Friday, January 03, 2014

Qatha: A doctor’s story (part 2)

People, Jan '14
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.

In this issue we bring you the second and final part of an interview with Dr. Tirthankar Guha Thakurta, a medical doctor, 30 years old, resident of Kolkata. In the first part of the interview (published in the December 2013 issue of Varta), he spoke about coming out as a gay person to his family and in the media, and taking up filmmaking on gay rights along with pursuing medicine as a career. In this part he dwells further on how the field of medicine should deal with the issue of sexuality and his thoughts on the universal pursuit of finding peace with oneself.

The interview was conducted by Pawan Dhall on August 6, 2013, and transcribed by freelancer Sukanya Roy Ghose.

Pawan: Do you think that apart from the media . . . what about the field of medical curriculum? Has there been any change in that, in the content or in the ways the issue is treated?

Tirthankar: It is difficult to say because the syllabus has been updated from time to time, although it doesn’t clearly speak of homosexuality as a topic. The text books, particularly the WHO [World Health Organization] approved ones and the internationally published text books clearly mention that homosexuality is not a disease . . . But the Indian text books take a very different approach to this. Sometimes, in general, books are not edited very frequently. So people are continuing with older editions. Now you just cannot point to the author and say you are writing something wrong, because may be in that book it was written that “homosexuality may be ego-dystonic”, the older classification, and “that needs to be treated”. But may be after that no more editions have come out. It’s a problem with the lagging behind of the edition and not of the author.

Another problem is that some authors are cleverly omitting the topic. Now omission is not exactly a commission. So you cannot point at them saying you have written something wrong, although it needs to be separately mentioned. Of course, there are some books where wrong things are mentioned. They use very prejudiced or jargoned words about gay people, like the so called ‘H club of HIV – the Hawaiians, hemophiliacs and homosexuals’, very old notions and concepts. So there are some books, which mention this.

I think the most important thing in medical education is that they have a subject called forensic medicine, where various sections of the Indian Penal Code are studied. IPC 377, post reading-down, I don’t think any book has made any recommendation. So, that the law, even from the legal point of view, that it has been read down, is not mentioned, partly because it’s too recent, newer editions have not been available, sometimes they just omit –they don’t think it’s important. But surprisingly, questions come on IPC 377, and people are expected to write a short note on the paraphilias. So this is the problem.

Pawan: I didn’t get the connection . . . paraphilia?

Tirthankar: Paraphilia, according to them, is sexual perversion, which initially was included under IPC 377 broadly and included homosexuality. Now a person may omit homosexuality in the short notes, but we really do not know how the marks will be affected by omitting the most important point in the book. That is the problem.

Pawan: That’s quite a lot of complexity within complexities.

Tirthankar: Yes . . .

Pawan: And in different ways how attitudes around pathologization of sexuality seem to be impacting people’s understanding.

Tirthankar: Most people understand that homosexuality is not a disease, partly because it has been proclaimed by the American Psychiatric Association and WHO. Most people try to find out a reason why it is normal. This reasoning from the academic point of view is not bad, but when it parallels the thinking process that unless a genetic basis to it is found, things cannot be called normal, then maybe it’s time to ask them the question that why do you consider heterosexuality to be normal? Do you know of any gene that causes heterosexuality? So from the academic point of view, if you want to find the genetic basis of sexuality in general, that is welcome. But do not make it a criterion for normalizing homosexuality.

Pawan: Right. You have used this issue of normal-abnormal very interestingly in Piku Bhalo Aachhey as well. You remember the scene, where, you know, people are talking about . . . some of the students in a college are talking about . . .

Tirthankar: What is normal and whether the majority includes normality?

Pawan: Right, and then also about animals and wearing clothes . . .

Tirthankar: Yes.

Pawan: What was that exactly?

Tirthankar: There are some people who think that homosexuality is very exclusive to human beings, which is not true, and by this they try to justify that it is not natural. The problem is that whether something is normal or abnormal, or natural or unnatural, is a matter more of politics, than of biology. When we want to prove a fact, or we want to prove something to be natural, we bring out a simile with other species.

At the same time there are things that other species do like cannibalism, which we do not consider to be human, but call it animalistic. So whether something is being followed by other species or not cannot necessarily prove it to be natural. It can be animalistic as well. So the terms are used interchangeably for your own convenience.

