Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Remembering Tendulkar’s Mitra

Many of you would have noted the death of Padma Bhushan Vijay Tendulkar, playwright, scriptwriter and civil liberties champion (he was also the father of the late Priya ‘Rajani’ Tendulkar). The theatre, film and journalist fraternities have paid rich tributes to him.
Many of these would have made reference to his iconoclasm but omitted any reference to his play, Mitrachi Ghoshta (A Friend’s Story), where the central character is lesbian and the story is about her struggle to cope with her sexual orientation and (as Rohini Hattangady, who played the character, has said) ultimate ‘inevitable’ suicide.
When I saw the Hindi version of the play, Kahani Sumitra Ki, (perhaps it was the late 1990s) staged by Chetan Datar and his theatre group, I thought it was dated and, of course, depressing. I had recently come out then and was, perhaps, more of an idealist then. Still, Tendulkar had the guts to dare to be different.
As I look back now at the play, it’s distressing how the fiction of his play is still a truth for many lesbians even today. The play’s other main character, Bapu, –
“ultimately comes to represent: a homophobic society that keeps its blinders on to naturalize straight relationships as the norm, even if this should lead to a tragic end.”
(Source: Humanities Retooled)
Incidentally, Tendulkar also wrote the screenplay for the Smita Patil-starrer, Umbartha (based on Shanta Nisal’s novel Beghar), which featured a lesbian couple who set themselves afire.
Tendulkar was in his teens and lived in Pune when he became acquainted with ‘Mitra’, the girl on whose life he based Mitrachi Ghoshta. This was in the early 1940s. A classmate of Mitra from college became friends with Tendulkar and would talk about this girl whom the playwright had seen many times before and even seen her performance on stage. The actor friend also told him about Mitra’s affair with another girl which “practically finished her (Mitra’s) life” when it ended.
Tendulkar recounted all this and more in his June 2001 preface to the play’s English translation (by Gowri Ramnarayan), which was published by Oxford University Press. He remembers “the shock waves and confusion” that the story about Mitra’s lesbian affair caused in his young mind. “I had just begun my career in writing then. But what I heard about Mitra did not prompt me to write about her at once. It took some years to surface in the form of a short story. It was written in the mid 50s…. The title was Mitra. It appeared in one of the Diwali annuals in Marathi, and was appreciated.”
A few years later, when he had moved to Mumbai, Mitra was again on his mind. By then he had seen her living as a spinster in Pune. Tendulkar said, “I was an adult then, with enough knowledge of the same-sex world which existed around me but was still considered a taboo. The thought of writing and staging a play on such a relationship was out of the question. Yet the play Mitra materialized.”
It was staged only a few times by some young actors. The play was “hated by the women and sneered at by the men in the audience”.

Mitra is widely acknowledged as the first Marathi play (and perhaps even the first Indian play) on same-sex relations. Tendulkar, however, emphasized that it was merely about “a young boy touching twenty, inexperienced in many human ways, and still a virgin when he comes in contact with Mitra. He feels a deep attachment for her after the first feelings of wonder, and gets involved with her until she destroys herself.”
In a note to the translation, Hattangady, said that, “Sumitra, that is Mitra, being ‘different’ is the core (essence) of the play.” Much before Hattangady played Sumitra, she had read the script “and liked it. The subject was new and different — in the first instance, almost unpalatable.” For Hattangady, it was “a chance, and a challenge” to play “such a character (Nothing like this had been tackled before in India, on stage or the screen, way back in 1980.)” Tendulkar greenlighted the performance only after he had seen it himself because “the subject could be easily misinterpreted.”
“…Even when we performed it, it was labeled as a ‘bold subject’ or ‘what sort of subject is it?’ It did not run too well as a commercial play, but those who saw our performance, still remember it as an ‘unforgettable’ experience.”
As an aside, Hattangady wrote that she read up on homosexuality “to get a better idea… and came to a broad understanding that these attractions are of two kinds, one based on circumstances and two, on physical hormonal imbalance. Mitra belongs to the second category.” Surprising that even in 2001 she harbored such out of date notions about homosexuality. But Hattangady also uses the words ‘abnormality’ and ‘different’ in quotes in the note.
Another incident she has recounted shows her sensitive nature: “To go for the rehearsals, I had to travel by local train in Mumbai…. One day while traveling, a eunuch boarded the train. There was not much of a mad rush. The train stopped at the next station. A few ladies got down and a few entered. They looked strangely at the eunuch. I was watching them and the ‘look’ on their faces. Isn’t Mitra also ‘different’? That look on their faces said so many things to me. From that day onwards, Mitra came closer to me still.”

