Sunday, February 7, 2016

Of siblings and soulmates – spiritual amputations and lived disconnects

On the first day of 2016, my last surviving grandparent, my father’s mother, had a stroke. For almost a month she lingered with extensive damage and paralysis, almost oblivious to what was going on around her before, finally, breathing her last.

My father, who had already shuffled back and forth to her city a couple of times during this time, decided to fly back there again for the “Shraddha”. This was a little surprising, and a little upsetting to me. For one thing we are both atheists, me having kind of imbibed the basic idea from my dad. As such we definitely do not believe in the soul, last rites, rest in peace, for her Atma’s sake, she is watching kind of stuff.

Secondly, neither one of us has ever cared much about “what people will say”. So, it made no sense to me that he would spend so much time, effort, and energy, and miss work, to go to this religious ceremony. After all, he had already said his goodbyes on the day of the cremation! It could not be to appease gossipy and criticizing neighbours and “larger family” at all.

So, he went, and I wondered. Until I texted him one morning to ask how he was holding up and what was going on. His answer suddenly made something very clear. He was sitting with his four brothers, all five of them together after something like 25 years, and probably for the last time in their lives.

That shook me. I simply hadn’t thought of that! I was thinking religion, social standing, misplaced sense of duty, etc etc, and not once did it occur to me that this need dad felt to be at the funeral rites had nothing to do with all that and everything to do with love for his brothers, a desire to see them all – one more time – and an attempt to relive or recapture happier memories when the five of them had been boys in that city, in that house.

Considering how close I am to my brother, how much he is a part of my thoughts every day in everything I do, it gave me nightmares, this thought. Having gotten to an age when my own mortality is not such a far-off, almost unbelievable, almost untrue entity, it is keeping me awake at night and giving me the heebie jeebies.

I CANNOT imagine never seeing bhai again. Nor can I imagine a situation where we would have been apart long enough and meet infrequently enough for people to forget that we might want to! Sure, for the last 12-15 years, we have managed to be in the same place at the same time something like once every two years, but so far, the intensity of my resultant neglect for the partner and offspring surely drives home the point quite adequately of how much bhai matters to me and how much our shared time is important? To think that someday, life, time, distances, and circumstances can create a situation where this is no longer true is something I don’t know how to handle.

My kid brother is my best pal. One of the few people on this planet that I can be myself with, who knows me, where I need no pretense to be loved and appreciated. More than that, he is, or at least used to be, my sounding board for ideas, my vetter of creative theories, my tuning fork resonating with an equal craziness, my middle of the night coffee partner, my wild imagination story spinning companion.  

Already, in the last decade and more, I feel bereaved in many ways. Every time I get super excited about something and want to tell bhai about it, every time I want to sit at home and wail and tell bhai about it, every time I read a new great book, hear a new great track, find something (anything) fascinating, or intriguing, or disgusting, or anger inducing, I want to turn to bhai and say “did you …” and I can't. Hundreds of thousands of miles, years of distance, they take a toll. Busy lives, commitments, responsibilities at both ends, they take a toll. Something as simple as time zones…. When I email/message him, and when he can see it and reply … makes a difference to the ease and comfort of communication.

Even when he visits, or I visit, I find that time simply gets swept away in the seeing and doing and frenetic activity, so that I am left feeling vaguely dissatisfied and craving just ONE good, long, deep conversation in the end. And it feels like an amputation almost. This absence of a part of me that was so vital and integral, and the phantom pains of feeling that it still remains, is by turns painful, depressing, normal, mundane, and simply weird. And I am sure this is just the beginning. Much as one may love family and friends, life does get in the way.

As more years go by, I am sure it will get wider and deeper, this gap, this absence. It is something like what happened to Dad and his brothers, it is something like what happens to most grown up siblings. And yet, I have always imagined (and valued the fact) that bhai and I are so close, so much more really good friends than just brother and sister, that we are so much a part of each other’s lives and minds and opinions and thought processes.

I am sure it will happen. One day it will be like this. Accepting that distances and life and circumstances and responsibilities and the simple process of having a life has inevitably taken something away from the intensity of the sibling bond may become necessary not too far in the future. And I dread that day.

Even the very thought of the slightest possibility of there EVER being a “last time in my lifetime” meeting with him is something that is – frankly – driving me quite insane. 

