People, Dec '13
By Pawan Dhall and Sukanya Roy Ghose
In this issue we begin with the first part of an interview with Dr. Tirthankar Guha Thakurta, a medical doctor, 30 years old, resident of Kolkata. The interview was conducted by Pawan Dhall on August 6, 2013, and transcribed by freelancer Sukanya Roy Ghose.
Artwork source: tshirt-factory.com
By Pawan Dhall and Sukanya Roy Ghose
Varta brings you the 'Queer Kolkata Oral History Project', an initiative to document five decades of queer lives in Kolkata (1960-2000). Our aim in this project is to go back in time and bring forward diverse queer voices through a series of interviews, which will provide a landmark to Kolkata city's queer history. Typically, the focus will be on the queer scenario in Kolkata during the growing up years of each interviewee – how it was to be queer in Kolkata in different decades since the 1960s till more recent times. The effort will be to bring forward a mix of the well known and the lesser known voices. Apart from the excerpts published here, the project also aims to publish a collection of the interviews in different formats. All interviews are based on informed consent and where requested, all markers of identity have been removed for reasons of confidentiality.
Pawan: So, Tirthankar, let’s start by you talking something about yourself. What do you do? How old are you? And something about your family . . .
Tirthankar: Okay. I am a doctor by profession. I teach at a medical college in Kolkata and I am 30 years old, as of now. I live with my mother. I was born and brought up in a joint family with many family members. It’s been only the last two years that I left my ancestral home and now living, not exactly in a nuclear family, because we are in touch, but living separately with my mother. Otherwise the last 27-28 years of my life, I have been in a joint family. And now in my family, there’s one new family member, my pet, Bravo.
Pawan: Alright, so you mentioned your profession as that of a doctor . . . But is that really a complete description of yourself?
Tirthankar (with a chuckle): May not be . . . I like teaching, so I teach at the medical college. Also in private I have an institution, where I give tuitions to students other than my own medical college, on various aspects of medicine. I have been conducting various workshops on gender-sexuality and medicine with various NGOs, CBOs and medical colleges. And as a passion, I make short films. I have been making films from 2003-04. The first film was made in association with SAATHII Calcutta. It was called Piku Is Fine or Piku Bhalo Aachhey. And then a number of films followed. I plan to make films in future also.
Pawan: Okay, what was your motivation behind getting into making films?
Tirthankar: The first motivation, I should say, more than making a film, was to raise a voice. In 2003-04, there was not much of any active talk about gay rights. That, you Pawan, might know, because you have been working on the issue much before that. So not all media were very supportive, or writing very clean documents with very good intentions. So I thought raising a voice was important – as a person who is gay, as a person who wants to be a part of the movement that is going on, and as a doctor . . . from the responsibility of a doctor also I need to make a document that can clearly narrate to people, doctors and non-doctors, about what is homosexuality, what homosexual people think of homosexuality, to break the common prejudices. And film was only a medium to channelize my thoughts and words . . . it could have been a play . . . it could have been anything else.
Pawan: Right, but it turned out to be a landmark film . . . because as you said that all media was not totally sensitized even at that stage and films definitely, even My Brother Nikhil had not been made till then and there had been other queer-themed films which had touched upon sexuality in different aspects . . . but I think Piku Bhalo Aachhey was quite a record in itself. So what were the avenues? Where was the film shown?
Tirthankar: The first screening, I remember, was in Bangalore. There was an international conference on sexuality and masculinity. So I attended it with other members of SAATHII, Anupam and you Pawan Da. After that first screening, the first formal inauguration, I think, happened in Max Mueller Bhavan, where the Siddhartha Gautam Film Festival screened that film with some other films. After that it has been screened at various ‘in-country’ and outside country festivals and at the same time also in the Kolkata Film Festival in Nandan.
Pawan: Right, you had a very enthusiastic response when it was shown in the Kolkata Film Festival . . .
Tirthankar: Yes, the response was enthusiastic. People from the media and trade also contacted me separately, numerous interviews were published, and my formal coming out in the media occurred when an interview in The Telegraph, in the page of Leisure I think was published.
Pawan: So what happened then at home?
Tirthankar: At home not everybody knew that I was gay. My mother knew, but was not confident to speak about it. My cousins knew, but their parents did not know for sure. So when suddenly one morning they found that in a very popular newspaper like The Telegraph my picture is there, the initial response was that of surprise and happiness, that there is something written about our son. But then when the contents were gradually being read, not everyone was equally happy or unhappy. There was a mixed reaction.
Some people supported but were even scared about other people’s response. Or about how I might face it in the larger society or at the medical college, because I was in the third year of medical college by then. I started making the film when I was in second year, and I was already in third year when these things were happening. There were two more years to go in the same college, not counting the internship. So how my professors and friends would react was also another issue. In summary, things went on well. There was a mixed reaction, I survived well (laughs).