Monday, May 19, 2008

My own private IDAHO

"If you wait for someone to give you freedom, that’s charity, permission — not freedom.”

Christy Jayanthi Malar (38) and Rukmani (40) decided there was no other way but death to get their freedom. At the stroke of midnight that marked the beginning of the International Day Against Homophobia, died hugging each other. They lighted their kerosene soaked bodies and escaped the harassment and abuse of society — a society that could only see their physical relationship but not their love for each other.

Christy and Rukmani, both from underprivileged, rural backgrounds, had known each other since school. In the intervening years, they had got married. They met again 10 years ago. Rukmani had been forced by her relatives to move from place to place to keep her away from Christy and was even married off a second time after she separated from her first husband. All because Rukmani and Christy’s was an “unusual relationship” that caused “much consternation” to their families.

On the day before their death they were publicly humiliated and abused—just for loving each other. In fact, not for just loving each other but because they were of the same gender. It wasn’t their caste, class, religion, age—it was because the couple was of the same gender. Society found that so unacceptable that they wished them dead.


Would you wish your son were never born because he turned out to be gay? I know one set of parents who have uttered these words over and over again for their only son. My ex-boyfriend, H. Yes, there still live people like that right here in our midst, in urban, middle class Mumbai, forget rural Tamil Nadu.

If some parents or relatives think their ideas of caste hierarchy, normality and so-called respectable society are more important than their child’s or brother’s happiness or choice of life partner (or his/her gender), then they are anyway not worth having as parents or relatives. I don’t say abandon them—try to make them see your viewpoint, but if that doesn’t help, do your filial duty, and then leave it to destiny. If you both are lucky, then with time they will come around to your viewpoint. If not, then say to yourself that your karmic account with them is settled and over; you owe nothing more to each other. (I believe in karma and transmigration.)

As children, we don’t owe an extra favor to our parents—and certainly not the favor of getting married to a partner of their choice—just for raising us. Even animals and birds nurture and love their offspring. Probably, their love is even more selfless than the love of human parents because birds and animals don’t expect anything in return from their young — their offspring don’t even look after them!

I believe it’s better one maintain a relationship only with those who respect you for what you are and love you unconditionally. My ex-bf’s parents are traditional Maharashtrian Brahmins, so they would believe in karma and transmigration too. I hope they and parents such as these get their just deserts and remain childless in their coming births. They do not deserve to be parents.


I do not blame the parents alone. It’s people like my ex-bf who cave into the emotional blackmailing and pressure. Or people such as Rukmani and Christy who may have inspired other women like Deepa to come out and speak up, but in their death they have also become negative role models. I fear more suicides, especially in a state such as Kerala that’s notorious for lesbian suicide pacts. (So much for being a state that is more literate and has traditionally favored women.)

Deepa is one of the few women who dare to speak publicly about her sexual orientation. "We tend to avoid talking about certain issues, which other people find uncomfortable to face," she says. "It just makes it tougher for other women." She believes that talking about the issue openly is the way to get people to understand the issue.

