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Growing up gay in India

- Calcutta boy Siddharth Dube takes a real hard look at our schools, homes and hearts in his candid book on growing up gay in India

No One Else: A Personal History of Outlawed Love and Sex by Siddharth Dube opens in the ballroom of the Grand hotel on Chowringhee and takes the reader on a deeply moving journey of a boy who was both gay and a ‘girly-boy’ in 1970s Calcutta. The book (HarperCollins India, Rs 599) follows this boy as he tries to fit into boys-only 
La Martiniere, struggles with his sexuality, is physically and sexually abused by seniors at Doon School, finds romantic love, encounters the AIDS epidemic in America and India, loses his virginity in a rather unsuitable place, and grows up to work on poverty, public health and development with the United Nations, WHO, World Bank and other international bodies.

A woof of thanks to Lorca Mahalingam Pinto, the author’s 13-year-old dog, who generously cut short his morning walk in New York to allow him to make time for the t2 chat over phone!

Your book starts in Calcutta and  you keep coming back... what influence has Calcutta had on your life and work?

When I was young, I don’t think Calcutta had an influence. Well, actually, the anglicised boxwallah life had a deadening influence on me. It was very Victorian, very moralistic outwardly, especially about anything outside heterosexuality. 

There were many complexities within that world, there were stripteases, euphemistically called “cabarets”, but they weren’t, you know. They were actually what we would call a striptease today. By and large it was a very stifling world, not a world that I have ever enjoyed or fitted into. On a positive note, when I became a young adult, once I began to be interested in social justice issues, I was immeasurably glad to be a child of Calcutta, because one, it had progressive politics, especially at that time, with the Left... their social justice concerns are very real. 
Also, the fact that in Calcutta, more than in any other city in India, there wasn’t any divide between wealth and poverty on the street. And not least, of course, the fact that women in Bengal are much more emancipated and autonomous than almost anywhere in India. 

And you see it in the way the women of Sonagachhi have demanded to be treated as sex workers and you see the empathy with which their demand has been treated in Bengal. To me Bengal is actually a place that fills me with hope, not necessarily always in the short term, and not with its vicissitudes of politics, but certainly because of its emancipation of so many people in society and what that sets in motion, fills me with hope for democracy at the grassroots.
 
You say the all-boys atmosphere at La Martiniere made school difficult for you. Do you think all schools should be co-ed?

Yes. As a short answer, yes, I think all schools should be co-ed. I know studies have shown that girls sometimes don’t do as well as boys do in a co-educational system, so schools should then make sure that girls can flourish even when there are boys around. 

I think it is a healthy thing to move towards that schools be co-ed. Not necessarily for sexual matters but on larger terms of intimacy and naturalness and making gender relationships in India a healthy thing.

I think in order to make India happier, breaking down the barriers between girls and boys, men and women, is crucially important, so that there isn’t the awkwardness and repression and the violence and brutality that comes with it. 

But mixed crowds at St. Stephen’s College or Tufts University (Massachusetts) weren’t easy either...

Well, making schools co-ed is just one vital foundational step but that doesn’t solve every issue. What you need is schooling environments and also broader adult society that are accepting and tolerant and decent. A compassionate, accepting society, which begins with parents and schools.

Certainly, a place like Rishi Valley School (Andhra Pradesh)... has forward-thinking, compassionate environments where children can flourish without a sense of fear. 

Just like parents should treasure their children for who they are, so should the school. Unfortunately, most school environments do the opposite of that. There’s so much stress on succeeding according to one or two parameters — either you do well in sport, or in studies. But adulthood is a very different world than that, where you can flourish at a million things. You can flourish at nursing, at nurturing, at fashion design, at kindness, at integrity, at courage… and schools should reflect that. 

Then Doon School. Reading about the ordeal young boys face at the hands of seniors, will any parent now want to send their kid to Doon?! Are you saying that kids shouldn’t be sent off to residential schools? 

I want to be very clear about my criticisms of Doon. As I mention in the author’s note as well as on my website (www.siddharthdube.com), in spirit and in conscious intent, my goal is not to hold out Doon as being the worst of schools. I am sure that even in the ’70s, when I went to Doon, it wasn’t the worst of offenders, and I’m sure today Doon is probably far in advance of comparable boys-only schools in India. 

