“We read the letter sent by a man calling you to X hotel!”
With surprise as well as shock writ on my face, I tried to understand what Papa, as I call my father, had just said.
“We know the letter was for you although you had asked this person to use another name for you on the envelope,” he went on, “He looked very similar to one of your friends… Amma hence called up your friends and cousins to check if they were also involved in such activities…”
I was trying to process the information as he added, “Such old men who abuse young men are common… your cousin who could be reached told us that he had no inkling about any of this…”
Not once did Papa look into my eyes as he stated all this. In fact, he just blurted this out as we were having an argument on some other issue. I smirked, but felt violated for having been ‘found’! It was the 1990s and with the internet yet to percolate to every nook and corner, many people in smaller cities depended on magazines like Bombayite and BM Ads to get in touch with the community. Relying on the same source, I had sent a few mails to some people from my city of Lucknow just before leaving for my hostel. In my letters I had asked the receivers to use another name for me when replying. The response to one such letter came after I had left home and Amma, as I called my mother, had opened and read the letter.
I had never trusted Amma on confidential matters. So in a way it was not surprising for me. However the sense of being outed while dealing with guilt in the closet bugged me. That evening I felt exposed and humiliated in front of Papa. I was trying hard not to explode as the emotions had the better of me. Amma was travelling that time and hence there was no point in any emotional outburst. Papa was in no way responsible for the feelings. He in fact at least shared something that must have happened one year before!
As I came to terms with the facts I realized there was no escape. Given my limited income as a research fellow, I had to live with my parents. In addition, with my father’s deteriorating health condition , I had to stay with him to take care. However this event, which for me was an attack on my individuality, changed my relationship with Amma forever. It was not any severing of ties. Nor was it about end of communication. But the nature of ties and communication definitely changed.
Amma was a combination of unique traits. A first generation post-graduate in her family, she had immense respect for intellectual pursuits. She was also the main breadwinner in our family. Her sense of self-respect was so strong that she could sever ties with anyone who she felt had insulted her in some way. However, along with the sense of self-respect was also her strong need for control. Anyone who deserved her respect had to be moulded her way. Her personality had its own share of contradictions though. She loved her work and was proud of it but hated the situation where a man is not the main breadwinner. Her pursuit of control was similarly combined with her urge to make us successful independent individuals. Her constant refrain was that her sons were like neighbours with whom she would love to communicate but would never be dependent upon. Despite her respect for education and progressive ideas, she was still rooted in obscurantist views on caste, gender and other identities. There was hence little scope to expect any positive views on my being gay in any case. Overall, like any other human being, she was trying to balance between continuity and change in her own way even if it meant a difficult time for me and my siblings.
Yes, Amma was human. So were the contradictions in her personality. And so were her perspectives on relationships. As a child I was told that she wanted a daughter after two sons and hence I was a disappointment. It may be due to this reason that she let me pursue interests that were considered feminine. I had my collection of dolls, I knew how to stitch and embroider and I loved to dance. However when the world around me mocked me because of these interests, Amma would also join the rest in looking down upon me. In addition, her need to control would make her overprotective at times. But if any outsiders criticized my being protected she would also join them in calling me names. I learnt to live with her unpredictability. After all, it was she who gave me lessons in self-confidence and survival as well.
Amma’s bid to control my personal life came to head that day when I got to know that she checked my personal letters and revealed about my life to my cousins and friends. She perhaps felt that she was protecting me from the dangerous world. However the very nature of this action angered me. I became more assertive about my orientation. I would bring up the issue of alternative sexuality whenever it was possible in the conversations, leaving her perplexed. She would convey her disapproval in measured tone but would never strongly counter me. Gradually she stopped reacting and just left me alone. She even stopped interacting much with my old friends. It was perhaps her way of giving me space. This continued for almost two decades.
I moved to Delhi after completing my PhD. My father had also expired by then. It was the first time that I was not in regular touch with my family. The isolation perhaps helped me emotionally detach from Amma.
My tryst for a better job took me to Mumbai where I had to come out to one of my brothers who was based there. Unable to accept the fact, he called up Amma. She apparently decided not to have any stance on the matter. That itself was unlike her given the fact that she would at least lament the fact that things are not in control even if she did not want to interfere in my life. In any case my orientation was the proverbial elephant in the room from then onwards. No one wanted to discuss the matter.
The exposure to the gay world beyond Lucknow left me with mixed feelings. Looking at the wonderful supportive families of my friends and acquaintances at Gay Bombay events, I felt that my mother and siblings lacked courage. My negativity never made me appreciate the support that Amma and my brothers had extended to me in my most difficult times, especially when I was jobless or even when I splurged money in purchasing books. I also never appreciated that they just let me be and did not force me to go for any psychiatric treatment or a heterosexual marriage. I was in a relationship by then and it further haunted me that my partner had no place in my family, the way the spouses of my brothers had. It never occurred to me that I was expecting too much out of my family.
As life progressed, each of the views I clung to became irrelevant. I had a break-up. There was little in the career that I could relate to. I finally moved away from metropolitan locations. During this time, Amma also lost much of her courage and confidence as she grew older. She was no longer the control freak. She was no longer imposing her views about sexuality and relationships. She just expressed her love and wished us well. That too came to an end in March last year when she breathed her last.
Anyone who knew of Amma’s life would have found her calm face of death deceptive. But I am sure it was the culmination of the life of struggles she had. From struggles to have an education to her struggles to give us the best of careers and values, she had ultimately lived her life well. She had raised three fiercely independent and perhaps headstrong sons. She lived her life with clear values and never ever compromised on them, even if those values could have contradicted with my expectations from her.
As I looked at her body I tried to locate the conflicts we had due to my orientation. All the anguish that was bottled up for decades now came to naught. There was nothing now to fight for. Both of us hardly made any effort to build bridges and in the end there was only unfulfilled desire of reconciliation. The very need for acceptance had no meaning as there was no one to accept. It was for the first time that I realized that in a way it was Amma’s nurturing that made me what I am. I owe my individuality to the way she raised me. It was this sense of self that led me to distance myself from her as well. In the end like her, I also ended up being just a human being. An individual whose defiance is balanced by his desire for conformity…