Being gay is nothing to be ashamed of, nothing wrong. This is the conviction gay and lesbian people should have, instead of grasping on to a false sense of honor and pride in belonging to so-called normal society. If some people have misconceptions about sexuality, it is even more important that we as gay people speak up and correct them. We can’t afford to be stuck in this vicious cycle: you feel you cannot come out because you are afraid to face people’s negative reactions, and people react negatively because they don’t have enough information about homosexuality. It’s our own responsibility to break the cycle instead of lamenting about it. How can you sit around waiting for change to happen automatically or someone else to bring it about? If you don’t speak up, you create your own hell.


And the only respect you’ll get from your loved ones will be after your suicide. They’ll cremate you and your lover together, and they will pretend shock and shed crocodile tears. But as long as you are live and you let them push you around, you will be not allowed to be with the one you love. And after your death, the state will protect your murderous kin. So the Indian Penal Code applies to us but not to them.

A senior police officer said action would not be taken against the relatives. "We can't say the relatives pushed the women into suicide. They might have verbally abused them, but that was to bring them back to normal life," a senior police officer said.

And moreover, the state shall argue in the courts that being gay consenting adults, you should be deprived of the fundamental rights granted to every Indian by the Constitution. (see entry dated Friday, September 26, 2003 on http://queerindia.rediffblogs.com) I say go ahead and ‘break’ such unfair laws. Damn the state, damn society. Long live, we the people.


The quote at the beginning of this post if paraphrased from the movie, À cause d'un garçon.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

An interview with Bindumadhav Khire

A short version of this interview was published in the The New Indian Express' Zeitgest magazine on Saturday, 3 May 2008.

Bindumadhav Khire is a techie who gave up his career in the US to return to India and got involved with issues close to his heart. Based in his native Pune ever since his return, Bindu is a gay rights and AIDS activist. He has been speaking about queer issues at various forums in India, particularly in his city. In 2005, Bindu donned the hat of a Marathi writer with his novel, 'Partner'. NGOs working in the field of sexuality have been using 'Partner' for sensitisation. Bindu’s latest book, 'Indradhanu: Samalaingikateche Vividh Ranga' (Rainbow: the various hues of homosexuality), discusses different aspects of homosexuality from an Indian perspective. 'Indradhanu' promises to be of value to people from various backgrounds, especially gay and bisexual youth struggling with their sexual orientation, and their parents and friends; people from the medical fraternity; NGOs working in related fields; policy makers; corporates; and the media. Bindu is currently working on another Marathi book, ‘A, B, C of Sexuality’. Excerpts from an email interview with Bindumadhav Khire:

Being gay should be a non-issue in an ideal world. What were the milestones, and highs and lows till you reached a point of self-acceptance, when you could acknowledge your ‘gayness’ to all without it becoming a confessional?

I went through denial (when I hoped I would change), depression (I thought of committing suicide) and hate (towards God for making me gay). I was shy, very poor in communication, had zero self-esteem. I was married and got divorced a year later. When I was in the US, I got in touch with San Francisco-based Trikone (an LGBT organisation) and that’s how I started becoming comfortable with my sexuality. I volunteered with them and became part of the 'Trikone family'. I became the assistant publisher and then publisher of ‘Trikone’, their quarterly magazine. As I became more comfortable with my sexuality, I started feeling suffocated and felt that I had to come out. I first came out to a friend at the workplace. Every coming out then was an adventure. I participated in the San Francisco Gay Pride Parade, the San Jose Gay Pride Parade…. When I came back to India, I came out to my parents. This was the most difficult part. They were shocked. It's taken them time to cope with my being gay. My mother's been just great. My experiences in the US and achieving financially stability went a long way in helping me so that now I don’t give a damn what neighbours, friends and strangers feel about me.

What made you give up a lucrative career as a software engineer in the US to return to Pune much before NRI homecomings became a trend? You could have stayed there and been involved with causes close to your heart in the local community?