I know people on the board now and principals — like Kanti Bajpai — who are very serious about addressing some things that we had all experienced, which was brutal abuse and violence. I refer specifically to the codes of conduct that have been created at Doon that bar and outlaw many or all the brutal practices that I have written about in the book. 

Should children go off to residential schools? These are difficult questions and it often depends on parents, their relationships, their situations… sometimes school might be a happier place than living at home. So I can’t say… but I think they should certainly send their children to compassionate, caring co-ed schools which do not have prefectoral systems and do not have hierarchical systems and do not allow physical corporal punishment, administered either by the teachers or by other students. 

But you know the Lawrence schools, though co-ed, were rife with abuse earlier. So, co-ed itself is not a guarantee that everything will be fantastic. That is just one step out of many, many, many that need to be taken, in the Indian context, to check violence, sexual abuse, physical abuse, cruelty, fear… in schools. 

You say one of your most loving relationships disintegrated because of your fear of AIDS. How do you think the government or society can help with the prevention of AIDS and also to combat the fear of AIDS?

It’s not just the government… all of us who are part of the public need to have a healthy approach and ease towards discussions on sexuality, intimacy, romantic relationships, so that young people — teenagers, children — do not have to approach these matters in isolation and as a matter of shame or fear or secrecy. Because it’s not just a question of AIDS, it’s a question of violence against women, other sexually transmitted diseases and unwanted pregnancies. 

It’s interesting how you prefer the term gay over homosexual…

Yes, yes. Homosexual was a term coined in the medical-psychiatric-psychological field, and it is a very narrow and misleading term. I mean you or I are not defined by our sexual orientation. This word, homosexual, is a very outdated, archaic word, and one should do away with it. It’s even more archaic than notions of gender. 
That’s one part of my answer. The other part is that we all know now that in a less gender-prescriptive world or a less sexual orientation-prescriptive world, as we see in the West, or what we see in older societies, including in India, and in Asia, there wasn’t always this binary between male and female and between homosexual and heterosexual. In a less prescriptive world, we can just be ourselves and have happier and more fulfilling intimate lives. 

As I travel back and forth between India and the US, what I always see in India is the kindness and the gentleness of people, and I am not dreaming it. It is there. Which is in contrast to polarised societies where people can often be very harsh. And what I see coming back to New York City is how gentle men have become. And how non-gendered and non-sexual orientated they have become. They don’t define themselves by their gender by being masculine, nor do they define themselves by the binary of sexual orientation. They’re just themselves, they’re not threatened, they’re open to things….

Legalising of adult sex in India, which includes sex work and homosexuality, are causes closest to your heart. Any developments on those grounds?

See, both on the fate of Section 377 and the laws governing sex work, I am happy to be proved wrong. I am happy to be proved wrong by people like Arun Jaitley and other clearly thoughtful and caring people within the Sangh Parivar — because they have spoken up recently saying this was a simple matter of social justice and human rights and citizenship rights and that people should not be bigoted about it. I’m not optimistic but I am always happy to be proved wrong on any issue, especially if some good is happening in the world. 

Whether it’s the Sangh Parivar, or the BJP or the Congress or the Trinamul... and I should point out that in every state, governments can do things. So I really look to my friends in the Trinamul to do stuff. There’s no point pointing fingers at the Centre and saying, ‘Oh, we can’t do anything about gay rights or sex workers….’ That is the most pitiful excuse that I have ever heard! Surely Mamatadi and other people in the Trinamul can do whatever they can to make Bengal a safe place for women, for transgender individuals, for gay people, for everybody, and obviously they don’t.  

You have spoken about struggling with your sexual orientation and also about having to scout in dark parks in Mumbai for your first partner. What would you like to tell a young boy like yourself who might be going through the same emotions and confusions now?

Few young men have emailed me... about how desperate their lives are, how they never expect to find happiness and romantic love… and it breaks my heart. I am in my fifties now, 30 years have passed since my college days and to see young people still suffering the same way is just heartbreaking. And whichever kind of young people they may be, not just gay people. 

We have such a long way to go in India. We need to decriminalise anything relating to people’s sexual choices, intimacy, sexuality and we need to build an accepting society. To all young people I’d like to say that they shouldn’t give up hope, India has come a long way already… know that most thinking Indians are accepting, loving and will stand by them. It’s only a handful of bigots and abusers who would not. 

All schools should/should not be co-ed because.... Tell [email protected]


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