moothon’ or elder brother. The story unfolds like the peels of an onion, and has layered revelations, surprises and unexpected turns including a flashback that becomes a major driving point for the film. Mulla meets Bhai in Mumbai, an underworld don and we get to know more about his relevance in the storyline through the flashback. I would not reveal the story any further, but spoiler alerts because it would be difficult to write a review for this film without talking about certain aspects that hold special relevance to the film.

Mulla played by Sanjana Dipu is one of the central characters in the narrative, but sadly the character feels underwritten and underdeveloped. There are numerous doubts that you have about Mulla’s character after you are done watching the film, and I do not know if it was intentional, but the way gender was represented in the film was confusing. Mulla, when we first meet them, is a male character and we see them wearing baggy clothes as if trying to conceal something. In the flashback, we get to know that Mulla is assigned female by birth. But towards the end, Mulla, a character which was looking so promising owing to the non-binary angle of the character, is forced to be a female. However, Sanjana Dipu has played the character effortlessly, and she shines through in some of the most difficult scenes involving violence. We see a sense of non-belonging, questioning inside the character, and Dipu has portrayed it with ease. Till the climax, the audience could be trying really hard to understand this gender politics, but some might be disappointed with how it turned out to be in the climax. It almost felt like the audience was provided with a happy ending, but that was not in sync with the character’s happiness. It showed the character being content in something that they are forced into, but it didn’t even divulge into the issues of gender that the film and the character started with, in the first place. Why did Mulla, an assigned female, dress up as a man? Was it sheerly out of the comfort of protection that the ‘supposed’ man’s position in the society  provides, or was it related to gender-dysphoria, or was it to protect Mulla from the history of her family? These are some questions that remain unanswered despite multiple viewing of the film, but the way this issue was dealt with in the film is certainly problematic.

Another central character is Bhai/Akbar played by Nivin Pauly. Nivin is a superstar in the Malayalam film industry, and he is known for feel-good and action roles, however, here he shines through in a character categorically different than what he is used to doing. He is real, brutal, violent and scary but he is also vulnerable, tender and innocent, simultaneously. This ability to play two characters that can be considered to be the opposites in an axis is something special, and Nivin shines through and deserves all the applaud. We see him first as Bhai, a don in the underbelly of Mumbai who is bent up on inflicting violence on himself, speaks very less, indulges in all types of drugs, and at this point, it might seem like he is a stereotype of a don character of Hindi cinema, but he is not. With the usual don characters in Hindi/mainstream cinema, the violence is most often directed towards enemies or others, but here the don inflicts violence on himself as if he regrets being what he has become. This don is in pain, he feels the power he has, but he also feels powerless at the hands of destiny. Nivin is hauntingly real in the sequences as Bhai, and some audiences might feel extremely uncomfortable with all the violence and drugs that he indulges in since it is shot in a hyper-realistic way. We also meet Nivin as Akbar, a Muslim boy from Lakshwadeep who is known in the community for his spiritual power and for his ability to perform ‘Kuthu Ratheeb’, a Muslim ritual. Here, we get to know the background behind this ease of inflicting violence on himself, and we are contextualized with a history of the character. Nivin’s character is perhaps the most developed and well-written character in the film. Although we see him performing the ritual of Kuthu Ratheeb, involving a lot of self-harm and violence, we also see a sense of tenderness and innocence in the way unspoken desires emerge through the ritual. We see him falling in love, we see him struggling with his feelings and then going through loss and in every distinct emotion, he feels real, he feels our own, he feels grounded. The amount of vulnerability and innocence that Nivin brings into the scene with Akbar is polar-opposite to the violent and stubborn Bhai we see in Mumbai. He portrays Akbar’s vulnerability with all his heart, and he portrays Bhai’s stubbornness with equal dedication and in that the film belongs to Nivin’s wonderful, incomparable performance.

Another character, although a supporting character and having hardly 20-30 minutes of screen time, that made an impact was that of Aamir, portrayed by Roshan Mathew. Aamir is a mute, queer man from Lakshwadeep who falls in love with Akbar but fails to fulfill his dream of loving. It is a challenging character, because he has no dialogues and has to portray most of his feelings and emotions through gestures, and Roshan has excelled at that. He has played such a difficult character so convincingly, and most of the times with just his eyes, that you almost wanted more of his character in the film. His character’s silence and Akbar’s insistence on understanding the silence is perhaps one of the most beautiful features of the film. Geetu Mohandas has handled this queer love story so sensitively and with such care that you are almost in disbelief that it is part of the otherwise gritty and dark film. You are transported to the shores of Lakswadeep and immersed in an unnamed love affair which is too good to be true. There is a 2-3 minute sequence between Akbar and Aamir that ends with the word ‘Akbar’ being whispered by mute Aamir into Akbar’s ears, and that will surely leave you in tears. If Akbar is the soul of the film, then Aamir is the heart beating loudly even in his silence.

There are some other minor characters in the film, notable among them is Salim played by Shashank Arora, Moosa played by Dileesh Pothan, Latheef played by Sujith Shankar, and Rosy played by Sobhita Dhulipala. Rosy is the stereotype of a sex worker in Hindi cinema, who is street-smart, beautiful and likes to curse a lot. The character does not have much to offer, but Sobhita manages to play a believable part. Latheef’s character is another important and interesting arc which could have been developed further. Sujith Shankar plays the part of a transgender quite well, even though the character is under-written. We are not told much about them, but the character has some sort of relationship with Bhai, and Bhai comes to seek their help. Sujith portrays the confusion and stark realities that one faces in a society that is hell-bent on forcing everyone into binaries. However, one of the biggest disappointments is the way Salim’s character was presented. It is definitely an under-written character and Shashank portrays even that so effectively that you are almost rooting for him despite him being in a not-so positive role.

Now that we are done with characters, let’s come to some of the interesting concepts that have been explored in the film. One of the interesting things that caught my eye was how intimacy was shown in violence and ritual. There is one sequence where Aamir has an epileptic seizure of some sort, and has passed out, and Akbar comes in to perform rituals to make him better. While Akbar is blowing duas into Aamir’s mouth, both of them exchange a look of love through their eyes. It transcends the boundary of ritualistic practices and delves into an unexplored area of intimacy. It is one of those rare queer moments that we fail to acknowledge. Another such sequence is when Akbar is performing the Kuthu Ratheeb ritual and inflicting violence on his body, but simultaneously making eyes with Aamir who looks at him with all fondness. The fact that intimacy exists in rituals is something a lot of us could have never imagined before, and in that, the film makes a point.

Another interesting concept is the realization and handling of queerness, and I would not talk much about this because one needs to see to realize how beautifully that has been portrayed in the film. There is a video titled ‘Mirror Scene’ of Moothon on its official YouTube channel that you should definitely check out to see how well it was done. In this particular scene, Nivin gave one of those rare moments filled with vulnerability, innocence, anxiety as well as joy. It is a goosebump-inducing scene, and must be acknowledged for what it is. Geetu Mohandas managed to tell a run-of-the-mill love story in such a unique and tender way that one wonders what this film could have achieved if it was just about this particular aspect.

But the film is not just about that and that brings me to the problems of the narrative. First of all, the gender politics that Mulla’s character traverses through as discussed earlier is extremely problematic. The gender politics again comes to the fore when Latheef’s character undresses from their usual saree to a man’s cloth to meet Bhai. Since no context has been given to the character’s behavior, it comes off as problematic. Another problem is the excessive uses of violence, even in rituals which further enforces the stereotype of angry Muslim men, and if you see, most of the characters including Akbar, Moosa and Salim are angry, violent and brute. Although we see Akbar and Aamir being tender and innocent at some point, most of the narrative is focused on this violent behavior whether it is of criminal consequence or of religious significance. The first half of the film especially strengthens this stereotype, however, in the second half we see a welcome change and some tenderness and playfulness in the characters of Akbar and Moosa, but that doesn’t last long.

Coming to the technical front, Geetu Mohandas has directed the film with all care, and with Anurag Kashyap’s involvement, the Mumbai underbelly scene comes out raw and unabashed like his other films. Mohandas’ exploration of the space of Lakshwadeep is simultaneously tender and gritty. However, the script by Mohandas and Kashyap comes off as inconsistent at times. One is constantly trying to navigate through the duality of the mood in the film, and some of the contexts to a character’s behavior are absent. Some of the characters feel like stereotypes of representation in mainstream films. Even the fact that Akbar turned into an angry, misogynist gangster after a failed love affair is something that comes off as unbelievable and inconsistent to the storyline. The cinematography of the film done by Rajeev Ravi deserves an applaud. He has not only presented two variably different scenarios but has done it with such efficiency that you are almost transported to the locations while watching the film. The two stark scenarios of dark and dingy Mumbai and open and calm shores of Laskshwadeep through Ravi’s eyes are worth a watch.

Another factor that worked really well for the film was the background score by Sagar Desai. Desai’s mournful and mystic tune that re-surfaces throughout the film adds a dimension to the film. The film does not overuse music, unlike many other mainstream films, but rather keeps it as an emotional trigger to the scene. Especially, the love song that is being played out when Akbar and Aamir are together will surely evoke feelings in you.

Moothon tries to work around a lot of areas from the politics of underworld and crime to gender and queerness, but it does none of them entirely. It falls into the trap of being a Masala film trying to be an arthouse morality drama. It evokes all the right feelings but also transcends into the problematic territory of gender politics without ever actually engaging with it on a deeper level. It gives Nivin the right slow-mo entry that we have come to associate with heroes of big blockbusters, but it also antagonizes him, makes him feel more human. In this process of transcending from one story to the other, from one mood to the other, from violence to tenderness, from erotics to the phobic, it loses its essence somewhere. But, it is definitely worth a watch, for the performances of Nivin and Roshan and as it is a visual and sensory experience that has its problems, but also has so many beautiful and effective moments stitched together in a roller-coaster ride. The queer love story explored in the film alone makes it worth a watch, because in the world of tokenism, we can surely do with a passionate, tender representation of queer romance.

Film “Yes or No” Is A classic Rom-Com That Asks All The Right Questions.

The feelings ‘Yes or No’ evokes are both expected and not. It makes important points about the queer-verse, while giving us small helpings of the toxicity and cringe necessary for romantic comedies. Set in Thailand, it reveals the underlying homophobia of a country that appears accepting on the outside. At the time of it’s 2010 release, it was the first lesbian genre film in Thailand

Kim and Pie meet in college. Pie changes her room and is assigned one with Kim, but immediately wants to change again, because Kim is a ‘tomboy’. In Thai culture (just like in colloquial Indian understanding), a ‘tomboy’ is a woman who presents herself in masculine fashion. She may not necessarily be a lesbian, but is assumed to be one, based on her appearance. Pie’s second room-change request is denied and she begrudgingly accepts Kim as her roommate. Pie is rude, draws a line across their respective space in the room and leaves no opportunity to reiterate her disdain of tomboys.

All of this is taken a bit too nicely by Kim. She is kind to Pie, attempts conversation and even cooks for her. As rom-coms go, Pie starts to warm up to Kim. Their relationship progression is problematic because it puts the onus of being likeable on Kim, who has done nothing wrong, and exempts Pie from the consequences of her terrible behaviour.

Pie comes from a vocally homophobic family with financial and class privilege, that is vocally homophobic, with a  college circle that is pretty diverse in terms of sexuality, with a lesbian (her previous roommate) and a gay friend, but her attitude toward Kim betrays Pie’s homophobic conditioning and the absurd belief (that exists in the community too) of ‘looking’ queer (that you have to look a certain way to be valid as this gender and that sexuality). Pie’s behaviour also dispels the myth that money, education and class privilege equal ‘progressive ideals’.

For a community that struggles to be recognised as valid by external actors, more often that not, queer relationships feel the pressure to be portrayed as perfect, in order to increase that claim for validity. ‘Yes or No’ does not conform to this unrealistic expectation and has its own share of toxicity in the form of misunderstandings, jealousy and the subsequent murder of some jellyfish, running away, rejections taken very badly and the inability to stand up to a homophobic mother.

The movie uses a mixture of humour and cringe to lighten the mood, but the real hilarity of the movie is its general and poor opinion of straight men, which is venturing not too far from the truth. ‘Yes or No’ is a classic rom-com that asks all the right questions. Although you may ask yourself ‘Why?’ more than once, ‘Yes or No’ -where the biggest problem is your ex-roommate liking your current roommate, who you are in denial about also liking- is a welcome escape from the nightmare we live in right now.  The will-they or won’t-they is consistent throughout the movie, and I won’t spoil the ending for you, but I’m sure you can guess.

‘Yes or No’ is available for streaming on Netflix.

Book Review: “Rainbow Boys” And “Rainbow Girls” By Kamla Bhasin & Priya Kuriyan

‘Rainbow Boys’ and ‘Rainbow Girls’ are two lovely children’s books published on Storyweaver by Pratham Books for Level 3. The books, focusing on boys and girls as both the subjects as well as the audience of the story, are simple and direct, quite in line with the author’s very direct and concise style of communication.

The central message behind both the books is this: all children are individuals and all individuals are unique . Through 12-13 pages each, both the books use different scenarios of a child’s life and form – from indoors to outdoors, behaviour to preferences – and take you through a visual exhibit of uniqueness in its varied forms to communicate this central message of not boxing in young humans (and hopefully older ones too!) as heteronormative-ly female or male through their bodies and behaviours.

Between the ages of 0 and 7, most of our emotional programming and conditioning takes shape. Of course, with time and experience there are changes in this conditioning but the emotional foundation of our own worthiness, the world and both in relation to each other is pretty much developed early on. The simple message of honoring the uniqueness of each individual is something that is almost crucial to be built in the minds of as many young lives as possible, if not all. This foundation of one’s self esteem is set through being seen, heard, accepted and loved unconditionally for all that one is. When that is cluttered with norms on behaviour and physical appearance, the foundation for a healthy self esteem begins to fracture.

At the very start of a human’s life, based on the sex that one is born with, documents such as a birth certificate assign a child their gender. So, almost instantly a male child becomes a man and a female child becomes a woman with a heavy set of rules on what being a cis-male or female ought to be. This leads to two things – not only does it create the hugely confusing and invalidating experience of young children who may not be cisgender or heterosexual, but it also creates a discourse invisibilising anyone who does not identify with heteronormative gender binary. At the core of a child’s emotional construction is required the foundation of love and acceptance and the freedom to play and explore itself. That after all, is the process of life, to explore and play with a sense of wonder and find meaning in one’s own journey. However, the wonder of play is often marred early on when children find themselves rejected, bullied, mocked, shamed or abandoned for not falling in line with gendered norms of existence; often leaving scars well into adulthood.

The hope through education is to consistently allow each child the opportunity to be free to learn about and make space for identity markers that speak to one’s authentic truth. This is where I really appreciate how simply these two books with Ms Kuriyan’s playful illustrations drive home the need to see and accept oneself and other children (and everyone!) as unique individuals.

Initially, when I had read both the books, I did wish for them to be made into one and called Rainbow Children to communicate the need to look at people and not just their gender starting from the title itself. But then, I realised that it is parents who get to help young readers access books and considering that gendered binary division of human beings starts at birth itself, I think it is a good way to disarm parents who may be firmly rooted in a binary way of looking at their children and gender at large. Perhaps, we could have a third version of this book and call it Rainbow Children for parents who do not want to make literature specific to their child’s sex and
explore the non-binary?

Love On The Spectrum – Some Thoughts By An Autistic Queer Person

There I sat, stimming as we autistics call it. If you were to see me then you would probably do the same thing many people did before you – guess I’m an unapproachable person and move away. My self stimulatory behaviours, or stimming for short have a tendency to do that – I might be jumping flapping my hands around or biting the living hell out of a pen cap, some of us prefer to rock back and forth or smell certain things or feel certain things or do any of the other myriad of activities that give us sensory stimulation. Us Autistics have a very close relationship with sensory stimuli, whether it is too much or too little we tend to have a problem with it. We come out as weird in this world that fails to understand us and our ways, maybe that works both ways, with us not able to understand a lot of the ways the world works – like how to make friends or how to behave on a date.

Coming to dates, that’s exactly what I was watching – a Netflix series called “love on the spectrum” showcasing Autistic people dating other Autistics. It was definitely a revealing look into a world unseen by most but too uncomfortably familiar to the Autistics. It showed the dating lives of autistic people – something a lot of people (sometimes even ourselves) think is impossible. The show showed dating lives of people with varying levels of need. There is a popular saying in the Autistic community that if you have met one Autistic you have met one Autistic, as Autism presents itself differently in every individual. The same can be said about our dating lives – each is different from the other. Ours is a spectrum that is more complex than can be approximated on to one axis of a graph.

Coming to what the show did well, I guess what it did give us was good representations in the media – something we are in dire need of, might I say with more urgency than queer representation on the screen. Most times when autistic people are shown in the screen, it is in deeply offensive, degrading way just like the society thinks about us – a bunch of weirdos who just can’t fit in, a burden to our families and something that should be eradicated from the face of this planet – something that is even done by our “saviours” (look up the video “I am Autism” on YouTube and see for yourself). The show gives a perspective on how the needs of every autistic individual is different – how we, in our “rigid” “structured” ways try to piece out something that many of us feel is from another planet. Another thing I think the show did was to show that queer Autistics exist – something a lot of queer folks have trouble wrapping their head around. There has been this false narrative that if an Autistic person is queer, they are asexual (Ace Autistics do exist but not all queer Autistics are Aces) and it needs to go away. It also shows how differently us Autistics perceive different things in relationships – like how many of us want a stable permanent relationship – this arises not from heteronormativity but from some of our inherent inability to deal with change, which is a constant thing in many short term relationships as is common with many queer relationships. We want relationships that can give us a break from the overload that the neurotypical world forces on to us. I also like the portrayal of Autistic couples who have stood the test of time and reassures you to keep looking for that one person.

Here are some of the things I did not like in the show. For one, I did not like the way the neurotypicals were too imposing on the Autistics (as is ever the case). While I do agree that a relationship therapist can be helpful, I do not think they should stop an autistic person from doing what they do to comfort themselves, something that is a carry forward from the way society treats autistics like the horrible ABA (Applied Behavioural Analysis) techniques used to make us comply with the neurotypical way of life (The YouTuber Stephanie Bethany did a very good expose’ on it. Do check out that video. She’s Autistic as well so you will hear the autistic perspective and not the narratives of our “saviours” which often drowns our voices). I would also have liked more queer representation,  in the show as more fraction of Autistics identify with non cis-heterosexual identities than in the neurotypical crowd. I also would like there to be trans people in there as trans Autistic lives matter. I also wonder what it would have been to include neurotypicals into the mix (Although from personal experience, I do not wish it on any Autistic person. But who knows… maybe there are nice neurotypicals out there who accommodate us and all our needs).

In conclusion, do I recommend the show? Well, yes. Do give it a watch. It is one of the more accurate representation of our lives seen on screen I have found were Autistic people are allowed to speak for ourselves. But do not consider our stories limited to just these. A fellow Autistic said in the show that 95% of us remain alone.(Me and a few autistic queer friends tried to find the source of this but was unable to find it. The closest we found was a study and that said just 31% of Autistic people ever had a partner and only 9% were married, compared to neurotypicals were the marriage rate was 50%. On the person’s defence, they did say they were not sure about it) It is not that we don’t crave for the same love and affection that the neurotypicals do, sometimes we feel it even more than you. To my fellow neurotypical (Autistic with ADHD, whatever it may be) on the pursuit of love, I want to say I feel your struggle. The neurotypicals tend on average not to care much about our lives, be they queer or otherwise. But the courage that we have to exist every single day is something I feel they can never achieve. In spite of the glaring statistic in front of us, we keep on hoping bravely for companionship. We keep marching bravely forward even though there are only few hands to hold on the way.

I think it is time the able bodied able minded queers take a hard look at what they are doing to us queers with disabilities. And many of us without the caste-class privilege don’t even get our voices out and a lot of us are non verbal and can’t communicate through regular means. Queer liberation doesn’t mean shit till it stands for liberation of ALL queers. Amplify disabled voices. Our voices deserve centre stage and we should have more than autism forums on the internet and support groups to raise our voices.

(Not) Just Another Love Story…But A Story Worth Telling!

When queer love stories are etched onto the screen, oftentimes we forget about the structures of the society and just portray queer lives as a distanced phenomenon from the social life. The fact that queerness is not only something restricted to sexuality, but also applies to class, caste, religion, ability et al comes through in this cinematic piece. It is not just another love story about two queers, but a love story about queers who are on the margins within their community as well. This is a love story about the journey between living and existing, the journey between becoming and unbecoming, the journey between desire and death. It does not have a happy ending, it doesn’t give you hope, but it beautifully portrays pain and loss and the pleasures in-between.

Nagarkirtan (2017) [English Title: The Eunuch and the Flute Player] is a story about two characters, Puti, a trans-woman stuck in a man’s body living in a ghetto for hijras in Kolkata with her Gurumaa and her chosen family, and Madhu, a cis-gender man who is a flutist with a kirtan group and a part-time delivery boy from the rural heartlands of Bengal. It is a usual love story where the two meet and fall in love instantly, but the queerness comes through during the realization of this love for each other, especially for Madhu who keeps doubting his actions of loving a man (for him Puti remains a man because of her physical body). However, Madhu gets over this hesitation of queerness and decides to run away with Puti to give her a better life and then the story unfolds. As the story unravels, we see these two unlikely characters traversing through love and loss. I would not reveal any further details about the story-line because that would be unfair to the audience and filmmaker. It is a story to be seen and felt rather than read and understand.

Riddhi Sen portrays Puti/Parimal, a transgender woman living in a ghetto with her gurumaa and chosen family. She spends most of her days begging on the roads, but in between we get to see her desires of becoming a woman physically. She stresses over and over that she is a woman born inside a man’s body, and she wants to have a full-body surgery to have her body in sync with her mind and soul. But she also worries about the pain that will be caused to her physically while transitioning; she is also worried about the financial cost of the procedure. These are some concerns that mainstream queer stories otherwise tend to overlook. The fact that Puti has to worry about the financial burden of transitioning is not an isolated or imaginary incident, but an everyday reality of many queer folx that mainstream queer narratives often tend to bypass. We also get to know from flashbacks about how Parimal turned into Puti which brings me to the mirror scene. This was the second Indian film I saw with queer characters which has utilized a mirror scene as a revelatory sequence. Moothon (2019) has a similar scene with Nivin Pauly which is heartwarming and heartbreaking simultaneously. But in Nagarkirtan (2017), the sequence portrays the becoming and unbecoming of Parimal/Puti. This sequence comes right after a severe heartbreak for Parimal, and he dresses up as a bride in front of the mirror only to remove it all in hurry thinking about the impossibility of the happiness that she seeks as Puti. Parimal sees Puti for the first time in that mirror, and she cries in pain of the heartbreak and perhaps, in wonder of what is to come for her.

Ritwick Chakraborty as Madhu is a conflicted character, and that comes through in his expressions and gestures. Ritwick is known to act with his eyes, and he does exactly that throughout this film. Although he has a lot of dialogues, considering he is one of the leads, but most of the consequential sequences with him only uses this trope of gestures and expressions. His character is as human as possible; it has flaws and yet surfaces as a kind and loving human at the end. His character is a village boy who is not only grappling with the questions of class, but also of sexuality. He does not earn much, but he wants to make Puti’s life better by helping her physically transition into a woman. However, he does not want to fully acknowledge the fact that his partner is stuck inside the body of a man, he feels shame, he questions himself and asks, “???? ????? ????? ????? ????? (Can two boys fall in love?)”, and even goes to the extent of asking Puti not to open her false hair in front of him because that would reveal her real hair which reminds him of the physicality of queerness. He does not want to acknowledge the queerness of the body, but wants to bind it into the binary. Ritwick’s character does not question the queerness, but rather avoids it altogether like when he takes Puti to his ancestral home without thinking of the consequences that it would bring on them. He struggles through his queerness throughout the film, but is definitive about the fact that he wants Puti to have a better life. His love for Puti is not restricted by the queerness despite his inability to acknowledge this queerness.

Other supporting characters comprise mostly of transgenders who form the ghetto where Puti lives. Amongst them, the character of Gurumaa/Aroti played by Shankari Mandal Naskar stands out. She has portrayed the structural power within hijra community unabashedly. She is tough yet vulnerable, and to ensure that everyone around acknowledges her power, she exerts that power even when she talks to non-trans folk, like when she tells Madhu, “???? ???? ????? ?????  (Do not have any other settings)”. She does not shy away from showing her control over her chelas, and even goes to limits to control her chelas including Puti, like in the scene where Puti is wearing a blouse that reveals much more than Gurumaa had anticipated. Her character is real, raw and honestly portrayed. Another supporting character that shines through is that of Madhu’s sister-in-law Geeta played by Bidipta Chakraborty. The sequences between Geeta and Puti are the strongest scenes, especially the scene when Sudipta undresses in front of Puti thinking her to be a woman, while Puti just stares at Geeta’s body as if in pain of what she does not have.

Director Kaushik Ganguly has previously worked on two films focused on queer narratives, most notable of them being Just… Another Love Story (2010) starring the late thespian Rituparno Ghosh. In an interview, Ganguly said that his previous cinema on queer narrative, namely, Just… Another Love Story (2010)was not satisfactory to him because it was influenced by filmmaker-actor Rituparno Ghosh who was actively involved in the filmmaking process. Ganguly says that Nagarkirtan (2017) is “?????? ??????? ?????? ????… ?????????!” which roughly translates to “a type of purification of… Just Another Love Story”. He explains that although Just… Another Love Story (2010) was a queer love story, it dealt with an affluent section which didn’t have to grapple with the issues of class along with their queerness. However, in Nagarkirtan (2017) he deals with not only queerness but also class issues, and that’s why he thinks it is purification. Kaushik Ganguly as the director and writer of the film has done his job in a nuanced way. He has portrayed lives from the margins of the margins and kept it as real as possible without falling prey to tokenism. His characters are living, breathing human beings. His direction brings our gaze to a section which often goes unnoticed.

The movie engages with lots of issues including the everyday politics of modern Bengal. For example, in one of the scenes it shows a Saraswati Pujo event where people are dancing and among them there is someone wearing a skullcap. This was perhaps the director’s way to show the syncretism that still exists in Bengal. It also uses symbolism often without portraying things explicitly, for example, the love-making scene where we see overflowing hot-dish instead of the intensity of the two bodies. It also rakes up other political issues like land rights of people living in a slum area, and ghettoisation of the hijra community. The film although made for a mainstream audience, tries to slide these issues implicitly into the narrative to be noticed and felt. It also does not shy away from dealing with the inner politics of hijra community, for example, we see how Puti is treated when she is found begging in an area not allotted to her group, and how violently she is made to apologize. It also brings much needed attention to rituals within the hijra community like the initiation ceremony. It further deals with the relationship between mainstream society and the hijra community when they are out on the roads.

But, let’s also come to the problems of this narrative because nothing is perfect. First of all, the gender preference struggle has often been associated to heartbreak in the film, and it confuses how heartbreak can be the sole reason for changing gender preference. Gender dysphoria is a complicated issue and to just represent it to be a result of romantic heartbreak is trivializing the matter, in my opinion. Perhaps a more nuanced and round conversation surrounding gender preference would have benefited the film. In this reference, the last scene of the film left me confused and angry, because that wasn’t something I was particularly in sync with. Secondly, when the end credit rolls, one is surprised to note that all the transgender characters have been billed as ‘Transgenders’ except for Puti and Gurumaa. They haven’t even been given the agency of names, an identifier which is otherwise available to characters that have much less screen time like the child actor who portrays ‘Goja’. It is ironic how a film about trans bodies reduces all the supporting trans characters to just ‘transgenders’ without any name or character arc.

On the technical front, the magic of Sirsha Ray’s cinematography has yet again worked in this film. His portrayal of ghetto, slum, village et al seems original and authentic. He does not shy away from representing scenarios as they are without sanitizing or decorating them for the mainstream audience. Another important part of the film is its background score. While kirtans play throughout the movie, they are in sync with the sequences that they are playing in, and add to the scenes. Prabuddha Banerjee’s subtle yet powerful background score keeps you hooked to the film. The theme music surfaces a lot of times throughout the runtime, but one does not get bored or get enough of the music. It brings a certain kind of vulnerability and helplessness that perhaps no dialogues can bring in. It is also disturbingly haunting at times, especially during the climax sequence which almost makes you feel helpless and gasping for breath.

The film is a study of queerness in multiple forms, whether it is the woman stuck in a man’s body, or the man struggling to identify with his sexual preference. It does not shy away from portraying a community that has been ostracized from the mainstream for so long, and it does so without any sanitization. Oftentimes, when mainstream movies featuring ‘stars’ deal with queer topics, it is deemed as ‘controversial’. Nagarkirtan (2017) met the same fate as news articles had bold titles like ‘controversial film’, ‘controversial scenes’ et al. But the film transcends beyond this controversy of cis-gender actors playing queer characters. It aims to be a conversation point, not a definite result, but a catalyst for future change in both representation and societal position.

Written and Directed by Kaushik Ganguly / Produced by Acropolis Entertainment Pvt. Ltd. / Actors: Riddhi Sen and Ritwick Chakraborty / Cinematography: Sirsha Ray / Music by Prabuddha Banerjee / Language: Bengali

Review: “Disclosure” By Sam Feder And Amy Scholder

“For decades, Hollywood has taught audiences how to react to trans people”, says Nick Adams, the Director of Transgender Media and Representation at GLAAD, a short bit into Disclosure. The documentary makes clear that it’s not just a look at the history of trans representation in Hollywood, but an explanation of how that has led trans people to the position we’re in today.

We see this explanation and history through the eyes and mouths of actual trans people. Not just actors, but writers and producers, consultors like Nick, or historians like Susan Stryker. As a trans person, I’m awestruck when I realise just how many people there are like me, living their lives, doing work. Of course I knew about Laverne Cox, and Candis Cayne, and Jamie Clayton. Yet Disclosure reminds me that there is a whole world of my people even in just Hollywood. To realise that Sandra Caldwell has been an actor for three decades, living stealth, fills me with a deep resonance. To know the struggles and accomplishments of all these people who are so much like me is breathtaking.

The title of the documentary is evoked at one point by writer and actress Jen Richards (who’s web series Her Story was perhaps the first time I truly felt represented), “I kind of hate the idea of disclosure, in the sense that it presupposes there is something to disclose.” I’m still trying to wrap my head around this and many other things said in the documentary. Having struggled with coming out and the idea of stealth, having often thought, “at what point do I need to tell them I’m trans?”, her statement brings up many feelings and emotions for me, as I attempt to process the idea of a world where my transness is absolutely nobody else’s business.

The documentary of course brings up the many corners trams people are pushed into in Hollywood. We’re either a cause for laughter, a perverted serial killer, or a victim, our bodies serving as a puzzle piece for cop dramas, our genitals and hormones as our own killers in medical stories. “The more we are seen, the more we are violated.” is how writer Tiq Milan describes this phenomenon. Every time I see this part of the movie, my thoughts go to how often I see my own mother watching the Kapil Sharma Show, which constantly features comedy based on crossdressing men. 

Disclosure clearly means a lot to me as a trans woman, and was an important watch. However, I think it is probably even more essential a watch for every cis person, ally or otherwise. A cis friend asked me earlier this month about what they should do to celebrate and support the queer community. The answer didn’t come to me immediately, but as I started watching Disclosure I realised, the answer was to learn, and educate, and understand. That’s what cis people should be doing to support trans people, more than anything. A cis person who watches Disclosure will not only see how we’ve been oppressed through the years, but also why, and why the image of us is what it is. Why they’ve had the misconceptions of us that they’ve had. Perhaps just seeing so many amazing, successful trans people on screen, from all over the spectrum, talking about these things, will also humanise us just a little bit more in their eyes. We are real, and we’re everywhere. Disclosure is limited to just Hollywood and America, yes. But it still speaks a lot to our portrayals all over the world.

Overall, disclosure made me feel. Feel the pain of our past, the awe of our present icons, and the hope for our future. It could of course be triggering for some trans people, with major depictions of a transphobic nature, but I would still recommend it as a great watch. As for cis people, I would go beyond just recommending it. I would advise any ally to watch it, because it’s a perfect opportunity to learn and understand trans peoples’ history through visual first hand accounts, albeit focused on one part of our big world. If you want to be a better ally to trans people (and almost all of you have vast room for improvement), watching Disclosure is a good easy way to start.

“Sab Rab De Bande”, Meet Sukhdeep Singh.

Source

Sukhdeep Singh, an openly gay, IIT graduate, who’s now the editor and creator of Gaylaxy Magazine, took some time out of his day to chat with me about his upcoming documentary about the lives of the Sikh queer community, called “Sab Rab De Bande”. Being from a Punjabi background myself, the only representation of Sikhs that mainstream media has put forth for us has either been comic relief or as a brave soldier fighting India’s wars. What is then left out of the discourse are the many lives of queer folk among the heavily religious sect. Sukhdeep’s understanding of his religion and his life as an openly queer creator drove him to seek out others like him, to share their stories and talk about their struggles that they have faced and the fights they have won.

Q. Do you feel that this documentary would shed the required amount of light on the problems of the Sikh queer community?

The film I believe is going to be extremely important, since this would be the first time that experiences of LGBTQ Sikhs would be brought forward to the masses by tracking the life of 5 different individuals. The movie deals with various aspects of their religious and sexual/gender identity, the kind of reactions that they receive from society, family and LGBTQ community, and how they overcome it or navigate it. We have also taken in the view of Sikh clergy on this topic. Films can be a very powerful medium to bring forth such stories, and I hope that it will start a discussion around this issue within the Sikh community and bring some positive change.

It is not just the first documentary on LGBTQ Sikhs in India, but probably the world (I personally am not aware of any such documentary). That is the reason that I have received so much support from the Sikh diaspora in the West as well, who have come forward and donated to our crowdfunding campaign.

I am really excited to see what all conversations the film will initiate and the change of attitude that it will bring.

Q. How did crowdfunding help you in fast-tracking the production and release of this documentary?

We had started a crowdfunding campaign in February, and we achieved our target within 10 days!! The movie is almost complete now. I am waiting for the lockdown to be over to give the final touches to it. We will be sending it to film fests and doing private screenings. If people would like to have it screened at their college/community/organisation, they could reach out to me and we would be happy to screen it.

Q. What impact do you think your documentary about queer Sikhs would have on the Sikh community as a whole?

The Sikh community currently lacks a discourse around homosexuality. The topic is mostly hushed, or only discussed in negative terms by the religious people. This documentary will help many in the Sikh community to engage with the topic in a positive way. It will make them aware of not only the issues and difficulties of being LGBTQ, but of being LGBTQ and Sikh, as well as allow them to look at the Sikh preachings in a more inclusive way. I think the most important thing would be that it will break the silence within the community on this topic and start a conversation.

But it is not just the Sikh community, the movie will also raise awareness of the kind of reactions and discrimination that LGBTQ Sikhs face within the LGBTQ community, something that is never acknowledged or debated.

Interview With Fashion Stylist Ojas Kolvankar

Ojas Kolvankar: Source

Ojas Kolvankar is an openly queer stylist who is currently working with Grazia Magazine as a fashion stylist and writer. His profile on Instagram offered me a peek into his aesthetic and work ethic, opening up numerous topics to discuss. Ojas’ perseverance to represent his community better is reflected in his work and the way he approaches topics like queer identity and gender politics. His point of view is as strong as his will power to be a better ally to those who do not have the same privileges as he does. In the telephonic interview that ensued, he candidly discussed his experiences of working in the mainstream media as a homosexual man.

Q. How do you feel about the general public’s nonchalance regarding gender fluidity in fashion?

For the general public, more so for cis-gendered, heterosexual men, anything that doesn’t associate to the conventional gender binary of male or female is confusing. Hence the first step would be to undo the years of conditioning for the acceptance of individuals who identify as genderqueer, gender-fluid or non-binary. 