Once I was comfortable with my sexuality, I saw no reason to file for a Green Card and stay in the US. I also felt guilty about having got married. I wanted to come out and expiate that guilt. Also, despite having stayed in the US for four years and loving every moment of it, I did feel a bit like a fish out of water. I am more comfortable here (in Pune).

How much did you have to educate yourself so to speak about the work you are doing now, and how did you do it?

A lot. A lot of reading and learning had to be done. Luckily, I received much help from some outstanding people like Dr. Raman Gangakhedkar (he taught me pre- and post-test counselling and related ethical issues), Dr. Vijay Thakur (he taught me the principles of befriending and the basics of running a helpline), Dr. Bhooshan Shukla (he gave me info on sexuality), Sunita Wahi gave me a lot of books to read.... I could go on and on. Also, I had to do a lot of soul-searching on each of these issues… especially the ethical part.

What's the gay scene like in Pune, which is considered quite conservative? How visible is the community? Despite its young student and BPO-KPO communities, is Pune still like Mumbai of the late 1980s when the only community activity in the city was one gay disco a week and one evening of cruising in a park?

The community is not visible at all. The important difference from Mumbai of the 1980s is the advent of the internet. The number of cruising sites has increased as has blackmail and harassment. In the medical field, not much change though – most psychiatrists are either homophobic or hypocritical. They are our biggest enemies.

You recently said that for every one gay person in Pune who has helped you, there have been 10 heterosexuals who gave you their support. Why do you feel our community itself is ignoring you? What is the rationale for their apathy?

This apathy did come as a surprise. I think most closeted gay people hate anyone who has fought and found his freedom; they are jealous of anyone who escapes from hypocrisy. But I don’t blame them. At one time I used to hate Ashok Row Kavi for the same reason.

What are the top three issues you think are hurting gay people in India and what's your practical prescription for these?

The biggest problem is either ignorance or apathy in the community about the issue of Section 377 (of the Indian Penal Code). I have come across many gay men who don’t even know it's illegal for them to have sex. Here, of course, we activists are to be blamed. We have done a shoddy job of highlighting the 377 issue. It's shameful, the kind of third-rate people who call themselves gay activists these days. Sometimes I think the gay movement will go down the drain the way women's lib in India has failed miserably. The other serious problem is that for many who know about 377 don’t care whether it stays or goes. I can't figure that one out. How could anyone not care whether that ugly piece of law is erased or not, I don’t know. Is it because many of us have decided to live a double life anyway?

Number two: how many of us have taken the time to seriously become comfortable with our sexuality and gain basic knowledge on alternate sexuality? So many of us spend the whole night finding new partners on the net or at (cruising) sites, and spend the next day hating ourselves for it. We don’t really give a damn about our mental health. That’s sad because instead of accepting our sexuality as beautiful and our love as pure, we spend our entire life burning in self-hate.

Lastly, despite knowing the high incidence of HIV in the gay community, many of us still continue to have sex without condoms. We refuse to become mature and take control of our life. I can provide you information and condoms but I can't control HIV infection unless YOU care about yourself.

Activism and writing have always had a special bond? Did the need to write arise from there for you?

I think so. I used to feel ashamed to tell gays and 'straights' that "no, sorry but there is no book out there in Marathi that discusses gay issues". There was also another reason. In the US I had many gay friends to talk to. In Pune, I felt very suffocated as there were few people I could talk to about my issues and feelings. I think ‘Partner’ was the outcome of these two reasons. The HIV/AIDS helpline manual came from the experience of running my own helpline and helping set-up and supervise another HIV/AIDS helpline in Pune. Again, there was nothing in Marathi on the hows of setting up such a helpline. Writing has become a need for me… Also, instead of repeating the same things over and over, it's better to put these down so that people can have access to answers long after I have (mentally) burnt out.

As an activist and former techie, do u feel an acute lack of online gay-themed literature in Marathi and other Indian languages?

