Monday, May 12, 2014

Qatha: Love in Calcutta via Africa and UK (part 2)

People, May '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 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. In the first part of the interview (published in the April 2014 issue of Varta), they talked about the journeys which brought them together. In this part, they speak about the challenges of living out a same-sex relationship and their hopes of a better future for queer people.
The interview was conducted by Pawan Dhall on May 10, 2013, and transcribed by freelancer Sukanya Roy Ghose.

All photographs from Pia and Kiki's collections
Pawan: How do you compare your growing up years, that phase, with today’s, and then do you think are they different for everyone or only for a certain class of people?

Pia: In terms of Kolkata, there’s a huge difference for all classes of people. When we were growing up, when we had to deal with this . . . we were guilt-ridden, we had no one to tell us that this is okay, this is perfectly normal, and you deserve a chance to live, and live out your sexuality. And this is accepted everywhere in the world, it might not be accepted in India . . .  and also go on to think like serious relationships and marriages. There was no one to say these comforting words to us. So we lived with the feeling that we were freaks of nature.

Well now there’s a huge difference, because now there’s so much of affirmation, so many groups, with the development of the Internet and the computer, everything. So people are all connected worldwide where they can assure each other, they can give each other advice, and they can be there for each other. Also, remarkable number of support groups have mushroomed in India, from the time that this activism started . . . anyways, we started having these get-togethers, and we started having these women spaces, where we were having workshops and women were talking about their problems, and you know, what this is and the emotional traumas and their family. So this whole thing of support group thing connected to each other had already started, and therefore anybody who comes into the scene now has a huge infrastructure, huge support network.

In fact, we didn’t have places to cruise; we didn’t have places where we could meet women. Now that’s changed because in all the support groups, there are lot of programmes, lot of workshops where they can meet women, they can find people, they can find friends, they can find spaces. So the difference is huge. The difference is not small, the difference is huge. It’s a total . . . it’s a comparison of black and white. When there was nothing, it was just a dark cave and now the whole thing is illuminated. Everybody knows . . . people of all classes can access it, because the support groups do not have any class biases, leaving any section. But, of course, it’s difficult to reach rural areas with activism, and it is always a challenge, because there are always . . . Sappho did a huge documentary on a death, on a suicide, and these things keep on happening, there are unknown names, there are anonymous people who keep dying, who keep painfully getting mistreated by their family. That is still happening. In that sense, as far as the rural and the far-reaching areas are concerned, we are still in the dark ages. But as far as the metropolis is concerned, I feel there’s been a huge leap and this can be compared to any metropolis in the world.

Apart, of course, gay marriage is not legal, is not legalized in India, but the social scene is . . . it’s totally comforting and very affirmative. And, in fact, even the mainstream society gets a lot of exposure to gay culture and lesbian culture now. The newspapers are full of it, there are pride marches. There’s always a constant debate in the media and television . . . about sexuality issues.

So in that sense I think we are in a much, much better state and the mainstream is also getting exposed to the idea that yes, these kind of relationships do exist; yes, we do have to accept them; yes, even if our children are in these relationships, if we torture them, there can be suicide, there can be tragedy, and it is better that we accept it than not accept it. So this feeling is already beginning to come in . . . to India. Although . . . in North India and UP [Uttar Pradesh], these things are seeping in very, very slowly, because they are a very patriarchal culture, and they still have a lot of tragic deaths and all. But, yes, with the Bengalis and the more educated classes, I think there is a general acceptance, much more general acceptance. But it is, of course, nothing where people are applauding and clapping each other on the back, “Oh, I am happy my son that you are gay”. It hasn’t reached that level yet (laughs).

Pawan: So, in terms of . . . the scenario that you have captured, in terms of activism, in terms of social mobilization, a lot is happening. But are you happy with the kind of work the support groups are doing or their approach, or do you feel it should be different in any way? Is there anything more you would like to see in the future?