Gender fluidity in fashion has always existed, for instance, the saree is largely worn by the Hijra community in India. As queer folks are asserting their gender identity, more and more brands, i.e. within the last four to five years, are attempting to create non-gender specific clothing. Although I believe the real impact on the masses can be felt only when aspirational, luxury design houses like Fendi, Gucci, Prada, or in an Indian context, Sabyasachi, put a queer mode or a plus size, curvy model in their campaign. Because they are mainstream, cis-gendered, heterosexual brands, it would not only increase the visibility but also set an example for other brands to imbibe an inclusive and diverse approach. Fashion designers need to introduce these topics and vocabularies so that a conversation about such things can start. Otherwise, we’re still going to have super muscular, straight men as the representation, when it comes to campaigns.

Now, for upper middle class and middle class people, these brands are not approachable enough. For them their knowledge about trends and clothes come from brands like HnM and Zara. If they also change their industry and introduce something which does not adhere to mainstream notions of what traditionally men have been wearing, then the narrative can be shifted to a much more open one. The real narrative shift can only come from aspirational brands. Different classes approach different brands according to their wealth and awareness. So in India, designers like Sabyasachi, Anita Dongre, focus on ethnic wear profusely, which aren’t ready-to-wear in that sense. So, if Sabyasachi puts jewellery on a male model, it subverts the notion of what we consider a “traditional” man. Personally speaking, I do not feel any relatability towards the design prospects of ethnic wear, but I understand the impact of subverting the views of the general public through the use of ethnic wear, since it is very culturally significant in our context. A queer model or a dark skinned model helps in changing the views of the consumer who’s willing to buy from these brands; it opens up a fresh and more approachable market. These people then, while approaching a somewhat effeminate man in their surroundings, would be a little more careful in the way they address them, which in itself is an important step in normalising the existence of queer identities in our country.

Haima Simoes and Shruti Venkatesh, Photographed by Keegan Crasto for Grazia India: Source

Q. Where does gender and sexuality stand for you, in your styling process?

I think a lot of these things come from the person’s background, the ability to approach these topics depend on the person’s gender politics or politics in general. So a lot of my context comes from the fact that I studied law, I did not study design or fashion. I used to work at a cultural think tank for about three years. This influenced my work a lot, be it my writing or my styling process. It developed in me the habit of questioning everything.

It’s not just gender and sexuality that comes into the process, it’s the larger idea of inclusivity and diversity that’s at play here. For instance, asking questions like are we working with a lot of photographers from the North-east, are we including women photographers, are we casting models who are a part of the trans community, models that do not conform to the rigid idea of beautiful that we as Indians have been consuming, becomes important. So, when you work with a team so diverse, you can come up with things that haven’t existed before, things which might make even you question your existing biases, while you put together this entire shooting process.

So for me it’s never been about gender. I approach a garment as a silhouette; it doesn’t matter if it’s a man’s silhouette or a woman’s silhouette or if it’s being filled up by a member of the LGBT+ group. Diversity is key, whenever you’re creating imagery and we put a lot of emphasis on queerness or sexuality or gender fluidity because we think they’re under-represented and rightly so, if people want to reclaim it at a separate scheme, it is great that they are doing so.

In fashion photography, there are more cis-gendered male photographers who are always looking at the subject, as in a female model, or even in movies. If you go through the camera work, you would notice a major difference between how women photographers would capture certain details that male photographers might overlook.  So if a queer stylist is involved, wherein the subject is sociological, or anything for that matter, a more diverse view point would come forth during that process which would be very different from a cis-gendered straight person’s view point. So, diversity provides a lot of different lenses which can be used to look at the same subject.

As a queer individual, when I am writing a story about LGBT groups, I know my privilege as a cis-gendered homosexual man. So I will acknowledge that privilege and do whatever reading there’s required and pass it through my friends for their opinions on what’s right, what could be better and only then put it online, to make sure it does not affect any group in a grave manner. Working with under-represented groups, it becomes very important to involve them in the process. A lot of people do this in a very vocalist manner, since fashion is a trendy hot topic and everyone wants to know what’s going on and what’s cool all the time, it is important to figure out how long has that person been engaging with the topic. Has it been engaged with for long enough or is the person just rambling away, has it come from an authentic place, etc. Let’s say, a cis-gendered heterosexual person cannot create queer imagery, but in order to do that, are they talking to queer groups, are doing enough research, are they involving some members of that community to ensure that is it sensitive enough, these questions become important to ask while indulging in this topic.

Divya Roop – Drag Queens feature for Verve Magazine India, Photographed by Nihar Tanna: Source

Q. How does your journey as a queer man get reflected in your work?

I work in a mainstream media space. I have been very lucky to work with people who are accepting ‘of sorts’. I say ‘of sorts’ because I’ve spoken to a lot editors and publishers and they have asked me questions like why do we have to do this, why does this matter. For instance, I’ve written a few pieces about non-binary folks or gender fluid folks and conversed about using the pronouns they/them and how do we go about writing them in, properly. So for these people, who have been in the publishing sector for 20 years, almost half their life, to be baffled by the concept, for them to be so disabled in navigating their way through this vocabulary is surprising for me. At the same time, there are people who are welcoming enough, who want to hear us, who are willing to understand how we should be represented, how do we incorporate the proper pronouns, etc.

There a lot of other challenges you work with, but unless and until you ask these questions, these issues won’t get addressed. We won’t be able to destigmatise them unless we write about subjects like fetishes or sex positivity. If you typically bring in only one particular kind of public, say in the social sector, you cannot get a diverse approach. It can be achieved by including queer voices, if you hire someone who has lived that life. So if you have a diverse team, even in terms of sexuality, who are open and enthusiastic enough to talk about issues only then we will be able to enhance our voices as queers.

I have had to write about the queer spectrum, genders and pronouns for my team, out of a casual conversation. Some people were writing about lifestyle, about gender, far more senior people, who were not as much equipped about the right terminology, but were willing to learn, willing to change. There can be more spaces which can talk about these things, especially the mainstream media. There are many ways to do it, it just depends on how you treat it, how you go about it.

Book Review: ‘Gay Bombay – Special Anniversary Edition’ By Parmesh Shahani

What does one say about Parmesh Shahani’s ‘Gay Bombay’ that hasn’t been said before? Since its publication in 2008 it has become the holy grail of information for those who wished to understand the nuances of being gay and desi — two identities that are inextricably linked, as Shahani points out through his study. What makes his work seminal is not just the fact that this was the first scholarly attempt to study and chart the growth and changes of the gay community but also in its seamless stitching together of the personal and public through anecdotes and research. It is personal and yet universal in its ability to point out the expectations and realities of the Indian gay community.

When I was tasked with review the anniversary edition of this book, I was intimidated. I had never read the book, but I knew the importance that it held for the community. I had to deliver; so I read the book, cover to cover, and then once again (I hopped, skipped and jumped past my deadline). I took down detailed notes that I found myself feeling like I was back at college pursuing my post grad in Literature. I found myself thinking how wonderful an addition this would have been to our syllabus. I won’t lie, there are moments my eyes glazed over or I thought it wouldn’t hurt if I just skimmed my eyes over a few lines. Rest assured not because the book was not insightful or well-crafted, but because research papers tend to be information-heavy. So, if you are looking for a casual read, skip this one.

What began as a thesis while pursuing his masters in Comparative Media Studies in MIT became the first ethnography of gay life in contemporary India. It to help gay men explore their sexuality and accept their identities. It charts the growth and trajectories these offline-online communities as a result of globalisation and the subsequent changes.

The anniversary edition has a few additions to the original edition — chapters from scholars about the continuing importance of the book, an updated preface from the author and an interview that talks about the future of queer rights in India in the context of the reading down of Section 377. 

Shahani makes it a point to explain in detail every single one of his choice be it the use of certain terms over the other such as ‘gay’ instead of ‘MSM’ or focusing on the realities of an English-speaking upper-middle class members of the community. And, he does not shy away from accepting that a blooming romance between him and one of the interviewees led him to decide keeping only the online portions of their discussion.

Shahani drives home one point throughout the book, that coming out is not equivalent of freedom, and that tolerance of queerness exists as long as it doesn’t come in the way of normative heterosexuality. He points out through the examples of men in his life and  interviewees who have given into familial expectations to have a traditional family while also continuing to explore their sexuality. He talks about the reportage of gay issues across print, electronic and radio, as well as films, and its effect on the members. A large portion of his thesis also focuses on the role of internet in allowing many to explore their sexuality with a certain sense of freedom and anonymity.

Interspersed between the research are snippets of his life. He shares experiences of violence, love, lust and even heartbreak. Why are these anecdotes important? One, through his life stories, he charts the growth of the community from the pre-Internet era to the early 2000s. He shares about his escapades through the chat rooms of the 90s to his openly gay life in Boston, and his yearning to hold on to that sense of Indianness, which forms the crux of the thesis — the western understanding of homosexuality does not account for or have room for that innate desi-ness of an Indian gay man.

The desi way of being gay is intrinsically tied to family as it is their acceptance that makes it possible for them to be themselves. He points this out through the family of his ex, who were accepting of their relationship. He says, “…to be gay in Gay Bombay signifies being glocal,” in that it is a mix of Western and Indian influences that shape their identity and lifestyle.

Through his interviews, he attempts to give out a comprehensive view of what Gay Bombay means to the community, their understanding of community, impact of globalisation and the internet and their dreams and apprehensions for the future. The diverse opinions smash stereotypes that group together the community as an uniform entity while drawing attention to simple aspirations such as having a joint account with a partner to showcase that reading down Section 377 is only a small part of the fight.

As he winds down the book, he dedicates a space to talk about his thoughts, ideas and suggestions that could be used when planning for the future. He suggests a common minimum programme that would allow diametrically opposed groups like Gay Bombay and Humsafar Trust to come together when working on carving an inclusive India. The book ends on a positive note while he recounts instances of inclusivity and acceptance, leaving the readers with the suggestion that a better society is a possibility.

The book is a great starting place for those who wish to understand the ethos of the gay community. Even though exclusive in its subject group, its role in mapping and locating gay culture in the city, and hence the country, makes it a work that charts the cultural geography of the community. It is very specific in its focus. It is not concerned with the political or legal activism but rather the social scene, which in turn informs this activism. By probing into the queer experience in Bombay, Shahani urges a reimagination of India to include its queer voices, and in turn asks the community to include the marginalised queers.

Interview With Queer Youtuber And Activist, Kushagra Satankar

Kushagra is a young, very enthusiastic and energetic queer activist, Youtuber and MUA (make-up artist). I decided to ask him some questions about his life, his journey and what inspires him to live his best self. At just 16 years of age, Kushagra, is both young and sagacious. A boy of many talents, it was a pleasure getting to know him.

He is currently in Class 12, pursuing Humanities and his passions include social work, reading, watching YouTube, listening to podcasts, makeup (he is an MUA i.e. Make-up artist), dressing, oratory and spirituality. His YouTube channel can be found here.

Q. You are a Queer activist, a makeup artist (MUA) and a YouTube content creator. Where did the inspiration to do all these things come from?

I would like to mention that I am an environmentalist first and a queer activist second. My first love is and always has been nature.

My inspiration to do all these things came from within. I was bulled, and that was a lesson in and of itself. I also draw inspiration from my mother, who lives up to the idea of ‘actions speak louder than words’. She never tolerates any form of wrongdoing and injustice. Moreover, the makeup traits in me have also come from my mother, for when she was young, she too loved makeup, nail art etc. So far, I have not joined any makeup classes, but I intend to do so to improve my skills.

Regarding YouTube, Joey Graceffa has been my go-to idol. I wanted to create a YouTube channel for a long time, and last year I read a book called ‘Joey Graceffa in real life’. Reading that book inspired me to start my own channel.

Q. Let’s talk about YouTube: You channel is new. What do you hope to use your YouTube platform for?

I want to have fun on YouTube and educate people as much as I possibly can. I also want to know and learn more. My main motive here is to spread awareness about our community, the ‘colourful’ teenage group and tell them everything I didn’t know when I was young and discovering things. I want to share this information through my story.

Q. Beyond just YouTube, you are also an activist. Tell me something about your childhood experience as a queer person and how that informs your activism?

As a child, I was never mentally and emotionally stable. I was bullied a lot (and still am), but when I was younger, I didn’t really know how to deal with bullying and criticism. But now, I’m getting better at it. Things were bad up until the 9th grade, and then the revolution started as soon as I started practising self-love and self-acceptance. Although I was very introverted, participating in MUNs (Model United Nations) played a huge role in my life. I also used to watch videos of Laxmi Narayan Tripathi and felt inspired. Beyond YouTube, I also want to start a Podcast, for which I have also recorded a few samples! My Podcast will be about LGBT issues, self-acceptance, homophobia and bullying.

Q. You aren’t just a queer activist; you have also founded Naturallies which also seems to be another social activist endeavour of yours. Tell us more about that?

As I mentioned before, my first love is for nature and earth. Naturallies is a group that does exactly that: advocate for a better environment. In the past, we have conducted cleanliness drives, rallies, marches and peaceful protests. Last year, I conducted an environment themes fashion show in which all the participants made dresses from recycled material. Our group also wants to discuss these issues with politicians, but unfortunately, we don’t find them as attentive as we are about the urgency of the climate crisis. I’m still working on finding more effective ways of reaching out to government officials. If nothing works, I will most likely file a PIL (Public Interest Litigation).

Q. Your make-up looks on Instagram are very bold: who do you look up to in the fashion industry and who do you look up to back at home?

I don’t have one idol, but the kind of fashion I love is inspired by Nikita Dragun, James Charles and Jeffree Star. Nikita gives me the strength to be bold, Jeffree inspires me with his power. One day I want to be at their level too.

Q. At what age did you discover that you wanted to become a creative artist? Did you ever feel (like many of us) that you ‘didn’t belong’ and that you wanted to do your own thing?

I knew I was not like everyone else from the very beginning. I knew there was a spark in me. But before the 9th grade, I was confused. I did know about myself when I was 11 years old though. After the 9th grade, I discovered my creative side and started to explore new things. This year, I made my Instagram account public. I was scared at first, but now I’m liking it!

Q. As a young queer artist, what are your hopes about the future: both in fashion and outside of it (activism)?

This is a time-consuming process. Eventually, things will get better, but people need to be more accepting and open to change. We must show to the world what love is. It is beyond gender because it is a connection of souls. Also, we must talk more about it! Also, parents should listen to their children rather than imposing their decisions.

In the world of fashion, I want to show fashion transformation posts as well as creative photoshoots.

Q. Do you have any parting message for your fans or followers who may be reading this?

I would like to say this: ‘No voice will speak for you louder than your own voice.’. We must remember this! Apart from this, I would also like to add: ‘Not everyone is going to like you’. Always appreciate yourself and be good and do good, because one day it will come back to you. Spread love!

On The Importance Of Queer Elders

The first time I walked into a room full of queer women in India, I was so overwhelmed that I went home and wept. I understood very deeply the immense privilege of the situation I was in, and that most young queer people, like myself, would go their entire lives without ever having what I had just experienced.

Coming out as a lesbian in India, be it to yourself or to others, signifies the loss of a certain heteronormative script which governs the lives of most people. This script prescribes a certain timeline by which most lives are ruled, especially in India – marriage, children, in-laws, old age. To be queer in India is to realise that this script will never be your life. But even more significant than the loss of this script is the realisation that there are many things in life that you may never have – a lifelong companion, family, love or happiness. At least, this is what I believed.

As a young woman coming to terms with her gender and sexuality, whom did I know who had had these things? I didn’t even know any queer women who had existed in my country before me. To be a woman who loves women in India is to be unmoored – to live a life devoid of any past, context or history. Because of the erasure of queer female sexuality, even the linguistic possibilities were destroyed. What did it mean to be a lesbian in my language? How was I to bring something into being from thin air, with no words to utter it into reality? How do young queer people chart a life for themselves when the only reference to other people like them comes through the grapevine, or through the news – whispers of suicide, conversion therapy, forced marriages to men, honour killings? And so I resigned myself to a life of solitude and loneliness.

This was until I moved to Mumbai and met other queer women like myself. Through them, I heard of queer elders who had come before us – who had lived and loved here. The whispers, too, changed. Now I heard of women who had lived their whole lives with their partners, women who had adopted children together, women who lived happy and fulfilling lives (whatever happiness means in a queer context). Knowing of queer elders signalled a new lease of life for me. These women, whom I didn’t even know personally, and had only heard of – filled my life with joy. Did any of them hold hands here in this park, albeit in secret? Did they sit and drink cups of chai at this Irani cafe? Did they go to this theatre together to watch movies and eat popcorn and feel momentarily free? The landscape of this city changed for me. All spaces were now full of the possibility of a past that had come before me. Queer elders, for me, signalled hope. I was able to imagine a life for myself where I could grow old, be happy, and find love.

I was able to find myself through community and through this knowledge. These communities, and these women (fractured and fragmented as they may be) give light to me and those like me every single day. Even though we may never meet, I hope these women know what they have done for me.

Transparent Umbrella

A/N: based on FMA

Tae is sitting outside the room, and even though she’s only a suit of armour, Kim can sense the dread in her posture. 

“Is… is he—?” he stutters as he approaches Tae. She looks up at him, saying nothing. She used to be so lively, so talkative when they were children. But over the years, she speaks with growing infrequency, stewing in her metal body all by herself. He’s come to understand her silences mean more than her words. 

Gathering his courage, he touches her shoulder and heads in.

Jon is startled, but only for a moment. He flashes a grin bright enough to nearly eclipse all the blood and bruises covering his body. Two nurses tend to his flesh wounds, cleaning them and wrapping bandages around his waist, the pale lengths stark against his tan skin. A state alchemist is afforded all the luxuries that can be spared on military personnel, and Jon is one of the more important ones of the lot. 

Regardless, not even the best doctors in the country can do anything for his arm, mangled beyond recognition.

“Kimmie~” he sings as if he isn’t in agony. “Look at you, making a flashy entrance as usual.”

Had they been younger and more filled with hope, Kim would’ve flung a spanner through the air at the other, yelling at him for deliberately damaging his precious automail. Had they been younger, Kim would’ve thrown himself at his friend, shaking him by the collar and asking him why he couldn’t control himself better. But they are old and weary now. Tae barely says a word for days and all Kim can manage is a deep sigh and some hidden tears. Only Jon still fights like his life depends on it.

In a way, it probably does.

He drags himself over, pulling a chair and falls into it. On closer look, he can see the full extent of Jon’s injuries. Some of the cuts are so deep, Kim feels them on his own skin. He resists the urge to hold Jon’s hand, bites down on his lip before he blurts something selfish. 

“You went overboard again,” he says in a stern voice.

“Hey,” Jon begins his defence. “If Tae hadn’t gotten in the way of letting me use the Special Tactic—anyway,” he clears his throat. “You’re here. That’s good. I need help,” he shrugs his right shoulder, mechanical arm hanging off its last remaining cables. “You’re traveling with your tools, right? How soon can you get to work on—”

“Does it hurt?” Kim murmurs, feeling like he’s already been toiling for several restless nights.

“Of course not!” Jon speaks with pride. “It’ll take a lot more than a stupid fight to hurt me, you kn—ah! ” he gasps when one of the nurses tightens a roll of bandaging. She looks like she meant to make him squeal, but he simply clears his throat again and shifts higher on his pillows. “So,” he tries to steer the conversation once more. “The repairs. Can you do them here?”

Kim looks out of the window, trying to blink his eyes as quickly as possible. “Sorry,” he mutters his lie. “You’ll need to travel back with me.”

“To Resembool?! Come on! I’m sure you can manage without your whole workshop. You’ve always been so resourceful. I remember when you fixed my leg within a few hours of it jamming up because of the ice. You can do it again, right? I know you can—”

“You either come back with me or you find another mechanic,” Kim threatens, glaring at Jon and failing to keep his tears in. When they roll down his cheeks, his composure descends with them. He feels himself crumble in every second he has to watch Jon lie helpless before him. 

“You either return with me. Or you stay in this bed, without a working arm, until someone takes pity on you and—”

“Kimmie,” Jon’s voice is soft, remorseful. “I broke my promise again, didn’t I?” he reaches out to wipe a thumb under Kim’s eyes. And just like that he falls apart.

He uses a colorless, odorless lubricant that won’t stain Jon’s clothes. Every nut and bolt is selected to allow not only natural motion, but also modification by alchemy. Every rivet is chosen specially for its purpose in the assembly. Soldering the wires into position is a painstakingly slow process. Sewing the shoulder pleats with padding and fabric takes hours. He measures and then re-measures the rubber tendons, ensuring the artificial ligaments work as they would had they been made of real tissue. Kim is careful and deliberate with every inch of the automail, more so than with any of his other work. Every time Jon presents himself for repairs, he leaves a part of himself in the joints and bends for the other to carry into all his battles.

This way, we can always be together, he tells himself.

A few hours after midnight, he pulls the safety goggles off his face and yawns. Testing the wrist joint and running current through the fingers, he takes down some notes for adjustments and rolls his neck to hear it click.

What should take weeks, Kim accomplishes virtually overnight. He puts aside everything else and devotes his days to Jon’s arm. He could always take his own sweet time: the idea comes to him one afternoon when he’s using the welding iron to join two large plate pieces together. He could stretch the process out by several months, keep the two siblings in his sights and under his care for as long as he wants. But there is a reason why they do the work they do. There is a reason why they fight. Kim can’t stop them, no matter what his feelings may be about the situation. He can’t get in their way. He can’t hold them back.

So, he pushes them forward.

“You can make almost anything now, right?” the voice in the doorway makes Kim jump. He frowns at the other for startling him, but can’t bring himself to sustain the sentiment for too long. Where he leans across the doorway, Jon looks soft and sleepy, the light glinting off his temporary arm while diffusing against the gold of his bare skin. Was he always that built? Kim wonders. Or did that come from the fighting? 

“Everything except kidneys,” he answers. 

“Even a heart?” Jon asks, then makes an impressed face when he’s given a nod. “You really are a genius, Kimmie. No wonder you get summoned from all over the country. I can see it, you’ll be world-famous one day.” There’s a hint of admiration in the tone, and another of jealousy. 

“It doesn’t matter how much alchemy I learn, I’ll never be able to do what you do.”

“Careful,” Kim jokes. “You sound like you’re getting sick of me.”

“Eh… don’t put words in my mouth,” Jon grins again, and his face goes back to being that of his brash eleven-year-old self, the one that constantly got in fights with other kids. Thinking back now, Kim realises not much has changed since then. He’s still the same boy. 

They stay silent for a while before Kim beckons Jon over. “Come see,” he motions to the half-completed arm. 

“Woa…” the other lets out, making to touch the assembly before getting his hand slapped away. He scowls.

“No touching until it’s ready.”

“OK, OK.” Jon jerks his chin at it. “So? How’d you make it so much lighter than the last one?” 

Kim stares at him in surprise. “You could tell that just by looking?!” 

“I’ve had your automail for years,” Jon reasons. “I learnt to live with it, learnt to fight with it, learnt all my special alchemy tricks with it. I grew up dragging it with me like a ball of lead. This is why I never grew taller, you know?!”

“No, that’s just bad genes.” 

“Hey!” 

Kim chuckles, leaning back in his chair and watching the other fume. Up close, his shoulders look broader than they did the last time they met. The scars from his first surgery are lighter now, like they’ve truly become a part of him. Even the rest of his frame looks sturdier. Maybe it’s the light, maybe it’s Kim’s sleep-deprived mind. Or maybe Jon has grown. Maybe, even after losing so much, he has found himself again. He has filled himself up with compassion and gentleness again. Maybe that’s what ties the three of them together, Jon and his endless love.

“You should come back more often, you know?” 

The other hums, still sulking as he studies some of the diagrams pinned to a corkboard. “… don’t want to owe you and Granny any more than we already do.”

“Owe us?” Kim frowns. “You don’t owe us anything, Jon.”

There’s a long pause before Jon turns around with a smile. The width of his back is as sad as it had seemed the first time they left for Central. “I owe you my life,” he murmurs. “I’ll always owe you that. As long as I live.”

Sometimes, Kim dreams of a day when Jon returns for good. Tae would slip out of the car behind him, slender arm waving and hair fluttering in the wind. They’d sit around a table, bickering over the last piece of apple pie, getting whacked on the head by Granny’s pipe when the argument got too childish. Sometimes, Kim dreams of a future where Jon decides it is time to rebuild their family home, raise it again from the ashes. The only worry then would be what color to paint the weatherboards—Kim would say cornflower blue, Jon would insist on a deep mustard or goldenrod. Tae would have the ultimate say and choose neither. Sometimes, Kim dreams of holding Jon in his arms through the length of cold nights, keeping him safe until his terrors pass – until he no longer feels like he is fighting alone or carrying an unbearable weight on his shoulders. They would live simple lives, they would be a real family then. And Kim wouldn’t have to lie to make Jon stay by his side.

Sometimes, Kim dreams that Jon is his, to love and cherish. But for now, in this reality, he can only watch from a distance.

One Night ‘Talk’

I felt my entire body tremble against her touch. She looked at me with parted lips, her pupils dilated and I could see through her eyes where her mind navigated to. I knew I wanted her. In all ways possible. Our glances at each other burned a thousand heartbeats in my body. No longer could I wait to hold her close. And she knew how to tease me, leaving me wanting for more.

“We won’t do anything that makes you uncomfortable,” she said to me, keeping her hands on my cheeks. In the middle of temptation and desires, I had been honest about why I hesitated. “I want this..so much, but I have never done it before.” She read my thoughts before I even opened up. My cheeks went red and she, maintaining that gaze, continued smiling.

There was something about her reassurance that soothed my distress. “Forgive me if I do anything wrong,” I managed to blurt out. Smiling widely at my words, she answered, “Never met anyone like you before,” she exclaimed, “but I guess I am lucky.”

Her lips tasted like berries. I closed my eyes and the entire world went shush somewhere. She kissed me ever so gently, yet with passion. She caressed my cheeks while holding her gaze. Her eyes were ocean green and produced whirlpools, fascinating yet dangerous. At least that is what I thought when I met her that night. But then, when those whirlpools had softened, I saw stillness in them like forest trees in the night.

Our hands were all over each other. The gentleness evolved into something hot and heavy when she pushed me against the wall. My mind took a total 180 degree turn when she took control. I realized what was coming and my cheeks flushed. She moved her mouth to my neck, while her hands slowly went down, grazing over my breasts to the hem of my t-shirt, which she swiftly took off. She kissed my lips and tugged on them and moved away a little to look at me. 

I was flushed. But I didn’t feel ashamed to admit that I liked it. She smirked and moved closer; kissing my ears she whispered, “You’ll look so good when I’ll be on top of you.” I think she pushed my buttons, for I clearly remember my response, “You’ll look so good when you’ll have nothing on.”

There was absolute harmony between us which fits so perfectly in my memory. I wanted to be more attentive, so in the upcoming nights I could look back to all the details without worrying it will fade. I remember scooting closer to her moon-reflecting skin, looking into her eyes after we made love. I uttered nervously, “Will you have hated me if I wasn’t able to match your expectations?” She lifted her head and scanned my face. “You made me feel so involved, I don’t know if I made you feel the same.”

“Love..”

My heart raced when I heard her husky voice. I recognized the affection again, the care she expressed for me since the beginning.

“Everybody’s got a first time. But do you know what people tend to miss out on when they try to fit in? Connection. Concern. Gentleness. And trust me, you had all these. You made my soul feel loved, not just my body.”

I smiled at her words. A while ago, the phrases of desire and zealousness overtook the rest of our vocabulary, between short breaths, pleading for more as if it were not enough. Only when we reached the peak of ecstasy did our bodies slow down, panting for air. 

“Do you ever feel like everything is crumbling and tearing apart, but then you remember where you are in life and kind of just, sigh?” she asked in a low voice.

I could sense a little disparity in the air between us. We were lying on the bed, her eyes were fixated on the ceiling, yet had no vision it seemed.

“I can’t deny the fact that I haven’t given it a thought.” Her eyes softened when she heard my answer and a faint smile eased up her concerns. I wanted to reach out and hold her close to me, but something told me the moment was not right. Her eyes told me she wanted to hear more.

“I think my life keeps me on my toes, there is a fear of fall and a hope of goodwill that keeps me going. But you know what, life is a little harder for people like us.” I sat up and looked at the open window.

I sensed a movement on my left and she sat up too, looking at me with pursed lips. It was dark and foggy outside the window, silence invaded the entire room as we were lost in our thoughts.

“Do you think this battle will ever end?”

“This is not a battle. It’s a fight. We fight without any armor or protection and so, we bleed. Maybe this is why our fights never end.”

When I spoke the bitter truth, I received a warm affirmation from her. She wrapped her hands around me from behind, “You aren’t that young as I thought you would be. I’m impressed.” Her lips brushed against the skin on my back. I savored every moment of exhilaration as she kept one hand around my neck and gently stroked my belly with the other. The first round already made me breathless; being underneath her dominance which sent electrifying jolts all over my body. She kissed my neck this time, sweeping me off my composure while falling into her arms.

I remember being awake in her arms for the longest time, catching my breath while admiring the perfect state of euphoria I was in. When I closed my eyes, I saw two moles on her back, planted at a distance, as if two planets were revolving around each other but never coming close. So were we. But there was a scar right between her neck and chest that could have been easily mistaken as stained ink, which defined our union in a way. I memorized them well enough to not let it scatter in different ways, but to keep it distinct, so as to live in each moment more than once.

She seemed like one who wasn’t easily breakable. Even though the strings on her part were too tight, she loosened them around and with me. “I’ll be a mystery and so will you. Let me claim you mine, for once. Let me know I am loved too.” I did what she asked me. I made love to her like she was a long drawn summer afternoon, where a traveler quenched their thirst by sucking a ripe mango, the wet trails falling, leaving behind a mark. The traveler who would always be nature’s favorite.

When the sun began to rise, she asked me to read something to her and interestingly, I summarized her life in the few lines I read out from D.H. Lawrence’s book. It felt so close to my heart that I could visualize her in those words. ‘I would like to dedicate to you a few lines that in this very moment sums up my exact impression of you.’ I told her. She peered at me. Her hairs were like tendrils of soft bloom, gentle filaments wavering in the open. 

“-she wanted to read great, beautiful books and be rich with them; she wanted to see beautiful things, and have the joy of them forever;” 

She smiled at me, her eyes reflected melancholy.

“-there remained always the want she could put no name to. It was so difficult. There were so many things, so much to meet and surpass. And one never knew where one was going.”

The sun was up already. I looked at the window, then glanced back at her. She gazed at me, eyes somewhat tearful, but her smile was brighter than the sun itself.   

That was the first time in my life that I enjoyed being awake till dawn. She hugged me, and I held her tight, as if our time was over, the night had guarded us against all odds, but a new day called both of us to our respective ways. She kissed me, like a little child I was crooked into her neck, embosoming the smell of her body which defied every perfume. I wanted to memorize every part of this encounter, every part of her. Before leaving, she held my hands firmly and uttered, “I will remember you, even if we never cross paths again. Promise me you will, too?”

“Promise.” I said while I kissed her forehead.

Reviving A Disabled World

Our society as a space is often constrained and limited by the things we consider as “normal”. Everything that is seen as ‘normal’ is allowed to exist as it is, while the rest of us who don’t fit into this idea are isolated and ostracized. There are some things we are permitted to openly discuss, while others that we are expected to hide, like sexuality, gender identities beyond the binary, and disability amongst others. Revival Disability Magazine is a space that unapologetically talks about them all.

While speaking with Gaysi, Nu and Sam from Revival shared that the magazine was formulated about a year ago, with the intention of raising awareness about issues regarding disability, sexuality, and intersectional ableism. But now, it has evolved into a home to more than a hundred disabled and queer individuals. A disabled haven of safety, validation, and acceptance, if you will. “We’ve all been gaslit time and again by a society that refuses to acknowledge and truly listen to disabled voices. I’ve decided that if they don’t allow us at their table, we’re gonna bring our own accessible chair with armrests and plenty of cushions. Because I believe that there is power in disabled dissent, in disabled joy and in un-hiding our disability”. Revival is a small, but very significant, community allowing interdependence and support.

Conversations around disability, if they happen at all, often remain very hush-hush. It’s considered shameful and unnecessary for an open conversation about disability. There is a misconception that people who are disabled are often “lesser than” and “need to be pitied” and that “they are missing out on life”. Able-bodyminded people need to constantly support them, because of the idea that disabled people constantly need to be taken care of. In such a scenario, Nu and Sam think that the notion of care and concern can be tough to navigate for a disabled person. “We start off in our childhoods, being completely dependent on our parents and caretakers – and this notion can follow us into our adulthoods. It can be hard for our caretakers to let go and give us the independence we need while caring for us”.

They explain that for disabled people, independence looks different compared to abled people. Sometimes, it’s about creating a personal world through art, writing, singing, etc, or sometimes, it looks like learning to wear a dress on their own. Along with the guilt of not being independent in able-bodied terms, there is also a creation of new accessible pockets of independence, carved out for the self, as a gift. Any small amount of independence can be a huge deal, and it’s important to be respected and not be trampled on by offering to do those tasks for them, like wearing their own chappals or typing on their phones themselves. Care is important, but so is agency.

Agency and independence are also asserted in many different ways by different people, and engaging in sexual activities is one of them. Sam and Nu explain that the popular opinion is that disabled folx shouldn’t even be bothered with sex at all, because there are plenty of other things for them to worry about. But this further solidifies the thought disabled people are different and they are continued to be othered. The truth is that sexual desires, fantasies and thoughts that we experience have nothing to do with having or not having a certain type of body. And Revival is a space that openly talks about disabled sex, like how to make sex less strenuous, because as a disabled person, Nu was always told they were too weak to have sex. “We assert ourselves as beings capable of different sexualities, and different desires or the lack thereof”.

Nu says that Google was a useful tool to satiate their curiosity about things like sexuality, contraceptives, bisexuality, and so on because no one provided them with any sort of guidance on being disabled and queer. Although Google was helpful, a lot of information regarding these things are usually catered towards able-bodied people and the answers were vague and ambiguous. And so Revival strives to give more information and bring about awareness regarding sex and safety for disabled bodies.

Along with physical health, mental healthcare and self-care are also largely inaccessible to queer, disabled people. For instance, activities like taking a shower, putting on a face mask, doing yoga, going shopping, and other activities are a privilege. Even going to a therapist’s office. Talking about their experience, Nu says that their therapist’s office has steep stairs that their therapist helps them climb. It’s not that asking for help is bad, but the fact remains that the office can be made accessible to people like Nu. “It’s very important to understand the deep nuances and intricacies of where disabled queer folks are coming from – we’ve lived a life of oppression, of being ignored, gaslit, of our struggles being sidelined”.

It’s very important to listen to disabled voices and make space for their agency. But it also doesn’t mean able-bodyminded people get to play the saviour. For example, communication happens in different ways, and it’s not always necessarily loud and clear because not everyone has the auditory function for it. Revival is all about lived experiences. It’s a space created by disabled folx, for disabled folx. “We create our own inclusive language – the language with which we want to be addressed as, the language with which we want to be communicated – that’s the beauty of a community – of being disabled”. Open communication, creating friendships, community, solidarity, mutual respect and understanding are key aspects that form the foundation of their magazine.

Able-bodyminded people often view helping disabled folx either as a favour or a burden, and there’s no middle ground there. “There’s something about seeing curved fingers, the same as you, or learning how to take power in a disabled walk, because each time a disabled adult walks confidently into a room, taking up space and feeling like they belong there, a disabled child in the same room, looks up with wonder in their eyes and hopes to grow up to be that disabled adult one day”. Forming a community, finding people like yourself, being able to relate to someone are all important things. Revival isn’t a space for charity, it’s a space to create a representation, taking control of how disabled folx appear to the world, to break away from ableist stereotypes and misconceptions. To express anger and dissent against the larger patriarchal, ableist structure.

