I told Vasu, if there was anything I had learned in my short years on earth, it was that life is just that – short. My parents had been relatively young to die from diseases and heart attacks. That realization of how short and fleeting life can be is part of what drove me to live in India, to experience the ever-different culture, the ever-changing view. And that same philosophy drove my week with him.
Our days found a rhythm. We woke at the first light, intimate together as the sun rose. We showered together and dressed. I ordered breakfast, and we ate before either setting off to explore the areas of the resort that we could access alone or to drive the bumpy road up to the world outside to go on a safari in the nearby forest or explore some other little hill station or town.
To avoid the resort staff, we mainly ate outside at hotels and stalls. He still ran ahead to secure tickets for tourist places, for the toy train ride, and he insisted on carrying my bags. But he was finding a compromise between how he thought he should appear to the public and how he knew he was to me: a friend, a lover, an equal.
At the resort, we continued to be the only guests, the grounds devoid of all other human life besides Vasu, the staff and me. Even the manager lost interest in us after I cut short his delicate but obvious inquiries of whom Vasu was. We went on night safari every night the jeep was able to take us, and we saw wild elephants, a new sight for us both. We saw herds of deer even by day, and the cry of peafowl shattered the early morning every day, signalling a new start. Every night we seemed to rediscover our physical need for each other and our intimacy grew stronger and more powerful every time we lay together.
By the last day of our time together, Vasu had become very adept at intimacy and being relaxed even when the staff approached us to build the nightly bonfire or to serve our dinner. That night, we waited until the whole resort had grown dark, until just the tiny lights along the walls of the welcome centre shone from the buildings where the staff was sleeping. We took our blankets and crept bravely out to the machan, the sky full of bright stars and a cold breeze rustling the leaves in the trees, making us jump and muffle our laughter, lest we wake the staff who would tell us to get back into our shack.
We laid together on the machan overlooking the watering hole, lost in each other, oblivious to the trumpet of the elephants slowly making their way to the water, and not even thinking of how our cries of release must sound to the animals going about their nightly routines. Afterwards, we sat looking out at the water, wrapped in each other’s arms and in the blankets, and we talked.
We talked about his dream store, his childhood memories growing up in a village not far from Bangalore, his pet dog, the day he got a tattoo, and how he had always wanted to learn to cook and make good food at home so that his mom could rest.
We talked about my crazy work stress, and how my dream job was to write for a living. I shared my childhood growing up in the largely homophobic Midwest, about losing my parents within a short period of time, about how India made me feel alive and how even the thought of going back to the US made me feel like a bird whose wings were clipped.
When the tiger came to lap at the water below us, we had fallen into intimate silence, our bodies warmly fused, our thoughts blissful so that we almost missed seeing her. But we saw her at the same time, leaning forward silently, staring at her dark shadow and grinning from ear to ear at each other. With less than 1500 of her kind left wild in the world, we both knew that what we were seeing would be with us for a lifetime. The whole week would be.
But the silvery fog of morning found us facing the end to our paradise. We needed to check out, get into the van and drive back to the city. He would drive back to his family, to his loan, to his long, hectic hours and fussy clients, to his looming marriage. I would go back to my empty flat, my own hectic job, my dislike of class divide and my own wonders of whether I was destined to live my whole life alone.
On the way back to the city, we argued. It was inevitable. We knew the intense happiness and intimacy we had revelled in was over and life as he and as society saw it was soon to reinstate itself.
I broached the subject of him telling his parents that he didn’t want to marry, or at least didn’t want to marry a woman. He told me it wasn’t that easy, that for me it was easy to be gay, no one judged me the way his family would. He said the shock would kill his already ailing parents. His uncle, who had promised the deed to a small building lot as a wedding gift to Vasu, would obviously take away this big part of his general store dream. His family would disown him, leaving him without a home, without their protection, without a reputation that anyone could respect.
I tried to tell him that living a lie was worse than all of that, that he would be harming any woman he married if he wasn’t in love with her, didn’t feel attracted to her and was marrying her just for the sake of society. I tried to say I would be his new family and would help him find a reputation that others would respect in the LGBT community I was part of in Bangalore.
