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.