Pia: I think every support group . . . has its own biases and its own way of doing things and they have very unique characteristics, which is their own. So I wouldn’t say that any support group is totally comprehensive in that sense, but I think the support groups which have experience in working with these issues over here, they have made remarkable progress. And then, of course, I really feel as far as activism is concerned that everybody in sexual minority has this fascination for being an activist. So they, you know, start their own groups and the whole scene goes very chaotic. Some people without idea of even knowing what support work involves, what a responsible thing it can be, you have to be very good role models, and stuff like that. They don’t realize the responsibility, and the support work and the activism sometimes is treated I think very casually, and it’s become a fad. Everybody, well everybody on my Facebook I think says they are an activist, and I have about 700 women. So, ideally, we really have to discriminate to see, you know, where if people come to us for help, where we are going to put them to. I don’t think one should be irresponsible and one should [not] randomly connect them to anybody who claims to be an activist or a support group.

Pawan: Kiki, you want to add anything to this?

Kiki: Yeah, I agree with Pia, because, you know, for support groups as well, or if anybody wants to kind of get into activism, I think there’s some kind of training that one should go through, and sensitization. It’s just not that one day you know I think I am an activist, and therefore, the next day you start off with a group, because you can do a lot of damage to these women who are vulnerable and who may just come to you for help. There could be exploitation . . . sexual and emotional exploitation as well, because you take advantage of the person who is coming to you, who is anyways vulnerable, and doesn’t know any better. So, I guess, you know activism or activist groups mushrooming just like that can sometimes do a lot of harm.

Pawan: What do you have to say about the current socio-cultural, socio-political atmosphere of Kolkata and Bengal . . . in general, the social environment, or the political-economic environment? Does it have any link with the lives of queer people in Kolkata?

Kiki: Politically, I do not know what kind of a role politics has. I really haven’t really seen any politician you know talk on this issue, at all. But socially . . . you know Bengalis that way have been much better read. And not only nowadays, even our aunts were better read. I had read about, you know, lesbian relationships in novels. So, therefore, naturally they are very open-minded. No matter what, it happening in the family, of course, gives them a jolt. But accepting it is much easier than it would have been if you are not educated. So, I guess, education is a basic thing that all the support groups and all of us, in fact, should carry on doing. Not glamourizing the sexuality. There are certain TV channels you know who glamourize this kind of thing. That again builds up a wrong kind of role model, or certain sensationalizing, or you know sometimes setting up a very typical kind of role model, very filmy. Those kinds of things can be done away with, because that’s far from actuality, and it gives a lot of these young lesbians a kind of a picture that okay, if I don’t have that kind of money, if I don’t have that kind of glamour, then I am nothing, you know. And that’s very sad. So, socially I think, Bengal is a far more comfortable place to be in, Calcutta is a far more comfortable place to be in. People have the time; they give you the time of the day, which other metropolises actually do not. And so therefore, in that sense, they know whom to reach out to, and if they can make friends, then they can definitely get much more support.

Pawan: [Pia] you had any comments . . . about the larger Bengal environment?

Pia: See, hoping that the political climate will rectify itself will not happen. Because it never happens and these issues are last on the government’s mind. It’s obvious . . . in every government, in every place. Not even when you are campaigning for [Section] 377 and we are putting in signatures in the Supreme Court and everything gets involved, but that’s after a lot of spadework has been done. As far Bengal and other places, they are nowhere near it. But the onus is on the activist and on the support group to create that political climate, to create the awareness, and to do work from a very grass root level, so that ultimately it filters up . . . to the top, and a climate is actually created where people and politicians are forced to make these changes to accommodate sexual minorities. Unless we as a group, we are not being able to influence the mainstream society, because we are still a minority. Even if we want changes, it won’t be enough. We must be able to sensitize the minority, we must be able to show them that there is nothing wrong in this way of life; we must be able to show them the power of love. We must be able to touch their hearts. Otherwise political change will not happen.

Pawan: So very aptly you use the word ‘power of love’. So I wanted to ask that you and Kiki, Pia and Kiki, have been together as friends for how many years now?

Pia: Twenty-two years.

Pawan: Okay, and how do you define your relationship? If you don’t want to answer that . . .