Like the #DisabledWomenRiot. It was started around 6 months ago through an anonymous Twitter account by Nu, to bring forward the abuse and violence faced by disabled folx, because speaking out against abuse and subsequent empowerment is still a matter of privilege. It was fueled by the lack of visibility for the Disabled-Me too movement in India. Revival also collaborated with Blank Noise on their campaign called #INeverAskedforIt in July during Disability Pride month. It was a series of listening circles that explored how disabled women exist, thrive, loiter and survive in public spaces. “The first session involved listening, viewing and responding to a short presentation – How do we, as Disabled folks interact in public spaces? Why is visibility so important? How can we walk, wheel, or limp towards an intersectional future? How do we safely exist with our disabled bodies without fear of abuse?”

Bodies become physical evidence of discrimination, suffering, joy, and so much more. The session also addressed the idea of a “diagnosis”. The binary of ability vs. disability is false because each individual experiences disability in a different manner. Disability then becomes a spectrum of experiences that governmental and medical institutions do not acknowledge. Revival also collaborated with Why Loiter where members Nu, Sam, and Candice explored topics ranging from negotiating with public transport systems to understanding, re-asserting and affirming power in their disabled bodies, which are political. “These are highly nuanced personal narratives of disabled queer women, as they navigate and breakthrough non-disabled mandates of sexuality, self-expression, sexual communication, agency to romance, playfulness and casualness of desire, as they play out in cities”. What is the experience of a disabled young woman in a world where being able-bodied is the norm, and the notions around independence, productivity, self-care, and love are all catered towards able-bodyminded people?

Understanding disability from an able-bodyminded “expert” is not understanding disability at all. Our perceptions about things we don’t personally experience are very flawed, especially the idea of a productive, 9 to 5 working person who is capable of doing everything by themselves is a very capitalist notion that caters to profitability over personhood. Revival is a space that doesn’t excuse ignorance about disability. It’s a space where queer, disabled people are encouraged to bring in their own experiences, validate the spectrum of disability, and break away from toxic ableist norms.

Round Two

“I hope you’re ready for round two soon.”

I blush at Diana’s words and bury my face in her chest. God, she is insatiable. I press a few gentle kisses on her skin before raising my head to smirk at her.

“I’m sure it won’t take me long,” I toy, circling my finger over her arm. I smile and roll off of her, lay back and breathe deeply, still tingly from our romp.

Her voice is low and sultry. “Do you mind if I grab a cigarette, Love?”

“Go ahead.”

She slides off the bed and saunters across the room on lean, toned legs, her long black tresses sweeping over her shoulders as she bends down to where she dropped her purse, giving me another view of her irresistible body. When she returns and lays back on the bed, I turn on my side and admire her enjoying the cigarette.

I gaze at her face – her flushed cheeks, the mole on her chin, my lipstick smudged on the corners of her mouth. I let my eyes travel across her body, her slender neck, her sculpted arms. They linger a bit at her pert breasts. Her nipples are pink and erect, there’s a light sheen of sweat on her taut stomach. The lacy black outfit she had shed earlier did no justice to what was underneath. She is exquisite.

“I hope you like what you see.” Her words break my thoughts and I flash my eyes back to her beautiful face. She takes a long drag from her cigarette, but she can’t hide the tempting smile on the corner of her mouth. The playfulness in her eyes makes my cheeks burn.

“I do,” I whisper, smiling back shyly.

She puts her cigarette out in a mug on my bedside table. She’s ready to go again and so am I. I rise up and straddle her. I kiss her, from her jawline to her ear. She wraps her arms around me, pressing my bare breasts against hers. I kiss my way to her lips and taste the smoke on her tongue as it finds mine. Diana slides her hands down my back and cups my bottom. I groan into her mouth when her fingers dig into my skin. We devour each other with a passion I didn’t know we had. I want this woman again desperately.

I press hot kisses down her chest, between her breasts, flicking my tongue over her skin. I could kiss her all day. I draw her nipple into my mouth and suck. She cradles my head and runs her fingers through my hair. When my teeth graze her nipple, she gasps, “Don’t stop!”

I taste every bit of her skin as I slide down her body and between her thighs. I move my finger low and graze over her clit. She shivers. She is hot and slick where my fingers move lower.

“Do you see how wet I am for you, Princess?” she groans. I stroke the velvet between her legs as I kiss my way back up her chest, her neck and her jawline. I draw her lips back to mine and kiss her hungrily.

In a flash, she grips my waist and rolls me on my back as she rises over me. She leans close and whispers, “I think you’ve teased me enough, Love.”

She moves her lips across my jawline and nudges my legs apart with her knee. I open up to her and let her settle between my thighs.

“Now, lie back for me, Princess. I want to feel all of you.”

I moan and wrap my arms around her. Diana moves herself against me. Just her soft skin brushing against mine is enough to set fireworks off. Her clit brushes against mine and I gasp. Her lips press into my neck and she thrusts her hips, over and over again.

I’m desperate to feel more of her. I slide my hand down her back to cup her bottom and pull her thigh up over my own, feeling every inch of her wetness against mine. I can’t hold back, and start moving myself against her.

“Ohhhhhh yes,” she moans. She holds my waist and breathes against my chest as she rolls her hips faster.

We move together in sync, panting and moaning. I close my eyes and let myself enjoy her. The sensation of her lips, her fingers, her skin, her sex against me is overwhelming. Everything else disappears around us. It’s just her and me, wrapped up in each other. She grinds faster against me and I reach closer to my release. Ecstasy rushes over me as I arch my back and call out her name. Revelling in my own euphoria, I hear her groan against my breast.

We stay pressed against each other for a while, panting heavily. I slowly open my eyes and become aware of this gorgeous woman on top of me. Her face is nestled between my breasts, she shifts a bit and gently kisses my skin. I feel the wetness from her release on my thigh and smile to myself.

Diana lifts up her head and looks into my eyes. She’s flush and out of breath. Smiling, she bites her lip, shyly.

“My god, Princess, the things your body does to mine…”

Brushing her teeth against my skin, she whispers, “I’m not sure what I loved more… tasting you or every inch of you rubbing against me.”

Reel Around The Fountain

The world begins to spin at 4:46 AM, and Kafka does not care. It’s an eerie night — the sky is strangely blue, the warm lights of the street stream into his room, and the silence manages to seep in as well. There’s usually the chirping of the crickets — an unsolicited lullaby — but tonight is blank. Hollow.

There is always a lot to think of in the middle of the night — way too much, Kafka supposes. The days aren’t for thinking, anyway; they’ve always been for doing.

There is a new boy in school. He arrived yesterday, in a yellow shirt and black pants, saying he hadn’t received his uniform yet. His hair was dark, and there was something sharp about his face. When the time had come to find a seat, Kafka had crossed his fingers, hoping the boy would sit next to him—

Mother is thinking of leaving her job again. She considers it every few weeks when her boss tells her off for no reason. Dinner is always burnt on those nights. She bursts into tears at the table when Father asks her what’s wrong, and then, they spin around in the same circles.

“I am not happy there. I hate it,” she says.

“Then, leave. We can manage,” Father says.

“But, the money is too good,” she answers, “And Kafka’s school.”

That is always the point when Kafka decides to tune them out, instead thinking of the new video game that he can play, or the book he can borrow from the library next week.

The new boy ended up sitting next to him. At first, Kafka could not believe his luck. Then, he came to his senses. This shouldn’t be as exciting as it is. He shouldn’t be so eager to sit next to someone, especially another boy. But, the new kids are always so interesting—

The poster of The Cure on the wall catches the light weirdly. Robert Smith’s eyes glint, and Kafka looks away. He had saved up for two weeks to buy that poster. All because he couldn’t stand how bare the blue wall looked at night, when the darkness sucked all the colour out of it.

He’s moved here from far away, the teacher had said, I hope you will all be kind to him. Kafka had tried to look uninterested, inconspicuously staring at the new boy through the corner of his eye. To his horror, the boy had looked back at him, eyes hostile—

Father has promised to take him horse-riding for the first time on his fifteenth birthday. He made the promise five years ago because he had thought it was just a phase. He didn’t think that Kafka would still hold him to this promise when he turned fifteen. He was wrong. It’s been a countdown in Kafka’s head; now, they are so very close to the first time he will ride a horse in his life.

The boy did not say anything. He only stared until Kafka looked away, flushed. But, he couldn’t look away for long. The boy’s eyes were a piercing grey, his jet black hair far too disheveled.

“I’m Kafka,” the words were involuntary, and he wanted to take them back as soon as he said them—

The Smiths have a new album out. He’s wanted to buy a poster of Morrissey for ages, but he’s not queer. He isn’t. He just likes their music, feels it in his bones sometimes, but if he had a poster of the band up in the room, they would all say he’s queer. He’s too tired, too young for that kind of speculation. He likes the lies he puts out, and the nights when he can think about everything that’s true.

“Oliver,” the boy had said, voice clear, “I don’t want to be here.”

Kafka couldn’t help but grin at that: “Neither do I.”

Oliver had looked surprised for a second, as if he hadn’t expected the response he got. Finally, his lips curved upwards into a wary smile.

Smash. First, there is a fire, a crisis, a catastrophe.There are two foreheads touching. There is medicine, soothing and dizzying. Bang. There is a kiss, a shot in the dark. There is a song on the radio for the lazy evenings, another for the sharp taste of beer on the tongue. Crash. There is a cigarette crushed, lying on the floor. There is a closet, hands grasping in the dark. The dreamy tinkling of a windchime, and something like tenderness. Something like love.

At 6:46 AM, Kafka drifts off to sleep.

No Place For Queer Indian Women

8 Jan 2017

12:45 AM

 Hello, awake?

12:53 AM

                                                                                                      Wake up, wake up, wake up

Fuck it, I will just type out the stuff here, reply when you read.

So

It’s true. I just cannot be queer here. 

I told you about the woman I had been chatting with on Hinge, right? So yeah, we met the day before.

She came over today WITH WINE AND CHOCOLATES! I am still in two minds about that!

We were Netflix-ing (Guernsey), but before we could get to the chill-ing part, Ahana came up with one of her new made-up crises (will tell you when we meet) and I had to go to the kitchen for some time to address that.

When I got back, she was standing next to my bookshelf, with my Kahlil Gibran collection in hand. The first page had sweet-nothings from Sanket (remember he gifted it on my last birthday?)

She asked if I was into men. And I think I gave the wrong answer.

The rest of the evening was SO AWKWARD!

At one point, she asked me how or if I told my parents.

When I told her I did not plan to till I had to, she was livid.

I told her I did not want my parents to think it was my choice. 

I got an earful from her on my supposed straight-ness. I could have fought, but you know how non-confrontational I am. 

I just resumed playing Guernsey, and she left in a bit!

Life! 

                                                                        .

                                                                        .

                                                                        .

10 March 2019

10:20 AM

So apparently, you can create a Tinder profile, be selective to match with and then chat with multiple women, and go on a brilliant date – ALL IN THE SAME DAY here. 

Telling you this from experience 

                                                                                    If I knew this before, I would probably not 

                                                                                                  have waited so long to move to the US! 

Come over, man! This aspect is really blissful. 

Nah, as I told you before, 

I am fine here 

                                                                                   And as I told you before, “YOUR LOSS!”         

                                                                        .

                                                                        .

                                                                        .

                                                                        .

18 March 2019

10:13 PM

                                                                                    You are a wise, wise woman.

                                                                                    Supposed woman-of-my-dreams today 

                                                                                                  asked me my coming out story.

                                                                                    Looks like I am ineligible for the dating 

                                                                                                  scene here if I do not have a heroic 

                                                                                                  one.

I told her I have just not found the strength in myself to launch this campaign to educate my parents on queerness.

She looked at me with such sad eyes (Pretty pretty eyes btw) and told me this anecdote of an ex-girlfriend who has been able to build up a completely new identity and life after cutting off ties with her bigoted parents! Because you know, IT GETS BETTER.

How do I explain to them the difference between bigoted parents and culturally unaware parents? My parents asked me a few days after my 30th birthday if my boyfriend was Muslim, and that they would not mind! Because that’s the worst thing that could happen in their imagination.

Deviant*, not worst. Sorry!  

How do I explain that they are not bigots but people who have never seen or heard in close circles about an openly queer person, and that I am trying to buy some time till someone else does come out. (My bets are still on Shalini aunty, btw.) 

Anyway meanwhile, my new flatmate just found out I am also into men, and is hell-bent on introducing me to one of her friends. Ye bhi dekh leten hain.

Coming Out In The Middle Of A Pandemic

The pandemic brought us closer to our homes, but it took us away from people and places that we called our home. When we were asked to vacate our PG accommodation as COVID-19 arrived on the scene, I thought that it would be 15 days, at most, for which we were being asked to leave. I arrived in my hometown and over a period of time it dawned upon me that it would take much longer than a mere fortnight.

What happens when you come out to yourself in the middle of a pandemic? I am a 22-year-old cis-woman who spent most of her life invested in heterosexual relationships. Most of my dating life was ‘easy’ as I navigated through real-life or dating apps looking for people with similar interests as mine. As the heteronormative setup has it, it was never difficult for me to voice my choices or to confess to people I had a liking for. The past few months had me undertaking some introspection and I finally came to terms with my identity as a queer woman. This, when I am currently residing in a village and am surrounded by a family that is yet to accept the idea that teenagers or for that matter, even adults, date. This, when I am placed in a setting where the community abhors inter-caste marriages and where arranged marriages are still the norm. This, when the society around me is carefully constructed on the pillars of patriarchy, caste and class. This, when for the people I am surrounded by, queer is an alien term and LGBTQIA+ a community of the unaccepted. And this, when homosexuality features in conversations around me only as a slur.

When you are in these formative years of your life and living with a crippling mental health situation, and are practically shoved to live in a setup where you have no choice but to coexist with everything that contradicts your being, what do you do? The digital world helps me live a reality that reflects what I want to be. It helps me have a reality that I own. The digital world helped me seek help for my mental health, which was at its worst, without my family knowing that I was seeking therapy. It helped me stay connected to people who would understand where I was coming from. It helped me cope with the sense of guilt that came with the fact that people have it worse and that I am living in my bubble of privilege, cribbing. The digital space has helped me access a safe haven for things that wouldn’t be talked about in my immediate surroundings.

I keep wondering how it would have been for me if I was in my university right now. At this point, online education has ruined my interest in studies and has hampered my career trajectory. Without an interactive classroom setup and a university atmosphere, I already feel like I am falling behind while my peers appear to be taking leaps. The added pressure of what the future would look like if and when I come out to my family along with the inability to perform basic tasks due to rampant anxiety is terrifying. As a new member of the community, I still feel like an outsider. It is difficult to know of safe spaces that would allow me to meet people who are like-minded. My distrust for the online mode of meeting people and the difficulty in accessing dating apps as a queer person makes it further complicated. Courting people that I know outside of the dating apps is problematic anyway because it is difficult to know whether someone is on the same page as I am with respect to their sexuality.

While the fact that I have come to terms with myself is freeing, the consequences of this acceptance make me feel suffocated. I know that I need to be independent and secure before I own my identity publicly, but the desire to be able to live as openly as any heterosexual person would live makes me feel like I am trapped. I hope to get to the point someday where I can speak of who I am without living in the constant fear of being outed.

Memories Of Her

White washed walls a coat.
So the memories aren’t smeared,
But contained. Breeze and drops prove
The past so powerful.
Defenceless against a civil war
A pool of memories empties over
Each corner, ceiling, cleavage cut open
Your grateful smile, a touch and
A playful chuckle that colours,
Here, manifests itself on a 2 am shadow
A still fan, dropping lights
And frozen fires.
It rises like ponds holding water
blisters on paint.
My skin it breaks under memories
Scratched to let your love ooze out
Ive been reminded of the flower you gave.

Movie Theatres: A Safe Space For Expression Of Queer Identity In R. Raj Rao’s Novel Hostel Room 131

Anyone who has read R.K. Narayan’s novel The Bachelor of Arts (1937) can vouch for the inseparable friendship of Chandran and Ramu. Apart from being mates involved in a motley group of activities, their movie-going ritual to ‘Select Picture House’ is an act discussed in leisurely detail by the author. For Chandran, in particular, going to the cinema is an ‘aesthetic’ experience and the presence of Ramu complements his carefree attitude. In Narayan’s words –‘Ramu’s company was most important to him’. They are in a world of their own within the vicinity of the cinema theatre. For two young men in pre-Independence India, going to the cinema gave them a freedom to act on their whims – some casual such as smoking and chewing betel-nut while others more suggestive like reveling in each other’s company in a dark and confined space and gossiping about matters of the heart. It might (or might not) be a hyperbolic task to read too much into their friendship but together they unwittingly become the perfect predecessors to the young gay lovers Siddharth and Sudhir in R. Raj Rao’s novel Hostel Room 131 (2010). They too enjoy their regular trips to the cinema theatre, as it gives them a space of their own, away from the prying eyes of the society, to be themselves, without giving a second thought.

Cinematic references are a way of life for Siddharth who forms one half of the lead couple in R. Raj Rao’s novel Hostel Room 131. Early on, in the novel he compares his proudly femme boyfriend Sudhir to Zeenat Aman in Satyam Shivam Sundaram for his delicate walking style. However, when they went to see the movie at Deccan Talkies, they engaged themselves in the act of fellatio and Zeenat Aman’s sex appeal paled in front of their burning desires.

Siddharth unflinchingly believes that the song Yeh Dosti from theiconic movie Sholay is an inconspicuous gay anthem, replete with double-meaning lyrics. In fact, it won’t be wrong to say that he has a thing for Amitabh Bachchan, in particular. He deliberately tries to subvert Bachchan’s angry young man image by lending a homosexual narrative to his onscreen persona. It is his way of making a cinematic icon relatable to himself – a gay man in his early 20s, living in 1970s India, whose only safe haven is his mind and the interiors of a movie theatre where his thinking takes flights of fancy.

According to Siddharth, Bachchan is in love with Shashi Kapoor in Shaan and he calls Amar Akbar Anthony a film about threesomes. So, when he goes to watch the Bachchan starrer Muqqaddar Ka Sikander with his lover Sudhir at the Mangala theatre, he can’t refrain from commenting that the reigning superstar of Hindi cinema is, in fact, in love with his equally macho co-star Vinod Khanna rather than with the leading ladies of the film. During the show, after the lights go out, Siddharth gets frisky with an equally turned-on Sudhir. Now, from a heterosexual point of view, this is nothing out of the ordinary. The darkened spaces of movie theatres have always been providing a safe space for straight horny couples to act out their carnal desires. However, from the point of view of two young Indian gay men, indulging in sexual activity inside a movie theatre is nothing short of a conscious act of rebellion. Come to think of it, a movie theatre is not exactly an isolated public space but it, however, gives the illusion of isolation and the feeling of being far away from the clutches of the moral policing of a largely heterosexual society. Siddharth and Sudhir are aware of this and they always make the most of such situations.

One thing is for sure, that the hangover effect of cinema gives rise to discourses. And Siddharth loves to deconstruct the Hindi films songs of Bachchan starrers and give them preposterous homosexual twists. After forever ruining the Yeh Dosti song from Sholay for the heterosexuals, he harboured similar plans for the song Yaari hain Iman from Zanjeer. To quote the author R. Raj Rao here – Amitabh looks so coy as the manly Pathan sings to him. The Pathan in the song is played by the veteran actor, Pran.

In another novel of Rao’s, The Boyfriend, the two lead characters Yudi and Milind after participating in a fake gay wedding ceremony, just for the heck and fun of it, decide to go and watch Baazigar at a nearby theatre called Bajrangbali, for their ‘honeymoon’. Here the celebratory occasion of a honeymoon period is juxtaposed with the act of casualness of cinema-going. The darkness of the cinema theatre provides them the privacy and opportunity to officiate their marriage.

For R. Raj Rao, the movie theatre and its vicinity provides a double-edged sense of freedom and rebellion. The names of the movie theatres are no less than minor characters in his novels. Natraj, Mangala, Alankar, Alexandra, Regal and Bajrangbali all have one thing in common – they are all complicit in nurturing the ‘forbidden’ love of two young gay men. So, when Siddharth and Sudhir go to watch a night show of Kaala Patthar (starring Bachchan, of course) at Alankar theatre, they mirror their flamboyant predecessors Chandran and Ramu. They are separated by time and space but are united in their mission of normalising unabashed display of male-bonding; homo-erotic or otherwise.

Romance

Dude 1 was sweet, but unremarkable.

All Dude 2 wanted to talk about were his days on hard drugs.

Dude 3 was a self-made millionaire at 27. I had swiped on him just to see if he would swipe back. I made out with him. I figured that, if I didn’t like a tall, well-built, self-made millionaire, I would never like anyone else.

.

.

Best Friend set me up with Dude 6. We worked in the same field and liked the same things. Dude 6 said looking at me was like looking into a mirror. He can dream, I guess!

I let Dude 7 do things. When he was doing things, I thought about other things like this article College Roommate shared with me about the evolutionary reasons behind sexual over asexual reproduction. When Dude 7 complained that I did not seem to be into it, I thought about Priyanka Chopra or Shobhita Dhulipala to get into the mood. But, even that often did not work.

Dudette 1 did not want to be ‘another straight woman’s box to tick’.

Dudette 2 was actually not Dudette 2. Catfishing was supposed to happen only to men on dating apps!

Dude 8 was a Friendly Colleague that asked me out. Friendly Colleague was conventionally cute-looking and ideal boyfriend material according to Flatmate. Being with Friendly Colleague took too much time.

.

.

I moved back to my hometown because of the pandemic. Matched with Dude 11 and Dudette 5 on different apps. I’ve been on video dates with both of them, separately of course. Best Friend thinks I can’t possibly be in love with more than one person at a time. Flatmate thinks that maybe I am just not capable of love. I don’t know. Dude 11 and Dudette 5 do not ask for too much of my time, neither do they ask that I take off my clothes. I think I love them.

Remember Anannyah Kumari Alex: Honouring Her Tragic Death With Healthcare Reforms Sensitive To The Transgender Community

August is my birth month and along with it comes my family’s annual reminder for health insurance premiums. Like many Indians, I also took health insurance pretty late in life. This year I decided to upgrade my insurance plan after seeing the havoc that Covid wreaked on India’s healthcare system. Healthcare in India is so expensive that all your savings can disappear in one moment in case of an emergency. When I upgraded my plan, the insurance company set up the regulatory call to explain its details. This part is almost always a heartbreak for transgender persons as most (if not all) health insurance policies do not cover gender-affirming surgery costs. I was listening to the company’s representative, and throughout the half-hour call, my thoughts kept going back to Anannyah Kumari Alex.

As the first mainstream transgender radio jockey in the Indian circuit, and the first from the community to contest assembly elections in Kerala, Anannyah was one of the community’s brightest and more outspoken voices. As a Trans Rights activist, she fought for the community like a fearless warrior. Tragically, on 20th July 2021, Annanyah was found dead in her apartment. A roaring trans voice was silenced. This news sent shock waves throughout the country. Especially, the transgender community was left heartbroken and concerned about their future. Healthcare for transgender persons are in the worst possible state, and no government of Independent India has ever had paid heed to this issue.

For context, Anannyah was only 28 and had her gender-affirming surgery performed in 2020 at the Kochi-based Renai Medicity hospital. Like many trans individuals, she must have dreamt of a better life after struggling for years with fighting gender dysphoria. But, things turned ugly after the surgery. According to news reports, she could not stand for a prolonged period after the surgery for more than a year.

Anannyah alleged medical negligence on the part of the doctors of Renai Medicity who had performed the surgery. According to her, the surgery was not a success, as she shared that the “private part look[ed] like a piece of meat; it had no resemblance to a vagina”. She wanted to undergo a surgery to correct the disfiguration, but the hospital denied her treatment and allegedly asked for a huge sum of money for the corrective procedure. Anannyah suffered from various post-surgical issues for one year, and the hospital did not help her. According to her last interview, she claimed that the surgical errors had led to health complications. According to the initial police probe, the case looks like a suicide. But, is it?

The life of transgender persons starts with the dysphoria and the struggle of living in an alien physical body. Then, most trans people opt for gender-affirming surgery to align their physical and mental experience of gender. Gender-affirming Surgery is life-saving for most of us. Most of our lives is spent on preparing, planning and dreaming about the life we want. And then comes unfortunate news like that of Anannyah’s, and all our hopes die silently. She opts for the surgery with the hope of living a better life, but the most important act of her life caused her death. The medical negligence, in this case, has not only ruined a precious life but also caused fear in many transgender person’s hearts—especially those who are preparing for their surgery.

Saral, a young Trans-woman from Chandigarh who had already started her hormone therapy and was planning for the surgery, says: “This unfortunate incident is going to add on to the hesitation that folks/parents have for their transgender children. It is adding to my hesitation as well for having my surgeries done in India. These are major surgeries and do have consequences.” Gender-affirming surgery is one of the most complicated medical procedures. A slight mistake or negligence on the part of the doctors can ruin the entire life of a person. There are not many specialist doctors or hospitals in India, and surgery abroad can cost a fortune.

Aru, a Trans-person from Mumbai who is yet to start their medical journey, says: “These sort of lapses become a major reason for why people have to travel abroad and don’t trust the [Indian] medical system here for their transition. That, in turn, becomes a major challenge because of obvious reasons [such as] resources for migration, travel costs, medical expenditure abroad, which then severely impact mental health.”

Moreover, people now are most afraid to go for their surgery. Namita, a young trans-person from Ahmedabad, says, “I have to rethink my surgery because, one, it is too costly and what happened with Anannyah just broke my heart. But, surgery or not, I am a woman, and I want the surgery to get rid of my dysphoria, but now I have to think about it…may be I will delay my process.”

Healthcare in India is in a mess, and when it comes to health care for transgender persons, it is horrible, especially if we talk about Gender-affirming Surgery. The surgery is complex, it is very costly, and no health insurance policy covers the cost stating that it is cosmetic surgery. A trans-person prepares themselves for life, and after numerous sessions with the psychologist, they start hormone therapy. Then, at least a year later, they go for surgery. So in a sense, the gender-affirming surgery is not a one-day affair; the entire journey takes a lifetime. It is a lifeline to stay alive. Gender dysphoria makes one hate their body so much that it becomes so distressful and depressive and some trans-people choose death over life; that’s when they go for the surgery. For Anannyah also it was supposed to be a life-saving surgery. Alas! It could have saved her life. The negligence, in this case, is blatant, and with the way the hospital and doctors behaved after her surgery, it can be said it is not a suicide but a systemic murder resulting from insensitivity. The trauma of the incident is far-reaching and beyond words. The entire community is in shock, fearing the future. The mental health of everyone has taken a hit and the impact is too devastating.

Anannyah is not alone; there are many such cases in India where trans-gender people could not get the body they want even after spending their entire life’s savings. Unfortunately, most of those stories never come out in the open. There is no government regulation in this area, and that is a giant loophole. There are no specific and designated hospitals to conduct these complex surgeries. Even therapists and endocrinologists are under no obligation to ensure their patient’s safety. Most trans-gender persons are left to fend for themselves, and these hospitals take advantage of this situation, knowing fully well that they might be safe even in the case of a major lapse on their part.

Moreover, due to social ostracization, the economic condition of most transgender persons is not stable enough to afford expensive specialty hospitals, and I have already discussed the hiccup with health insurance coverage in this matter. This leads to a grey area wherein negligence and improper after-surgery care costs many a trans-life in India. One such precious life lost to suicide was that of Anannyah’s.

This unfortunate incident has opened up the debate on Transgender health care, at least within the LGBTQIA+ community. Silence on this issue will mean going back to square one and another life lost in vain. As a community and a country, we should not turn a blind eye to the matter anymore. It is time that the government started regulating and designating proper and sufficient hospitals for gender-affirming surgery. Also, the government should fix a cap on the cost of surgery so as to make it more affordable to more people. Finally, and the most important one, the Insurance Regulatory and Development Authority should allow and ask insurance companies to cover the cost of gender-affirming surgery in their health insurance plans.

Rebel Without A Cause

When Sulagna married Kshama five years ago in Canada, it attracted quite a bit of scandal back home in Mumbai. She could see the prying eyes of the neighbours whenever they came home to meet her parents, even more so than after they had adopted Kshitij. It was also only after Kshitij that her extended family was convinced that this was not a phase, and their niece’s perversity was there to stay.

But Sulagna was probably about to prove them wrong. She had filed for divorce. 

Her marriage had begun to crumble around a year and a half ago. Or maybe it had begun earlier, but Sulagna had refused to acknowledge it. Kshama had been the first person she had ever been in love with. It’s difficult to let go of your first love, even after the love fades. It’s also difficult to acknowledge your failure in making your marriage work – even more so when you have fought against society to have that marriage in the first place.

Sulagna had only dated men when she lived in Mumbai. For most of this time, she hardly knew there were other options. But once she met Kshama, things changed. Sulagna stopped hiding behind the bi-curious tag, even to herself, and tried to love Kshama with all her heart. And it worked. Once she got accepted into a university in Canada, and Kshama also managed to get an on-site assignment in the country, she decided to come out to her parents and introduce them to the love of her life.

Apparently, her parents had suspected all along that she was lesbian. After all, she had never introduced them to any boyfriends. But once she told them she identified as bisexual – and couldn’t necessarily claim the “Born This Way” narrative – they seemed less accepting of the relationship. But a few months and the sharing of numerous LGBTQ resources later, they got on board. After all, they had always known their daughter was a rebel without a cause.

But to go to them now, and tell them that her marriage was over… and that she was swiftly falling in love with one of her male colleagues! Sulagna could not stand to think of all the uncles and aunties for whom she would end up validating that it was not natural for two women to be together – also the look of disapproval on her parents’ faces for having made them, as well as Kshitij, go through all of this, supposedly pointlessly. To have to deal with these while simultaneously facing ostracization by the very queer community around whom she had built her life in Montreal! 

She will not apologize for her queer identity, the same way she will not apologize for liking a man. And she will continue to work to normalize her kind of experiences to her family and community in Mumbai, as well as her new family in Montreal. She hates the idea that she is living at the periphery of both the worlds she knows. Neither Here, Nor There. But she is determined to create her own identity from this space.

The Handy Guide To Having Erotic Adventures…Safely

[In collaboration with Imbesharam]

Wrapping up our collaboration with @inapurupriate and @imbesharam with this guide to erotic play without compromising on one’s safety – emotional, physical or any other kind. This guide is affirmative of disabled, neurodivergent and queer experiences that challenge the cis-het narrative around sex, thereby liberating it for your exploration and consensual pleasure.

And One For Love

Then

“Hey, you sure you want to do this?” they asked, a little breathless. A smile creeped on his face as he tugged at their hair roughly to indicate his approval.

“I take that as a yes, then,” they muttered into his mouth as their lips touched fervently. A rush of adrenaline passed through their spine as they took his shirt off and ran their tongue on his warm skin. They felt him shiver under their touch as he brought his arms to rest on their shoulders, holding them tight, like his every touch had a purpose. They pulled back from running their tongue on his shoulder to nip at his collarbones. He sighed with his body and his head fell sideways, arms tightening on their neck.

“God, you have no idea how long I’ve been dreaming of this. It drove me insane sometimes. To imagine you, here, with me, like this,” he whispered in the darkness of the room. Boon smiled to themself and blew on the mark they’d just bitten on his skin. Somehow that shifted the energy in the room as Ash took control of where they were headed and placed Boon firmly on the bed, only to fall loosely on top of them. He kissed them with intent, like he wanted to drive his point across, to etch it permanently in Boon’s lips – the secret whispers only visible to them in the dark.

Ash slipped Boon’s shirt off their shoulders and kissed every inch of their skin he could land his lips on. It felt manic, rushed; as if he were afraid Boon would disappear if he stopped touching them, so he fit in as many kisses and touches he could in that moment. Not knowing what was waiting ahead of them, not knowing where they both were going, Ash only knew now. And in this moment, he had what he longed for – Boon’s arms around him. He was safe.

Safety, however, did not stay for long. As both of their hands danced around on each other’s body, lips lingering an extra few seconds after contact, eyes raking every expanse of warm, honey skin; it was then, in the midst of it all, when Ash let it slip past his tongue. “I love you.”

He almost whispered it to himself, not really wanting Boon to hear it. A secret uttered to the shadow of the moonlight snaking through the curtains. Between wet lips and tugging hands. A confession between him and the higher powers that be. Words mumbled by a man drunk in the stupor of something so surreal. It did not feel like the sound came out of his own lips; he felt it being whispered down at him from the voices beyond the ceiling. He wished for the words to fade between the sheets on which they laid.

“Wh-what did you say?” Boon jerked their mouth back from his crotch and looked at Ash with confusion etched in their visage. “No, you don’t.” They almost laughed at him, as they stood back up and inched away from him. Boon could not believe what they’d just heard. It was almost funny to them.

“Would it be so bad if I did?” The fog that numbed his senses had dispersed and Ash felt naked and vulnerable. Small. Alone. He gripped the sheet tighter in order to ground himself to this reality; this wasn’t a nightmare, but he almost wished he was asleep.

“It’d be ludicrous, Ash. You know that. We can’t be-” Boon threw the sheets off of themself and got out of bed to look for their strewn clothes. “We can’t be together! I thought sleeping together would be harmless because there weren’t any feelings involved. How could you not tell me this before?” Boon felt cheated. They found themself shaking like before, only now they were shaking out of nervous energy, and not sexual desire.

“I-” Ash wiped the back of his hand on his cheek to wipe the tears that had managed to escape his eyes. His throat was closing in on itself as he dared himself to speak. “I didn’t know you’d react like that. I haven’t done a great job at hiding my feelings for you, Boon. I thought you knew.”

“That is a huge thing to just assume, Ash. I did not know! I would’ve never done this if I knew!” Boon recoiled from the harshness of their own words just as they realised what they’d actually said. They saw the broken look that Ash wore on his face as he stood up to retrieve his pants. The silence in the room was thick. Boon simply stood, hands unmoving, limbs frozen as they saw Ash dress himself up, biting back tears that spilled nonetheless.

Just as he was finished, Ash held his face high up, almost defiantly and looked Boon right in the eye, as he said, “I’m sorry you had to find out this way. I’m sorry for assuming you knew what I felt for you. But I am not sorry for being in love with you.” He laughed wetly, tears choking him up. “Loving you is like breathing. It is inevitable, I never stood a chance. So, I can’t apologise for that.” He looked at Boon with a forlorn expression masked behind a simple smile. Boon couldn’t muster up the courage to smile back at him. They just looked and looked as he slipped past the door, out of their house. Out of their life. Never once turning to look back at them.

Now

“So wait, I’m confused. What does this story have anything to do with what you told that woman on the train?”

Boon smiled over the rim of their beer bottle.

“It’s all about taking that leap of faith. There would’ve been numerous ways, probability wise, for how that night would’ve unfolded. I spent days and weeks and months thinking about the What Ifs and Hows. What if I didn’t let him go? Would we have ended up together? Would we have been a good couple? Would that have changed the kind of people that him and I ended up becoming? Would we still be together after all these years and yada yada yada.” They took a thoughtful sip of their drink and continued, sensing the confusion still lingering in the stranger’s eyes.

“It was when he had gone far away from me that I’d realised how much of me he took with him. I had to lose him to know how much I loved him. How arrogant I was to not have seen it coming before. He called it as inevitable as breathing; love. I just had to have the wind knocked out of my lungs and be left gasping for air to know what he meant by that.” Boon laughed sadly and stared at the stranger.

“He jumped and I wasn’t there to catch him. When I jumped, he wasn’t there to see it. We never got the timing right, but we did end up in love with each other. All I mean to say is that it is only now, in hindsight, that I can understand why Ash wasn’t sorry about falling in love with me. Why he was so unflinching about accepting the truth, the same truth that scared me. You don’t get to choose who you fall in love with, the only thing that you can choose is what you do about it. He chose to be honest, he didn’t let the fear of rejection stop him from verbalising what he felt. There’s power in that, and there is so much strength in that. In the ability to stand tall and ask. No matter what you might get in return, there’s courage in asking for what you need. Sometimes, it’s understanding, sometimes, it’s patience… and sometimes, it’s love.