Pawan: Yes, yes. In the film I remember that it was specifically that animals . . .

Tirthankar: Animals do not wear clothes. So maybe not wearing clothes is normal, we should go naked.

Pawan: Okay, so that might be very interesting for some people . . . (laughter). Alright, so now what do you think, as a queer person but who has also so many other identities, and who is so articulate about all of those identities, what do you think is the future action that perhaps queer activism should take up, or medicine should take up, or law should take up, or media?

Tirthankar:  Let me start with medicine. That is simpler for me to speak about. The medical syllabus needs a thorough revision. The syllabus-makers need to understand the importance of discussing sexuality and instead of again making it a medical hish-hush, hush-hush – that things are there in the book and you can read it yourself – compulsory questions should be asked on it. And those who are setting the questions and examining the students should also be equally sensitized. Otherwise the questions will be equally biased, like a short note on 377, as I said.

Second thing is change of syllabus should be accompanied with a change in the mindset, the way we use language, the way we talk about non-sexual stuff with a hint to sexuality. For example, when we were discussing about the identity of a person . . . when we take any medical history, we start with name, age, sex. This is where the point of sex comes. We have to understand people may not be just male or female. So such generalized sensitization is very important. People must learn to take a sexual history. That is very important.

Coming out of the medical profession, I believe the education system in general needs to address the issue of sexuality. When you are including romantic literature in higher classes, in English, Bengali or vernaculars, may be queer literature, which is appropriate for that age, can be a part of the curriculum. And simple literary questions or language questions can be set on that chapter also.

Thirdly, regarding law I should say, law and medicine, it’s good if they walk hand-in-hand. But sometimes for many obligations, they do not. It is important for at least professionals, like doctors, lawyers and activists, to understand that sanctioning something medically doesn’t mean it is legally proved, and when something is legally sanctioned, it does not mean it is medically alright. They are two different fields. It is not always necessary that things should be hand-in-hand. We live in a very complex society. So when you are sure from your heart about what according to you is good and bad, law and medicine matters very little.

Law definitely improves our life by giving us security, in mobilizing our freedom of speech, which is very important. So legal sanctioning of equality of sexuality is definitely important. But that should not restrict the medical curriculum or the academic curriculum. They should go both hand-in-hand, at the same time independently with their own philosophies.

Now coming to activism, I am not senior enough to comment on it and I have not seen much of it, only glimpses of the Kolkata activism and parts of that. One thing I should say, in general, in India, there has been no event like Stonewall Riots. So, although there have been a few incidents of violence, people have reacted to that violence, but a mass agitation against violence, such things have usually not happened.

In many places . . . initially those people, who volunteered, volunteered spontaneously. But later with infiltration of funding agencies and an association of this with the HIV movement, things have often become fund-oriented and many people are basically employed. Some of them really feel for the topic, some of them might even change the motto of their work if a different funding agency would next time fund for their project.

So if things are commercialized, it is good on one hand that there are steady people to work on an issue. That is the plus point. The minus point is people who are just willing to work for money without motivation are also included. A balance needs to be struck. At least people who are leaders should be motivated. And people, who are working under them, are executing their functions, they may or may not be motivated, it doesn’t matter. The work needs to be done. If such a balance is maintained, then the movement is in good shape . . .

Pawan: Right, they should be professional in their approach or at least sincere in whatever they are doing.

Tirthankar: Right.

Pawan: They may or may not have the same vision . . .

Tirthankar: Yes.

Pawan:  And then, personally anything that you would like to share, you, Tirthankar, as a person?

Tirthankar: Difficult to say. As I grew up and I am growing up, I feel . . . the struggle for survival, for a better world or an equal world is a . . . unified movement. We all have our individual focus or foci in life and that helps us channelize our energy, our time for a particular movement. In that way may be I am more focused towards the LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender] movement. But ultimately we reach to a very common goal; that even a person on the street who is struggling for food is striving for, that we sitting on a chair under a fan are striving for; that is happiness at the end of the day, a feeling of peace with yourself. And that is achieved by a multi-factorial thing, as we have just now discussed – education, availability of food, occupation, equality . . . and the philosophy of this keeps on changing.

