I grew up in two very conservative, religious cultures: my home was Hindu and Brahmin and the school I attended a Convent. Neither of these religions was forced down my throat at any point. My parents, even through, in practice, Hindu, are in personal belief, mostly agnostic, as are the grandparents I liked best. We did however, live with my more conservative grandparents. My school, when I started there, was just as liberal. Sure, we had prayers in the morning, and all of us were taught how to cross. They were paranoid about boyfriends and the length of our skirts but no, it was all mostly a cultural thing: Indian suburbia in general is like that. It had less to do with Catholicism than with the general conservative atmosphere.
So I grew up, somehow missing the fact that religion could be personally oppressive. Caste, I had realized very early in life – being, to one grandmother, a bit of a half-breed that she didn’t particularly like – mattered in India. But religion? I thought the issues were confined to the big things I read in the papers: riots in Bombay, saffron-clad militants walking about with Pitchforks. Nothing really to do with me. Every evening I sang to Rama and Krishna – particularly the latter; he is my favourite mythological man – and every morning, stood in assembly, brushed and buttoned, singing “Jesus loves me”. It didn’t seem like such a big deal at all.
And then I got my period and suddenly it seemed safer for a while to be Catholic, as I was suddenly not allowed to go to places I’d wandered in all the time and touch just anything I wanted to. Apparently the fact of my uterus contracting and expelling blood made me ritually impure. And a woman, I was lovingly reminded. All I can say, is thank goodness for my agnostic mother. She lied to my grandmother about my period enough to make me still feel included. But it was suddenly a religious battle – however pleasurably fought with my mother on my side.
And then I grew up some more and fell in love with a classmate. Puppy love! Oh! Yes, a female classmate. Except of course I didn’t know it was love. I wanted to be her best friend obsessively. And charming as I was back in the day, managed to fill that vacancy as soon as it freed up. The politics of seventh grade life make those things very simple. So we held hands and walked all around school, jumped on leaves together, exchanged dolls and tentatively kissed. This year was when the nuns suddenly discovered that homosexuality was something they had to address. Or they had been telling people my age every year and I had hit the magic age. But we suddenly had the hand-holding patrol appear from nowhere if our hands so much as brushed.
When I graduated, I ended up in a women’s college that was also Catholic. So I was given a booklet reading “Why homosexuality is a sin” when I stood up for gay rights in a class, and threatened with expulsion if I complained anymore that they were indoctrinating us and scaring people by showing graphic videos of abortions and then saying, see you’re killing your baby cruelly. So I fell head over ears for a woman I played tennis with (cliché!) and tried very hard, in the meantime, to date a man, who has since come out as well.
And so finally, about a year ago, I came out. And within the next four months, a nail bomb screaming “SHE’S GAY” exploded in my family and before I knew it, I received a skype call from an aunt who’s an Evangelist. Yes, my family has all kinds, clearly. This Aunt – let’s call her E – was in a closet when she called me, but she clearly didn’t see the irony. She was in there because well, she didn’t want the twenty one year old “children” to hear.
So E proceeded to tell me that women having sex with women was sinful and against god. Then she paused and added – to my suppressed hilarity – that she couldn’t imagine how that happened considering we didn’t have the umm… instruments. And worst of all, she said that homosexual tendencies were perfectly normal but that it was wrong to exercise them. It was typical right-wing chat. And of course after this, no matter that her daughter’s my favourite cousin and we’re good friends, I’m not particularly wanted at her wedding and no, neither me nor my sister are bridesmaids.
And so today, I watched a documentary called For The Bible Tells Me So that reconciled the bile I’ve been gathering for religion in general and the memory I have of loving it all – the communal singing, the huge stone church, the nombu and flowers and temple music. For The Bible Tells Me So takes one through five families and their struggles through accepting homosexuality and it’s beautiful. What is touching about this documentary is how honest it is. It doesn’t try to be rebellious and yet it breaks some moulds. It directly addresses the problem of loving your religion and loving your partner and yourself at the same time, so to speak.
And it’s not impossible. Even for an atheist like me, the religious roots one comes from sometimes make up the basis for a personal sense of love and hating those roots unfortunately is a huge burden of self-loathing that I’m not prepared to carry any longer.