“He knew that what he was asking for, I wouldn’t be able to give him. He didn’t pity himself for it, though. And that’s what he taught me. I can’t save him from the heartache that I gave him and I couldn’t save myself. When I finally let go of the sadness that I had locked in my heart, the sadness that sat there in the shape of his face, I stopped pitying myself. I think that’s what it’s all about; we fear sadness so much so that we hold ourselves back from asking for things, lest we be rejected or left alone. We thrash around in that ocean of sadness and gloom, fearing that we might drown; our thrashing tires us out and it is only then when we actually drown. If we let that wave wash over us and wait for the outcome, nine times out of ten, we float back up to the surface.

“That is why I told her that it’s better to have loved and lost than to have never loved at all. It gives you character. And it might end up making a good story to share with a stranger.” Boon finished and the stranger smiled, a touch of sorrow shining in the glint of their eyes.

“That is actually very insightful. I wasn’t expecting such a rousing speech at 7:30 pm on a damn Tuesday, but here we are,” the stranger said, managing to get a chuckle out of Boon. A beat passed between them, as they both took a sip from their drinks. “Do you know what he’s doing these days? Where he might be?”

“I heard from a friend that Ash got engaged last year. He probably must have married that person by now. Didn’t think of him as the marrying type. Things change, I guess. He seems happy, that’s all that matters in the end, doesn’t it?” Boon said, staring at the glass case of wine bottles behind the bar they sat at.

“And are you? Happy, I mean.”

Boon paused to think for a moment and then replied, “I’m trying to be. Haven’t gotten it all figured out yet.”

“Well, trying is all that matters. To “trying”,” the stranger said, raising his beer bottle. Boon clinked it with his own and brought the bottle to their lips. “Oh, my friends have arrived, I’ll take your leave now. It was nice meeting you, Boon. I hope you figure out what needs figuring out.” They shook hands and the stranger winked at him.

Just as he was about to turn, Boon remembered he never asked his name. Just then, the bartender slid him his card and he read the stranger’s name as he took his card back to put it in his back pocket. Prateek. Hmm.

Boon turned back to stare at the glass case, a smile lingering on their features.

Here’s to trying.

Autogynephilia a.k.a. How White Cis-men Academicians Have Appropriated The Trans Experience

TW: academic transphobia

Back in the 1980s and 1990s, one particular white cis man decided to learn and write about trans women, what the reason is for someone to be trans (according to his own cis-lens), and why they transition. This man was Ray Blanchard. He proposed what is popularly known as ‘Blanchard’s transsexualism typology’ today. In this, he focused only on trans women, that is individuals who are assigned male at birth, and later transition and identify as a woman. As one would expect from a guy like Blanchard, his theory is not a wholesome understanding of gender that goes beyond the binary. He talked about two categories of trans women- transsexual homosexuals and autogynephilic transexuals.

According to him, transexual homosexuals are basically gay men who transition because it’s societally acceptable for a woman to lust after a man, and it’s easier to find men and be in a heterosexual relationship. Autogynephilic transexuals are men who identify as straight, bi or ace men, who are sexually aroused by the thought of having a female body, and so, they decide to undergo medical and social transition. As we can see, Blanchard focused more on the psychosexual aspect of one’s identity that motivates them to transition. ContraPoints, a channel on YouTube run by a trans woman, has a great video explaining autogynephilia and debunking it. A Case against Autogynephilia, by Julia M Serano, is also another academic paper that does exactly as the title suggests.

Personally, I think Blanchard’s theory is full of crap. He fails to capture the myriad nuanced experiences that come with gender itself, and with being a trans individual. Blanchard also only focused on trans women and not trans men or non-binary or genderqueer individuals. This theory is not transphobic, it is also homophobic and femphobic. Blanchard’s theory is centred around a cishet white male perspective, which regards gender only in terms of the male/female binary, and also in terms of perverted sex paraphilia. It fetishizes and paints trans women as particularly and inherently narcissistic.

The theory disregards the social imposition of gender on one’s identity and is ignorant of the trauma that comes with being forced to present oneself as a particular gender because the environment is extremely rigid and normative. It reduces the trans experience to a mere sexual fantasy, and in some ways, reinforces Freud’s problematic idea that all AFABs want a penis (‘penis envy’).

When trans people refused to accept this theory, ContraPoints explains that a lot of (cishet) academicians and sexologists supported Blanchard and his theory by basically saying that trans women are lying about their experiences. Blanchard’s theory was popularised by Michael Bailey who wrote the book The Man Who Would be Queen (2003). (Sighhh!) ContraPoints read excerpts from this book in their video, and to me, Bailey’s language seemingly exhibits desire towards trans women, but at the same time discredits the validity of their individual lived experience.

Transitioning isn’t just about sex or sexuality. Trans people are individuals who are actively dissenting against the rigid and unsubstantiated gender binary and gender norms. People lose families and friends because of their self-determined identity. They experience mental health issues, they are discriminated against in political, economic, and social spheres; and yet, all these experiences are so easily disregarded by cishet men, who have the privilege to embody the field of “science”, and thus influence various medical, political, and academic beliefs.

Theories by people like Blanchard and Bailey who claim to understand comprehensively about transexual and transgender experiences aren’t really consulting trans people about it. Trans people aren’t given a space in such conversations about their own identity, which reflects in serious repercussions like the Trans Bill in India, or trans women not being allowed to be a part of women’s sports. To a certain extent, it’s also telling, that trans men and genderqueer or gender fluid people are left out of these conversations entirely.

Blanchard’s story and his work is a lesson for all young academicians and researchers who use lived experiences alien to them to gain academic credits and social clout. Trying to score woke points by speaking eloquently and high-handedly about somebody else’s experiences is deeply disrespectful and uses privilege in a deceitful way. To put the spotlight like this on an experience that is not relatable for you is neither innovation nor intellectual curiosity. If you must, turn the lens inward and reflect on your own experiences of gender and how you have internalised (or haven’t) binary notions.

P.S. I Love My Body

From the inception of our lives, we are exposed to specific things, which builds our early and deep-rooted relationships with them. Things like beauty, personality, and differences are based on caste, class, and other socio-economic sensibilities. The hunger for such relationships is not explicitly acknowledged, but the amount served is priceless and worldly. However, in the process of teaching and learning, nobody taught us to love ourselves. Most of us spent our childhood hiding behind the bush; while for some people, their childhoods could be very interesting and full of joy, that is not always the case. When adolescence hit me, my body and mind changed drastically. My mother stated, ‘ab tum jawaan ho rahe ho’ (now you are becoming mature), but she never told me that adolescence could be more severe than many other things. Children in the school teased me and called me different names like Bauna (Lilliput), Maiki (Womanly), etc. There were lots of confusing changes in my body; each thing seemed different than before and distinct from each other. I was just sure of one thing: that I was a male and related to others of my sex, mentally as well as sexually.

In terms of height, I stood at 4.5 feet when I was 15 years old, and I thought that I would not grow anymore, but to my surprise, I grew each year. My body started changing, my hands grew longer, my legs grew firm, and my shoulder and chest became broad. My neighbours’ always thought of me as the eldest and not the youngest in my family. The fascinating part was that I started getting a lot of male and female attention and I enjoyed it. This gaze attracted a lot of violence and abuse as well, both sexually and mentally. With passing time, I became aware of my choices and started taking a stand. Time passed and so did the triggers; my body changed more. I was now 18 years old and my height was 5.5 feet and my weight had jumped to 68.

One fine afternoon, when sitting with a cup of tea, Meera, my mother remarked, “You grew dramatically and became a man. Look at your shoulder. Arggh (she remarked sarcastically)!” I was so happy to hear the word ‘man’ attached to me for the first time, as all this while, I was ridiculed for not being man enough. My mind was happy for the time-being but my body was not. I started getting stretch marks on my chest and around the beltline. Previously, I’d wear a vest and roam around all summer, but suddenly I stopped. I started wearing T-shirts because they hid my stretch marks. I was so ashamed of it. This freaked me out because at that phase of my life I was a star on dating apps in Guwahati. These stretch marks, however natural, triggered me so much that I never took my clothes off when the lights were on, even if I was around my boyfriends or on dates. See, we all want to love ourselves, but our ways might be different. I loved myself in secret. I secretly adored the beauty of my body with its stretch marks and tan. Complexities such as these come in the way of when the world talks of beauty without scars. Time passed faster this time, but I remained insecure on the inside, while putting on a brave face.

I did not get good grades in class 12, so; I changed my stream to arts and took history as my major. During this graduation time, I fell in love with someone who then was in Australia, and the relationship happened mostly over the net. If I remember correctly, we used to be on call for 12 hours at a stretch while simultaneously doing our daily chores. After 6 months he visited Guwahati, where I live. I fell in love with him immediately. On our first night together, I was still reluctant to open up or take off my clothes. My insecurities about having stretch marks on my body were not gone yet. It took me months to level up and become open, but I realized that time does wonders. By the end of graduation, I became this person that I always wanted to be, the unapologetic me. No slut-shaming or hypocrisy would stop me. Things did not happen overnight. I clearly remember asking myself: Why dress up for somebody else, if not for oneself. Why put on make-up before meeting somebody, if that make-up is to try and impress somebody else. Why wear fancy clothes or put on fancy perfumes, if I already know that for some, my body odour would be heaven. Will they like me without all of this? If yes, then it is fine, and if not, then also it’s fine. I promised myself that I would not hide what I am even if people call me loud or opinionated. Their definition of me is not the truth, it is just a perception and the beauty of perception is that it changes with time.

My evolution affected my relationship; the dynamics changed with my partner and we broke up. Soon, I was about to be a PG student at Gauhati University. I was far more confident and hardly tried to impress people. I also observed that the first impression is never the last, but that it is the lasting impression.

I do not stand with people who body shame others, nor did I support such actions. I was called a bitch or an ‘attitude master’ because I never supported rampant misogyny and body shaming. I am currently about to finish my post graduate studies and I now understand that beauty and its meaning changes over time. What stays is you, your morals and values! I often tell my friends: “Speak to yourself, resort to the truth and imprint all lies, let this darkness sink in and the sun rise. Wait! Until the reality sets in.” By now, I had absorbed that beauty is subjective and it was a hard-won realization that I should accept myself. This acceptance takes time.

Today, I am no longer afraid to post bare upper body photographs of me. I don’t feel shy about taking my clothes off. I am not bothered when there are marks on my face. After all, none of these are alien to me or anybody else. I realized that beauty cannot be appreciated if personality fails to impress. I don’t look for temporary compliments anymore because I now realize that my mind and body are my universes. And, they need no compliments. Falling in love is a slow process and I am still exploring other ways of falling in love with myself.

So, yes, I can now firmly say that I love my body. I love my mind. I love me.

The First Night

At my door, Diana wraps her arms around my waist and kisses the back of my neck. I shiver and rustle through my purse for my keys. Her hands haven’t left me since we first kissed at the bar, and she doesn’t seem to want to take them away. The excitement and apprehension of my first night with this incredible woman rushes through me.

“Hurry up,” she whispers, before kissing my earlobe. 

I close my eyes, stifle a gasp and clutch my keys. I fumble to unlock the door, but once we’re inside, she pushes me up against the wall. I giggle at her eagerness and we resume our kissing. We’re more passionate here than at the bar. Our bodies pressed together, I try to run my fingers through her done up hair while her hands tug my jacket, and her tongue strokes mine.

Diana kisses me back, pushes my jacket off my shoulders, and swiftly unzips my little black dress. In a flash, it’s on the floor in a pool at my feet. She kisses me across my jaw, down my neck. I let out a moan as her tongue traces my collarbone. She briefly pulls away when my hands slip under her black lace blouse, to pull it over her head. Her skirt falls to the floor by her feet. I take a moment to admire her gorgeous body, perfectly accentuated by her lacy black bra and panties. When I see her doing the same to me, I blush, and attempt to cover myself. 

She stops me, takes my hand and interlaces our fingers together before she leans close to whisper: “Don’t be shy, Princess. You are exquisite.”

She pulls me into another deep kiss and swiftly unhooks my bra and tosses it aside. 

Her voice is husky. “Tell me what you want,” she murmurs between kisses as we fall back against the bed.

“You. All of you,” I whisper back, breathless. She trails her mouth down my chest and stomach, hooks her fingers in the waistband of my underwear and slowly slides them off. When her eyes run over my now naked body, I spread my legs and smirk, “Well, don’t keep me waiting.” 

She bites her lip. I blush at my own boldness and how turned on she looks right now. She kneels before me at the edge of the bed and pulls my knees over her shoulders, kissing along my thigh. When her tongue circles my clit, I gasp. Her strokes are long and slow, and she takes her time teasing me. 

“Mmmm, you taste so good,” she murmurs.

I squirm in delight and grasp her hair, untangling her updo. My thighs tremble as she holds them in place. I pant and moan; I’m already so close and she knows it too, when her tongue suddenly stops. I let out a frustrated groan.

“Not yet, Princess. Not like this,” she says and kisses her way back up my body, all the way to my lips. When her lips reach mine, she whispers, “I want to watch your face while you come.”

I feel a jolt of lust and drip at her words. She captures my mouth with hers and I taste myself on her tongue as we kiss hungrily and roll over until I’m on top of her. Her soft, black hair has come undone, and I run my fingers through it. Our nipples brush against each other, she caresses my back. 

Diana breaks our embrace and sits up, her back against the headboard. “Come here,” she urges, holding open her arms. I eagerly straddle her thighs and bury my face in her neck, wanting more and more of this incredible woman with every second. She slides her hand between my legs and I lift my hips up so slightly to give her access. I’m already so wet for her. She doesn’t take long to slip her one finger inside me and then another. I gasp and stroke her nipples as she curls her fingers inside me. 

She pumps her fingers rhythmically inside of me and a warmth spreads throughout my body. This isn’t teasing like earlier, she’s determined now, and so am I. Our kisses are frenzied and I move my hand down between her legs as well, urging her to spread them. I tease her clit with my finger and realize she is as wet as I am. 

Diana fists her free hand into my hair. “Ohhhh, Princess,” she moans. She quickens the pace of her fingers and so do I. It’s electrifying. I ache to open my eyes and watch her but the intensity doesn’t let me. So I keep them closed and enjoy the sensation of her fingers inside me. I let myself get lost in her touch and we pant together as we grind against each other. As I reach my release, I throw back my head and moan.

I clench against her fingers as euphoria radiates through my body. While I revel in my own bliss, she moans deeply and gushes onto my fingers. Her reaction thrills me even more. I smile to myself and rub her wetness between my fingers. Flush and tingly, I slowly open my eyes to meet hers. We stare at each other for a moment, panting. Diana’s gaze softens and a smile plays on her lips. She pulls me into her arms and kisses me tenderly. I eagerly kiss her back and hold her close. I lost myself in her, and found myself all over again.

Together, we lay back on the bed. I snuggle into her chest, and she runs her fingers through my short hair. Her heart is thumping wildly and I smile to myself. I wasn’t expecting to lose myself in this wonderful woman this fast. I wasn’t expecting this night with her to be this memorable. Before her, no one else, man or woman, has ever made me feel this way.

I tilt my head up and rest my chin on her chest. She is smiling at me. She brushes the hair off my slightly damp forehead and smirks.

“I hope you’re ready for round two soon.”

Your Heart Inside Mine

“They’re gonna be upset, you know?”

“Oh, you don’t need to make it sound so dramatic!”

“It’s not me who’s being dramatic right now though. You can’t keep moping around, Kia. I’ve never seen you so hung up on someone like this before.”

“Hey. I’m not hung up on her okay? It’s difficult to explain. I just-”

“No let me simplify it then – you are in love with her and you don’t want to accept it because you’re afraid she doesn’t like you like that.”

Kia felt a strong urge to lie and deflect his logic with the shitty reasons she repeats to herself every night when she can’t fall asleep. But, she knew he wasn’t entirely wrong. And she hated that.

“I don’t think we both know enough to qualify what I feel as love. That’s the only comment I’ll be making.”

“You are incorrigible! Ugh! Anyway, if you’ve decided to mope around then so be it. I’ll let Dhruvika know you won’t be joining us.”

“Thank you, Kuuush.” She extended his name and her friend on the other side muttered a small goodbye in return. Kia knew she was being dramatic, but she did not have the mental energy to meet new people right now, especially if new people included her friend’s new boyfriend. Being around couples was the last thing she needed.

She felt a movement to her left and looked up; it’s the stranger she saw almost every other day on this train route. They had gotten up and stood near the door. They both had travelled probably a hundred kilometres together in the last year yet she still did not know their name. There’s a comfort in their presence, though; they had exchanged several smiles and knowing looks when someone said something funny very loudly, even though they had never said a word to each other.

“I couldn’t help but overhear your conversation. It’s absolutely none of my business, but,” they paused, and Kia peered up at them quizzically. It startled her a little to feel their voice directed at her. “Someone once told me that it’s better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all.”

“Huh?”

They stifled a laugh at her cluelessness. “I mean I know it sounds like a load of shit, but hey! If one’s already hurting over unspoken rejection, might as well just go all the way and get a confirmation, you know? What’s the worst that could happen? You’d be in pain? As if that’s already not a thing. Equation remains balanced nonetheless, you know what I mean?” they finished with a shrug.

By the time Kia could fashion a coherent response, the train reached their station and they gave her a smile before stepping off to the platform, only for her to be left to stare blankly at their retreating figure. A loud crack of thunder roared in the background as the train rolled on.

