By Manish Gaekwad Feb. 14, 2019
At 19, my aunt, who I once suspected of being a little bit butch, lashed out at my mother for trying to fix my engagement with a girl. She understood that I was different, just like her. And that #LoveMovesForward in different ways.
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When the Supreme Court in Delhi was decriminalising portions of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code that stigmatised queer lives, my maternal aunt was in Pune, comatose. I joked that the news must have reached her. Alas! She must have sighed and breathed her last. Liberated in the knowledge that there could have been an alternate life to live, a gayer one.
She could not have been gay in this life.
But she had what they called a manly gait, a deep voice more masculine than feminine (her larynx tremoured less), and a golden moustache to match any sarpanch’s brittle whiskers in the Kanjar community where she often spoke out loud for women’s rights.
Her physical attributes fit the “butch” stereotype when I met her for the first time. I was 19, what better did I know than to pigeonhole my aunt as a queer sort.
My aunt had what they also called, the rotten morals of an uncivil man. She had never been to school, despised marriage, was separated from her spouse, did not have children, and lived well into her 50s, drinking, smoking, gambling, and, once in a while, seeing random drunk boyfriends she cared even less for.
Queer people who struggle to come out to their parents suffocate in fear because they have been raised to believe that being different is being dirty, vile, and shameful.
Everyone around her called her “gaandi” (mad) in the Kanjar dialect. Did my aunt conform to any fixed gender binary? Certainly not. She lived and perished without ever finding out where she stood in the spectrum. Could she have known better if the queer community had been given equal rights and if Section 377 was abolished when the Constitution was formed?
At 19, when I met my aunt, my mother was scouting for a young girl to fix my engagement. We were being served tea by a chit of a girl in a shanty on the outskirts of Pune. It was bewildering, as I stood outside the house, wondering what to make of this all-too-real insanity. Mother said the Kanjar community would take us back into its antiquated folds. I disapproved of mother’s ideas but who did I have to seek counsel?
That is when my aunt stepped in.
She gave my mother a verbal lashing. “Can’t you see how delicate your son is?” she railed in a mock tone, perhaps conversely hinting at my fledgling queerness and giving me a rather strong vibe that she understood. She understood that I was different, just like her. It needn’t have been said explicitly, but a little understanding goes a long way in being accepted.
With that, my mother temporarily stalled her hunt for a suitable bride, but she did not pick up the other clue. The delicateness of the matter went unobserved, or as most mothers, she pretended to look the other way. There is no mother in the world who does not know what her child is up to, but she will not acknowledge it because her worst fears will come true if she admits it. Patriarchy’s shadow looms overhead.
Queer people who struggle to come out to their parents suffocate in fear because they have been raised to believe that being different is being dirty, vile, and shameful. That the kids are besmirching the family’s name with sinful acts of carnality, if they so much as even express any queer feelings. In the toxic environment where parents raise their young, “normal” has a fine formal ring to it. Different is abnormal, or only the abnormal is different — both ways it’s a tightrope to dispel queerphobia.
The shame, that otherness, which queer people fight on a daily basis, will not change overnight. I got a taste of that right away when after the announcement of the verdict I heard from relatives that the gaandi aunt had died. I wanted to celebrate, but I had to pause, to bereave someone I did not know enough.
What did I feel for my aunt? Nothing. She died in ignorance of choosing a better life for herself. She must have been indirectly aware of the fluidity of identity in a slum inhabited by all kinds of minorities, and maybe that was why her apparent unfeminine-ness was her way of channelling her rebellion in some measure, if not entirely being able to assert it for the fear of being ostracised.
Not for herself, but for others, she voiced her concern. What my aunt did for me at 19 was something she could not have probably done for her own self at 19. Is a woman ever really in her prime in her teens? And when she came of age, was it too late? That day, when she rebuked my mother, and when she spun my concupiscence in delicate fibre, she cut loose the rhythm of silence, of suffering – passing on the baton of time. I will speak up when I am ready, just as she once did. It is never too late to reclaim oneself from others. Her death returns hope.
On the night of the verdict, when my aunt died, I was on the phone, trying to console my mother in Kolkata. She was in sobs. “I live alone, who will look after me if I slip into a coma,” she asked, quickly adding, “I don’t have a daughter-in-law to look after me.”
Any time now is a good time to tell her: I am what I am. My only hesitation is that she might get a paralytic attack.
Manish Gaekwad is a Mumbai-based freelance writer and the author of Lean Days, a novel dedicated to his mother, and exploring a gay man’s identity in India.