Pia: My Facebook keeps asking me my relationship status. I don’t think relationships need definition. They are just what they are, you know, and if you are together, then it shows that something must be right. But we’ve had . . . first five years we had a totally monogamous relationship, but after that we were a bit adventurous, and I have another girlfriend (smiles) and she’s also been involved with other women. But we’ve also been together. Honestly, I think, for us hetero-normativity is not the thumb rule, and I think individuals have to . . . this whole movement is about individuals and uniqueness of individuals. And every individual or every relationship has its own profile, where you have to adapt, and you have to change, and you have to meet those needs. But some people might say it’s promiscuous, or convenient or opportunistic. But there it is. If it works for you, it doesn’t matter. And also it’s important that, see, when you are different, you are different. First of all, you are different because you are not hetero-normative. Then, you are different because you are in a lesbian mould where couples are . . . kind of taken as the norm. And here also if you have a different way of living, then, of course, you are looked at as, okay now, these people don’t believe in anything. But then it’s not like that. Everybody has their own values, and as long as you don’t go and actively hurt someone, I think everything is fine, as long as you are not hurting someone or you are not taking advantage of anyone.

Pawan: So finally then, any future plans? Individually, or together?

Pia: Yes, we have future plans, like holidays on the cards. May be, if we are lucky, we plan to do Kerala (laughs) in December [2013] or something, and some other holiday plans. And basically just have a good life together. A good friendship . . . and a lot of meaningful and interesting workshops, and hoping that this movement is carried forward with all friends and family . . .

Pawan: Final words from you Kiki?

Kiki: We might just think of, you know . . . kind of thinking of, formulating . . . of having an old age home for dykes. Because as we get older I guess, you know, a lot of women have actually told us that when we get older, then what? So we said okay, we will all get together and build a kind of house, may be buy a land and build upon it, and then, you know, have an individual lifestyle, it’s not going to be one of those hostel kind of things. We will still have an individual lifestyle, we will have the independence, but at the same time we will have an in-house doctor, let’s say, and you know, kind of help. So that you know you are together, you don’t feel isolated and left out.

Pawan: Great! So, Pia, any other final words? She’s talked about plans for the old age home . . .

Pia: Life is uncertain. One doesn’t know (laughs) . . . anyway, what plans? I think the plan is basically connecting with more people, sharing ideas, sharing joys, and hoping for a world where we can all get our equal rights. And definitely one thing in the future I look forward to is marriage rights and legal rights for civic partnership . . . Because it is very important, having lived with people all your life, and not being able to make them secure, or not having the right to be able to give them any kind of security is a very tragic situation, because the government can confiscate . . . you might not have anybody, but yet you cannot . . . you know, even if you did have, your spouse always gets the first benefit. But in this case, nothing ever happens. So I am hoping that this law [Section 377] needs to change very, very soon. Otherwise I think we all come to this relationship with a huge element of sacrifice.

It’s not actually sacrifice, because it’s being who we are. But we are having to give up a lot. Because if we were married to men . . . we would be able to build a life together, but here Kiki has to have her own place, I have to have my own place throughout our lives, and even if we run out, run short of money, we have to maintain two houses and that really burdens us a lot. Because if anything happens to me, I wouldn’t know, I wouldn’t be sure because no matter how accepting or anything your families are, you can never be 100 percent sure about what will happen if you are not there in the picture, and the same with her. So we are always being burdened with this extra responsibility of having two houses, and buying double things . . . it’s a very extravagant, or a very foolish way of living. Whereas heterosexual couples can easily sell off one property, settle down in one, have a good life and spend a lot of money. But unfortunately, you know, situation is not the same for us. And there are also cases where, extreme cases of discrimination, when people have passed away and their families have not let their loved ones come, and even at the prayer service or a coffin and you can imagine the pain and the torment involved, and the trauma involved, and having lived with somebody for 25, 30 years, you are not even allowed to go and you know, say your last wishes or wish them their last rites together.

Pawan: Thank you, thank you very much!


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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