Well, that was weird.

~~~~~~~~

Rain had never been Kia’s favourite. Even as a child, she associated rains with every negative emotion in her limited repertoire. Growing up, the feelings associated with this gloomy weather only got worse. And today of all days, Kia thought the weather perfectly reflected the turmoil she felt inside; the loud crackling thunder voiced her own soundless screams of helplessness, the bountiful raindrops, pelting down as hard as rocks, too closely resembled the tears she couldn’t bring herself to shed and the cloudy, sunless void shadowed the numbness she felt within her bones. So, to her, the weather seemed perfectly befitting to be absolutely pissed to the highest points of piss-tivity.

Vandana opening the door, wearing a bunny t-shirt and fuzzy socks, did manage to soften her from within, but Kia wasn’t ready to drop her dramatic act yet.

“You look like an angry cat that fell in a bucket full of water.” An amused smile played on her lips.

“I am really not in the mood right now, V.” She muttered as she started moving inside the gate. But before Kia could step in, Vandana stopped her right as she lifted her foot, as she retrieved a soft towel that sat on the stool near the door and proceeded to bring that towel near Kia’s face. Kia stood there silently, while Vandana tussled her hair and soaked the excess water dripping from her hands and face into the towel. Kia’s heart pained with this display of affection and she almost let out a few tears of frustration.

“Okay step in now, soldier. Take your shoes off just here, I’ll pick ‘em up when they’ve dried. Go change, I’ll put the kettle on for you.” As she stepped aside, Kia walked in with her heart heavier than before, vision blurred by the tears she was still not willing to shed. Kia wanted to scream at Vandana, tell her to stop being so kind and helpful and cute and lovely and…

She threw her wet bag on the chair when she stepped in her room, but before she could start taking off her drenched clothes, Vandana barged in casually.

“Why aren’t you screaming about how much you hate monsoons today now that you’ve finally been soaked?” Kia turned to look at Vandana’s face to call out her faux-genuine concern. But she only found knitted eyebrows and a creased forehead staring back at her. She didn’t understand how Vandana was capable of seeing through Kia’s façade without any difficulty. How did Vandana learn about her so thoroughly, to know every silence’s meaning without Kia ever spelling it out for her?

“Maybe getting my clothes and hair wet were all the signs I needed to finally stop crying about it. Go out, let me change now.”

“Ha-ha, funny. I know that isn’t it. Also, I don’t mind seeing you change. So out with it, pun intended.” Vandana winked. Kia could only sigh.

“V, you shouldn’t say things like that! Please, just believe me you don’t wanna know.” Kia felt bile rise in her throat at the thought of confessing the things that have kept her awake. How she craved V’s warmth on her skin, how she yearned to touch her lips and kiss and bite and let Vandana take over everything she had to offer. It immobilised Kia on a regular basis – the strength of her desires – but the fear of losing Vandana over something like this awakened her fears simultaneously.

“K, need I remind you that I once heard your two-hour long rant, fuelled by weed and pizza, about how Shrek and Fiona’s relationship represents the most culturally important depiction of love for our generation? I did not want to know that, but I did like it. So, try me, please?” Vandana pouted for a good five seconds before Kia softened over her puppy eyes, defeated.

“I’ll-uh-ugh…okay just turn around and I’ll-I’ll speak.” Kia stuttered and Vandana, smiling triumphantly, turned around in a second. Ah shit, here goes nothing, Kia prepared herself mentally. “Well, um. I have been struggling with uh, trying to un-understand what we both are. As in where we both stand, you know?” Kia huffed her way through, while pushing her wet jeans off.

“Okay…not sure if I follow you, but keep going.” She heard Vandana think out loud and braced herself. While putting on a fresh pair of pyjamas, she continued, “I mean, I don’t know who we both are for each other. V, I…I’ve had many female friendships in my life. And I’ve been close with many of them, I know what female friendships look like. But with you…with you, I don’t know. It’s different? I don’t understand it, but it just feels unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. You-you do things for me that no other friend has ever done,” she emphasised. “You take care of me, you learn to cook new things for me because you know I’ll like them, you bring me things I mention in passing and surprise me with them, you kept these dry clothes and a towel ready for me at the gate because you knew I’d be angry and wet! Even my mother hasn’t done that last bit for me, V.”


“And I don’t know! Shit, I might as well be overthinking or reading too much into things or just being stupid, but god! I don’t know if friends act like that! I have seen you with your friends, and I see how you act with them and I can’t help but feel a difference, or maybe its just me fucking wishing for a difference.” Kia laughed humourlessly. Her thoughts whirred in her mind rapidly and Vandana’s silence only made her more nervous. So, she continued blabbing.

“I don’t want to cross any lines but fuck, I don’t even know where they start! I want so many things but I’m so scared, V. I’m so scared of doing something or saying something. Scared of losing you because of it. I don’t want to lose what we have…but fuck, I also want so much more. I want…I want you. But I don’t know where you stand! Because what if it’s all just me? What if all that I’m noticing is what I want to happen when in reality, none of that exists? What if I’m just your good friend?” Kia felt tears running down her cheeks as she threw her top on the ground. Her hands trembled as she picked up a dry shirt and started putting it on. Her nervous fingers struggled to button it up and she sobbed out of frustration.

Suddenly, she felt arms on her waist, turning her around. She turned to see Vandana’s placid eyes shift with an emotion she couldn’t put a finger on. Vandana tucked her hair behind her ear, grazing her cheek with her knuckles ever so slightly. Kia shivered under that slightest of touch and closed her eyes. Vandana cradled her cheek with one hand as she moved her face close to Kia’s neck. Her lips sent jolts of electricity down Kia’s spine and she unconsciously tilted her head to allow Vandana more places to explore.

“Is this what you want?” Vandana sighed into the crook of her neck as Kia nodded numbly. “Say it,” Vandana whispered in her ear, trailing her lips along Kia’s jaw.

“Yes,” Kia whispered back and that jolted Vandana into action as she kissed fervently along the side of her face, kissing her jaw, the pulse on her throat that beat loudly, biting her ear, nosing her cheek. With every new kiss, she asked Kia, “And this?” Kia replied “yes”. Vandana’s warm hands found their way under Kia’s shirt, holding her tightly by her waist, digging her short-clipped nails into her skin. Kia wanted to scream, every inch of her body felt like a minefield that Vandana’s lips tiptoed around, bursting waves of sensations into her nerves, making her knees weak with anticipation, pleasure – a pool of want swarming in her stomach.

Vandana’s hands snaked their way up the front of Kia’s stomach, her nimble fingers trailing the outline of her breasts. Vandana pulled her face out of her collarbones and looked directly at Kia’s red and swollen lips that she had bit onto, to stop the rampant noises that dared to escape her mouth, catching them in her throat. Kia opened her eyes to see Vandana staring back at her with a question floating in her eyes. Kia felt herself lean in, as if her lips hid a magnet that can’t help but be attracted to whatever promise Vandana’s mouth held. It was natural – how easily they fit into each other’s mouths. Their hot breaths mingled in a steamy embrace as lips clashed softly aagainst lips. Kia felt V’s hands pulling her even closer, no space dared exist between them in that moment, as Kia tangled her hand in her hair.

They kissed for who knows how long. Kia lost her grip on reality and drowned in the pleasure she derived from Vandana’s lips. Their hands roamed through each other’s bodies, stopping to caress at places, to hold on tighter. Their lips melted together in perfect sync and the noises of their wet kiss filled the echoey room they stood in. Vandana parted their lips as they both kept their eyes closed, breathing in each other’s breaths, faces still close. Kia realised that the rain had stopped. She opened her eyes and saw Vandana staring back at her, eyes glinting, lips bitten red, hair tousled around her forehead. The setting sun threw shards of bright golden light in the room, filling up the atmosphere with the warmth Kia felt in the pit of her stomach.

Vandana finally broke the silence, “So…how long have you been assuming I’m straight?” Kia blushed furiously.

“In my defence, assuming you were straight was the less painful option. I didn’t want to think you were queer because I guess that would’ve meant that you do like girls, but you just… don’t like me. I didn’t want to deal with those thoughts, so I just chose an option that helped me stay in denial?” Kia confessed, eyes hung down in shame. She thought Vandana might pity her stupidity, but she tipped Kia’s chin up and kissed her softly on the lips. The kiss wasn’t heated like the one before, but there was a firmness in it that grounded Kia’s wavering thoughts.

“I can’t believe how you manage to make your high Shrek feelings sound so coherent and confident, while your own damn sober feelings are all over the place.” Vandana giggled and poked Kia’s stomach with her finger. Kia whined loudly. Even when she daydreamed about telling Vandana about her feelings, Kia never thought that that ogre would play such a huge role in that scenario. It all felt like a dream to her; she feared she was going to wake up any second and realise that she was still on the train and all of this was just her mind playing tricks on her.

But as she stared into Vandana’s eyes, sparkling in the golden light that spilled into the room, and felt her heart beating rapidly against her throat, she knew. This was happening, this was real, Vandana would not disappear if Kia tried to touch her. The reality felt as bizarre as any dream Kia had ever had. All her fears melted away in the mellowness of Vandana’s touch; she was awash in an amber glow.

And as Vandana whispered to her: “We’ll figure this out together, K,” Kia felt like a blue sky after stormy clouds cleared; she sensed within herself a clarity she hasn’t experienced in ages. She believed without a doubt.

We will.

Aam Aadmi Party Launches LGBTQ+ Cell Ahead Of Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) Polls

Source: Google

Last week, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) announced that they are opening applications to welcome members of the LGBTQ+ community into their Mumbai Chapter. They introduced the LGBTQIA+ Cell inviting queer members to participate in the upcoming BMC (Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation) elections.

In October 2020, the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) had also invited members of the LGBTQ+ community to be a part of their new LGBT Cell. This step was taken to make the policy-making process in Mumbai inclusive of certain marginalized voices. The aim was to address issues of social and economic discrimination against the community.

Back in 2014, AAP had excluded LGBT issues from their national manifestos, a move that had created controversy with critics accusing AAP of being exclusionary and pandering. After receiving backlash from the public, the AAP had added LGBTQ+ issues, including repealing Section 377 to their manifesto.

In some ways, AAP’s introduction of the LGBTQIA+ cell in Mumbai is a progressive step. This could lead to an increased and direct inclusion of various queer groups in local politics and decision-making processes. The application the party has released for queer members to fill in also includes that the party want to bring in more lived experiences and directly involve queer people to address broader socio-economic issues. In the past, LGBTQ+ members have had to turn to allies™ to have their voices heard regarding issues affecting them. And even if queer people are included, it’s not necessary that the policies that come out of the party reflect that. AAP including queer members could be for the sake of tokenistic representation, or because Section 377 is repealed and LGBTQ+ issues seem popular.

AAP has also never emphatically voiced concerns about the Trans Act, 2019, or the issues faced by the trans community at large. Their announcement on their social media pages shares no information as to any procedural or systemic changes that have been adopted to create a safe space in the Party for LGBTQ+ voices to share, be heard and participate in various day-to-day activities; just vague declarations of inclusion and progress.

The thing about identifying as queer is that queer is a very fluid and umbrella identity. It is a spectrum, where each individual has their own experience of gender or sexuality, even if we are to share a common label. But what happens is that the majority population is often systemically denied an understanding of these identity issues. That is partly why we have problematic labels like the “Third gender” and policies like the Trans Act, which the community has challenged time and again. Involving a few people in the party system doesn’t necessarily mean the entire community has fair representation or the agency to make the requisite changes.

AAP’s application said that there is an interview that candidates must go through to get into the LGBT Cell. What will this interview consist of? Who will ask the questions? What kind of questions will be asked? Why do they even need a screening process? There are a lot of grey areas here where the queer applicants could feel unsafe or unheard. I doubt the formation of the cell itself consisted of queer people giving their input – if otherwise, this ought to have been made clear.

Mumbai is a metropolitan city with a robust queer network and community organizations at work, nonetheless there are a lot of misconceptions and rigid ways of understanding queerness. There are in-group issues of exclusion due to caste, religion, and gender identity. While this inclusion looks good on paper, the proof of the pudding is in eating it. This kind of inclusion may have little to do with real change as members & leaders of political parties might still have very homophobic or transphobic understandings of the community. After all, the Trans Act was not repealed even when the members of the trans community themselves asked for it to be removed.

Everything

“What do you like about me?” Kim always asks as he carries Jon away to another reality.

“Everything,” the answer is whispered. Jon caresses Kim’s waist, rolls him onto his back and straddles across him. “Everything,” he always replies in the darkness, blankets draped over them and shirt slipping off easily. “Everything.”

“Then… what do you like about us?” Kim murmurs, cold fingers running over golden and heated skin.

Jon rolls his hips, brushes himself against the other. It is his wordless answer. Nothing else needs to be said. Nothing else needs specifying, regardless of Kim’s incessant, unsure inquiries. Jon places his hands over the other’s, pushing them harder onto his flesh and muscle, onto his existence.

“Everything.”

Kim glows in the dark, like he isn’t of this earth. Like he is not human, but celestial.

He turns Jon into someone else too. Jon changes whenever he is in Kim’s arms. He has never been held like that. He hasn’t been touched or kissed or even called the way Kim pronounces his name. And it makes Jon realise what an island he is, how quiet his life is despite all the noise residing around him. When Kim looks at him, when Kim touches him, when Kim is inside him, he isn’t Jon then. He turns into someone else. He turns into someone who loves Kim with everything he has.

“What do you like the most about this world?” Kim persists.

It is strange to do this. It is odd to be like this and to feel like this. The fingers in him, the slickness of their slide, the edge of a razor-like stare—everything is so strange to Jon, regardless of how many times they do this. Every encounter is new and unexpected, like he’s never experienced it before. Everything Kim does and everything it makes Jon feel, it is all so strange. One minute he wants to stop and speak his mind, spill serious utterances and truthful thoughts between them. And another, he wants to never stop, never say a word, never reveal more than Kim’s assured fingertips are willing to breach.

The softness of the mattress, the brightness of the moon, the chill in the air, the stretch of his ribs. Nothing is familiar no matter how many times they meet. No single time is the same as the others. No single time feels real. All their nights are dreams.

Panting, heated, needing, he lays on his back and locks his legs around Kim. He looks up expectantly, waiting for him with a palm on his hipbone. “I like this world… because you live in it,” he whispers.

Kim’s actions are always careful, gentle. He is always so deliberate when he moves, but his words are like knives.

“And what if I didn’t?”

Jon lets out a long sigh when he is finally given, when he finally receives. When Kim is finally piercing him like the needle he is, Jon coils his arms around the other’s neck. There is an unassailable need to be inseparable. A fervent yearning to speak with the same tongue, breathe with the same set of lungs, pump the same blood with the same pulsing heart. To think with the same mind and grasp with the same fingers and push the ground away with the same feet. There is a lust, to be one. To be the same person. To press against one another so hard that their skins and tendons and bones all mesh into one, devoted, intimate whole. One body. One being. One life. There is an emphatic desire to be one, and it lives in both. They needn’t give it voice; they needn’t even think of it when they are together in the same cramped quarters. But Jon knows and Kim knows. The desire makes itself plain, makes itself apodictic. They cannot dispute it. They cannot deny it, nor lie about its existence. It thrives within them, in the places where their bodies are joined. 

“… then I’d want to be wherever you were.”

And that satisfies Kim. Every time he pushes in is more perfect than the last. Every time is more filling, more complete. Every time Kim pulls him by his thighs, every time they are joined the closest, Jon whispers the other’s name over and over, calls for him over and over. It is like giving himself up, like surrendering himself.

Jon’s love is thick. Viscous. It is love, of this Kim is certain. Because what else could weigh so heavily on his chest? What else could drag him down, bend him in half with its sheer mass as he lugs it in his trembling hold?

When Jon hums softly in their kisses, when his body burns from head to toe. When Jon breaths in what he breaths out—what else could Kim call it but love?

He doesn’t know for certain, he admits. He’s never experienced love before. It could be anything, really. Infatuation. Addiction. Obsession. It could be anything. He doesn’t know. But when Jon laces their fingers together, gasps every time he rises and sits back down onto Kim, when he closes his eyes and lets his head fall back. When he looks like he is trying to memorise how every slide feels… when Jon murmurs Kim’s name like it is a small prayer, it doesn’t matter what this is. Kim doesn’t feel the need to find out. He wants to stay ignorant. He wants it to run its course though him, though his blood and bones. Like a passing disease. He wants it to take over his every cell, corrupt it, and then let go of him when it has done irreversible damage.

He wants this fever, wants this calenture that no one can detect until it has claimed too much of him.

This man, his front against a wall and his arm hooked backwards onto Kim’s neck. This man with arched back and heavy arousal—whoever he is and whatever is in his heart, Kim doesn’t want to dig in and find out. He doesn’t want to look for answers, he doesn’t want to ask for explanations, he doesn’t want to follow his suspicions and uncover clues that will break the dream. He doesn’t want to wake up from this. He doesn’t want the desolation of reality. All he wants is Jon’s silken body shuddering against him. All he wants is the breaking voice moaning for him. Kim, Kim, Kim. All he wants is to keep hearing that grating and irreverent keen.

He wants nothing but that golden sound claiming his name.

He wants nothing but those short golden fingers clutching his hair.

He wants nothing but that golden stare boring into his chest.

He wants nothing but the wild pulsing heat around his yearning.

He wants nothing more than to bury himself into the man, to stay there eternally, to live in him, to make a house of him.

He wants nothing but Jon.

Rebecca

Rebecca, I, and a few of our friends were helping Ananya clean up after the party was over. Billie Eilish played on one of our phones at a low volume. “Hey”, Ananya gestured to me, “Wanna step out for a smoke?” she asked, handing me a pack of cigarettes.

We stepped out to her balcony, both our hips resting against the railing. The metal was still wet from the rain. I could still feel the slight drizzle on my arms, and watch as the drops settled on her frizzy hair. I had goosebumps from the chilly air.

I unboxed the pack and took out a cigarette, handing her another one. “Aren’t you supposed to do that protective senior thing wherein you tell me smoking is bad?”

Ananya was a fresher, and new at the hostel. The seniors tended to be quite welcoming, and my group of friends was especially parentified.

“I’m guessing that would be pretty ineffective while I’ve got two cigs in my mouth” I said.

“Have you and Rebecca known each other since your first year?”

I smiled. “Pretty much. I sat next to her on our first day and I decided we were going to be best friends”

I still remembered the pink camisole and blue jeans she was wearing that day, and how skinny she used to be. God, we used to be so dorky.

“And how long have you been dating?” Ananya asked.

I chuckled. “We’re not dating. That’s hilarious”

“Are you kidding me? She’s obviously in love with you”

“She doesn’t love me. She wants me. There’s a difference” I said.

“And how do you know which is which?”, she asked.

“I guess..when being wanted drains you, being loved restores you”

“And is that so bad? Being wanted?”, she said.

I nodded.

“What’s the worst someone can do? Leave? Are you that afraid of being left?”

I ashed my cigarette.

“No. The worst they can do is make a character out of you, and stay.”

***

The morning light escaped through the thin fabric our beige dorm room curtains, not beaming enough to discomfort the eyes. Rebecca and I spilled into the room at eight in the morning and onto her single bed, taking our shoes off, stretching, curling, relaxing our muscles after a taxing night.

We lay our heads just below the bed post on her bare sheets, her one good pillow vertical above us. After deep breaths and yawns, we found ourselves facing each other, our noses touching so barely that they almost weren’t.

Her eyes were welled up from puking her guts out in Ananya’s kitchen sink. She passively moved an inch closer, sucked on my bottom lip, and moved back. “You smell like tequila” she scoffed.

I placed my thumb on the bone sticking out at her waist and shifted my palm to the small of her back. I saw the exhaustion in her eyes; I knew what she was thinking- “How many times are we going to kid ourselves?”

And I didn’t want to hurt her again, but the world was sad and I was mean and she was the only thing that made sense.

I climbed on top of her and began kissing her and didn’t stop until my lips were bruised. “I’ve missed you so much”, she’d say every time I ran my hands through her hair.

***

Early in the afternoon, Rebecca grabbed onto her sheets tighter and snuggled in. She opened her eyes to the light coming through the window, and winced.

“Can you delete the sun, please?” she whined, lazily running her hand over her bed, expecting to meet mine. She quickly realized I’d shifted to my own bed after she fell asleep.

“Did I do something wrong?” she asked, jerking awake.

“No, I just..”

“Regret last night?”, she filled in.

I stayed mum.

“I can’t keep doing this” she said and sighed. “I can’t pretend like I don’t still want to kiss you when we’re sober.”

“I love you” I said to her.

She got off the bed and moved to the study desk, which I was sat at. She undid my ponytail and let my hair fall. Moving my hair to the side, she gently kissed my neck, wrapping her arms around my shoulders.

“I know. Just not enough” she said.

***

Queer People With Disabilities And An Ally Speak Out How Fundamentally Inaccessible The Ongoing Queer Rights Movement Is

Gaysi spoke with LGBTQIA+ people with disabilities and an ally, all of whom share how a majority of queer spaces are sites of blatant ableism, and those that show solidarity, make an attempt to ‘include’ people with disabilities, adding insult to the injury, making them feel as if they did not belong already.

‘Access is a choice we make as organisers’

Noor

Noor is a storyteller, community organiser, and an activist. In March 2021, he tweeted that “building in access is your responsibility. Failing to do so is your choice”. He points out that currently there’s a constant buzz about ‘including’ queer disabled people in LGBTQIA+ engagement activities, as if the queer movement is “yet to see disabled people as a full part of their community, as people who have to and should be there.”

“That’s just not true,” concludes Noor. He says, “Queer disabled people are and have always been a part of the movement, and still are,” emphasising the need for a shift in approach and mindset. He adds: “What I want to see change is fundamentally restructuring how we organise queer spaces. I want us to structure them by centering those traditionally left behind from the start, and that includes disabled people. Access is a choice we make as organisers—it’s as fundamental as a space to meet. In its absence, I’ve seen a fundamental lack of understanding of issues impacting the disability community. In the US that looks like the sub-minimum wage, conservatorship, abuse in institutions, and so many more human rights violations, every day. But we don’t get to make those a part of our goals as people [simultaneously belonging to] both identity groups specifically because our participation is not being valued as equal.”

Lamenting how allies fail to understand “the profound loneliness of knowing that the places that claim to value you often will show the opposite through their actions,” Noor goes on to say how jaded “the feeling of entering a mosque and the prayer space being impossible for you to enter” leaves him. “The thrift stores are so crowded you can’t breathe. The graveyard is up a hill without pavement. Even in death, my funeral may not be accessible to everyone I loved in life. And I have to live with that reality. I wish they knew. And I wish they realised that that was just the tip of the iceberg.”

‘#LoveIsLove means two able-bodied gay people in love’

Safal Lama

Safal Lama, a non-binary person with disability, opines that the “ongoing queer movements never included people from marginalised groups, like people with disabilities, Dalits, or anyone who has been marginalised on other grounds. In Nepal as well, I don’t see any representation from disabled people.”

Highlighting how everything that we talk about when we talk about queer issues caters to only a privileged section of society, they share how access to technology and the internet, which may sound like a non-issue for a person of able-bodymind, may not be even suited for disabled people’s use. In that sense, they say that a disabled person gets “doubly marginalised.”

Lama also feels that when we say #LoveIsLove we only “think of two queer people [of able-bodymind] and mostly gays.” For them, a safe space to talk about intersectionality in discussions related to queer rights, which includes queer, trans and nonbinary people with disabilities, is the need of the hour.

‘Don’t want tokenistic representation’

@DisabledSpice

@DisabledSpice, a disabled queer activist and an artist who is part of the Determined Art Movement (DAM) collective, says that they “don’t care” about diversity and inclusion as they “don’t want to be included as a token representation.” They continue: “I want to be heard, and I want my queer and disabled elders to be heard. I want the next generation of disabled and queer folks to be more visible, specifically trans people, street workers, Dalits, Bahujan, Pasmanda, and Adivasi communities.”

Emphasising the need to abolish institutions and structures of power, they submit that it would be better “if we have more agency in our economic, housing, and socio-political rights.” For allies, they feel that there’s a need to realise that they can’t just ‘assign’ allyship to themselves, it requires “constant work in friendship, forgiveness and unlearning.”

‘There’s a particular class that has access’

Kanav Narayan Sahgal

“When it comes to physical and mental disabilities, there is little space for everyone,” says Kanav Narayan Sahgal, a development professional and an ally to queer people with disabilities.

Hinting at this bias that’s in the very structure of how we imagine queer spaces, Kanav reminds how pride marches are inaccessible to people with disabilities, and that after the coronavirus outbreak, when “everything moved online,” how deeply discriminatory even the online medium became.

Kanav wonders “how do people with hearing and visual disabilities attend online events? What accommodations are made for them? And are they even made at all? Given that the medium of instruction in most online spaces is English, so many people are left out. Moreover, we rarely think about whether the internet is available to all. Do we even consider the possibility of whether cellphones are discreetly available to use for those queer disabled attendees who need privacy? Clearly, there’s only a particular class that can access these things.”

Thinking about the inclusion of disabled and neurodivergent people at protest sites and discussion spaces, Kanav says that “protest spaces remind me immediately of police violence and unwarranted arrests.” He goes on to say that “for someone who has attended protests, I have witnessed first-hand the kinds of transportation restrictions and frequent internet shutdowns that limit people from organising. However, while able-bodied people can get away with most of these difficulties, people with disabilities are at a greater risk.” He also underlines that there’s a tendency to view LGBTQIA+ people “as a monolithic group. So for example, if we try to talk about the issues faced by bisexual neurodivergent women or asexual men with disabilities—I don’t think allies are even willing to learn because these issues seem too ‘complicated’!”

Thinking Out Loud About Polyamory And Who May Practice It

Author’s Note: Set aside your judgments and preconceived notions before you read this piece, as it is my personal understanding and journey with polyamory. I’ve been trying to explore it consciously by becoming more aware of my emotions towards something which is outside contemporary understanding of relationships, even though societal notions continue to hold me back with ideas of compulsory monogamy (the catch is that I’ve not been in a relationship for a long time now).

I think I always knew what I identify as but never had the language to put it across. I always knew that there is something which is beyond my power but the question of morality and cheating has, more often than not, struck it down. Currently, in my immediate headspace, I am able to process some of these feelings where jealousy comes into the picture and love for more than one person feels overwhelming, but I am relatively happier for it. However, the social implications, a persistent fear of being judged and an under-developed ability to handle having strong feelings for more than one person at a time, makes things hard for me since handling relationships is not my natural forte.

At first thought, it strikes me as strange how polyamory is an intrinsic behaviour rather than a lifestyle choice for many. I find it equally confusing as to why I feel inclined toward it, maybe because it’s not something I have control over, while it is also something I don’t feel capable of, emotionally. I realise that today, I am in control of my surroundings and my emotional state is definitely better off than before; but how do you take control of what happens in your body and mind?

I identify as a bisexual cis woman but i came out as polyamorous not very long ago, after a lot of struggle with myself; this is my first attempt to go public with this piece of information. Not that it will make a difference to anyone but it will change a lot of things for me. I find myself hesitant to share it with my friends and expect to be very uncomfortable with putting it out to family members that I am out to as well. There is a lot of internalised stigma that continues to exist and it is always a challenge to fight your own fears. I came in terms with myself as a polyamorous person almost a year ago in the middle of the pandemic and the terminology was introduced to me by a support group I was part of. Imagine, not even aware of the word that you identify with; it keeps on tugging at your heart, bringing up multiple questions all your life. 

To give myself a non-judgemental space, I attended a workshop by The Alternative Story on Polyamory. That helped clear my head and build some critical understanding of my own location as a queer person living in Delhi on her own. I learnt about the nuances of polyamory and how the experiences vary from person to person. I realised that even if I wanted to date everyone I like, I am not socially and mentally equipped to do so; for instance, when I am refused a relationship when I share that I am likely to fall for more than one person at a time. I never wanted to box or define myself as per the societal normative paradigm even when it leads me to trouble. I am still figuring out for myself as to what it means for me to identify as queer polyamorous person.

In my experience and to the best of my knowledge, the dominant ideas of polyamory are rather masculine in nature and there are certain biases when it comes to women and femme people practicing it. I have also understood that it is not a new concept, but that it is often observed in the context of class and religion, such as when people of a certain social class or religion are legally sanctioned to practice polygamy, but it is rarely discussed as a practice of relating outside the institution of marriage. Marriage remains an important condition that regulates polyamory even in the present day and age.

Polyamory is a privilege to exercise; it is socially acceptable (even desirable) for cis-het-men to see multiple people at the same time, but there is stigma of ‘loose’ morals attached to people of other genders & sexualities who do the same. Polyamory requires social acceptance for people to practice it if they choose to.

I am also in the process of exploring whether being polyamorous means being queer? I am currently of the view that straight people are polyamorous too so does it mean they are experiencing marginalisation due to their practicing it? There are certain parts of India where its practice by cis-het-men is socially accepted; does it marginalises them as well? If yes, how? These are the questions that come up for me when I think consider polyamory as part of the queer spectrum.

My personal style of practicing polyamory seems to be different from the other experiences that I have heard of. It is beyond being in a relationship; it is also about not having a primary partner, feeling possessive about all the people that I like, an inability to devote time to those relationships due to my own mental health. Hence, it is highly complex for me and the people around me.

With this, I do not mean to imply that polyamory is only a difficult, painful and mentally draining experience for me, a cis-bisexual polyamorous woman, but I am desperately looking for answers as to what it means to others, especially queer and trans people who are marginalized for practicing it.

Sindur Khela: Part 1

“And just like that it’s Dashami [2] already.” sighed Soma while wearing her ear-rings and appraising herself in front of the mirror. Diana sat on the edge of their bed, already dressed, and offered an empathetic smile.

“Well, Aashchhe bochor, abaar khabey! [3] Isn’t that what your people say?” remarked Diana with her best Bengali pronunciation, attempting to provide some assurance and consolation to Soma.

“It’s hobey, not khabey[4],” laughedSoma, as she enunciated the words properly to mark their difference in pronunciation. “Though your version rings true as well.”

“Oh! My bad. They sound so identical.” exclaimed Diana pretending to be embarrassed, knowing full well the distinction between the two verbs, having been with this Bengali [5] for over a decade. She smiled, contented because her deliberate goof-up had cheered up Soma.

They had been over this numerous times over the past years, this roller-coaster ride of intense emotions during Durga Pujo. The festive build-up of exultation and celebration which commenced on Mahalaya [6], and reached an ecstatic fever pitch on Ashtami [7]. Andafter Navami’s [8] evening aroti [9],it was followed by a sharp, doleful realisation of impending Dashami [10]. Then there was Dashami morning, filled with an evanescent sense of denial and dejection.

The first time they had taken part in Pujo together, Diana had been perplexed by a thorough change in Soma’s demeanour during the festivities. The usually calm and reticent woman had transformed into a boisterous adolescent, trying everything and stopping at nothing. Diana had tried hard to maintain a nonplussed expression at Soma’s uncharacteristic antics, but the occasional awed, wide-eyed stare had gotten the better of her.

Though Diana had known Soma better than most others could claim, she had to gradually come to terms with the fact, that there was another side to Soma’s persona, unbeknownst to her, which only made an appearance during Pujo each year. Then again, Diana figured, long-term relationships were filled with all kinds of revelations, and this was of a nicer variety.

During their first Pujo, poor, bewildered Diana had chosen a peculiar moment to elicit an explanation behind Soma’s overnight metamorphosis. She had been holding her tongue to the best of her abilities. Nonetheless, when she observed Soma rambunctiously coursing through her third plate of ill-advised, rich food for the day, with her fingers and lips covered in gravy, while standing near yet another Pujo food stall; Diana simply couldn’t keep quiet anymore. She was worried about Soma, and wanted to help out if something was bothering her. Diana thought that a good, open conversation might be just what Soma needed; the lack of which may have prompted her to seek solace in biryani [11], fish fry [12] and then kosha mangsho [13].

Diana did not wish to offend Soma. On the other hand, she did not understand how best to broach the subject. Finally, she took a deep breath and politely gestured towards Soma and her half-eaten plate, and asked, “What is all this?” with hesitant curiosity.

Soma slowly looked up from her plate, noticed clueless Diana, and grinned through gravy stained lips. “It’s Pujo!”, Soma stated in a casual tone, like it was the most obvious thing in the world, after chomping and gulping down another mouthful of delicious mangsho and ruti [14].

“Right. It’s Pujo.”, reiterated Diana, who hoped that repeating Soma’s answer might bring her some clarity. It did not. She didn’t press her any further. If Soma wanted to eat curry and make merry, she wouldn’t stop her. Diana took note of the situation and thought it best to stop by the pharmacy on their way home, and stock up on some medicines for indigestion. They would certainly need those. Since Soma didn’t mix well with food laden with spices and oil, and had miraculously forgotten that, Diana would have to step in.

The next morning, Soma had been incredibly grateful for Diana’s medical intervention and had sheepishly taken the medicines from her. This became a part of their Pujo tradition. Soma would stock her plate with various food items and Diana would stock her bag with medicines and water. She didn’t complain or fuss because- “It’s Pujo!” and evidently all was fair in love, war and Pujo.

__________________________________

This Dashami, Soma and Diana were dressed in similar, white, Kasavu [15] sarees, embellished with a gold and deep red border. Diana’s mother had especially brought them from Kerala on her last trip. She found them most fitting to be worn on Dashami, when Bengali women wore laal paad [16] sarees. Soma was delighted at the idea and found it rather endearing. The couple rarely wore similar outfits as both had their own sartorial likes and dislikes. Today was different, and it felt good for a change.

Moreover, Diana had gifted Soma some delightful handloom silk cotton sarees for Pujo. Soma in turn had bought her colourful cotton fabrics and had gotten them tailored into gorgeous kurtas. Her mother had presented Diana with a splendid blue silk saree, which Diana had worn on Ashtami, accompanied by Soma in a magnificent kantha [17] embroidered kurta.

__________________________________

It was almost nine o’clock now. “Hurry up! We don’t want to stand in long queues at the pandal.” pleaded Diana standing at the door. “We need to get back before lunch.”

“Just a minute.” Soma responded while arranging some mishti [18] and a small container of sindur [19] on a steel plate.

“Done. Let’s go!”


Standing in queues had become commonplace for Diana once she began attending Durga Pujo with Soma. She had learnt to wait in disorganised queues to catch a glimpse of the Goddess and offer their prayers. She had faced the jostling of devotees during Pushpanjali [20] and the evening aroti. And of course, earned a place in the long queues for proshad [21] and bhog [22].

Much to Soma’s amusement, Diana had developed a taste for the delicious preparations served as bhog and the assortment of fruits, dry fruits and mishti served as proshad. This resulted in less grumbling and more eager anticipation on Diana’s part while waiting in queues. Moreover, being taller than Soma, she found it easier to get a glimpse of the Goddess amidst the crowd. It also helped her get the flowers and bael [23] leaves first from the baskets passed around for Pushpanjali, and she utilised the opportunity to collect Soma’s share too, handing them over with chivalry to the shorter woman.

For Pushpanjali, Diana wasn’t earnest to get the complicated Sanskrit mantras [24] right. She didn’t comprehend all the words but she understood the essence. Soma had given her a synopsis of everything that the mantras and prayers conveyed. Diana understood that by participating in Pushpanjali, the devotees humbly submitted themselves to the care of a higher power. Diana was familiar with that feeling. It’s what her parents had taught her to do at church.

While everyone else tried their best to repeat after the priest, Diana stood next to Soma with her eyes closed and head upright, carefully holding the flowers between her palms, while confidently praying in Malayalam [24]. Since her prayers were concise, she always managed to get done before the others and then spent the rest of the time, looking around, gazing at the Goddess, the mandap [25], the priest, other devotees, or at Soma who looked serene and happy when she prayed.       


[1] Sindur Khela – A Bengali festive ritual that takes place on the day of Dashami during Durga Pujo. Traditionally, married Bengali women apply vermillion on each other to commemorate the departure of Goddess Durga from her home on earth, and return to her celestial abode on Mount Kailash.

[2] Dashami – The tenth day of Navratri and the final day of Durga Pujo, celebrating the triumph of goodness over the forces of evil

[3] Aashchhe Bochor, Abaar Hobey! – An oft repeated slogan during Durga Pujo, especially as it nears its end, in order to bring a sense of assurance to the devotees. The slogan means that in the swiftly approaching year, Pujo shall be celebrated once again.

[4] Khabey – A Bengali verb to denote the act of eating.

[5] Bengali – A person who traces their origin from Bengal.

[6] Mahalaya – The first day following the end of Pitri Paksh or the month of Shraddha, during which prayers and oblations are offered to ancestors. It signals the auspicious beginning of Navratri. Traditionally, at dawn Bengalis listen to the recording of Birendra Krishna Bhadra’s rendition of the Chandi Paath, delineating the origin of Goddess Durga and her victory over Mahishasura. 

[7]  Ashtami – The eighth day of Navratri, and the most important day of Durga Puja as Shondhi Pujo takes place on this day. Shondhi Pujo facilitates the transition from Ashtami to Navami.

[8]Navami – The ninth day of Navratri.  

[9] Aroti – A ritual of worship wherein the Gods and Goddesses are offered light, water, air, fragrance and clothing, to the rhythmic beats of the Dhaak and Kashor Ghonta. 

[10] Dashami – The tenth and concluding day of Navratri and Durga Pujo, celebrated as Vijay Dashami.  

[11] Biryani – A delicacy consisting of aromatic rice cooked with meat in a closed pot with a selection of spices.

[12] Fish fry Bhetki fish which is deep fried in batter to make crisp, flat cutlets.

[13] Kosha mangsho ­– A mutton dish with tender meat and thick, flavourful gravy.

[14] Ruti – Roti or flat-bread

[15] Kasavu – The traditional variety of clothing in Kerala, white in colour with a gold border.

[16] Laal Paad – The traditional Bengali saree with a red border worn on Dashami. Laal Paad sarees may have a white, pale yellow or cream base.    

[17] Kantha – A specialised form of Bengal handloom featuring colourful embroidery patterns.

[18]  Mishti – The Bengali term used for sweets. 

[19] Sindur – Vermillion 

[20] Pushpanjali – A ritual of worship, wherein the offerings of flowers and bael leaves are made to Goddess Durga and her Children by the devotees as they repeat Sanskrit mantras after the priest.

[21] Proshad – Sanctified cut fruits, dry fruits and mishti given to devotees after Pushpanjali.

[22] Bhog – Sanctified food served to the devotees at lunch time on the days of Saptami, Ashtami and Navami.

[23] Bael – Wood apple

[24] Mantras – chants and prayers

[25] Malayalam – The language spoken by people in and from Kerala.

[26]  Mandap – The designated area wherein the idols are kept and worship rituals are performed by the priests.

Good Morning

Sun rays pour through the sheer curtains as I wake. I rub my eyes and become aware of the warm, naked body pressed against me. Diana isn’t disturbed by my movements. Her arms are wrapped around me tightly, her face buried in the nape of my neck, where her slow, deep breaths tickle me. I stretch and roll to my back. She moves to curl up on top of me but can’t escape her arms as she keeps them wrapped around my waist. I smile, remembering the intimacy we shared on this boat yesterday; our hands caressing each other, my lips on her neck… her tongue dancing on my clit.

Diana’s head rests on my chest, her bare breasts press against my waist. Sleepily, she snuggles closer and brushes her lips against my collarbone. I watch her for a bit while she snoozes peacefully. I gently press a kiss on the top of her head, and then another… and another. I kiss down to her forehead, her closed lids, her nose, the little moles above her lip. When I kiss her cheek, she stirs and murmurs sleepily, “It’s too early, Princess.”

“It’s never too early, my Queen,” I whisper, and kiss the corner of her mouth.

I wrap my arms around and roll her over on her back. I straddle her thighs, lean over and kiss across her jawline to her earlobe.

“Eager this morning, aren’t we?” she smirks. 

I kiss along her collarbone. She moans when I reach the curve of her neck and gently suck. I cup her breasts and stroke her nipples with my thumbs. I nuzzle her shoulder, breathing in the salty citrus scent of her skin.

“Don’t just tease me like this, Princess,” she giggles, running her fingers through my hair.

I kiss down her to her breasts, take one of her nipples in my mouth and start to suck. She groans and lightly pulls at my hair. My fingers slowly trail down her body until my hand reaches between her legs. I part her lips and stroke them gently. My fingers move to her clit, spreading her wetness over it. I kiss down her stomach, burying my face in her beautiful body. With my thumb lightly on her clit, I slip one finger inside her easily, and then another.

Diana moans when I twist my fingers inside her. She bends her knees and spreads her legs to give me better access. I lift my head to see; she has one hand tangled in my hair and the other gripping the sheets. I’ve found a rhythm now, with my fingers inside her and my thumb stroking her clit. My other hand steadies on her hip to hold her in place, but she’s moving to meet my strokes. I trace her belly with my tongue as I quicken the pace. She’s so wet, I know she’s close. She gasps and calls out my name, gripping my hair tighter. I’m too eager now and I rub harder to let her release. Diana clenches against my fingers. She moans deeply and throws back her head, arching her back. She gushes onto my fingers, soaking them. I wait until her body relaxes, and for her hand to slip out of my hair before I slowly pull my fingers out of her. She’s flush and still panting when our eyes meet.

I stare into her eyes as I raise my wet fingers to my lips and suck them clean, tasting her. She smirks and raises an eyebrow. I pull myself up to give her a lingering kiss and murmur, “Good morning.”

Low On Spoons But Full Of Pride: On Being Chronically Ill And Queer

Pride month is over, but the protest goes on. July marks Disability Pride Month, which is a globally recognised effort to celebrate the experiences of disabled people. This commemoration includes raising awareness, reclaiming the disabled identity and appreciating the joy that disabled people share with each other as a community.

A major social construct that disability activists seek to overthrow is ableism – the discrimination and social prejudice against people with disabilities, based on the belief that certain abilities are universal as well as desirable. Disability Pride Month is also a call to discuss the issue of ableism so that the world can become more inclusive and accessible to people of all abilities.