But in the end, when he dropped me at my flat, he refused to come up with me, and when he said goodbye, his voice held a steel resolve that boded ill for our relationship.
Before he drove away into the night, I tried one more time to convince him that what he and I shared, what we felt, was worth the fight and uncertainty. I leaned in his window and caught his eyes, those blue, brown-flecked eyes that had first set me on this path of what I realized now could only be called love, and said, “I once asked you to come up and change light bulbs for me. You know by now that I just wanted you to come up and become a friend and a lover. But the truth is, you have been bringing light into my life since I first laid eyes on you. Isn’t what we feel worth a fight? Don’t you want to keep bringing light to our days?”
His face was a battlefield of emotion as he stared at me, not even bothering to wipe away the tears that welled up and spilled down his cheeks, weighing down his eyelashes and wetting his shirt collar. He started to speak, but then shook his head hard as if he could just shake away the emotion, the pain he was feeling. He seized my shirtfront violently and pulled me in for a long, breath-taking kiss. Then he pushed me away roughly, starting the van. “I have to go. You know it’s a long drive back to my place,” he mumbled, his voice husky.
I let him go. I had no choice. Either he had courage, or he had family and society. And it was not a decision I had any right to make for him. As his van pulled out into the busy evening traffic, I felt his tears on my face and my own slowly mixed with them.
How could life return to what it had been before? Memories of Vasu surfaced everywhere. Even work was not safe: though I continued to go on crazy cross-city meetings, the transport coordinator said Vasu no longer took his calls and didn’t seem free to drive me.
He also didn’t return my SMSs or my phone calls. And I didn’t try repeatedly: I knew he needed his space, time to make a choice. He could also just pretend none of what we had shared ever happened. Either way, my calls and SMSs wouldn’t help.
I supposed it was too much to expect that Vasu choose courage over family and society.
But it was JRR Tolkien who said, “Courage is found in unlikely places.”
One night, over two months after that rough and tear-filled kiss, I came home from work, late as usual, the cab dropping me at my gate. I stood for a minute looking at the stars through the branches of the tree in front of the building before heading for the gate.
I became aware that someone was sitting on the step in front of the gate just as they rose to their feet. In the dark, it startled me, and I stepped back defensively.
I knew that voice. “Vasu?” I stepped forward to look at him, his face coming into focus as my eyes adjusted to the dark.
He looked almost nervous. “I’m sorry,” he started without more preamble. “Sorry I didn’t answer your messages or your calls. I…I…A lot happened after….” When I didn’t respond, he sat back down on the step. Surprised, I sat down also, setting my workbag beside me. He took a deep, ragged breath. “Three days after we came back from the jungle, my father expired.”
I reached for his hand and found it, holding it hard. He allowed it, squeezing my hand in return. “Yeah,” he went on. “He had been sick. But we didn’t expect him to go so fast.”
We sat silently for a few minutes, before he continued. “There were a lot of rituals. So many family came. But I came to realize that most of them didn’t even know my father. They came for…duty. Because it was expected. Afterwards, I kept remembering what you said to me about life being short. And I thought, ‘What if in the end it’s this? Family who don’t even know me?’ It made me think a lot.”
He squeezed my hand more, as if by doing so, he found more of that courage I had asked of him. He turned to me, and I could see tears shining in his eyes.
“I told my mom…told her I didn’t want to marry a girl. She said she already knew…that a mother always knows. She and my brother don’t really understand but… Anyway, she spoke to uncle. Somehow he agreed to give me the building lot anyway when I am 30.”
“That’s great!” I exclaimed, putting my arm around him and hugging him.
He grinned. “Yeah, it is! Just one more year on the house loan and one more year before that store is mine!” I clapped his back in appreciation, and he ducked his head, his face full of smiles. He held something out to me in a bag.
I took it. “What’s this?”
I got up, carrying the bag with me to the streetlight, Vasu tagging along. I opened the bag and pulled out a box, holding it up to see it better.
It was a light bulb.
I turned and found Vasu smiling at me, his hand outstretched.
“Yeah?” He nodded his head back and forth in that typical South Indian way, both asking and confirming. I understood his question, though that was all he said. I grasped his hand, and nodded back, pulling him to the gate, a smile slowly spreading across my face.