Pawan: Any examples of any good or negative reactions?
Tirthankar: Yes, there were negative reactions, of course. Some relatives would come up to my mother, sometimes sympathizing, that it is a sad event that her son is gay, and that she had read it being portrayed in the newspaper. And my mother would often cry, not because I am gay, but because of these kinds of sympathizing. Then she would be made to feel that she should feel guilty, when she did not feel guilty at the beginning.
Tirthankar: So there was a mixed reaction. There were occasional fights with me – again, not for my being gay, but my being so loud about being gay. And then, she also transformed. She changed into a very caring and understanding mother, and one day she could give an answer. One day, I remember, the same lady who would constantly nag her for me being gay, when she came up for another article that came out in another newspaper, saying that this article was very clean because it did not mention my being gay. It only mentioned my film.
Pawan: Okay . . .
Tirthankar: Then my mother told her that in the past also there were instances where people spoke against society or norms, like Raja Rammohan Roy or Vidyasagar. At that point of time, they were also criticized. But now we respect them and their work is seen as landmark. She did not claim that her son was equivalent to them, but said that she was happy that I was encouraged by these examples and following a similar path. So I was very happy when that answer was given.
Pawan: Wonderful. I am also remembering these things because you had shared them earlier too.
Tirthankar: My uncle had a good response. My uncle initially was very homophobic, not knowing there are many surprises coming (laughs). But later, when these articles were published, somehow, his idea of what a gay person is changed. After making the film, I found that he was no more making very loose comments on gays, on effeminate males being subjects of ridicule. So the way he commented, changed. Initially, a very conventional word like chhakka was used very loosely, not in a very lucid manner by my uncle. But now he recognized that these words can hurt people, it is not just a funny word. And the dealings with these issues gradually changed. I also remember him lending help in issues where violence occurred to one transgender person and her partner. So he was very actively participating in that entire issue. That was a big change.
Pawan: You said you are 30 years old, which means your teenage years would have been around when?
Tirthankar: I was born in 1982. So my teenage years if counted from 12 or 13 onwards, that would be mathematically from '95-'96 . . .
Pawan: So, it was not that long ago, but still do you have anything specific to say about growing up realizing that you are gay, or is there anything special that you would like to mention?
Tirthankar: Yes, I would like to mention a few changes I have noticed in me and also in my surroundings, not necessarily that the changes in me were influenced by my surroundings. It could have been spontaneous, irrespective of the time period when I was born. One thing is that the more I have grown up I have realized that being gay was as normal as anything else, and we are not fighting for extra rights, but equal rights. So gradually this is, as I would call, a post-gay phase . . . where the fact that I am gay doesn't matter much, and it is as equally useful as any other information about my life.
So earlier, when I was very insistent about giving interviews on my being gay, now I am more interested about talking about gay rights but not about my being gay, which does not mean I am ashamed of playing that angle . . . That is one step, I have grown out of being just gay . . .
Second change in me, maybe it’s a very bad change. Post 2009, my film-making career has halted. The urge to make very dramatic films on gay rights, because things are not spoken of, has changed, because things are picking up, which I consider to be a very positive change. So may be, this time, if I make a film, it may not always be on hard core gay issues, but it can have a gay character, just like any other character in the film. So there is a change in my way of looking at films.
Third is, people now are actively talking of gay issues irrespective of their own sexual orientations. I find many people, who are my students or my friends, are coming up with questions, which are very intelligent, very inquisitive and they are not ashamed to ask questions on sexuality. This change was not seen before.
This has been a part of the activism by many people, also by the very positive approach taken by the media for the last few years. A few media in particular who are getting to know things and asking the right questions, which is a very positive approach . . .
I remember, in one of my medical classes, one boy was giving some example of a medical condition. We were talking about some psychological delusion, something called a ‘delusion of love’, where you think that you are intensely in love with someone, with whom you do not have a physical or emotional contact, like a big actor or someone. So, when we were discussing this stuff, someone, erroneously may be, I don’t know about his sexual orientation, he mentioned, “For example, if I say that I love him . . .” When he mentioned this, many people in the class laughed. Others did not. So, after this, I made a very funny comment. I said that those people who laughed also have a delusion. It is called the ‘delusion of universal heterosexuality’. Then the remainder of the class laughed. And at the end of the class, although the topic was entirely different – we were talking about schizophrenia; but at the end of the class, most of the questions were on homosexuality.
To be continued.
Pawan Dhall aspires to be a rainbow journalist and believes in taking a stand, even if it’s on the fence – the view is better from there!
Sukanya Roy Ghose is a Jadavpur University pass-out, bonafide homemaker, mother of twin sons, interested in playing with paper and pen, designing and experimental cooking.