Disability Pride Month seeks to highlight various forms of disabilities including physical, learning, invisible and mental health conditions. Several of these conditions are also chronic illnesses.

What is a Chronic Illness?

A chronic illness is a long-term health condition that may not have a cure and includes conditions of the mind and the body. Generally these conditions are irreversible, cumulative and persistent. There are variations in the medico-legal definitions of chronic illness to qualify someone as eligible for long-term care insurance, disability allowance and other assistive aids. However, it is important to recognise nuances in how a chronic illness may manifest. Some individuals with chronic conditions may be able to access treatments as well as manage their symptoms and pain. Other conditions may get progressively worse over time. Some individuals may identify with being disabled because a significant portion of their functioning has been impacted. Others may not identify as disabled because they may be able to manage their conditions or simply may not identify with the term.

Perhaps one of the most digestible metaphors to imagine what it feels like to be chronically ill is that of the Spoon Theory by Christine Miserandino, who lives with lupus.  The theory explains how a chronically ill person gets only a limited number of spoons or energy units, which have to be planned and used wisely, lest they run out of energy or burnout. So on a particular day, if a chronically ill person is in a state where they have 7 spoons, they may try to allocate these spoons accordingly for different purposes, so as to be able to perform these activities efficiently or enjoyably and conserve their energy throughout the day. The number of spoons available to them could be more or less fixed or variable depending on their illness. To do something that requires more spoons, they might have to conserve spoons, making trade offs with other activities so as to be able to perform the desired or required ones. The analogy of the spoons helps provide a language to talk about the difficulties of managing a chronic illness, particularly with able-bodied people who may not understand why a simple task may require a lot of effort, particularly when a person may appear able on the outside. Chronically ill people around the world have identified with being “Spoonies”, a nickname for those living with chronic illness, having found respite in being able to communicate with themselves and people around them about managing their illness in their day to day life.

How is Being Queer like Being Chronically Ill?

Just like with being queer, a strict definition of being chronically ill results in marginalization and harms those who experience being queer or chronically ill as different from socially constructed norms of both identities. Crip theory explores the mechanisms through which heterosexuality and able-bodiedness are made normal and in the process also those that make being queer and disabled as “less than”,”deviant”,”inferior” and so on. Identifying common mechanisms of discrimination provides a space to witness how multiple oppressions bleed into each other. Being chronically ill also challenges the binary of able bodiedness, similar to how being queer challenges the binaries of sexuality and gender. With able bodiedness being attributed as normal and disabled as deviant, chronic illness questions the existence of both categories.

To provide support to someone that is most helpful, it is important to first understand them. Like the slogan goes, “Nothing for us, without us”. More on what it’s like to be queer and chronically ill from the lived experiences of queer chronically people themselves:

On Identity

Have you been able to find acceptance in your identity as someone who is queer and chronically ill? Could you tell us a little more about that journey?

“It took me almost fifteen years to accept my chronic illness. After fifteen years of gaslighting, denial and self-hatred, I have realised that I suffer from chronic fatigue and chronic pain. Acceptance doesn’t change the illness but it initiates communication with the self with the body and mind and encourages us to listen to the needs of our body. I’ve loved myself a bit more since the day I accepted my chronic illness. It was always there, and I always knew but it’s only now that I have put a label on it. I am a survivor of brain damage-induced hemiparesis. Fortunately I recovered fast enough but in the process my disability is almost invisible to people. Invisible disability is something disabled people struggle with a lot. They face years of invalidation. My chronic illness has been worse since puberty as gender dysphoria and Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS) were added to the journey.” – Blair

“Acceptance as a chronically ill queer trans person has been difficult because sometimes even your close friends don’t understand how it takes a toll on you and how you can’t do the most basic of tasks. So it’s very difficult, because it’s rare to see someone be understanding or even knowledgeable about these things.

My journey as a chronically ill trans person began when I was diagnosed with Depression, Anxiety and OCD. And it just went downhill from there because I worked in a corporate space and I had the worst burnout. I quit my job in 2019 and am still recovering from the burnout. It’s been very difficult to do the most basic tasks like getting out of bed and eating on time. Even eating the food I like feels like a huge task. There’s always this sense of no energy in my body. There’s this feeling that I will just collapse. But recently I thought of something that made it feel okay to live as a chronically ill trans person. I thought of animals and how they just eat, sleep, reproduce and survive and it made me feel like it’s okay you know, if you are able to do a little to survive everyday. Because if I think of it any other way, it just becomes hard and I can’t deal with the fact that I’m living with this. Sometimes you can put all your energy into the big things and do that but the small things which are necessary for daily survival are very difficult.” -Rishi

“I have cerebral palsy and was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma when I was 15, which is a type of blood cancer which is very curable. Mine happened to be particularly drug resistant, so I relapsed three times. Over the course of all that I came into a sort of understanding of owning my identity as having a disability. I do think that my queer identity was also very hard to accept, because initially I kept telling myself and every one else around me also kept telling me “Oh no, you’ve not dated anyone so maybe you think you’re asexual because you’ve not met the right person.” I thought that because I have a disability, I’m always going to be alone. People told me chemo drugs reduce your libido. But this is not a libido thing, it’s a psychological thing. The more comfortable I got with my own disability and my chronic illness, the more I got comfortable saying that I am asexual, because it’s who I am and it’s not just because of the cancer and the disability.” – C.D.

How would you compare the experiences of coming out as queer and as chronically ill?

“I’ve had some pretty big similarities in both instances of coming out. Specifically, I lost friends at both instances. My family has struggled with both of these aspects of me. I have experienced isolation both for being queer and as a result of my chronic illness. But it’s also been considerably different in that my family has been able to support me in my chronic illness with far less work than it has taken for them to start to accept my transness/queerness. In terms of community, it has been more difficult to find one when it comes to chronic illness.” – Ardra

“Like most queer people coming out, I see the path of coming out as a zig zag where with some people I am more comfortable revealing and expressing my identity as compared to others. Like everyone knows about my disability but not everyone knows about the lymphoma. On queerness, there are very few people who actually believe me about my asexuality, because the rest of them just tell me it’s internalized ableism. It’s really not. I don’t believe that because I’m disabled I’m unattractive. It’s not about me feeling unattractive, it’s about me not feeling attracted to anyone else. These are two very different things.” – C.D.

Calling out Ableism

What are some ways in which you experience internalised ableism?

“I’ve definitely come a long way in working on my internalised ableism with respect to my autoimmune disease and with my Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). I do still grapple with capitalist notions of productivity though. I have periods of time where I’m very low functioning and unable to work for money or perform basic aspects of living. My self-compassion is really tested during these times. I also experience a lot of guilt when it comes to keeping up with the plans I make with my friends. Over the years I’ve had to learn how to show up for my friends without literally showing up. In romantic relationships, I often feel that I am making things upsetting for my partners because I’m constantly ill. It’s like an emotional weight that I feel I’m burdening the relationship with.” – Ardra

“I think  I’ve put myself down in many situations because I often feel like I’m not good enough. So I take a step back as I think someone else will be better at something than me. I prefer to work in the background and let others take credit because that feels more acceptable than if my name is visible.” – Edrin

How do you experience ableism in your study environment /workspace?

“For my college, I studied at an institution that was inclusive. I also worked with them in a social service commitment for the visually impaired and realized that these students were not being assimilated into the social body. They were able to get admissions but few people would actually try to assimilate them and be friends with them. I didn’t have difficulty making friends because I was much more verbal and I was used to being different. Students who came from schools for the visually impaired or schools for the hearing impaired and had then joined a mainstream institution for the first time did not have an easy experience. I was also assimilated because I was doing very well academically, so no one could mess with me, which was very validating. However, if I was not doing well academically, I doubt I would have had any friends.

In my workspace, I have not told my colleagues, I have only told my boss. Because otherwise they might keep assisting me with everything and I’ll feel like I’m not earning my own money. The workspace has not needed to accommodate a lot for me, because I am so used to trying to behave like an able bodied person that I don’t put that pressure on anyone. I also want to change my job for better pay, since this is a not for profit space. But I don’t have any guarantee that if I join a new workspace, it would be a safe space or if I’d be hired as a token employee because of my disability. There’s always a part of me that evaluates whether I should stay in a workspace for the love and acceptance or move to a new one for more pay because I also need to be independent.” – CD

“I have experienced ableism in my workplace and my study environment. In my workplace, everyone was given unachievable targets and they beat themselves up, did bad work but somehow met the targets. I was never able to in my last 3 jobs, one in a cafe and then at two call centres. I haven’t been able to meet my targets and learn as fast or be as productive as other people because I would just get exhausted mentally and physically. They have unnatural expectations. They expect you to not take toilet breaks or even carry small assistive aids to work. I used to carry a stress ball to control my anxiety attacks or just ground myself, but we weren’t allowed to carry such things, or even our phones. It was difficult because they make you work until you drop dead. My friend has low B.P and he had to be taken home on a wheelchair because of overworking. There were times when I worked a night shift and I would sleep for one hour after work, give exams and sleep for one hour again and go to work because they would not give leaves. And it made me very sick but they would just say that that was how everyone does it.

My college was very unaccepting of my queerness. It is based in an area which is not very safe for trans people. I have been enrolled for four years doing my B.Com, but I’ve had to take year-drops because of mental health issues and pain. I’ve had breakdowns because of bullying. The college doesn’t care about disabled students. They do not allow students to use lifts. There are no ramps and they do not want to change anything. If you tell them about your depression they will respond saying “How at such a young age?” – Rishi

How may have being chronically ill affected your dating life?

“Being chronically ill hasn’t had any direct impact on my dating life apart from the fact that it gets tedious almost always. I am reluctant to go on dates, to meet new people, as it’s tiring. It’s tiring to find places, dress up, get out of the house, not to mention the anxiety that comes with all of it. Also virtual dates don’t really work for me. So my dating life is pretty much just texting and then moving on. Despite the struggle, I have met a few awesome people and dated them briefly. With regards to ableism in dating, I have faced a lot of lateral ableism and gaslighting in a long term relationship I was in. And there’s always the occasional ignorance or insensitivity from people for sure.” – Blair

In the Mirror

Would you say that identifying as both queer and chronically ill has brought its own unique challenges regarding body image?

“I think it did when I was younger and in college. I used to not feel very attractive and experienced some body image issues at that time. But I have worked on it in therapy. Initially I thought my asexuality was not asexuality, that it was body dysphoria. But then I realized no, that was just not me. I’m pretty content with my body until people tell me not to be. They look at me and question “What happened to you?” and then I start thinking accordingly. But I realize that this is my normal. I have lived like this my whole life. I don’t think I have internal body issues, it’s external. It’s like the world wants me to have body issues. Disability becomes so central to their perception of you that they can’t see beyond it.” – CD

“Being disabled and chronically ill causes you to see yourself through other people’s lenses. Having an “abnormal”gait, being “lethargic”, “weird”, “introverted”, and so on, is the image that I had about myself because that’s how people saw me. I wasn’t even aware of my body image issues, and have not done anything about it. As a queer person, I also face gender dysphoria and consequent body dysphoria. Despite all this I have had an approach of neutrality towards my body. Recently I read a trans person’s account of euphoria, in which they mentioned that gender dysphoria was the cause of their low physical and mental energy and that after transitioning, they felt active and energetic like never before. This gives us a perspective about how chronic illness is worse for queer and neurodivergent people as they lose a lot more spoons to the burnout and dysphoria as well.” – Blair

Life in Quarantine

How would you say that the pandemic has impacted you as someone who is queer and chronically ill?

“Wearing a mask and immunity are very prominent concerns for people with chronic illnesses and wearing a mask is something that people with cancer are asked to do when they are on treatment. So I used to wear a mask then and even now and I still hate it because it feels claustrophobic and I have weaker lungs, so I get out of breath faster. So stepping out of the house has been a big no no. I can count on my fingers, the number of times I’ve stepped out of the house since the first wave of the pandemic. I have not been allowed to go outside, neither by my parents nor my doctors.

But my experience as a queer person has not been affected much. I came out to myself only during the beginning of the pandemic. I came out to my therapist as well. So my being queer has not come to the fore. I’m sure of being asexual but I’m not engaged as much as with other queer people. Regardless, I would not be able to talk about this very openly because the first response that I get is invalidation because of my disability.” – CD

“The pandemic has affected me in various ways such as having to live in a transphobic, and misogynistic household which is very bad for my mental health. My anxiety has skyrocketed with seeing the news and seeing trans people suffer everyday because of hunger. Not having contact with the queer community, friends, people I can rely on and express myself has made me suppress how I feel in many ways. It’s been very depressing and I haven’t been myself.” – Rishi

Hope for a Better World

What are some ways you would like the world to be more accessible?

“I wish that it wasn’t looked down upon to be chronically ill. People tend to see mental illness and the queer community as some sort of stains on the society. They try to believe that if they ignore us, then we don’t exist. Even a simple thing such as being allowed to take leave in school if you’re mentally exhausted and not just when you have fever or some other visible hurt could help a lot. Better healthcare policies that cover mental health issues would help the general population understand that mentally ill people are not invisible and are very much present and need the same amount of care and attention as any other patients.” – Edrin

“I think some ways the world can be accessible is doing away with the capitalistic approach to everything in life. Productivity levels and working hours that are very much ableist. Even the exams don’t really measure how much you’ve learnt. Do away with the fast-paced environment that we live in, dog-eat-dog world, you know. However, that will need a cultural reset for the entire world.” – Rishi

“Some ways the world could be more accessible are having flexible work hours or  school hours and to optimise tasks and make them less tiring. Along with being a spoonie, I’m also neurodivergent and I seek ND-specific accommodations too like readability, content warnings, peaceful and less illuminated environments. Being neurodivergent subtracts the spoons even more, as the world is not very good at accommodating ND needs and that leads to meltdowns and fatigue. Focusing on these issues would really help improve accessibility. At last, I would just like to say that there are struggles, and there’s joy too. But I’m proud. Disabled and proud. Queer and proud.” – Blair

Global Trends in LGBT Rights During the Covid-19 Pandemic

I’m a “Spoonie.” Here’s What I Wish More People Knew About Chronic Illness

Raising awareness of all disabilities this July during Disability Pride Month

The SAGE Handbook of Global Sexualities

The Spoon Theory written by Christine Miserandino

Troubling Binaries, Boxes, and Spectrums: A Galactic Approach to Queerness and Crip-nes

Unsmelly Sex

That afternoon, Narendra was not getting sleepy. His body was no longer weak. His body had not had so much energy in over 10 days. And in over 10 days, his body had also not released any energy. His desperate body, its untouched flesh, bones and hair and its profuse smell, sweat and heat were all ready for a ravishing cum-back. Briefly criticizing the inaccessibility of porn to his blind eyes, he resorted to his fine sense of creative imagination. He retrieved his favorite velvet towel and gave noisy love to himself. As tired celibacy escaped from his sogginess, he drifted into a sound sleep. An hour later, the sleep of ecstasy was interrupted by Siri that extended a humble reminder. Excited again, Narendra wanted to prepare. his Unholiness gathered his clothes but was unable to find the towel. Between his legs, under his genitals and beneath his back, it remained unfound. His hardworking right hand stumbled upon it near the pillow. He was not surprised at the unhelpfulness of his generally smart nostrils in aiding the discovery. While the virus had left his body, his sense of smell had not yet returned. He could not smell the towel, his hands, the clothes and his body. This instance of self love was quite as relieving but it’s culmination seemed weird, less complete, less real. His excitement became less enthusiastic.

An hour and a half later, the doorbell bursted out and as Narendra made his way to the door and the lock, he heard the visitor probably storing some residuary plastic in one of their pockets. The unlock resulted in a long hug, impulsive and risky. Akbar made their way out of the eventually lose embrace by shifting their arms beneath those of their lover and locking their hands behind his lower back deliberately increasing the tightness. Narendra was expected to wrap his arms around the neck of his tall lover. And he complied. Akbar initiated a moist kiss. A series of soft kisses were exchanged. Then Narendra tasted something, Akbar’s mouth tasted of chocolate. Narendra initiated few frail kisses. ‘’You are still weak’’, Akbar concluded as their lips reached for Narendra’s forehead. They tilted Narendra a little, picked him on their forearms and carried Narendra to his room.

The air drive halted at the bed top and Akbar removed their bag and undressed. Narendra heard Akbar unbutton and uncover, and then unbuckle, unbutton, unzip and unravel. His nostrils attempted a few shallow breaths. Akbar settled their naked body on top of their lover’s. ‘’I have missed you’’, they declared as if pleading and ventured inside his mouth. Their mouth move downwards and kissed and bit his left nipple. ‘’I’ll see you tonight’’, they murmured to the nipple. ‘’You should rest. I’ll cook dinner.’’, they announced and exited the room shutting the door behind them.

Narendra searched for the clothes that had just left Akbar. He smelt each one. But every attempt remained a try. Their flesh had felt cool. But he could not smell if evaporation was producing a cooling effect on their tired body or if their skin had recently showered. And the chocolate smelling mouth used to be his fetish. The aroma would generally accelerate his sex drive…fuelling him…making him relentless, vigorous and even more energized. But loss of smell meant lack of passion. Hugs could no longer suffocate and kisses became gentle. He felt blinded, crippled and disabled. Literally then, his experience of romance became less sensual. Yes, he was weak…yet again.

Narendra was able to guess dinner. In the high of happiness, Akbar misunderstood their lover’s wisdom and marvelled at his sensitive sense of smell. After doing the dishes, they aimed for the bedroom and the bed.

‘’Hello gorgeous!’’, they greeted their partner as they placed themselves on him. For at least one long minute, Akbar inactively admired the beautiful face that fronted theirs. Then they kissed his perfect eyelashes, licked his lips and bit his jawline. They removed his warm t-shirt. A sight of his unshaven fleshy chests had always titillated them. The vanilla fragrance from the pits motivated them and they continued downwards. The jogger and the underpants were removed and Akbar paused at Narendra’s pubes, smelling. ‘’This smell…your smell…I have missed you!’’, they said in between intervals of admiration and began an oral revision of their lover’s historic geography. ‘’Let’s switch… ‘’, they requested a while later and rested their back next to Narendra.

As Akbar bottomed, Narendra started by kissing their lips and moved downwards. Because the usual citrus fragrance was unusually missing, the demoralized him moved further down. Narendra paused at Akbar’s pubes, smelling. Frustration arrived at an opportune moment and he hastily hung their legs on to his respective shoulders, spread his legs out around Akbar like a delta, spread there ass cheeks, began stroking, kept at it and had them both climax.

Narendra’s face was neutral after the sex. Akbar noticed the unlikely. ‘’Your sense of smell has not yet returned…has it?’’, they asked and Narendra landed into an extremely tight hug. ‘’Yes. I know you as much for your smell as much as I know you for how you feel. And I can’t smell you. And I don’t know if I am smelling of you! I felt hard but I don’t know if it was for you. Right now, you could be anyone who feels like you. Even as I have you, I still miss you! I really do!’’, Narendra elaborated and dozed off in the warmth of the embrace.

The following morning, Narendra woke up to an empty bed. He went to the living room where he heard his lover probably lotioning. ‘’Hey you!’’, he was greeted, kissed and embraced. ‘’Now I am a new me for the new you. It is not a sufficient replacement but an innovative temporary change.’’, Akbar announced. ‘’And how is that?’’, Narendra asked greedily. ‘’Taste me!’’, Akbar requested. Narendra remained static. ‘’Taste me!!’’, Akbar repeated…commanding. Narendra licked him as directed. Their lips tasted of milk chocolate, their neck of lemons and their nipples of caramel. Narendra initiated a kiss…softly…then passionately…and they repeated….

Short Story

If we know when the love leaves, passionate lovers would have broken their heart and broken hearts would have fixed their hearts without pain.

If we know whom the love chooses, love loses its power and bravery.

If we know how love creates, emotion loses its liveliness and we lose our curiosity.

If love is uncertain: How and when,

Why love to be considered as pain rather than the emotion to be felt?

Why love to be considered as a sin rather than as a quest to look forward to?

Karthik read the above excerpt from the short story, “The Lover’s Poison” by Sharath Kumar. He read it word-to-word and then line-to-line, with such utter tenderness as if they’d be scattered out if it hadn’t been read gently and slowly. His lips moved in the slow-motion flapping of a butterfly’s wings. He read it again. The short story was not only well-written, but it also pierced his emotions and thrashed his heart. “Love”, “broken heart” and “pain”, all these words made him fall into a whirlwind of grief. Tears dribbled from his cheeks and splashed onto the paper.

He re-read it like a classic novel so that he could have his wife’s reverie, feel her love and presence. Once she had said: My world is always little – only a few friends and family. It doesn’t mean that I have a calm and ordered life with my friends, nor do they. They have their own struggles that have an impact on my life and their life as well. No matter how close they are, I can’t read their minds. No matter how many secrets they share, sometimes I can’t understand enough. It’s a helpless situation, where it befuddles me about how to act and how not to. Human emotions are complex, there is no point in judging one another. No bond or relationship is perfect. Nevertheless, I choose to be kind and respect their feelings. Love draws me towards them to give comfort, my love somehow guides me. Therefore, even if we have quarrels, let’s be kind and maintain a serene bond.

Those words made him feel fortunate. She was always an inspiration to him – her intellectual thoughts, her compassion for all beings, her curiosity towards mysteries either in human behaviour or the universe at large – she would understand everything all by herself, with utmost dedication and patience. His wife, Kamala, along with his parents, had left to go to Kamala’s parents’ home. They travelled at night by car. It was a long and tardy journey. The roads were uneven with no street lights and when Karthik’s father took a turn on the road, they were hit by a lorry. Fire erupted all over and spread to the trees, the lorry and the car. The road was filled with ashes.

Since then, Karthik’s cheeks had never moved, except for wailing. There were no characteristic half-moon curves on his cheeks anymore. He spent years altogether in solitude, by reading, writing, and working at a literary magazine. After years of tussling with melancholy, he realised that we can’t erase memories, but we can bottle them up into different forms, such as in the form of writing, in reading books and doing the things that our loved one did or doing the things that we love. Somehow, it all became tolerable for Karthik as years and months passed by. He thought of reading again to bottle his wife’s memories in that story.

He did the last reading, kept it aside, selected the cover story of the month for the literary magazine. In his email to Sharath Kumar, he conveyed his congratulations and invited him to the office to select a cover design for the story. Next day, Sharath waited for a few minutes in the visitor’s cabin and met the editor, Karthik. They had a beautiful conversation in the afternoon, when they talked about books, writers, poems, poets, philosophers, paintings, politics and life in general. Karthik was very excited with the conversation and broadening his eyes he said, “I would like to celebrate your presence with a love poem from Khalil Gibran’s book called Prophet:

Love has no other desire but to fulfil itself.

            But if you love and must needs have desires, let these be your desires:

            To melt and be like a running brook that sings its melody to the night.

            To know the pain of too much tenderness.

            To be wounded by your own understanding of love;

            And to bleed willingly and joyfully.

            To wake at dawn with a winged heart and give thanks for another day of loving;

            To rest at the noon hour and meditate love’s ecstasy;

            To return home at eventide with gratitude;

 And then to sleep with a prayer for the beloved in your heart and a song of praise upon your lips.

There was a deep abyss of silence between them. Sharath’s face was filled with ardour and ecstasy. He couldn’t move his eyes from the book. “Thanks for reading out the poem, this afternoon’s purpose has been fulfilled by this poem. I would never forget this moment,” said Sharath. “I appreciate your love of books and literature, and I would like to ask one thing: why did you like writing and how did you develop your writing style?” asked Karthik.

Sharath went into deep introspection with his sharp eyes focused on the paper of his short story and in a moment lifted his head and said to Karthik, “poetry has always been internal energy, whenever I look at something which is beautiful I tend to describe in through poetry, say it as “poetical” or say it as “looking like poetry”. Along with the poetry, I started loving lyricism, started reading books on lyricism, and wanted to write in lyrical style as well. Whenever I read lyrical novels or poems, I feel, as if some solid delicious food like chocolate melting down in my mouth, when we eat or look at favourite our food it gives us good texture and activates our senses more, to the nose, tongue, broadens eyeball, a little jerk sensation to ears. In the same way, whenever I read lyrical books, it activates my senses and unlocks the mysteries of my own imagination.”

Karthik, amazed at his perspective and answer, said, “your answer will make me start reading lyrical novels. Thanks for that. I ordered juice for us; drink the juice and you can continue your work; sorry I took so much of your time.” Sharath’s face blushed and he said with chuckles, don’t take so much trouble, I don’t need any drink now. “There is no such trouble, I’m so pleased to offer it to you. Consider it as a treat, Sharath.” As they were blabbering, a peon came and said in Telugu, Karthik babu I didn’t get the juice, most of them are closed, I don’t know why. Even when I went to Ramu Babai shop he said that he’s not opening a stall since last month.

“Okay, shiva(peon)”

“I’ll leave now, Karthik”, said Sharath hurriedly

“Sorry for that, let’s meet sometime” shaking Sharath’s hand.

Sharath left the office and after two hours, even Karthik went home.

Karthik had never had this long a conversation since the death of his wife and he felt comfortable; the conversation had soothed him. He felt Sharath had filled him up with completeness and was mesmerised by the time they spent together. His loneliness was cracked up by Sharath’s words and enthusiasm. He went home and sat facing towards the window. Holding the cup of coffee, he thought of the words he had read in the book in the evening – love and loss. Karthik felt love and loss rhymed as one after the other in the words as well as in real life – love after loss.

Sharath had always loved writing from a very young age. Writing and reading had always been ardent activities for him. Along with the writing, he was a researcher and professor at IISER. There was nothing else to do in his work apart from writing and researching in the lab. In the intervals, he used to edit his poems and other writings. At lunch, he would write wonderful pieces. This continued for years but didn’t satisfy him. He left the job and his research-work at the age of 32 and decided to be either a journalist or a full-time writer.

His parents had forced him to marry but he never had an interest in marriage. He was in a relationship just once. He married at the age of 26 and lived with his wife for five years. In all those years, there was no love for her, he never loved her. To his wife, this was first love. She used to wait for Sharath’s love every day, she did everything to get his attention, making food, decorations and giving him his favourite books. But Sharath didn’t see her as anything more than a close friend. She never lost her hope and did almost everything for him that he never imagined.

One day, she bought a dress – a navy blue shirt and brown cotton jeans – and arranged for a candlelight dinner with him. She was excited as usual, however, Sharath had decided to get those divorce papers signed on that very day. Her excited heart changed suddenly into a trembling one. On that day, she came to know about his bisexuality, that he is attracted to both sexes but prefers the same-sex.

She didn’t fight or threaten but accepted him with all her love. They got divorced in a few months. Despite knowing the fact that he was bisexual, he took a very long time to accept it. The deep-rooted homophobia caused fear in him, which was derived from his orthodox father. Since a very young age, Sharath was imbibed with homophobia in his mind by his father. One day, Sharath held his best friend’s hand and went out for ice cream at the age of eleven. Even though they were best friends, this enraged his father, causing sweat to trickle upon the tip of the nose and palms. By the time Sharath came into his house, his dad had waited for him and was drinking hot water with fierce eyes as if the hotness was getting transferred straight from the cup to his body. He came near to Sharath with silent steps and beat him with long canes until he fainted on to the floor. He was further punished by being locked-up in the room. Many other scenes made him be wary of getting close with whom he was attracted, and that caused great terror in his blood. He never forgot his dad’s words. He used to say, “Better you would have died in your mother’s womb, won’t you feel shame by holding others men’s hands.” He had an abusive childhood where no one helped him to get over his trauma and neither did he have any friends to take help from.

 Karthik called Sharath and said, “Good Morning, Sharath. how do you do?”

“I’m fine,” said Sharath with chortles.

“I have called you because I want to talk to you. We are going to write a cover story on the Andaman Islands.”

“Okay,” said with perplexed eyes

“I decided to appoint you as a writer for this project”

“Okay”

Sharath was confused and couldn’t figure out what words to speak, the only word he got in his mind was “okay”.

“Without further ado, I have planned to leave tomorrow. Get ready.”

“Okay”

“We might stay there for three days”

“Okay”

This exchange brought a smile to his face and amidst the sea of enthusiasm, he forgot to thank the editor.

After listening to that news, he couldn’t control his excitement. In that enthusiasm, he wrote another story for five hours in the night, and still, there was enthusiasm in his heart. Sharath woke up early in the morning, packed all his clothes for five days for the tour. First, he kept his kindle, then his journal and his favourite pen and after that, he kept all his clothes.

Both of them reached the airport, boarded a flight for the Andaman Islands and reached in a few hours. They landed in Port Blair airport and they went to Havelock Island, which is two kilometres from Port Blair. Along with the two photographers, they booked the hotel near to the island. They had lunch and siesta, and afterwards. Sharath decided to meet up with Karthik. They both went together to the shore and were walking barefoot. There were palm and coconut trees beside them. It was 5 pm, the crimson red sky was changing into the grey sky; the sun was hidden between the clouds as if the clouds had been split up to get a narrow view of the sun; the meditative sounds of waves thudding against the rocks and on the seashore; the heavy, wild wind which was flapping branches and bending the palm and coconut trees to and fro; all of this made Sharath take a deep breath in order to get blended into the heavy breeze. Karthik just wanted to spend time with Sharath.

They were walking slowly on the shore. As they were walking, the waves splashed towards the feet of Sharath. This made him smile and he looked at Karthik’s face as if he had achieved something. Karthik felt envy looking at waves while they touched and splashed. In that moment of time, he wanted to be the wave. They walked for a few minutes, and they sat on the sand. Karthik sat with the support of his hands, spreading his legs forward, while Sharath folded his right leg and kept his right hand on the spreading his left leg forward with the support of his left hand. The breeze around them was heavy and wild but between them, it seemed attractive and magnetic. Everything arranged into the pattern of welcoming them for intimacy like an invitation – the waves, breeze, sea and the hidden sun. There was no more distance between them, they could have touched their hands if they moved at once but they didn’t. They are both just a few centimetres apart. Except for the giggling and quick glances at each other, there was no real conversation, it was more silence than expressions. This silence had been tuned to their intimacy even more.

Karthik held his breath and said, “Thanks for being with me, I will never forget this moment. I’ll write about this moment in poems and it will reflect in every writing that I undertake, even though it is in different forms.” Sharath did understand his emotion but didn’t say anything or react, but held his hand tight, observing the fingers and skin. He did that for a few minutes, looked at him and said with tears in his eyes, “you make me feel comfortable and enthusiastic…no, no, no…it’s best to say that you are my comfort and enthusiasm. There was a close friend of mine, his name is Arjun, he was a close friend when I was in trauma, he used to help me wherever he can, as soon as he became close to him, I feared at the same time I used to feel happy that I got a good companion. I feared it because of my dad. After a few days, I deliberately left him. Since the day my dad came to know about my bisexuality, he worsened my days by not allowing me to make friendships with neither boys nor girls. He had taken me to the therapies and psychiatrists, he considered it as a disorder. By all these, I have faced a great amount of loneliness and suffering. you remember when you asked me about how I developed my writing and reading habit? When I’ve no one to share my feelings and deepest thoughts with, fears, likes or dislikes, I used to write and sometimes I read. This is how these two became a great companion. You gave me strength and made me believe in the things that I hadn’t even hoped about; your companionship and support made me love the things which I have hated for a long time, such as homophobia, even though I’m bisexual.

The grey night then changed into a dark sky. It was night and they slept facing each other on the shore. It was the starless sky; the moon was glinting above and far to them as if it’s to give light to them to look at each other’s eyes deeply.  I’m glad that we found each other said Sharath. Sharath took Karthik’s palm kept on his right cheeks and rubbed his chin slowly and soothingly.

Karthik said: I got a life that I never expected and you got a life that you haven’t guessed. we have a love for each other, which we have been deprived of for years. I have the responsibility of you and you have the responsibility of me. I have healed and you came over your fears. It’s about us, more than one life.

Yoga And Queerness

Through the lockdowns over the past year, an increasing number of people seem to have turned to practicing yoga, not just to maintain their physical but also mental health. I have often seen yoga described as something that helps the body, mind and soul. But what I notice a lot about yoga practitioners is that a lot of them are usually cis, het, thin people who are making people do complicated poses that look impossible to accomplish for a beginner; it seems to suggest that the more complex poses you do, the more accomplished you are.

Such movements are restricted to a certain group of people who are privileged through aspects of ability, race, money, sexuality and so on. Thin people often become the face of fitness and this extends to the brand of yoga. It is also seen as an activity to become thin, to gain that ‘hot summer bod’, rather than as a mindful practice. However, in the spirit of subversion of dominant heteronormative ideas of movement, we spoke to Allé K (he/they), a queer, fat, trans masc activist and educator who is also a certified yoga instructor.

They are currently based in Ashville, North Carolina, but one can book for an online class with them from any part of the world. Allé said they discovered the benefits of yoga through their own journey of pain and healing. “I was interested in learning more about the nadis, the energy channels and the subtle anatomy, so I pursued a Yoga Teacher Training”; he enjoys teaching others as well and so, the hobby took a professional turn with wanting to share the healing benefits of yoga with others. Allé shared with me about how practising yoga helped him accept himself and that they don’t see their body as something that needs to be reduced or shrunk, but rather something that is perfect as it is and that needs to be celebrated through a practice that is grounding and supportive.

They studied with Darma Mittra, a traditional yoga teacher, and learnt the yamas, niyamas, and other aspects of yoga philosophy, including texts like the Bhagavad Gita and the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, all of which helped them release their patterns of shame, self-doubt, attachment as they want to feel peace, be free of pain, suffering and desire. Their intention with their classes is to help other people who have faced cis-tems that discriminate against them.

Allé says that a class for queer people very much begins with the teacher being queer themselves and that the space which is thus created is determined by their identity, and the people who participate in their classes are people like them because they identify with Allé. Allé makes sure to honour people’s pronouns and their chosen names while doing introductions in class, for starters. The atmosphere is comfortable and familiar, with Allé making jokes and queer references that are relatable for queer people while also providing modifications for people who are binding and/or recovering from top surgery. The students feel seen and validated for their bodies and their identities, which keeps them coming back.

Allé says that yoga also helped them to fully come to terms with their queerness and that it encouraged and helped them in their self-study (svadhyaya). “I am queer because I am beyond shape and form, I am limitless. These are the teachings of yoga. Yoga has us searching to find who we are beyond the body and the mind; to be connected to our true nature. Mine is queer”.

With his teachings going digital, Allé has been able to connect with queer people from all over the world this past year. Nonetheless, they miss the in-person experience of teaching and being able to share people’s energies, breathing with them, they miss hearing people laugh and chant, and while the chanting can be done online, it’s not the same. Despite the online restrictions, they are grateful to be able to reach a wider community, and because of this connection, he looks forward to visiting friends in new places, like Vancouver, New Mexico, Toronto/ Ontario, UK, India, among others. They say that they also like teaching from the comfort of their home, where they don’t have to spend hours commuting to & fro places as it also helps them to maintain their energy balance without the distractions of the world.

Most conversations about yoga is centered around spirituality, energy, and also about its Indian and Sanskrit origins. In recent years, it has more or less, taken on the form of a tool for extreme Hindutva ideology, to homgenize and appropriate the diverse history and culture of the subcontinent, while along becoming part of a political campaign that erases other practices in India. The use of Sanskrit terms to refer to the asanas and the chanting of ‘om’, as well as the ideas derived from Vedic texts, indicates an exclusion of bodies of historically oppressed castes.

In India, Yoga is mostly accessed by upper caste Brahmin groups through studios and organized groups, made accessible through expensive teacher trainings. Even across the world, yoga is understood as something that originated from the “Hindu” culture, when yoga is actually a collective of various practices across cultures and time, including even Buddhism, which was unified and homogenized by colonial supremacists for ease of rule and control. As a result, queer people are also excluded from its common practise.

Allé thinks that understanding yoga as merely an appropriated practise from the East is a disservice to yoga. While they are conscious of their roots as a white person who doesn’t fully understand the cultural origins of yoga, they think it is important to approach it with curiosity to learn more about it and understand that it’s not just a physical but also a spiritual practise that has the ability to unite people. Personally, I think it is important to understand and decolonize the modern practice of yoga by making it accessible to various groups of people and modify its practice accordingly. As a consequence, yoga practice can come to mean different things for  different people. For some, it’s about the physical fitness, for some it’s about the spiritual and mental practise of mindfullness, and for some others, it is a hegemonic Hindu practise. While it is important to share culture, I think it is equally important for us to actively understand what we are practising while we are practising yoga, and try to be more conscious of what is being silenced or left out while we do so. 

Here’s Why There’s No Such Thing As A Coming Out Story

When someone asks me about my ‘coming out’ story, I wonder what and how to answer them. I have no specific method or way to narrate the experience. But, whenever I see someone’s story about coming out on Facebook or Instagram, my heart skips a beat.

I’ve always had a problem with the phrase, to be honest. I had never understood the need to disclose my sexuality to someone. I was a naive child. I was uncomfortable around heterosexuals. I didn’t see their story or read about them; I was very annoyed that there are so many of their kind.

Okay, I am bluffing.

Listen up; it’s a story not only of coming out but also of coming to terms.

It wouldn’t be very reasonable to say that I didn’t come out because I didn’t feel the need; I did come out. It was harrowing and tragic. I came out because I felt the need to express my love for my friend. I’d assumed that unless I spoke out loud to him about me liking boys, he wouldn’t understand my feelings.

I now feel weirded out that I chose him to be the first person to tell about my sexuality; I didn’t say it to my friends, regardless of their genders. But I told him! And the first thing that he could come up in response was: “There are ways to get yourself treated for this”.

How did I tell him?

Oh, such a sad night it was. I told him about my feelings for him over a phone call. I don’t remember now what I must have been feeling that evening or the whole day. I abruptly rang him while returning from work. I’d just given my HSC examination and was teaching secondary section students at a local tuition class. I vividly remember that night–it had been Holi on the 27th of March. And I’d only informed him about my sexuality a week earlier. After the call, I was sad and shattered and ended up blaming my existence. I wanted to get cured, but the thought of him never left me.
Some months passed, and somehow I landed up in the cabin of a psychiatrist. I’d gone there to find a solution but had returned with a prescription for anxiety and depression. I didn’t understand what medications I was on. I assumed they would help me as the doctor just told me that they would help me sleep better and eat on time. We were to talk again after ten days.

But oh boy, what did I become in the span of those ten days!

I was ultimately a new person, and I finally started seeing things clearly. I continued my medications for six more months, and at the same time, signed up for therapy to help with my self-acceptance. On the internet, I read about other people and their stories about dealing with mental health and their sexuality. I left no stone unturned to learn. It was as if I had found a source, a medium to channel my grief and connect with myself and my people!

When I began taking medication, I didn’t inform my mother, but soon after, I managed to take her to the psychiatrist so as to help her understand me.

It was then that I connected with Humsafar trust and started attending their Friday cultural programs. There, I met a lot of people and made some good friends…people who will stand by me till the end of time.

To sum up, I would say that even if I share this as my story of coming out, I know that I will likely need to keep coming out till the last breath of my life. We don’t live in a nation that understands alternative sexualities beyond heteronormativity despite amendments of laws or the scrapping of Sec 377. Everyone like me struggles to develop a coming out story to share with the people they meet along the way in their lives. And each time, it could take a different turn!