Yes, definitely. The Indian gay movement's biggest failure is not being able to present its views to the common man in a language he understands. All we have is people who write in English, which is read by a negligible percentage of the population. Very few Indians are comfortable with English. It is also a relatively ‘safe’ language; there is a lesser chance of an aggressive reaction from people if the medium is English. It's not that English should not be used to voice our issues but by using only this language we ensure that gay issues remain Western or elitist subjects and indirectly help in propagating the stereotype that ‘gayness’ is a Western import.

How do Marathi press, cinema and theatre portray gay issues? Do they mainly demonise us or invisibilise us?

Newspapers ignore these issues. But the gay Marathi-speaking community is to be blamed too. How many of them write on gay issues? Is it not our duty to utilise the free press that we have, to talk about our issues? As far as cinema is concerned, except for Amol Palekar's 'Thang' (Quest) there is no Marathi feature film that has dealt with gay issues. Again, the gay community needs to make gay films. I hate this stand of waiting for someone else to come and fight our battles – is it a cultural thing with us Indians?

Do plays, books like yours and movies like 'Thang' generate either heat and dust or any debate in the Maharashtrian community?

Very few people want to see facets of life that make them uncomfortable. So they either choose to ignore (partly because they are in denial) or they get all worked up about it and froth at the mouth. There is no sincere attempt to understand issues related to homosexuality – because most people don’t want to. Still, it is important we keep on voicing our issues through various media. For those few who want to become more human, these resources should be available in Indian languages.

Disclosure: This writer is associated with Bindumadhav Khire's NGO for gays and men-who-have-sex-with men, Samapathik Trust, Pune (samapathik@hotmail.com. Helpline: (0) 9890744677 (7 pm to 8 pm – Mondays only)

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Today is… Labour Day, of course, but also RSS Awareness Day

Returning to blogging after a year on Labour Day is a good sign, and I hope I can sustain blogging this time – without much labour. :-) For those of you unfamiliar with ‘RSS’, it does not stand for Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh but ‘Really Simple Syndication’.

What does RSS ? What does it do?

Here’s a quote from RSSDay.org:

“RSS is a format used to deliver information from websites and pages that get updated regularly. An RSS document (which is called feed) contains either a summary or the full content from a website.

The main benefit of RSS is that it enables people to stay connected with their favorite websites without having to visit them. Once you subscribe to a particular RSS feed, you will automatically receive updates from the website that publishes the feed, whenever they release new content.”

If you like to visit several web sites or blogs regularly, RSS can be a blessing. You don’t need to remember which websites to check, you’ll know automatically which ones are updated, you can read them at your leisure and you can even mark them for reading again later. You can skip parts of a post until you get to the next interesting bit. My RSS reader even shows videos and photos within each item. It’s like being on the web site without any extra mouse clicks or typing in the URL in your browser.

And if you are afraid you will miss out on others comments on a blog post, one can even subscribe to the feed for comments.

My feed reader

If you use Google Reader to subscribe to your favourite feeds, there’s more: you can login to Google Reader from any PC or mobile (of course, you need a Google/Gmail account, a browser and internet access), and you can share your favourites with friends and see what they are sharing with you. If any of your friends on Google Talk are using Reader and sharing items, they'll show up in the Google Reader sidebar under Friends' shared items.

I use Google Reader daily though I first started using Blog Lines, another popular RSS reader. I still have a Blog Lines account but I have switched to Google Reader only because with Google Reader I don’t need to login to yet another web site – when I am logged into my Gmail, I can open Google Reader with just click.

One gripe though – some sites and blogs only publish their subject/headline or the first few lines of the post. So if I feel I need to read the entire post, I need to click on the post in my reader to visit the site – and it may not turn out to be worth the effort.

To learn more about RSS feeds and how to subscribe, check out RSSDay.org. For more about feeds and to ‘burn’ (publish) the feed for your own web site or blog, look at FeedBurner Help Center’s Feed 101 page.