Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Qatha: Love in Calcutta via Africa and UK (part 1)

People, Apr '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 first part of an interview with Pia and Kiki, both in their late 40s, who live together in Kolkata. Pia is a community volunteer and writer, while Kiki is associated with the education sector. They talk about the journeys which brought them together.

The interview was conducted by Pawan Dhall on May 10, 2013, and transcribed by freelancer Sukanya Roy Ghose.

Pawan: Pia, I would like to ask you first, can you just give a brief introduction to yourself?

Pia: My name is Pia, I live in Kolkata. I have studied most of my life out of the country. I’ve been here now for more than 20 years. I live with my partner.

All photographs from Pia and Kiki's collections
Pawan: Kiki, would you like to give a short introduction to yourself?

Kiki: Hello, this is Kiki Chatterjee, and I’ve been born and brought up in Calcutta, and I’ve known about my sexuality since my early teens . . . anyways, I’ve been in Calcutta and I’ve been into activism of various sorts.

Pawan: So, as we discussed, the basic purpose is to record how people have negotiated, how they have dealt with their gender and sexuality, the realization of that, mainly during their growing up years. And how they are looking at the situation at this point of time and then also some thoughts for the future. So, would you like to share something about the time when you first realized about yourself or when you thought you were different? How did you deal with it?

Pia: What really happened was that as I was growing up, when I was much younger, I used to find women much more interesting than men. And I sort of thought that that was a very natural thing because I thought people idolized women because they were their own kind and stuff like that. Later on I realized that it was much more than that. That’s when it sank in I was actually sexually attracted to women. But at that time it was a total taboo and there was no way I could even voice my feelings to anybody in that sense. And because I was studying in Africa and there were a lot of girls with me in school, there was a lot of peer pressure for boyfriends and fitting in. So as a result the entire thing got . . . I used to feel very uncomfortable with my sexuality, but the gender question didn’t come up until much later.

Pawan: So this would be around what time Pia, are we talking about 1960s or 1970s?

Pia: This was about when I was 16-17 years of age.

Pawan: Kiki, anything similar for you or did you have a different experience?

Kiki: As for me, I have always been a tomboy, loved playing cricket and games on the field. So naturally I used to hang around mostly with guys. But being from a girls’ school there was no other alternative but to hang around with girls too, but that was only at school. Out of school it was only the guys that I would feel comfortable with. And over the growing years I got to know about my sexuality. Say, at the age of six, I had a crush on my teacher, and then I refused to be promoted from KG to class one. In fact, my father had to write a special permission letter to the principal that my daughter would like to repeat the class in spite of me getting a prize for general proficiency. And then when it happened the next year when I was to be promoted to class one, there was again a big showdown in the house that I wouldn’t go to class one at all. But anyways I had to carry on. And then I think my first crush was in class four and that was a lot of fondness I thought I felt for this girl, and then later on I came to terms with my sexuality, I think somewhere around 16 or 17 after my school final. That’s when I met my first girlfriend. But never in my life, have I ever felt that this was unnatural or abnormal. I never felt ill at ease with my sexuality.

Pawan: So that’s very interesting. Why do you think this happened, I mean that you never felt this was unnatural, because a lot of people struggle with that question?

Kiki: Probably because I was brought up more as a boy and basically my parents were never pestering me . . . or expect me to conform in a certain manner. I could do just what I pleased and I was very much my own person. So therefore it wasn’t much of an issue this way or that way.

Pawan: What about peer pressure . . . during school days or college days? May be at home it wasn’t that difficult, but in your educational environment or with friends, were there any problems? Did you have to deal with that in any way?

Pia: What really happened to me subsequently . . . when I left Africa and was studying in the Middle East, was that I would fall irrevocably in love with my best friend and I had to keep up the charade of having boyfriends and them having boyfriends and having a lot of emotional turmoil about . . . lot of things. And obviously there was a mask on, all the time. But I think my very close friends who were women must have realized my sexuality, although we didn’t talk about it because there were some incidents. But at the same time it was very important that one gave in to the peer pressure and had dates and went out to drive-in movies and the night clubs and lived up that whole life. In fact, my friends even started pressurizing me to get on the pill and things that were totally accepted in those countries because they were mostly of western origin. But somehow I refused to do that and I could never accept the fact that I will be randomly sleeping with my so called boyfriends, you know, risk an unwanted pregnancy.

Pawan: Kiki, when you were in Kolkata and growing up as a queer person, do you think that the social or the cultural environment of Kolkata had anything to do with your ability to accept yourself without much trouble?

Kiki: Well, the fact was that my friends were very open. I actually never felt the need to explain myself to anybody. As far as my girlfriend is concerned, you know, naturally it would be clearly seen that by the other friends, you know we used to have groups and such like things in college and they knew that this person, you know I myself had a strong liking for this other girlfriend who was in the same college. But again as far as you know hanging around in socials, guys would come in, it would be done in such a way that you hang around with them, you get friendly with them but then don’t get too close. Though it was kind of a very tricky situation, so we had to learn how to balance the situation without really coming out in that kind of format.

Pawan: So what about knowing each other? When did you meet Pia, and how did you come to know each other . . .

Pia interjects and says she would like to make a point.

Pawan: Okay. So please tell us about it.