10 Small Businesses Owned By Queer Folks You Can Support

The COVID-19 pandemic has been especially hard on small businesses owned by queer folks across the country. Over the past year and a half, members of the LGBTQIA+ community across India have struggled to establish and maintain their small businesses, which are often an integral to their financial independence. Violence against queer folks as they attempted to run their businesses during the lockdown is a glaring example of the relentless homophobia and bigotry that is intrinsically rooted in our society. In such an unequal, toxic environment, it is more important now than ever to support queer entrepreneurship in every way possible.

One of the best ways to extend your support to the queer community is by supporting small businesses owned by queer folks. Offering your tangible support to these businesses goes a long way in helping the queer community battle prejudice and discrimination. To get you started, we’ve rounded up 10 internet-based small businesses owned and run by young queer folks that offer a range of exciting products. You can reach out to them via Instagram and make a purchase today!

  1. Ishana

Instagram: @ana_ishh

Products: Handpoke tattoos, commissioned illustrations and tattoo designs

Ishana is a 20-year-old graphic designer, illustrator and tattooist who is based out of Bombay. Ishana was always drawn to the arts and was sure that she wanted to pursue a career that would allow her to experiment with her creativity. A self-taught tattoo artist, Ishana learnt the art of handpoking, which is a manual method of tattooing, right before the first lockdown. 

After testing out her tattooing skills on friends and family, she found that many people began approaching her for commissioned designs. She now actively takes up commissions for tattoos and illustrations through her Instagram page. She says: “Working with the growing handpoke community in India, I like to think I’m one of the artists trying to push tattoo culture within our very rich one, especially with designs like my “Desi Queen” flash sheet.” In the future, she hopes to start a studio in collaboration with indie tattooists and artists and create a space that isn’t limited to one form of art. 

2. Osheen Sharma

Instagram: @indianosheen_art

Products: Custom paintings, canvas paintings, shoes, bags, wallets

Osheen’s small business started during the lockdown when she started posting her artwork on social media. They found that a lot of people began inquiring about the prices of the art that they was creating and realised that she could set up her own venture. Instagram and Facebook have been instrumental in helping her grow the business. Speaking about the future of her small business they said: “I want to paint more but I want my business to remain small. Painting is my meditation, so I don’t want to be stressed out about it.”

3. Sarah Sinhal

Instagram: @sarahsinhal

Products: Digital commissions, phone cases, posters, jigsaw puzzles, t-shirts, fridge magnets

At only 15, Sarah has successfully managed to set up her small business while also juggling her high school student life. She decided she wanted to share her art with the world and used Instagram as a platform to drive her sales. Sarah hopes to rebrand soon and said: “I want to get myself registered as a proper company as soon as I graduate high school. I’m very excited about what the future has in store for me and my business!”

4. Avneet Kaur  

Instagram: @_legato_by_avneet_

Products: Handmade gifts including Spotify music plaques, stationery, accessories and apparel 

Avneet was inspired to start her own business because of Pinterest. Seeing the variety of designs on the platform, she decided she wanted to create her own. As she awaits college admission results, Avneet is working on expanding her small business through social media. Pride month was especially fruitful for Avneet because of a huge influx of orders. Speaking about the future of her venture she says, “I am confused about my future plans but yes, I wish to expand my business on various platforms such as Etsy and Facebook. Everything is handled by me alone so it’s quite tough but I hope I’ll do it.”

5. Shrishti Parekh

Instagram: @thrift.our.closets

Products: Handpicked thrifted clothing

Studying to be a UI/UX designer, Shrishti has also managed to set up a thrift store on Instagram that offers customers trendy pre-loved, thrifted and upcycled clothing pieces that are size inclusive. After spending 2 years on research about thrifting and conscious fashion, Shrishti and her sister Urvana decided to begin their online thrift store. Shrishti says, “It took us about two weeks to figure out our niche and business statistics. It took some trial and error while making decisions to learn the best way to go forward with creating our brand, doing inventory and taking proper pictures of the products. A month later, in September 2020 we made our first drop on Instagram.”

6. Argha Naskar

Instagram: @naskar.argha

Products: Homemade chocolates

A passionate cook, Argha spent a lot of time making chocolates for their friends and family. They then decided to start selling the delicacies they prepare and set up a small business. With the help of Instagram, Argha was able to reach out to people and has learnt a lot on their journey. They hope to soon begin shipping their chocolates pan-India. Argha says: “I also want to be able to conduct free workshops for marginalized communities so that they can also learn and start their own business and sustain themselves with dignity.”

7. Ish

Instagram: @reportanissue

Products: portraits, illustrations, logos, sticker designs 

A challenge with their brother to create art on a digital art app set Ish off on their digital art journey. Through Youtube videos, they learnt the basics and continued experimenting to find their style. When someone approached them to design a logo, they realised that they could set up a small business and reach out to more people with their distinctly queer-affirmative designs. Aside from commissioned digital portraits, Ish also designs logos and stickers for other small businesses. Social media helped them grow as an artist and Ish was able to reach out to many other artists who offered them tips. Ish donates a major chunk of their proceeds to COVID-19 relief funds and fundraiser/organisations benefitting people from the queer community.

8. Rudraksh

Instagram: @_.gagged._

Products: Genderless fashion – shirts, jackets, pants, t-shirts

Rudraksh set up his online store to create a free, safe and genderless space for fashion. With his store Gagged, Rudraksh hopes to “free the art of fashion away from gender norms.” Gagged offers a range of genderless apparel including shirts, jackets, pants and t-shirts. Fashion immensely helped Rudraksh cope with a difficult childhood and helped him come to terms with his sexuality. He says, “The courage clothes gave me, the way they made me present…it became an art for me that needed no shackle such as gender. Today, I strongly advocate for a genderless fashion world.” Social media helped his business bloom and he now proudly runs Gagged aside from his full-time corporate job. “I want to build a brand, a label with no labels out of this venture. I want to and will appoint a team of designers who will bring my patterns and designs into life.”

9. Neha Alimchandani

Instagram: @romeo.skitchen

Products: Pet food

Neha’s experience with her overweight dog made her realise the importance of healthy, home cooked food for pets. She took up a pet nutritionist course and started her own small business centering on healthy, nutritious pet food. In the future, she hopes to have franchises of ‘Romeo’s Kitchen’ all over the world and spread awareness about the benefits of fresh home-cooked food to pet parents. 

10. Jhankar Grover

Instagram: @knots.crochet.store

Products: Keychains, jewelry, plushies, clothes

Jhankar’s store has exceptionally crafted trinkets ranging from keychains to jewelry. Their online store also sells plushies and clothes. They set up their store in May 2021 and in a span of a few months, the business has built over 1000 followers on Instagram. Jhankar has always been fascinated with learning crochet and knitting and took time during the lockdown to get better at it and now makes their own products. They say, “I am focusing on expanding my range of products and soon, I might reach out to the middle-aged women around me like my mother and make them a part of the venture too.”

Sailing Away

Barefoot, I lean on the railing of the bow, breathing in the salty air of the sea. The breeze is light, the sun shines, and it’s the perfect day for a sail. Perfect for our first weekend away together. We’ve been spending all our free time with each other since we first met three weeks ago. But this weekend on her boat will be just the two of us… alone.

My ears perk at her soft footsteps coming towards me. Slim fingers slowly trace down my nearly bare back, lingering at the clasp of my bikini top, and her other hand rests on my hip. 

“Enjoying the view, Princess?” Diana murmurs in my ear, before pressing her lips on the back of my neck. 

Smiling, I turn to face her and interlace our fingers. I sweep my gaze over her; a deep blue bikini highlights her exquisite athletic body. When my eyes meet her striking blue ones, I lean closer and whisper softly, “I am now.”

My lips meet hers gently at first, before we are locked in a passionate embrace. Her hand cups my face while her other is on my back; her thumbs stroke my skin gently while her tongue strokes my tongue. I wrap both my arms around her neck, deepening our kiss, tangling my fingers in long, black hair. She pulls my lower lip between hers and sucks, and I moan. She releases my lips from hers and kisses her way along my jaw to my ear. Electricity shoots through my body as she takes my earlobe between her lips and sucks it slowly. I groan at the light graze of her teeth, her hand has now unclasped my bikini top.

“You like it when I do that. Don’t you, Princess?” she murmurs. I try to answer but gasp instead as she cups my breast and begins to stroke my nipple.

Dampness spreads between my thighs and heat rises to my cheeks. I slide my hands down from her hair to her back, untying her bikini top. I cup her bottom and bring her closer, pressing her body against mine. Diana’s lips move down to my neck, slowly kissing, sucking, nibbling. “Should we take this inside?” she whispers to my skin between kisses.

I smirk. “Do we really need to be inside?”

Capturing her lips in mine, I walk her towards one of the lounge chairs, while we shed what is left of our bathing suits in a trail behind us. Swiftly, she turns me around and I lie back on the lounge chair as she climbs on top of me. Her mouth moves down my neck, my breasts, my stomach. She kisses my skin passionately, taking her time to taste every bit of it. I gasp as her tongue traces my nipples, till they’ve hardened. Her hands caress my thighs and she opens them. She pauses, lifts her head, and grins before burying her face between my legs. Her eagerness excites me. 

She parts my lips and strokes me with her tongue, long and slow. She takes her time tasting me. I squirm in ecstasy but she wraps her arms around my thighs, pulling them over her shoulders to hold me in place. Her tongue traces slow circles on my clit. She pulls it between her lips and gently sucks. I moan and curl my toes; she holds my legs tightly and pulls me even closer to her. I move my hand down to tangle it in her soft, black hair. Not taking her lips away from me, Diana moves a hand in between my legs. Teasingly, she slips one finger inside me, then another, skillfully curling them to reach my g-spot. I arch my back and call out her name. Finally feeling her inside me, stroking, caressing, is earth-shattering. The sensation of her fingers and lips on my most intimate parts are overpowering. Her pace quickens, my toes curl and I pant heavily. It’s too much. I move my hips to meet her fingers. Diana lifts her head and murmurs, “Come for me, Princess.” 

Euphoria washes over me. I clench against her, my eyes roll back in my head. Intensity radiates through my body. She only slows her pace and stops completely once my body stops shaking. I slowly open my eyes, blinking away the colours. I momentarily stare at the clear sky smiling and panting. This incredible woman makes me feel bold and free and…good. She feels like a new day, fresh and exciting. Flush and tingly, I slowly raise myself on my elbows to meet her eyes. She rests her chin on my belly and traces circles on my hips with her thumbs. Looking into her twinkling, blue eyes, I’m somehow hit with another rush of arousal. Her lips glisten as she smirks and says, “I think this is going to be a good weekend.”

My Stretch Marks Tell My Story

I always thought that the hardest part of being gay was coming out. I thought that once I took that frightening yet brave and exciting step forward into the light, that acceptance was sure to follow. To my delight, my family and friends were the first to shower me with love and embrace me for the real me. To my surprise, I quickly found that acceptance within the gay community itself is something hard to come by. “No Fems”, “No Chubs”, “No Asians”, “Masc Only”, “Fit Only” were brandished across dating platforms, already making me feel unwelcomed, unwanted and unaccepted. This made me realise that the community that I was so ready to be a part of, so excited to be embraced by, was not all I thought it was. This forced me to reevaluate what acceptance meant to me.

I personally have struggled with my weight all my life. I have been overweight to the point that it was affecting my health, and I have been under-nourished to the point where I didn’t feel like myself. My weight was on this constant pendulum where I was going from one extreme to the other and just not able to figure out the right balance or happiness. In the midst of the global chaos of the past two years, I found time and peace to focus on my body and on figuring out what happiness looks like to me. After revitalizing my lifestyle and falling in love with exercising, I sculpted my body into happiness. The specific amount of weight lost or my current weight mean nothing to me as they are both just numbers that I think are counterproductive to focus on – because confidence is a feeling, not a number. Happiness is an emotion, not a certain look.

Through all of the ups and downs of my acceptance journey, my body has picked up some battle scars, or ‘physical accolades’ if you will, in the guise of stretch marks. These stretch marks used to torment me as glaring signs of my flaws but now I view them as markers of my journey, as imperfections that make me who I am. My stretch marks tell my story. Now, true acceptance to me comes from within yourself and can’t be derived from anyone.

For someone whose name literally means “pride”, this Pride is extremely special for me as I get to celebrate in-person again but also because it is the first Pride where I am the happiest and most confident I have ever been in my life. I found what happiness means and looks like to me and I will continue using that as my benchmark to live my life. I no longer want to be a prisoner of the physical requirements of the gay community and I want to live life according to what I view as beautiful. I have learned that not everyone will accept you, but all that matters is that you accept yourself.

“Am I Queer Enough?” An Essay Dissecting My Queer Imposter Syndrome

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‘Queer Imposter Syndrome’ is a term I recently came across in one of those fleeting social media posts and before I could read it whole, Instagram renewed my feed and decided that I should be watching a kitten video instead. Which I did, but the term stayed with me anyway. I thought about it a lot. It was one of those thoughts that always lingers at the back of your head when you are doing anything. From something as simple as brushing one’s teeth to something as complicated as queer flirting, this thought stayed with me.

So, I started thinking about my ‘coming out’ story. I had felt like an imposter in queer spaces all my life which is why it took me so long to come out, even to myself. There was shame, there was confusion, and a lot of “Am I queer enough?” that accompanied me every night. Deciphering my sexuality wasn’t an uphill battle for me because I’ve been writing poems for imaginary women in my head since I was a teenager, but accepting it took its time. I always rationalised those love poems by telling myself that I am “just taking a man’s perspective”. The lies we tell ourselves to help us sleep at night.

I always knew that I was into women on some level, but I knew I wasn’t gay because I was into men as well. So, I thought that I was just a broken version of both. I didn’t have the time, energy, and resources to figure it out in my teens since they were channeled only into survival. I was a depressed, suicidal kid who was dismissed as just another “angsty teenager”. The thing about depression is that it kills your libido, which made it extremely hard to understand attraction at the time.

I always knew on some level that I was bisexual. As funny and weird as it sounds, I just didn’t know if that was an option at the time. I just didn’t have the vocabulary, literature, scholarly articles, and research to back me up that I do now. I sat in the closet for so many years with feelings of loneliness and shame because I thought there was no other way. With disgust in my body and dilemma in my head, I didn’t know if it was the “phase” so many people warned me about.

Being a bisexual woman is utterly confusing. Before you come out, you are not sure if you are doing this because you want it or because your boyfriend wants to see you kiss a woman. I kept on questioning myself, “Is it just another residue of the internalized male gaze that I have been taught to cater to, or is it my own free will?”

Separating myself from the expectations of the people I once held on a pedestal – or even the society we live in – took me a while. I came out in my 20s because I was scared, confused, and above all, doubted myself and my memory a lot. My memory can be very foggy, especially while remembering traumatic experiences. I sat in the closet alone and convinced myself and the people around me that I am just not into labels.

I don’t speak for all queer people when I say this but, labels can be helpful especially in relationships. Some queers have found labels to be too restricting but that hasn’t been my experience. Though I believe and advocate sexual fluidity, putting a label on my sexuality helped me be more confident about it, reach out to the people that share the same experiences, and try to help other people understand our collective trauma better. Queer relationships can be intricately complex because they are not the “norm” and labels can help in setting the tone of the relationships from the very beginning. Labels have also helped my partners and friends understand me better.

Separating myself from my trauma was another process I had to go through while coming out. Even though it is an ongoing process, it was instrumental in my journey. I am a child sexual and physical abuse survivor. I had to sit with my trauma, have a dialogue with my triggers and identify their roots to be certain enough that my sexuality was not just a trauma response.

I have been out for some years now; I am just waiting for the “proud” part to come by and accompany me. Since I have been out, I have been excluded from some groups. Some of my old friends from school tried bullying me on social media, which I have grown immune to at this point. What hurts the most is being othered by my own family and friends. Being out meant finding new friends, building a new family, and parenting myself – which has been beautiful but extremely exhausting.

Most days, I still don’t feel queer enough. People call me a “boring bisexual” because I am not big on the performance of my sexuality. There was a lot of internalised homophobia and misogyny that I had to unlearn for me to be able to come out. It didn’t happen in a day, it still hasn’t. It’s a process I am still working through but the self-doubt, incessant questioning, and feelings of being an imposter haven’t stopped.

“Am I going to enough queer support groups?”

“Am I announcing my sexuality every day?”

“Am I doing enough for my community?”

“Am I going to enough pride parades?”

“Have I come out to everyone yet?”

“Am I bisexual enough?”

“Am I queer enough?”

“Am I enough?”

ENOUGH!

Some people say that imposter syndrome comes from within but, I don’t quite believe that. We have imposter syndrome because we have felt excluded from many places, and reclaiming our own space in the world is a real struggle when we’ve always been made to shrink ourselves to fit into a world that was not designed for us. It doesn’t help that so many queers are still biphobic. They actively exclude us, gatekeep queer spaces and accuse us of ‘straight-passing’. Calling us “only half gay” and dismissing our trauma because it looks different from their own. It is not a new thing but it hurts, so deeply nonetheless.

I don’t know when that voice in our head will stop if it ever does. It has to, right? Till then, I just want to tell all the queers, out or not – you are enough and I am proud of you. Coming out is a beautiful process that frees you, but you don’t owe it to anyone. You need to acknowledge the privilege required to come out safely. Queer communities need to be more empathetic because so many of us don’t have the resources, support, and security to be able to be ‘out and proud’. For the longest time, I didn’t as well. Remember that this is about you and your identity, let it only cater to yourself. You shouldn’t have to disclose your dating or sexual history for someone to believe your sexuality. You don’t owe anyone anything. Not the constant coming out, not the constant emotional labour of explaining your sexuality, not even the performance of your queer identity.

How Financial And Banking Sector Discriminates Against Non-Cishet People And The Way Forward

Though the apex court of the country read down the archaic and draconian law, Section 377, in 2018, the community continues to be excluded from various mainstream services & systems that the cis-het society may take for granted.

One such system is that of the banking & financial services sector. The financial and banking institutions operating in India are far from supportive of LGBTQIA+ individuals, and are actively exclusive of the community in terms of their service offerings.

Here’s are some examples of its exclusionary practices:

  • In a tweet sent out in January 2019, Moulee, a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) strategist and independent publisher, shared the unpleasant experience he had when him and his partner decided to open a joint bank account to manage their domestic expenses. Not only did the partners get unsolicited advice — like stop arguing over 50 rupees and why, even in your 30s, you are not married yet — the bank told them “as per policies, you can’t open.”
  • Aiyush Taneja, a Delhi-based investor, explains how “opening a bank account for a same-sex couple can be a gargantuan task.” He says, “Given that banking is a highly regulated business, which runs on stringent risk management principles, it can be slightly exclusionary towards homosexual couples.” He further goes on to explain how in the absence of legal recognition of gay marriages, non-blood-related individuals have a tough time opening joint accounts, as “they face higher scrutiny [as a result of] being higher risk-prone, according to the banks.”

It is surprising because the Reserve Bank of India’s (RBI) guidelines allow non-relatives to open joint accounts, but that’s where banks exercise their discretion. Their in-house policies and parameters govern the qualifying criteria for those who may access its services.

Post-Citibank’s exit from the Indian consumer banking business, Aiyush shared a tweet urging the need for a more inclusive and sensitive banking system as “being an alternate family in India is an absolute compliance nightmare.” Citibank, Aiyush mentions, was “accommodating of what most construe to be a special case.” Substantiating through a personal anecdote, Aiyush shared that his friend and their partner had jointly reached out to Citibank a couple of years ago and their experience was “pleasant and [although] branch officials asked for KYC documents, [they] were sensitive about their situation.”

In the absence of banks that are inclusive, the situation for LGBTQIA+ people is rather grim as everything across the spectrum of banking services — something as basic as “opening a joint account with my partner,” says author of Queeristan: LGBTQ Inclusion in the Indian Workplace, Parmesh Shahani, extending to financial security, requesting for loans, and wealth management — is gatekept and exclusionary.

Tejaswi Subramanian, an independent journalist, researcher, and digital editor at Gaysi Family, pointed out the ostracisation that most trans people feel when they approach banking institutions for their financial needs. “Dead names are often used in bank accounts because they resort to referencing official documentation,” they submits. It is something that Zainab Patel, Director, Inclusion and Diversity at KPMG, also agrees with. “The first thing would be to do away with the unnecessary data gathering,” she says. “Also, the banking sector needs to comply urgently with the notification of the Transgender Protection Act regarding changing of name and banking details as it is mostly the previous (or dead) name that is reflected in the bank’s record. It is a very difficult job for trans and gender-nonconforming people to get it changed,” she concludes.

Both Tejaswi and Zainab feel that the banking sector must “look at collateral-neutral financial access and services for marginalized communities.” Zainab says that, “[the banking sector] should be open to allow people of the same gender to open joint bank accounts without the necessity of providing proof: a legal bond or a document to demonstrate blood relationship.” This option, she mentions, however, is currently available to open a current bank account, but there is a minimum account balance that one needs to maintain, which, in the presence of an uneven playing field in terms of access to livelihood and wealth, is again a roadblock for LGBTQIA+ people.

Pawan Dhall, an author and founding trustee of Varta Trust believes that “the banks need to do this outreach. It could be groups of trans persons wanting to start a self-help group (SHG), or queer entrepreneurs looking for capital, or just individuals looking to open a bank account.” The more pertinent issue he feels is “that of nominees. As far as I know, the law does not bar me from nominating someone who is not related to me by blood or marriage or adoption. But many banks (and other financial services) just don’t accept this.” In the event of lack of support from birth-families of queer and trans people because of their identity, and in the absence of acceptability and respectability in the society at large, Dhall opines that “[the] bank should at least be one place of support to help queer individuals turn around their lives, even if the rest of the society creates hurdles.”

“The issue is that until and unless basic law doesn’t provide for [services to be extended to people outside ‘straight monogamous relationships’, institutions, especially like banking, cannot just do it on their own,” explains Yatin Srivastava, a New Delhi-based lawyer. He further pointed out that “post the Navtej Singh Johar judgement, there haven’t been many legislative or executive actions that have been carried out by the State to ensure that rights for LGBTQIA+ people are not falling under a section of illegality.” As a result, like banking, most sectors would have to inculcate the necessary steps through deliberate, affirmative action that will make any scenario realistically and institutionally more LGBQTIA+ friendly, thereby affording the community the rights it fundamentally deserves.

On Decolonising Queer Wellness

Recently, social media has seen a  surge in posts about mental well-being, self-love, body positivity and more — which is great, we love to see inclusive, positive spaces that encourage individual growth. However, I must have come across posts on ‘How to Love Yourself’  a thousand times on Instagram – posts that are directed toward LGBTQI+ individuals that often list advice like: “Practice gratitude” or “Spend time with people you vibe with” or “Journal and practice skincare” or, worst of all, “Go shopping with your girlfriends.” More than I detest the word ‘vibe,’ I am repelled by these forcefully positive, aesthetic, purposefully ditsyposts which advertise a kind of wellness routine that is not only unfeasible for many, but westernised and alien to most South Asian, LGBTQI+ persons. (A barrage of these posts will flood our timelines during Pride Month — brace yourselves.)

Chances are, like me, you too have come across something similar while doomscrolling on Instagram or Twitter. If so, welcome to the wellness industrial complex.

I’m Sorry, Kareena: Politics of Queer Self-Love

The famous Kareena Kapoor truism from Jab We Met, “Main apni favourite hoon” (I am my own favourite) is unfortunately hard to believe — I’m sorry, Kareena! but it’s just hard to love myself as a non-binary, queer person.

Self-love for queer and trans* folks is a radical act. For persons whose existence is resistance against the status quo, self-love cannot be measured by how many fruits you ate or if you did yoga today. Needless to say, the aforementioned activities are not shallow or useless — they are simply far below on the list for individuals whose lives are always at stake.

For LGBTQI+ individuals, the politics of self-care is intrinsically related to community care. At the end of the day, your caste and class location, religious affiliation among other social markers play a significant role in determining the extent of your well-being. A trans* individual cannot be expected to feel comfortable in their body if heteronormative and cisgendered expectations are reiterated as part of ‘self-love.’  This is why decolonising becomes a practice to look out for — a therapeutic intervention meant to consider your cultural, historical, societal history before offering solutions for your well-being. In the following paragraphs, I dive deep into what it truly means to decolonise therapy, care and wellness.

Decolonising Care

Social media is chock full of mental health recommendations, tips and services for absolutely free. While a lot of these resources do come in handy (for instance, when LGBTQI+ folks are looking for queer-affirmative therapists/counsellors at affordable prices), a sizable amount of the information is unverified by mental health professionals. A lot of these recommendations and reminders are informed by Western practices and formulated by American or European practitioners in mental health. A chunk of behaviours, habits, exercises which may be characterized as unhealthy or invasive by said practitioners may be completely acceptable in South Asian contexts. For example, @indiansextherapist on Instagram explains ‘boundary building’ in a comprehensive post: she says that the idea of ‘boundary building’ is foreign to Indian families, who consider it a form of extending care when a parent inquires about your work life or romantic life.  This is not to say that these generational, ancestral behaviours of are necessarily healthy but the westernised idea of setting emotional boundaries may not connect well with Indian families with unique, complex histories. Therapy is contextual and decolonizing therapy would move towards viewing an individual in reference to their social, cultural, political intersections. Keeping in mind the previous example of setting boundaries, this would mean that the therapist would then have to take into consideration the individual’s cultural background while helping them adjust with circumstances.

Decolonising therapy as a practice has been explained by Dr Jennifer Mullan as “reconnecting to the humanization of therapy, to reclaiming therapy, to include systems and oppression into our therapy practices and analysis, and re-humanizing therapists (bring them down from some pedestals), as well as to center the person and their cultural and political identities back into the Work. It is snatching psychology, social work and counseling back from the wrinkled white hands of European men.” She further adds that decolonising therapy is about challenging a hostile, dominated and white-dominated system that has a history of pathologizing dissent and divergence. Similarly, in South Asian contexts, the same can be applied but to Savarna, majoritarian, heteronormative, abeleist, fatphobic, sexist systems in place.

Decolonising therapy politicises the personal and recognises that mental health is more than just healing from trauma but also bringing structural changes. For example, for queer and trans* individuals in India, decolonising therapy would mean empowering persons to recognise oppressive mechanisms in society and empowering them eventually to dismantle them.

In addition to this, most forms of self-care and wellness plans advertised on social media are more often only in English. The wellness industry, therefore, only caters to a specific English-speaking elite of the country. English is the third, sometimes fourth language for a majority of Indians. In my personal experience, being able to communicate with a mental health professional in my mother tongue has been more effective than otherwise. According to the American Psychological Association,  considering the linguistic history of a client is twice as more impactful, and therapeutic work is best done when conducted in the client’s mother tongue.

Capitalism and Pathologization

Pathologizing every single behaviour has become a recent trend on social media. This is not to say that LGBTQI+ individuals do not experience trauma that calls for medical or clinical intervention — our location in society certainly imposes a set of harrowing experiences we inevitably face. However, just as medicalizing trans identities is fundamentally harmful, attaching serious diagnoses to mundane, everyday behaviours and activities is dangerous as well. While you may very well have forged some kind of emotional connection with Kal Ho Naa Ho because it’s relatable to you and that makes you want to watch it repeatedly as a trauma response, it is possible that you simply watch it because you are an unapologetic Shah Rukh Khan fan (God knows I still am). It is driven by market-based needs of such institutions to maximise profit by artificially creating value for their services; by capitalising on misinformed young individuals and their vulnerabilities, the free market and its profit motive thrive. This sort of medicalisation is unhealthy, unethical and plain misinformation. The human psyche is a complicated entity and a random Twitter thread titled “If You Used To Watch Power Rangers, You Have Anger Issues Now: Here’s Why” will never do justice to its complexities.

Wellness initiatives like online listening circles, affordable therapy on Zoom, etc may benefit some but inadvertently excludes a large number of LGBTQI+ population of the country who do not have access to internet, phones or the English language. How effective are these efforts if they are only designed to cater to specific types of peoples? How do we, as LGBTQI+ youth, make sure mental health resources become accessible beyond these boundaries? What is the way forward?

First, we must take time out and seek therapists and professionals who can take into consideration our cultural background, heritage, and family system in the process of helping us evolve into well-adjusted persons.

Second, it is crucial for us to reimagine what wellness looks like in a capitalist world. Doing away with inaccessible, medicalised and superficial methods of wellness and care advertised to us in the social media age, it is important to understand what wellness means for each and every one of us. We must realise that there is simply no one-size-fits-all formula when it comes to ensuring mental and physical well-being

Third, wellness looks different for everyone, it is contextual. However, to truly feel happy, healthy and alive, structural changes are requisite. Without anti-caste, pro-LGBTQI+ and intersectional attitudes in place, wellness cannot be manifested in the long run. That is why community care plays a very important role in the lives of marginalized communities. LGBTQI+ individuals have had a long history of assembling, mobilizing and caring for each other. LGBTQI+ specific spaces like Gaysi and Queerabad are online communities which have opened the doors for connectedness and conversation across borders and geographically situated circles, and communities like in colleges remind us that we have a ‘second family’ to rely on. It is a way to cope, a way to learn, to support, to share and to be understood. So send a letter to your friend, organise a RuPaul’s Drag Race watch-a-thon with your queer club, donate and amplify queer and trans* fundraisers — because  until we make structural changes happen, all we can do is care for each other and fight systemic oppression in our unique ways.

Ruhi And Jhilmil’s Playlist #1: Kho Gaye Hum Kahaan

The slow humdrum of the mantras being drowned out by the boisterous dhol being beaten at the entrance. Men crowding around the bars and laughing while women giggled around tables at the opposite end of the lawn. Flowers. Fairylights. Live food counters. How original.

“Just give the envelope and leave…” Ruhi’s mom pleaded on the phone. It had taken her mom a full week to convince her to attend this distant relative’s son’s wedding in her college town. Two minutes in, Ruhi already regretted giving in as the pencil heels that she had borrowed from her roommate began sinking in the grass. And it’s not exactly like she had felt comfortable in them before this either- so she spotted the nearest table and sat down to take a breather.

Ruhi heard her before she turned around. The lyrical voice of the woman sitting behind her was rising and falling even when she spoke the most mundane sentences as if she was constantly reading inscriptions off castle walls. No, Ruhi corrected herself. Not reading. Creating. At first, she thought she was hearing wrong, but soon she couldn’t control her laughter. When the third man that had approached the table since Ruhi started counting left, she decided to turn around and whisper, “I know what you’re doing”.

If Jhilmil was startled, her eyes didn’t betray it even for a second. She tucked a loose hair strand behind her ear and leaned in as if they were co-conspirators, “And what is that?”

Her immediate abandonment of the space between them made Ruhi smile, “You are making your male cousins sneak alcoholic drinks to you in mocktail glasses in exchange for relationship advice.”

Ruhi wasn’t sure how she would react, but none of the options in her mind included the laughter that was coming her way now. Usually, her nerves would’ve kicked in by now and she would have started wondering if the person in front of her was laughing with her or on her. Not today, though. The sparkle in Jhilmil’s eyes gave off such warmth that Ruhi felt drawn in.

“Do you want some too? I’m Jhilmil, by the way.”

“I’m Ruhi. And what are we talking about here? Alcohol or advice?”

Jhilmil raised an eyebrow and smirked, “Alcohol. Because if the last two minutes have been any indication, you know how to begin a conversation with a woman, unlike my sorry cousins. What would I even teach you?”

“I don’t know”, Ruhi tilted her head, “I think I could use a little help when it comes to taking the conversation forward.”

Jhilmil giggled and patted the chair next to her.

“You could begin by asking about her interests.”
“Okay so, for example, Jhilmil what are your interests?”

Jhilmil shook her head and bit her lip, “No, that put the onus on me. You have to notice the other person enough to come up with a direct question.”

Ruhi squinted her eyes for a second and then said, “So what interests you about other people’s relationships so much?”

“Very good”, Jhilmil whispered and then continued in at a normal volume, “I like knowing what makes human beings click together…I’m a little bit of a romantic in that I believe that loving is the best thing we do, so I like knowing how we decide who to love.”

“And what have you found out so far?”

“No, no, no”, Jhilmil rolled her eyes, “This way it’ll become like an interview. And later when I replay this conversation in my head I will wonder if it was only interesting because it was about me. You have to contribute your opinion too!”

Jhilmil’s kohled eyes were wide in expectation and Ruhi resisted the urge to keep looking into them, and to avoid that she started gesturing wildly, “Well, I don’t know how other people make their decisions, but for me it’s about the vibe I feel when I interact with the person.”

Before Ruhi could continue, Jhilmil ran her index finger across Ruhi’s palm, “Like a spark?” , her tone had just a hint of mischief.

“Usually yes, but it has to be more than just that, right? A spark implies something that is there for a second.”

“Exactly. Which is why now would be the perfect time to change the dynamic a little…add a little movement. If this were a restaurant situation maybe we could recommend dishes or drinks to each other, if this was a pub you could’ve asked me for a dance, but here…” Ruhi looked around at the aunties and uncles clad in their bright wedding guest clothes and judgemental eyes, “You just might have to get a little creative.”

“Do you want to go for walk? This is a pretty huge resort and the poolside is gorgeous.”

“Lead the way”, Jhilmil smiled, but the moment Ruhi stood up her heels reminded her of why she had sat down in the first place.

“Such a small problem? Wait…have you met the lucky couple yet?”

They had known each other for less than fifteen minutes but Ruhi could tell that Jhilmil’s mind was bubbling with a plan from the way her face lit up.

“No…?”

“Okay great. So listen, I’m the bride’s sister. If I hold your hand on the way to their seats so that you don’t fall, people will assume you’re one of our distant cousins. There are so many anyway. You can give your envelope, and then, here’s what we’ll do…”

Jhilmil texted her cousins on their group chat with her plan so that they could each play their part. Ten minutes later Ruhi and Jhilmil were walking by the poolside, talking about their lives growing up in different cities, with the groom’s shoes on Ruhi’s feet.

“You’re brilliant, you know that, right?”, Ruhi stopped midway to look directly at Jhilmil.

“Thank you, yes I do know- we had to come up with a hiding place for those shoes anyway, so I thought why not…also, very good. That was a well-timed compliment. I had been thinking about how one was due any time now.”

Now it was Ruhi’s turn to laugh, “What about me? Am I doing well? Does this walk pass your movement criteria?”

“It’s great, but ideally by now you would find an excuse in the environment to come closer to me.”

Ruhi looked at the pool for a second and wondered about recreating the scene from cheesy movies where people sit with their feet dipped in the water and talk about why they are who they are. Then suddenly, it hit her. Traces of the slow song being played in the lawn were vaguely in the air, and she took Jhilmil’s hand in her’s. Feeling their fingers entwined was magic in itself, but Jhilmil squeezing her hand back made her blush.

“Okay good” Jhilmil smiled, “but what’s the excuse?”

“Will you dance with me? This is not an excuse. This is what I want.”

Jhilmil looked around to make sure no one was coming- this was still her sister’s wedding, and relatives could be counted in to snoop from anywhere- and then quietly draped her hands around Ruhi’s waist.

They had barely begun swaying two minutes ago when Ruhi’s phone rang.

“You were going to leave in ten minutes, Ruhi. You still haven’t reached and the warden is getting restless.”, her roommate whispered.

“I need to go. But will I see you again? Will you visit Bombay more often now that you sister is here? I would love a chance to show you how well I do on a date without play by play instructions. I’m a fast learner.”

Jhilmil nodded and pulled Ruhi close. Instead of aiming for her lips, she bent towards her ears and whispered, “can’t wait.”

Forty five minutes of Bombay traffic later, Ruhi entered her hostel room and began narrating everything to her roommate breathlessly, “there was this girl who was drinking alot…I mean not drinking alot she was like talking alot to her cousins and I was sitting on this chair and then we danced and oh my god..”

“Ruhi listen, I appreciate your excitement but you’ve got to slow down, okay?” Her roommate giggled, “let’s focus on one thing at a time. For starters, whose shoes are you wearing and what did you do with my heels?”

Pride Is Political

I remember the first time I learnt the meaning of the word ‘political’. It was the first week of my Political Science classes as a wide-eyed naive college student and my professor spent quite a few classes reiterating that anything ‘political’ means that it is subject to contestation and change. You can debate over it, you can discuss it, disagree with it. Policies, laws, your affiliations. That democracy thrived in chaos and difference in opinion. My understanding back then was limited to party politics and other major institutions like the judicial system, the legislatures, or the executive arm of the government, and so on. But now I’m learning that our very existence as individuals is politicized. A relatively hassle-free life often means that the person is privileged through identity, and has adequate access to resources, whereas being marginalized in some way affects every aspect of your life including what kind of rights and liberties you have.

At first, I didn’t get what people meant when they said that the LGBTQ+ rights movement was political. I didn’t see why my existence was political. After all, everyone on TV and on the internet said things like, Love is love, or All love is equal, or Love wins!, or Marriage is about love and various other platitudes; queer people always looked joyful to march at Pride. Now I realize that my Savarna privilege shields me so much from the harsh realities of queerness. Marriage is still considered to be a sacrosanct union between a (cis)man and a (cis)woman and no two (or more) other people. And the above-mentioned slogans are a call for the government to legalize queer marriages. And while I respect someone else’s desire to be married, I think that there is somehow an idea that getting equal rights in marriage means there is equality amongst straight and queer people. Although I’m not denying that marriage is an important contract to some people, it doesn’t mean everything is hunky-dory, or that there is no discrimination anymore. Representation in the active politics and bureaucracy, having equal job opportunities, equal wages, right to safe living & public spaces, not being used as a wider consumer group for merchandise, not being othered or alienated from society – all of these matters just as much, if not more. This is what makes queer existence so political, whether we acknowledge it or not – having to demand the same rights and safety that straight people take for granted.

Straight people will proudly demand “straight pride” without thinking twice and queer people need to wait for years and months to hear a verdict from the high court if we’re allowed to marry someone we love or live in the fear that we’ll wake up to our very existence being declared illegal. Humanity took on the job of building a society from scratch with no rule book or guidelines given to us and this is what we come up with – capitalism and discrimination. Why did we decide to put up existence on the list of things we debate about?

Kink and Pride-

Every year during Pride month, I see the same discourse on whether or not kink should be allowed at Pride. Kinks are often invalidated citing mental illness as the reason. BDSM and kink are often appropriated by straight people and are seen as overly sexualized acts, when in fact, they are a lifestyle, a way for the members of the community to engage with the world. There is so much content online saying that enjoying BDSM or other kinks would mean there is something psychologically wrong with people and that it should be checked and tested by professionals. Like the ‘daddy kink’, for example, wherein women are shamed and told that not having proper attachment in their childhood or having an absent father would later manifest in their adult life as “daddy issues” and if they just address them with their father, this perverted kink of theirs would go away. This idea was solidified by Freud (and his disciples), who was a sexist, racist and problematic person in history, who came up with the concept called “penis envy” (that every AFAB desires to have a penis- invisibilizing the need for gender parity and the experience of trans-ness in a singular hypothesis!). Freud, honey, are you sure you hadn’t internalized homophobia, which you then projected onto your partners, secretly wanting them to neg you perhaps?

BDSM and kink are ways of bonding with people, making families, forming communities. It is dependent on consent, communication, and love. It’s not just sex. Reducing everything to penetrative sex and reproduction is, in my opinion, a heteronormative move. Michele Foucault, in his introductory chapter of the book The History of Sexuality, talks about how in earlier human civilization, sex was openly talked about in public life, even in the presence of children. But it was during the Victorian society that appropriate discussion of sex somehow became restricted to the bedroom and only between a man and his wife since it was seen as a mechanism for reproduction and transfer of intergenerational wealth. Similarly, many of the Vedic scriptures too adopted a similar approach, especially to preserve caste endogamy. 

Sex, even today, is an extremely taboo topic. BDSM and kink are slowly becoming part of mainstream discussions, but it has been appropriated and reduced to mere sexual acts like handcuffs, spanking, and so on, and disregards the cultural aspect of it. It has been reduced to a mere tool that spices up sex for straight couples. But sex among queer people and polyamorous partners is still seen as ‘perverted’, ‘unnatural’, and ‘abnormal’ – for the longest time, these were the legally-coded terms that were interpreted as referring to homoeroticism.