So I think there will always be a movement. Movement cannot be halted. I hope there should not come a time, when we say that we are satisfied with all that we have and the movement has thus stopped. This is an ongoing movement of humanity. This will continue changing shapes and directions and people will find their own ways to their own solutions. And I keep trust in that humanity.

Pawan: Well, that is a wonderful message for the readers. But also I was trying to talk about another very important aspect of well-being of humanity, and that is intimate relationships. Do you have any thoughts on that?

Tirthankar: Hmm . . . in the post-Varta period Varta would know more of that as a whole, but from my point of view intimacy is again a very abstract thing. But in the simplest way of thinking, intimacy requires privacy; at the same time it requires my rights to proclaim my intimacy. So in that way, it is both public and private at the same time. When the two things are moving hand-in-hand, like the public part, the legal sanctioning of me trying to get married and getting it approved; or not getting married, living together; neither getting married, nor living together, but maintaining an intimate relationship without harming others –these public parts need to be addressed, and the legal sanctioning as well as legal provisions need to be made, that is one part.

The private part is – I should have a hold on how much I am going to disclose and how much I am not going to disclose; what part of my life will be my decision, which part will be a shared decision and which part can be everybody’s decision. When that distinction is very clear and at par with our own thinking and philosophy, I think a person can maintain a good intimate relationship.

Pawan: But do you think that today there is any difference in terms of, say, the decade . . . when you were a teenager and now when you are entering the 30s, is there a difference in people being able to carry out same-sex intimate relationships?

Tirthankar: Yes, of course. There is a difference because . . . in my teenage days, I have seen many people, who are afraid of even claiming that they are gay. Maybe they are getting physical with a boy, but whenever you say that you are gay or bisexual, their immediate reaction will be, “No, no, this is only for fun. I am not gay.” May be it is internalized homophobia they are struggling with or dealing with. So that is the bigger stress.

Then comes the external homophobia. Even if they know that they are gay, they are not able to express that. The expression of one’s love and feeling also gives completeness to that intimate relationship. That completeness was somewhere lacking in many people’s lives, in my teenage.

There was no uniform and safe platform for mixing. Facebook and Orkut were definitely not there. But also the other e-forums, newspapers or pen-friendships were not very reliable because it was always a mixed bag. Some people were genuine, some people were money-seekers, and we have also heard of sting operations being performed on people, and they are caught in gay action. Such things have happened. So places were not very safe. It was also wonderful that at that point of time, many individual NGOs and CBOs provided space. I can recall the Counsel Club meetings.

So in general, I should say that coming out was difficult and for that reason, seeking out was also difficult. Access to relationships, the access to more options of getting to know persons and living your own life, was not there. That we have now. Not necessarily only in the 2009 period, but in general, I think, in the later part of this decade, it was happening.

Pawan: Any last thoughts for the interview? Or anything that you would like to remark on, maybe I haven’t covered that topic in my interview?

Tirthankar: There is one part, not necessarily related to gay issues. It’s about the dressing sense of doctors. I find that people think that doctors should be very formally dressed. This may be psychologically comforting to most people. But we should also understand that by this we are feeding to the popular notion that a well-dressed and formally dressed doctor is a good doctor. It can be misleading at times also, so judging quality over external packaging is important in everything as well as in professional things like medical profession. Unless there is a dress code or there is a college decorum, even private practitioners might choose to dress in their own way, taking the risk of losing their patients, of course. You can never say that patients have to come. But if they choose to do that, at least the dressing part can be viewed in a more individual way and we can hope that people will only be very critical about their treatment part, behaviour part and not their dressing part.

Pawan: So once again you are connecting things to evidence in a way . . . okay, evidence again can be debated, but at least in a way where we know that the evidence has a solid basis.

Tirthankar: I have various comments from my seniors and my colleagues for wearing t-shirts, round-neck t-shirts and jeans in medical colleges, although I should mention that I continue to wear them even as a teacher. Again, I have my own boundary of decency and indecency, which is very relative and subjective. In my own judgment, I do not cross that line of decency and indecency and make myself comfortable in my dress. And that usually has not hampered my teaching or medical skills, I believe.

Pawan: Thank you. It was a very interesting conversation. And it can carry on and on if we want to (laughter) . . . thank you.


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.

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