Pia: What actually happened during my growing up years was when I was in Africa . . . I had my best friend come and stay over at my place and she was actually the one who made the move on me and actually we ended up having almost a two years, very torrid relationship together. But at the same time it was very funny because we kept dating men and we thought that there was something wrong with us, even her I am sure, and we thought that we had to keep up the charade of dating men although we were very involved, totally involved together and we even thought of living together for the rest of our lives.

Pawan: In terms of meeting each other, so when did that happen and what happened in the sense that . . .

Pia: Actually, we knew each other because we were neighbours, so we used to see each other in locality carnivals and fairs. And then I had a cousin, who lived next door, and then ultimately we had a huge group of friends, and we used to again go on nightclubbing together. There were about four or five . . . about six of us women who would regularly go nightclubbing on Saturdays and Wednesdays. So again it was a very hetero-normative kind of a scene. But even within it I think because I had somehow managed to confess to Kiki that I had a relationship in Africa previously and because she was also into having a relationship with a woman, so she picked up that signal. And I don’t know why it happened, but I confessed, and that’s when we sort of gravitated towards each other (laughs).

Pawan: Kiki your take on this?

Kiki: What happened was my ex-girlfriend, she and one of our friends had told me about Pia’s ex-girlfriend and, you know, so called, you know, her ‘tendencies’, as they said then, towards women, and so that got me a bit more interested. And then I would observe her and invite her. She’s a film buff, so basically invite her to film shows in our university and that’s how we got closer and I got to know her better. And after my dad died, she was very, very supportive and that was an emotional time that I was going through and I got to know her as a person and that she was and I guess that’s what actually got us together.

Pawan: So the next question that comes to mind is that I know that you have also been involved in queer community mobilization and activism at a certain level. When did that start and what motivated you to take it up?

Pia: There was a time when Kiki and me were already living together and we felt very isolated in the sense that we didn’t know any women like us, no one to interact with, no one to share things with. It was always male and female couples who we went out with and we socialized with a lot. But at some point we felt a void that something was missing and we needed to reach out to people like ourselves. Basically it started out as a very basic need to communicate, to meet more people like us. And this journey took us actually all the way to England, because we had already got into a pen-pal list where we made a lot of couple friends and single friends. So we travelled all the way to England and we met all of them. We shared their lives, their moments. We shared their houses, we shared meals together. We ate together, and this happened with about three or four couples in England, who we became very close to subsequently.

Then when we came back to India we thought that England was a long way to travel and there has to be an answer, and there has to be more people like us. And I think that was the beginning of our desire for activism, so that you know we could actually, you know, be able to say who we are. It is only when we voice who we are, that we can give courage to other people to voice who they are and therefore you know create a community of us.

Pawan: Around when was this?

Pia: This was in the early ‘90s.

Pawan: And then gradually you got more involved?

Kiki: You see, when Pia was talking about the pen-pal list, even for that I had to come out to my pen-friend who is British. And she had come down all the way to India. She couldn’t believe that you know we had been communicating with each other basically through letters those days and here’s a person she thought she was very close to and she didn’t even know about my sexuality. So when she came down to Calcutta, to India, to visit me and she stayed with Pia and myself, she herself confessed about her sexuality. She didn’t have the courage. It was surprising being in the UK . . . she was being trained as a nurse, but then somehow she didn’t have the courage to, maybe she was a bisexual or whatever. And then she helped me by subscribing to this pen-pal list. From India it was not possible to do that. It was not an open-market situation as it is now. So she subscribed for me, and not only that, she subscribed for one-year subscription for a magazine called Diva. And those magazines used to be mailed to my address here. It was a bi-monthly magazine, and that is where we came across some Indian dykes who were listed out there. And that’s how this whole pen-palship thing shifted from writing or talking to girls in the UK to some girls in India. I am talking about some of the friends whom we know have been activists in India, you know staying in Bombay, Delhi and elsewhere.

Pawan: And then I believe that you became part of a support group in Kolkata and . . .

Pia: Then we got in touch with what was in Bombay, the first edition of Bombay Dost magazine and through Ashok Row Kavi we met Pawan Dhall, and then Pawan Dhall roped us into Counsel Club meetings promising us lot of lesbians (chuckles). But then when we went there, then unfortunately not very many women had the courage to come out and share the space with us, so we kept on doing these meetings, till it was felt that I think we would have to do something to have some support work where actually we would have to be in a position to give them courage so that they could come out to a safe space where they could be themselves. And I think we were then getting motivated to provide that safe space for these women who are actually there, invisible, tormented, living in a sort of a taboo kind of a way . . .

Pawan: So now, after so many years of having been in Kolkata, you’ve also been involved with activism, and you have met a lot of people. Can you compare the situation today for somebody who’s in their teens or in their growing up years, with what it was in your case? What is different or what is not different or nothing has changed?

Kiki: I think in our times, and not even that, in very recent times, maybe even 10 years back, it was unheard of you know that a young person could come out just like that. When we talk to the younger generation, and nowadays, being of whichever sexuality, bisexual, or lesbian, gay, whatever, you know coming out has become much more easier and it’s not a big deal at all. People don’t think twice about it, coming out to friends. But that wasn’t so much the case in our times, in spite of the fact of having very open-minded friends . . . but that was an exception; that was basically not the norm, because one would really think whether, you know, it would kind of play a negative role on the friendship. You would rather not lose a friend and you would rather keep your sexuality to yourself. That was then.

As of now I don’t think it makes much of a difference. You are who you are and it’s much more comfortable for young people nowadays to come out. And therefore, much less pressure.

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. 

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