Dear Prime Minister,
As I pen this letter, the world around me seems perfect. My mother is serving breakfast to the paying guests at our 70-year-old ancestral house in north Kolkata, my father is basking in the winter sun and distractedly sipping his third cup of tea while reading the newspaper. I have just finished working on my first graphic narrative, a contemporary interpretation of a short story by Rabindranath Tagore.
As a freelance filmmaker and artist, this has been one of my most creatively fulfilling experiences.
However, something is missing in this perfect picture. That last piece of the puzzle is not just about me, my craft, my family, or my aspirations. It’s much bigger than all of that. To make myself more coherent, I will have to come out to you, sir. I am gay.
I grew up in one of old Kolkata’s most traditional bastions, Shobhabazar. It’s a part of the city that still frowns upon coffee shops, nightclubs and malls and has recreational clubs where children are taught Rabindrasangeet. I was always a misfit in my neighbourhood and my mother, who had great dreams for me, sent me to a missionary school at the other end of the city, the Anglo-Indian “para (neighbourhood)” of Free School Street.
When I was about 12, I realised that though I was different from my football-loving, Salman Khan-crazy friends, I couldn’t show it. I had to blend in to do my own thing. Years later, as I was graduating from the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad, I decided to make an LGBTQ-themed animation film set in Shobhabazar as my diploma film. It was liberating to talk about the kind of discrimination effeminate men face. That film was made about two years ago. Today, I have different stories to tell.
A lot has happened in the past few years. The LGBTQ movement in the country went several steps back. In 2013, when the Supreme Court reversed the historic Delhi High Court decision to decriminalise gay sex, I attended a protest rally in the heart of Kolkata. But I felt even worse about Shashi Tharoor’s failed bid to introduce a private member’s bill in the Lok Sabha to decriminalise gay sex. I was cynical but I didn’t expect that Tharoor would literally be booed. Some Lok Sabha members insinuated that Tharoor must be so eager to pass the bill because he is gay. That was an act of intolerance.
I fail to understand what business the state has to preside over what I do with a consenting partner. When esteemed elected representatives of the people jeer at me in Parliament, I feel betrayed, hurt and angry. That was the low point for me this year. I needed to tell you that.
However, another historic bill, which aims to promote the rights of transgenders, including through reservations and financial aid, was passed unanimously in the Rajya Sabha. Kolkata Police took an initiative to recruit transgender people in their workforce, a college in a small town in West Bengal got the world’s first transgender principal, a locality in Kolkata celebrated Durga Puja with transgender persons as committee members. These changes are important — they make a huge difference. The Durga Puja organised by transgender persons was something I felt deeply connected to. I made my parents visit the pandal, and they had a great time there interacting with my friends from the LGBTQ community.
Yet I have many fears from 2016. Unless gay sex is decriminalised, all these initiatives don’t make sense. I fear that I will have to think twice before holding my partner’s hand in public. I feel that the government is telling us that we can work, we can have fun, we can teach but we cannot love. But I also understand that the onus for creating awareness is not just on you, Mr Prime Minister. It’s the responsibility of every person.
In 2016, I plan to be more proactive in generating discussions on Section 377 among friends and colleagues. Earlier, when I worked at a multinational corporation, I would try to raise the issue in different scenarios — while we were hanging out at pubs or having lunch at the cafeteria. The idea is to make people understand that a queer person is not any different from you. Many straight people I know feel that queer life is all about sex. We need to change that perception.
If I were to get 10 minutes with you, Mr prime minister, I would tell you about Rai, a 27-year-old boy who worked at a reputed electronics showroom as a salesperson and was hounded by his employers to cut his hair short and behave “like a man”. I would tell you about Bini, a 34-year-old transgender sex worker from south Kolkata, who is regularly harassed by the cops and his customers because they know he has no legal standing as a citizen. I would then ask you why you think gay sex has to remain illegal in India. I am ready to talk but are you ready to listen?