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Will reading down 377 cure all evil?

It has been an interesting few days.

First there was the storm of “hopeful” messages and articles shared on social media. It seemed like the entire community was pinning all its hopes on one petition in the apex court. Parts of the media went nuts and started publishing doomsday articles with catch phrases like “last chance” in the title. As if, magically, all queer activism, all LGBTQIHKA spaces and people and movements and collectives would just disappear overnight if the court dismissed the petition without agreeing to hear it. At the same time, the more positive articles just waxed super eloquent about what wonderful things would happen, again – magically, overnight – if only the court would accept the curative petition, and hear arguments.

I had hopes, sure, more like wild desires with not much real chance of fulfilment actually … of the court reexamining the RE criminalization of consensual adult sexual activity – both same sex as well as heterosexual – under 377 on 11.12.2013. However, I have been a part of queer organizing (how OLAVA began and some of the things I do now are more about community building and support activities) and queer activism (what OLAVA became, and a lot of things I do now, definitely fall under that heading) in India for almost 20 years now. So, I am more wary, more cautious to hope too much, than the 20-something generation Y friends who surround me. Maybe I am just jaded and cynical, but in all the conversation we had before the D-Day, I found myself being the dampener, the voice of caution against pinning too much hope on one event, the spoil sport, the mood wrecker, the party pooper.

Well, things went better than I secretly expected. For all my sharing of optimistic articles and discussions on what India could expect from the court, and whether or not it is time for INDIA to do away with this legal remnant of Victorian colonial prudery, etc etc, I really expected the petition to be thrown out of court. So, when it wasn’t, it was a very pleasant surprise to say the least. The 3 judge bench referred the petition to a 5 judge “judicial bench” instead, to be heard “at the earliest”, after a mere 5 minute hearing.

And then the jubilation began. Some of it seemed seriously over the top to my jaded sensibilities, considering that this wasn’t any victory of any sort. All the 3-j bench did was to say… we won’t make a decision on this matter, so we will pass the buck to 5 of our colleagues. Essentially… the community and its lawyers now have to convince FIVE people instead of three of the need to de – criminalize adult consensual sexual activity. Easier? I don’t think so! The whole process begins again… with 2 additional minds to convince.

And let’s say we do all that. And 377 is read down again. Maybe scrapped altogether. How much difference is it going to make on the ground? How much is it going to change the day to day lived realities of hundreds of thousands of LGBTQIHKA individuals?

Over the last decade or so, queer movements in India seem to have become exclusively centered on 377, just as internationally they have coalesced around marriage equality. And as tends to happen, when movements begin to focus too hard on legal change, sometimes other things backslide. Not to mention the fact that 377 has a big caveat of “privacy” which excludes a large chunk of the community, who for numerous reasons do not have access to privacy for their sexual activity, and therefore remain vulnerable to discrimination and abuse. And that “not all gays” wish to be co-opted into the patriarchal-capitalist frameworks of marriage and family.  

To many, in a country that is facing increasing intolerance, sharply rising crime against different marginalized communities, and so much more, how is it possible to imagine that scrapping 377 is the only important thing, or that it will miraculously make all our lives better? In the gap years when 377 had been read down by Delhi High Court and the Re-criminalisation by the Supreme Court, how much of a real difference did the community see in everyday society? Did the “average” parent or sibling or friend, let alone the religious fanatic, suddenly accept the queer family member with open arms? Did queer people stop losing jobs, homes, families, loved ones, and lives for being who they are? Not that I know of.

This excess of jubilation is seriously misplaced in my opinion. There is a long road to travel and a lot of things to be done. There are alliances to be made and space to be given over – to those who don’t have privacy, to hose who don't want to get married, to those who do not want a politics of “conformism” of “just like you, to those who do not want to be a part of the mainstream. Maybe it is time to start thinking of larger systemic changes, of weaving all possible marginal positions together to make a strong fabric of resistance. Of collectivizing across gender, sexuality, caste, class, and start discussions to dismantle the patriarchy-capitalism nexus that oppresses so much of humanity.

Yes, this is a positive development. But let us curb our enthusiasm and remember that thiss is just a small step on a long journey we still have ahead of us, a long battle to engage in, before a truly equal and just world can be arrived at, if ever. So yes, celebrate a little, but also…. And this is very important…

Keep calm and carry on!