We see this in inappropriate questions like, “So who’s the man in your relationship?” and in discourses on whether or not BDSM and kink should be a part of Pride.

Pride is a celebration of queer people, it is a space for expression of all that has been excluded and ostracized historically. Often the argument to exclude kink from Pride is, “Think of the children”. We don’t censor acts of public display of affection when it comes to straight couples; sex scenes are shot for movies, innuendoes are allowed in public, little children are encouraged to play house and find spouses and significant others. Including kink and BDSM at Pride is a way for people to express themselves, find community and subvert normative cultural boundaries with mutual consent. This is again a reduction of the lifestyle of the kink community to just sex.

Poland-

Pride is a politically-charged discussion in Poland, as the state resists accepting and accommodating queer rights in the country. I spoke to Agnes who is a member of the Polish queer community to understand how Pride is political there. Going back in time, we see that Poland has had a rather negative outlook towards the LGBTQ community. Between 1952 and 1989 Poland was under communist administration and there were constant internal struggles for democracy. Agnes also mentions that it was during this regime that Michel Foucault was forced to leave the University of Warsaw because of his sexuality. “In 1984, the first discussion on homosexuality took place on Polish television”, she says. “In 1985, Dariusz Prorok, under the pseudonym Krzysztof Darski, published the text ‘We are different‘. It was the first public voice of a gay person to describe life in a disavowing society. To silence these voices, the government started the surveillance of Polish gays. In the years 1985–1987, Action “Hyacinth” took place, which consisted of collecting materials about Polish gays and their environment. As a result, about 11,000 personal files were established.”

Warsaw saw its first Pride only in 2001, where it has been an annual event ever since with the participation of people seeing an uptick over the years. But the increase of participation in Pride also saw an increasingly aggressive reaction from the right wing. For instance, certain villages in Poland have declared themselves to be “LGBTQ-free” as if being queer is some sort of disease they have successfully gotten rid of. Unfortunately, Agnes doesn’t think this situation will get better anytime soon. “It’s really upsetting to see the same people fighting for basic human rights and social acceptance over and over again”, and she’s not wrong. It’s hard to have hope in situations like this. She said that she encourages people around her to move out to other places because although big cities in Poland have relatively more space for protest and free expression, that is not the case in small villages.

Agnes said that Polish people are averse to queer-coded words that make them uncomfortable, which is why the topic of queerness had been hidden for so long and even now, the Polish right-wingers don’t hesitate to use dehumanizing language to address the queer community, which isn’t censored on television. For example- Andrzej Duda, the president of the Republic of Poland said that the LGBT community are not people, they are a political ideology. The PIS party, which is a right-wing political party in Poland, believes in protecting ‘family values’, most of which, Agnes explains, are homophobic and believe that queer people are abnormal and are not qualified to be seen as people. Agnes thinks that allies need to be given more time on TV and radio, to help make the public aware of the derogatory nature of their language and behavior, while modeling a positive attitude towards words like gay, lesbian, or transgender.

But why is there so much negativity projected upon queer people? Agnes thinks that since Poland’s political history has been so tumultuous, while plagued with wars & conflict, that the elders want to maintain the status quo of the country and are resistant to change. She says that it’s only been a few years since discussion about mental health have become less taboo and the grief that the country has experienced has not been processed properly; there is a deep collective emotional trauma that still needs healing. “I think the subject of mental health is deeply connected to this nation’s homophobia because a country that doesn’t accept itself can’t be open to the new”, she says.

Even though the minoritized haven’t given up hope, Agnes says that the legalization of same-sex marriages is the most basic demand by the Polish Pride community.  Encouraged by their strength in increasing numbers, Pride is an opportunity for the community to be as loud and enthusiastic as they can. “In my mind, LGBTQ+ activism in repressed countries is just simply showing up. It’s talking about your experience and making people aware that you exist. It’s the bravest thing one can do – to live fully, in a society that doesn’t want to acknowledge your existence”, Agnes says. Faced with extreme adversity, the Polish LGBTQ+ community mostly focuses on educating the masses, providing shelter and other community services like access to queer-affirmative psychologists, while also organizing queer events, workshops, and other experiences.

Agnes says that we need to understand the culture of carnivals to understand the political aspect of Pride. Carnivals celebrate a cyclical event, and according to recent ethnographic research, carnivals have their foundations in rebellion against an established social order. Pride is the only Polish festival celebrating queer culture and it manifests that which is suppressed on a  daily basis. In many communities, it asks for a change of law and acceptance and advocates for the government to make a move towards a more inclusive society.

Sri Lanka-

The nature of Pride depends on the social, political, religious, and economic milieu of the region. For example, in places like India and America, people have the right to protest and demand amendments to the law. However, that is not the case in every society. I spoke to Rossanna from EQUAL GROUND, a non-profit organization fighting for the visibility, acceptance, and equality of the LGBTQI community in Sri Lanka. It was the first organization of its kind in the country, providing a safe space for various queer identities on the spectrum. EQUAL GROUND also provides counseling services for queer people.

Although she couldn’t comment on the experience of being both Tamil and queer in Sri Lanka, Rosanna says that EQUAL GROUND works towards providing a space for queer people from different social and economic backgrounds and they try to be as inclusive of various intersectional identities as possible.

EQUAL GROUND also has several resources of its own to help people navigate through their confusion if they are questioning their identity as well as guidelines on how to be a good ally. They publish a magazine called EQUALITY along with other research publications discussing homophobia, transphobia, discrimination, stigma, laws in Sri Lanka, among other things.

In Sri Lanka, Pride was first observed in 2005, and EQUAL GROUND hosted a party with over 350 people in attendance. The following year they conducted several events like the Abhimani Film Festival, which is the oldest film festival in South Asia, wherein they had forum theaters, photo exhibitions, the rainbow kite festival and many more. They also conduct other events, workshops, sensitization programs, music and dance festivals, to provide space for queer expression.

Rossanna told me that the reason they can’t openly march on the streets is because it requires permission from the authorities, which they don’t receive. Moreover, there is also a question of security on the streets. Lastly, not every queer person in Sri Lanka is out and so the parade would not attract as much participation as required to become a movement. Security becomes an issue of utmost importance since they have received threats in the past; so they hold parties in different venues, nightclubs, tourist spots, and other high-profile locations like 3-5 star hotels to ensure safety. They also hire their own security to ensure the safety of whoever is attending. However, last year, and also this year, EQUAL GROUND had to take its celebrations online due to Covid. And although it’s neither very personal nor accessible to all, Rossanna says that going online has helped to gain more participation since they had over 500,000 people attending the digital events. She says it’s difficult going online, but it’s doable.

Rossanna also said that Pride isn’t politicized too much since the Sri Lankan government has not warmed up to the community. They also have a Savings Clause which means they cannot challenge laws in court and are unable to file any kind of public interest litigations in the interest of the LGBTQI community. So what they do instead is try to garner the support of the people to push representatives and politicians to stand up for queer rights, which can be a slow process. Nonetheless, what matters is the continued presence and advocacy. Learn more about EQUAL GROUND’s work here: https://www.equal-ground.org/.

Graphic Fiction: You And I

Graphic Fiction: Eye Of The Storm

Full Length Feature

A/N: based on the Expanse

“What are your thoughts on Martians?” was the first question on the list.

When Kim had read the name on his assignment, he’d expected the largest ship in the hold. He’d been on the lookout for a behemoth. But she was small, larger only than the racing crafts that carried no more than two people and some supplies at any given time. She was small and unlike anything he had ever seen in the books he’d tried to memorize from.

So much for all that self-training, he thought to himself as he noticed her boosters, her drive cone, her point defence canons. He was reminded of rocks. Of unyielding, unbreakable solid rocks that gave way to nothing and no one. She was a sturdy, rugged ship.

At least… that’s what he thought, until his vision landed on the spray-painted woman in a bikini on one of the sides. He blushed when he recognized the form and averted his eyes.

The man in front of him raised his thick brows, tapping the electronic notepad in his hand impatiently.

“U-uhh…” Kim fumbled. “I’ve never met any. Sir,” he added the word as an afterthought. He didn’t know who the guy was and why he held himself with so much authority. He didn’t know, and he didn’t dare ask.

“You’re standing in front of one right now,” the man replied, folding his arms at his chest in challenge.

Was it a rhetorical or fact? Kim couldn’t tell. He erred towards caution and took a step back, bowing low. “Welcome!” he said in a pleasant voice.

There was a laugh in response. “You’re not on Earth anymore, you can forget your customs. It’s all… too formal!” the man shook his head.

Kim straightened up again, slowly. If he wasn’t sure earlier, he was now. The military hair, the stern face with only a few smile-lines. The clipped responses, the deep voice, the clinical accuracy of his movements. A Martian! He was talking to a Martian! He felt his curiosity bubble up from his stomach, but he kept himself in check. The man may have spoken to him in a friendly manner, but it didn’t change years of history between their two planets. It didn’t change the fact that they were from different “sides”. He worried his lip apprehensively.

“Our pilot on the mission,” the other continued. “Also Martian. It won’t make you uncomfortable?”

“N-no, sir!” he shook his head insistently.

“OK,” the man finally accepted. He looked back at his list but didn’t seem to hold an interest in asking any more. “Your flight hours are. Well. Negligible. Only travelled around Earth, this says,” the other waved the notepad. “Truth?”

Kim gave a tentative nod. “I’ve… coming to the moon—this was my first trip out of the atmosphere, sir, yes.”

“And you didn’t get sick?”

“No, sir! Not at all! Not in the slightest—!”

“OK, OK!” the man chuckled at his eagerness. There seemed to be a shift in his expression. It softened. He put the list behind himself. “Junior engineer Kim,” he addressed. “My name is Lee. I’m going to be your captain. We’re traveling very far from home—yours and mine. And we’re not sure if or when we’ll return. There are a lot of unanswered questions about these kinds of missions. A lot of risk. But you’ve volunteered for your services and for that,” he held his hand out. “I am grateful.”

Kim took the hand and shook it. “Th-thank you for having me, sir,” he said sincerely.

The grip tightened for a second. “When you step aboard this ship it’s more than just a contract,” he said. “When you join us, you become family. We support each other through everything, no matter the cost. You have confidence?”

Kim blinked at the words. Family… he thought. A moment later, he stood up straighter, puffed his chest out. “Yes, sir!”

The captain gave him a genuine smile. Bright and wide. “Welcome to the team.”

When Kim was a child and the world was large and heavy in his tiny hands, he’d wanted to fly.

Lying in the garden outside their family home, as his sister blew bubbles and his mother called them in for dinner, he had looked up at the stars between the webs of his little fingers. He had looked at them and wondered about life up there. In the sky. Among the celestial. Amidst the sparkling dots and the soft blue darkness. Would the tiny lights become unimaginably massive as he got closer to them? Would there be dragons like his father had pointed out to him? Would the rabbit still be churning his potion on the moon? Would the snow princess hold her arms out to him, cradle him with love? When Kim was a child, he would constantly flip through his fairy-tale books until they turned dog-eared and worn. He would constantly run around their little garden, a cheap plastic rocket in hand, swishing and weaving around until he fell.

When Kim was a child he wanted to go to space. Jump up and touch the sun. Reach out and hug the constellations. When he was a child, he wanted the impossible.

They entered the ship through the galley, taking the ladder two rungs at a time. Lee led and Kim followed as they walked over the now-faded MCRN logo.

A naval fleet ship…! he thought with some surprise before he realized that, of course. If the captain was a Martian, and this ship was nothing like any in the thick old reference book from a hundred years ago… His astonishment bloomed with every step.

He was shown everything. The personnel deck at the rear, the machine shop across, the central ladder that ran along the ship like a spine. Kim’s excitement effervesced in his chest. He wore a smile through the tour, looked at all the controls, touched the metal hull whenever it came within reach. Sure, this ship was strange to him. But he looked forward to learning everything about her. Know all her secrets and learn all her tricks—he felt like a man who’d met his perfect match on his first blind date.

Despite her tiny size, the ship seemed to have been built to take a crew of at least twenty. He wondered how many other recruits he would get to work with; wondered if there were any more Martians or were the rest just like him? Would there be Belters on board, too? Would he finally get to hear their language and learn their customs and ask, as politely as he could, how they fared with different gravitational forces in locations so close to the sun? The anticipation of these imaginary encounters was enough to bring a smile to his face.

“Here’s your bunk,” he was pointed to a small space. A shared space. There were cubbies for storage along a partition, and bedding for comfort. “Leave your things here and you can meet the others,” Lee suggested, and Kim bowed his head obeying.

Slowly, he entered the ‘room’ and inspected everything within it. The mattress had a human-shaped indent in it—more intentional than a remnant of rough use, he reckoned as he tentatively pressed down on the soft sponge and hard foam with his fingers. Both bunks were identical, both beds were the same size. Everything was clean lines and precise measurement and perfectly spartan.

But while his own side of the bay was bare and relatively untouched, his roommate had little plants all over their space, each sitting in its own individual box and emitting bright UV light. There were ferns and succulents and herbs of all kinds in every nook and cranny. But the main feature was a thick vine growing all over the whole assembly, even over the bed. As if like a canopy; a net of protection.

Kim looked back at the captain where he stood in the doorway.

“A botanist,” Lee smiled, as if that explained everything. “Very good too, he’s got that… what do you people call it on Earth? A green hand?”

“Thumb, sir,” Kim corrected, contemplating on the scene again.

They continued with the tour until they reached the command bridge. It was a large square deck with walls sloping in upwards, like in the rest of the ship. A long ladder connected the pilot’s chair on the upper level, with seats for the rest of the crew below. Lee climbed the ladder, his magnetic boots clanging on the rungs with each footstep.

Two people idled around the place, chatting animatedly as Kim slowly approached them—a man with an average appearance, but for the tattoos covering his arms and neck. And a woman, her hair braided and pink, her eyelids shadowed black.

“How’s it looking, Tae?” the captain addressed the man, who waved back a relaxed hand.

“Why don’t we ask the queen?” he motioned to the woman instead.

She turned her chair to them with her mouth agape. “Ohhhh!” she made claws with her hands. “ Ohhhh! She’s so…!” the woman made a satisfied sound in her throat, almost close to a moan. “I could ride her all night,” she added with a wide grin.

Kim blushed at that and shrunk in his place.

“Is that supposed to be good? I can’t tell.” Lee chuckled. “Anyway, this is our newest team member,” he gestured politely. “Kim,” he introduced. “Meet our pilot, Gee. She’s a bit crazy. And this is Tae. He’s…” the captain thought for a moment. “I guess he’s the muscle of the ship. Does all the heavy-lifting, so you don’t have to break your back,” he joked.

Kim bowed deeply to both of them.

“Hmm? Another Inner?” the man named Tae mused at the action. “So boring. You Inners and your meaningless politics. Us beltalowda—”

“Yes, yes, we know, shut up,” the woman hushed him. “An Earther?” she smiled at Kim. “Not a UN supporter, I hope?” There was a dangerous glint in her eyes.

He feverishly waved his arms between them, panicking. “N-no! Not at all, ehehehe…” he scratched the back of his neck with a nervous chuckle.

“Good!” the woman named Gee instantly brightened, her face warming. “I hope we can grow close and talk about ships together!” she said, extending her hand before leaning in conspiratorially. “I really really love your ships! I wish I could’ve driven one of the ancient ones. You know—the first ones that carried people to Luna and Mars? Ahhh… I bet driving those powerful beasts was real sexy,” she finished with a hot sigh.

Kim returned the handshake falteringly. “I… think they were quite slow, though.”

“Who cares?” Gee shrugged, then grinned. “Fast or slow, I can make any ship wet.”

Tae and Lee laughed at Kim’s momentary shock. But he looked around himself with his face still burning and tried to make light of the situation. “A-actually…” he began. “Before the Epstein drive, old ships used hydrogen as a reaction mass, not water. S-so…” he checked their faces, as if for support. “So, the ship wouldn’t be wet. It’d just… pass gas.”

They blinked at him for a few moments before Tae collapsed in laughter, kneeling and beating the floor with his hand. “I—I like him!” he choked when he tried to catch his breath.

“He has weird kinks,” Gee cringed.

“He’s good,” Lee giggled and slapped Kim’s arm.

“What’s this? You’re all enjoying without m—” a voice called out to them from below. Kim turned to look at the newcomer and.

And.

“There was an old lady once, and she had soooo many rice cakes,” Kim’s little hands used to gesture wildly whenever he talked. That night was no exception. He did it so he could keep Min’s attention on himself, and as a result the younger always listened with a rapt face. “She took all those cakes home to her children, but then! There was a tiger!” Kim remembered crouching around in a show of menace. Things like that always made Min giggle—the sound sweet, and the expression sweeter.

“He said: give me your rice cakes or I’ll eat you!” Kim had growled. “So the old lady gave him everything… but he still ate her.”

“Oh…” Min had said with astonishment. “Then?”

“Then? Then the tiger dressed like the old lady and went to her home. It knocked on the door and said: look, children, look! I have come home,” Kim remembered roaring in his still-immature voice. “The children said: no, no, our mother doesn’t sound like that! So the tiger answered,” he made a snarling face. “I—I have a cold!”

“Then what happened?” Min had sat forward with interest.

“Then? Then the children let the tiger in. It said: I’ll make you dinner, wait here! But the children saw the hairy paws and the long tail!” Kim had drawn in the air with his hands. “So they ran. They ran out of the house and climbed a tree.”

“Did the tiger find them?”

“Of course!” Kim had said. “The tiger found them and started climbing the tree too!”

“Oh no!”

“Then!” Kim had stood with his hands on his hips, smiling an imperious smile down at the younger boy. “Then a rope fell from the sky!”

“T-the sssky?” Min had asked in his lisp, his large brown eyes blinking in wonder.

Kim had nodded enthusiastically. “The children climbed up the rope and left the tiger behind. They went higher and higher and higher. Until they reached the stars. Then one became the sun, and the other became the moon.”

Min pouted thoughtfully, looking up at the night sky as he swayed a little on the grass. “Really…? They became—”

“Yah, you don’t believe me?” Kim had challenged. He didn’t like being challenged, didn’t like conflicts of any kind. His sister would always be scolded for getting into fights at school. But he’d decided then, that when he turned six and started going there with her, he would try his best to get along with everyone. Try to make as many friends as possible. Hopefully they would all be just like Min. They would listen well and be nice to him when he told them his stories. “It’s not a lie! My ma told me! So it has to be true, OK?”

“… ssso if we go to the moon, will we meet them?”

Min was taller than Kim remembered.

Of course, this should’ve been obvious. They hadn’t seen each other in twenty years, and they’d both grown ever since. But in his imagination, he’d thought Min would look different. In his mind, Kim hadn’t needed to crane his neck as much, nor take in the spindly arms and legs with concern. His skin was oddly pale, like he hadn’t seen the sun in a long time. He was soft, and his eyes were warm muddy water: like all that time ago. That was still unchanged. But this Min was not the same Min from their childhood. This was another man.

“So…?” Kim started but didn’t finish. He didn’t know how to finish.

They sat on a mezzanine, overlooking the rest of the shipyard. A large bubble of concave safety glass allowed visions of the Malapert mountain range—peaks of eternal light, as Kim had heard them be called during his training. Thin strings of sunlight glanced off their dusty pinnacles, too far out of reach and too isolated to be of any real comfort. Suddenly, for the first time in the several months since he’d started on this journey, he missed home.

Min looked like he didn’t know what to say either. His lips pursed and his hands fidgeting in his lap, he glanced up and then glanced away like he was ashamed. “I… there was a program at university,” he began. “Hydroponics. They were looking to train people who could work in the domes.”

“Domes?” Kim asked cluelessly. He had been a simple mechanic at the space station. He didn’t know much besides what he heard—or overheard—around himself. In fact, when they’d told him he was one of only twelve volunteers from the entire planet to sign up for these missions, he’d been shocked. He hadn’t understood the weight of his undertaking.

“What domes?”

“The ones on Ganymede,” Min explained with a smile. “You know? The agricultural sector.”

“I thought… I thought Ganymede is gone,” Kim shook his head. “I thought, after all that stuff about the—”

The other’s eyes turned sad. “Yeah…” he admitted, hanging his head low. “It’s gone.”

Kim realised he had spoken tactlessly. It had been a joint loss for the entire system. A loss of lives, of resources, of all the hard work and ingenuity that had created those perfectly balanced domes. The food bowl of the Sol system, a sanctuary for expecting mothers, a frontier for new life. Perhaps Min’s home for the last few years; perhaps home to his friends, maybe even a family. Ganymede was the heart of everything humanity should’ve protected, and they had failed.

“I’m sorry,” he rushed to apologise. “I—I shouldn’t have said anything.”

Min shook his head and managed a weak smile. Their gazes met and the meeting was warm. “I survived. Now I try to use what I know to help people.”

“People like them?” Kim motioned with his chin, indicating the general direction of the ships.

The other turned his gaze to their vessel. “Captain Lee is a good man,” he said with a little smile. It was the sort of smile that spoke volumes behind the words. Unspoken stories and untold truths. “We met on Callisto, at the naval shipyards. They took some of the refugees from Ganymede,” he explained. “He’s not like other Martians. He’s… he’s different. Kind.”

Jealousy radiated from Kim’s chest to his fingertips. He was surprised by its intensity, surprised by how the sea of respect and wonder he’d felt for their captain had evaporated to no more than a small drop. “Hmm,” he grunted. “You’ve… you’ve been on the crew for a while?”

“Some months,” Min nodded. “The others have been together for years. They’re really like a family.”

There it was again. That word. Family.

It was true that Kim had never been in space before. It was true that when they took his weight and measured his height and checked his bloodwork, they’d told him he would need to train for at least six months just so he could come here, to the moon. It was true that he’d been anxious of the experience and of the people he would encounter. It was also true that “family” was not a descriptor he had considered during his trepidation.

His own parents and sister had been left behind, a long time ago. The world was no longer as it had been when Kim was a little boy. It had grown with him, beyond him. Grown bitter, grown colder, grown to a vile and unrecognizable form. It was not the bubble of protection his father’s arms provided; it was not the embrace of adoration in his mother’s eyes. It was not a home, not anymore.

At the turn of the century—a long time before Kim and Min had ever existed—the national reserve was nearly all spent and the threat of imminent war with neighbours loomed over the country. Food was scarce, water even scarcer. Parks and rivers started to disappear under makeshift concrete block homes. Schools were first amalgamated district by district, and then shut down altogether. Offices too, laid off their employees and then abandoned their buildings to save on power and space. Energy sources withered until they completely vanished—the coal was all gone, the rigs were drilling nothing but mulch. Hospitals were overcrowded and understaffed, earthquakes and tsunamis wiped out whole coastlines. Special military forces had been deployed to keep the rioting masses in control, but it happened. Still happens, even now, at the slightest provocation.

Famine, disease, disaster, chaos. It was the end times.

When things had moved far past desperate, the Republic had finally swallowed its pride and turned to the United Nations for a helping hand. A move that was called The Clamp but was more of a wave, forever building momentum, forever gathering its strength and force before it washed everything in its path away. The Republic wasn’t unique in this approach, and soon every other country that had previously been independently governed, now came under the rule of one organisation. One all-powerful panel of leaders that played king and pulled the strings for the entire planet.

Recovering had been slow, incomplete. The world was gradually repaired, but only on the outside. Clean air, clean skies, clean public buildings and civic squares. Everything that met the untrained eyes was clean and renewed. On the inside, the deep layers close to the ground and within the darker corners, Earth was still rotten. A rotten core full of injustices for the weak and the poor. The powerless.

Nuclear power was harnessed, space travel was considered, and a small but influential group of people led the exodus to Luna and Mars. Then the battle for dominance with the colonists began.

In step with escalating tensions, Kim’s family had lost their little house in Seoul. They’d been relocated to one of the many outposts in a foreign land, where no one spoke the same language and no one cared to learn. His father had left them. His mother had to take on several jobs to raise her children single-handed. His sister had to give up her education so she could register for the universal basic support.  Kim was no longer a child with infinite possibilities to chase. He was a survivor. He’d come to realise that the world was not a world, it was a maze. It was big and unbearably so, and he was nothing in it. He was small, unnoticeable. He did not matter in the large scheme of things.

Their days of running on grass and dreaming of floating through stars were long gone. Min’s family was long gone, too. The warmth of their friendship disappeared; the sweetness of innocent questions dissipated. There were no more stories to be told, no more night skies to be admired, no more fairy tales to share. In a world full of far too many people, Kim grew up alone.

“I’m glad we met again. Like this,” he said now to Min, recognising the part of home that had mattered the most, the part he truly missed.

The man smiled. “Me too.”

“What…? Already?!” Min’s little face had filled with disappointment when he’d been told he couldn’t be the first person on the moon—that several people had already beat him to it, a very long time ago.

“What an idiot!” the other boys had teased him. “Why don’t you know a thing like that? Everybody knows! Stupid!” They’d nudged him and poked him and made faces at him as he stood in the middle of their circle and cried. “Min is an idiot~ Min is an idiot~ His head is so small he doesn’t even have a brain!” they’d sung with laughter.

Kim didn’t like fighting. He’d promised himself he would be better than that, and he’d kept that promise. The teachers would always praise him. Kim is a polite young boy, they would say. Kim is a well-mannered ideal student. He’d done his best to be friendly and pleasant and decorous, even at the age of eight.

But whenever he saw the others pick on Min, he would rush them. He would push them to the ground one-by-one, yell and throw his fists at them, sit on the larger boys and hit them scratch them bite them, end up with pulled hair and bloodied nose. End up in the principal’s office, even, where he’d be told off by parents and teachers.

When they’d sit on the swings in the playground, Min would show his gratitude by covering him with bandages. “Why do you do that?” he’d ask. “My brother says fighting is for un…uncle… uncultured people. Are you an uncultured people?”

“Yah!” Kim would counter. “You’re supposed to fight back! How can you let them be like that to you?! It’s—it’s wrong! That’s…! That’s un… ah, whatever that word was that you said!”

“But…” Min’s face had threated to break into tears again. “But they said I can’t be the first person on the moon anymore…” he’d whined.

Kim pouted up at him. “So what? You can still go! You can still be the first person… from our neighbourhood!” he nodded. “Yeah! I’ll come with you! We can go together!” He’d smiled in encouragement. “We’ll grow up, and then we’ll go to the moon, and then no one will be able to say anything to us!”

“On… on a big rocket? Like that one in the book?”

“Yeah! Let’s go, OK?” Kim would grin, his face full of plasters, even in places that were unhurt. “Don’t listen to those idiots. We’ll go to the moon, I promise.” 

As a little boy, he tried to be on his best behaviour but to see Min hurt brought out the worst in Kim.

Luna station, a launchpad for dreams.

That was how they’d sold it to the unemployed and hopeless masses back on Earth. Not the dream itself, no. It was too dead and barren, too desolate for planting dreams into its grey surface. Arborists had tried, with their artificial monsoons and their agrariums built on volcanic ash. They had tried their best, Kim noted on the tour of the industrial sector when he first arrived. But this was no place for dreams to thrive.

As beautiful and poetic as she had looked from between his five-year-old fingers, the moon was ugly. Her only hope was to offer a foothold, a transitory stop for naval and exploratory ships before they turned their backs on her and set out for the universe.

Kim had elected to keep his head down and do what he could to survive, find what little work there was to find. He’d studied—gone to school, gone to college, gone to great lengths to train himself for whatever industry still held the assurance of a stable income, in hopes for a better life. But space had found him, weeded him out from among the many designers and technicians and planners. It had plucked him from the mechanical engineers that floated over the lake of overqualified and idle people.

For the last five years, he had worked on orbiters and cyclers and ships that were nearing the end of their lifecycles. He’d salvage the good and trash the bad, help rebuild some anew or create something else. Something more powerful durable formidable. For the last five years, this had been his life. Wading through the entrails of an ancient spaceship, plugging its parts into sleek new racers or private spaceplanes. He didn’t make much from it, but he learnt a lot. Learnt enough that they’d selected him from the list of volunteers.

Six months was a long time, but at the end of it he thought it wasn’t long enough. Right from day one, they threw him into the centrifuge, letting him stay in it for an hour until he begged for them to let him out. Then came the assembly tests in zero-G. His hands fumbled, his grip betrayed, his fingers proved too ungainly in the suit. Everything was ungainly in the suit. He couldn’t walk, he couldn’t stand or sit, and sometimes during low pressure tests he couldn’t even breathe. He trained for strength, trained for speed, trained for days upon days in the simulator. He had to learn to fasten everything before take-off or it would fly around and damage his visor. He had to learn to unfasten everything after landing or he wouldn’t be able to get to it in an emergency. He was taught how to breathe steadily in a crisis, taught how to walk in the magnetic shoes, taught how to rely on his team for support when he knew he couldn’t complete a task by himself. He was taught a lot, and in the end he appreciated how it still wasn’t enough. Nothing could prepare him for space, where the smallest mistake could cost him dearly.

“OK,” Lee gathered them all at the command deck. They stood around the display on a large screen as he pointed to objects before moving them around. “We’ve been given a slot for take-off tonight. I want us all to be as ready as possible,” he instructed.

Tonight? That was too soon, Kim thought. It had taken a lot of time and effort to get him here, he’d imagined he would be allowed a few more days or rest at least. Just to look around. He nervously studied the rest of the team, but he said nothing.

“Gee, what’s our flight path?”

“Straight to the Jovian system,” she clicked a button and initiated a hologram. A small red dot travelled along a thin silver line connecting two points on the display. Kim stepped forward with interest and followed it carefully. “That’s one week, if we go into drive immediately after we get out of lunar orbit. Depends on traffic. Refuel, resupply, whatever we want to do on Callisto,” the pilot shrugged. “Then we go to the Ring.”

“Can we use the drive?”

Tae nodded. “Yeah, definitely. But we have an expert now, why don’t we get him to look at it?” he turned to Kim and smiled.

“Y-yeah, I can take a look,” he accepted.

“Good,” Lee approved. “I want a status report in one hour. Min—” he turned to the botanist, who was drinking from a steaming cup of something. “Evaluate our supplies. Food, water, air, medicines. At least three years’ worth.”

“That much?” the tall man asked, confused. “Captain… is there a possibility we won’t find anything?” he queried, looking a little uncertain of his decision to come along. “You know. On the other side of the Ring?”

“Yes,” Lee replied simply, then clicked a few buttons on his communicator. Min’s pocket dinged. “I’ve transferred some credits to you. Use them for whatever you think we need. Gee,” he turned to the woman. “Let’s talk.”

They all went their own ways. Watching Min slink off in the direction of the galley, Kim and Tae took the ladder to the engineering and cargo hold, all the way down to the bottom.

“So, how’re you enjoying space so far?” the Belter asked conversationally. He unrolled a drawer of tools and took out the ones they would need for a standard maintenance check.

“Hmm?” Kim went over to the trap door that led further down to the engine deck. “I… I haven’t seen a lot, but it feels. Roomy.”

Tae chuckled at that, bringing the bag of tools over. They clanged at his hip with every step he took. “That’s just this station. I felt like that too, when I first came here from Ceres. We’re not a crowded colony like Earth but when you’re down in the tunnels,” he huffed out air and followed it with more laughter. “It can get cramped.”

“Were you born there?” Kim smiled as he followed the man down.

“Of course! True man of Jupiter, born and bred, that’s me.”

“And everyone has tattoos like that?”

A pair of surprised eyes looked at him as he descended. “You’re a real nosy one, aren’t you?”

“A-ahh! Sorry, sorry!” Kim rushed to apologise. “I didn’t mean to offend. I… we were never taught about your culture, and… and so I was just. Curious,” he explained awkwardly.

“As long as you don’t support the UN,” he was allowed jovially. Tae pointed at his neck. “These are an homage, to the first belters, who survived in their cheap spacesuits. These—” he held out his arms. “Family ties. This one means I’m the youngest of the tribe, this says I have an older brother, this means both my parents are still alive and well,” he indicated different symbols, all unique to look at and all seeming like they were added at different times. “This one is for my age, so I change it often.”

“How old are you?”

They stood at the base of the ladder, one man looking back up and the other looking down at the reactor hatch. “Time is different for us,” Tae explained. “We move differently, in relation to the sun. But… I guess in Earther years I’d be,” he looked at Kim and grinned. “Twenty-six?”

“You look younger,” he was told with a smile. “So… you’ve never been on a planet before?”

A shake of the head. “It… I’m scared of what could happen.”

“Because of gravity?”

“And because I might actually like it,” the other gave a sheepish chuckle. “The belt… it’s not the best place in the system. But I’ve always thought I would die there.”

“You’re brave then,” Kim nodded. “To leave this system.”

“So are you,” a shrug replied. “I mean, we picked you from the list because you have power. You’re strong like none of the rest of us. You’re fresh off the boat,” Tae poked his ribs playfully. “But stay away from Earth too long and you’ll become just as weak. You could never go back. It’d be too dangerous.”

“And yet, here I am…” Kim mumbled.

“And yet here you are,” Tae agreed, offering his fist to bump.

When Kim was a child and the world was large and heavy in his tiny hands, he’d wanted to love.

Min’s family was being sent away, like a lot of the other residents of their neighbourhood. The adults said it was because other adults were making them do it, and to a ten-year-old Kim that didn’t compute—adults made their own decisions, no one should be ordering them about like this. But he was explained that it was out of everyone’s hands and soon they would be separated. Soon, they would never see each other again.

Kim would always hold Min to himself when the younger cried, but that day he stayed away. He watched from behind the fence of their front yard and kept his distance; kept his own tears in check, holding a football under his arm as the other boy tried to reach out, tried to call out, tried so say please, please, I don’t want to go, please make them stop, I don’t want to go. What could he have done? What could he have said? What was in his control? When Kim was a child, he felt something break inside him to watch Min be piled onto a crowded bus, squeezed between his bother and the window. It left him with a scar that would never heal, a wound that would stay open forever.

When Kim was a child he didn’t know what love was. It punched his little body in the gut and he fell, hard. He wanted to understand it, wanted to hold it and tame it, wanted to feel it even with his tiny broken heart. When he was a child, he wanted the impossible.

“Here,” Min helped him into his seat, strapping his arms and legs. “For when we hit the high Gs,” he explained and patted Kim’s shoulder before going his own chair. 

They were back on the command deck, waiting to take off. The engine was ready, the storage hold was brimming, and the ship hummed underneath them. Like a bee.

“Hohoho, she feels like a beauty from up here, boys,” they heard Gee say from her perch. “OK, initialising sequence. We have the green light from the station, boss. What do you say?”

“Ready when you are,” Lee called out from across Kim, clicking other keys on the display before him.

Tae sat himself down too, his lips moving in what looked like a silent prayer. When their eyes met, he grinned. “What? You thought we were barbarians? Beltalowda answer to their own gods, Earther. Sasa ke?” he said, his voice taking on a thick accent.

“Got room in your prayer for one more?” Kim called back. The other laughed.

“It won’t be too bad,” Min assured softly from beside him. “The cycler was the hardest part, and you came out of it so well. Everything else will be… a breeze,” he encouraged.

Kim looked at him a moment before smiling gratefully. They’d switched places—Min’s consolations held him in their arms now, returning the comfort of many nights on swings and many days on the playground. Perhaps this was why they’d met again. Perhaps the universe had been unbalanced without Min giving back what he’d received all those years go, and Kim receiving it happily with his arms open. Perhaps the universe would finally start to come back to its perfectly scaled self now that they were together again, perhaps it would finally start to heal itself like the pieces in Kim’s chest.

Pride Is Growing, And We Have Several More Miles To Go Before We Sleep.

The original rainbow flag that represented the LGBTQIA+ community had 8 colours, including pink and turquoise which were later dropped for practical and aesthetic reasons. Each colour signifies a different aspect of life and being.

It was created in 1978 by Gilbert Baker (he/him). Baker was an openly gay man and activist who also worked on the first marijuana legalisation initiative in the US. He learnt how to sew from his fellow activist, Mary Dunn, and created the rainbow flag among many other banners. However, like many activists – of past and present – Baker’s politics were far from perfect or ‘politically correct’; he served in the US Army for 2 years.

40 years later, in 2018, as the issues of PoC and the trans  community gained visibility within the movement, Daniel Quasar (he/him), a Portland-based artist and musician, added the baby blue, baby pink & white (from the trans pride flag), as well as the black & brown triangles to the corner of this flag.

In 2021, Valentino Vecchietti (she/they) of Intersex Equality Rights, UK, added a yellow triangle with a purple circle on it, to the corner to represent the interests of the intersex community as part of Pride.

With all these iterations, the flag is referred to as the Progressive Pride banner. Other flags representing the unique interests of the non-binary community, the aces, lesbians, and bi folx also exist. Nonetheless, the evolution of the Progressive Pride flag shows the growing awareness within the community about the inter-related nature of queerness (and its systemic oppression). It should also be noted that most of these designs have emerged from the Global North, and its narrative may not encompass the lived experiences of those who live in the Global South.

For instance, in India, there is a dire need to publicly speak up on matters of caste solidarity (perhaps ‘blue’ to include B.R. Ambedkar’s suit?). Even today, many queer communities are exclusive of historically oppressed castes and communities, in their aesthetics and practices. However, like feminism, we must acknowledge that the Pride movement is nothing, if not intersectional.

What’s Pride Got To Do With It? Everything, And Then Some.

CW: mention of suicide, queerphobia, transphobia, incarceration

On this day, a year ago, we lost Sara Hegazi, a queer feminist from Egypt. She was brutally persecuted by the country’s authorities after she raised the rainbow flag at a Mashrou Leila concert. Despite receiving asylum in Canada, the experience of being tortured during incarceration eventually pushed her into a state of deep trauma that led to her suicide.

In May last year, we also lost Anjana, a young bisexual student who was forced into conversion therapy by her family, albeit ill-advised. An engulfing sense of hopelessness to live life without being tormented likely led her to kill herself. These incidents show us how queerphobia is so deeply rooted into the systems we rely on to run the world today. The systems of governance, parenthood, education, and public health, among others, leave us with a feeling of deep despair and doom.

When our ancestors weren’t ravaged by the vastly-ignored AIDS pandemic or persecuted by political and religious institutions alike, we were abandoned by all systems of care (families, friends, you name it). Even the process of making therapy queer-affirming has only just begun and it still leaves a vast chunk of the population out, in terms of accessibility. We have been fighting to be seen, heard, acknowledged and represented despite our disabilities, performative ‘politically correct’ allies, and a looming threat to our very lives – if not at the hands of our debilitating mental illnesses or police brutality, then by self-proclaimed vigilantes claiming to protect their children from us.

That trope of the joyfully wild, childless aunt/uncle who rides in on a motorcycle (or atop skateboard or with crutches tucked beneath their armpits, ’cause why not!), of the pixie-dust sprinkling godparent who would understand our desires and finally turned our pumpkins into chariots of freedom – those were the foreparents we had to imagine for ourselves, the ones we deserved but were denied by generational queerphobia.

The living don’t have it easy either.

Rishikesh Raut (they/them), a 23yo Bahujan person from Pune recently started a fundraiser that would support them in accessing gender-affirming surgery and treatment. They shared the request on their Instagram on June 8, and as it started to garner attention, it also began to draw in the transphobes. Some of the more horrid comments asked them to ‘stop begging and get a job’, thereby completely ignoring the plight of countless trans people living in this country, who are actively alienated by and from mainstream society for simply choosing to live life on their own terms, without causing any harm to others.

R (they/them), a 24yo singer and musician had worked hard to create a public profile for themself on Instagram, drawing in several followers (>2350 at its peak). They started it in November 2020 and were forced to deactivate it a few days ago in June 2020 (how’s that for all that pinkwashed Pride?).

When asked about it, R said: “Being a queer person who is visible on social media can be very disturbing when it comes to the harassment in terms of trolling, intrusive questions, threats and bullying. Also, random unsolicited nudes and video calls from people are traumatising especially for me who has been a survivor of assault in the past.” They said that enduring these events has wreaked havoc on their mental health and that they now fear for their life even when in the safety of their own room.

Instagram can help cis-hets become mega-influencers with several thousand followers, while serving as a major income stream, but R was forced to take this difficult decision after the platform’s team repeatedly told them that their complaints had no merit and that the bullying did not violate IG community guidelines.

[Deleting my public profile] is going to impact a lot of things in terms of work and career. Mostly, the work I got was from Instagram as people contacted me freely for work and collaborations. Now that my work won’t be reaching out to people here, it will be tough to sustain for a few months, especially when I have to constantly work on my makeshift music studio which is difficult to manage without a steady income.

So the next time some internet (or real-life) troll asks you, pleading ignorance, “#whysoproud”; tell them that it’s because you have done the shadow work and will no longer live in shame. Tell them you are doing the labour of integrating the parts of yourself that were once banished to the darkest recesses of your soul, and that you are now ready to walk out into the world, head held high.

Love

Gee thinks it’s a stupid word, “love”.

The whole concept is imbecilic in fact, when she thinks some more on it. I am in love with this short, slightly wild, slightly golden woman. The words may sound right, but they don’t hold a lot of weight in them. Not enough poetry.

She wants to weave a sentence with her feelings. Wants to use it as the thread, the needle, and the cloth. She wants to make it into ink and write it with the pen of her heart, spilled onto Jun’s paper. She wants her feelings to become not words but fact–unnecessary to be read or spoken, simply known without much thought. Like breath for living, like salt for a sea breeze, like… she twirls a finger around Jun’s navel as she muses.

“Like a knife for butter,” she says in a low rumble.

“Hmm?” Jun’s bronze gaze turns sleepily to her under a soft frown. “What?”

Gee simply sighs in response, even when