The t2 Live series on Instagram kicked off on June 10 with Talking with Pride featuring fashion designers Nil of Dev R Nil and Ayushman Mitra of Bobo Calcutta, in conversation with Saionee Chakraborty. In an hour-long candid adda, Nil and Ayushman, who identify themselves as members of the LGBTQ+ community, spoke about their personal journeys, the ground reality and the road ahead. Here are excerpts from the chat. You can visit t2’s Instagram page for the full conversation.
Nil, firstly tell us about your personal journey and a little bit about what your coming out story was like...
Nil: So I think I knew from a very early age what my preference was. But as one grows up you go through the growing up pangs and you have your sweetheart during your schooldays, and I went through the same. So at the time I went through a relationship with a very good friend of mine and that is when I came to realise what I am….
When I finished my studies I came down to India and I realised that there was a gap between me and my family where I wasn’t telling my family the way things were supposed to be. And you always needed to fill in the blanks for the mother. She would always ask questions and I would always divert them so I realised that this is not the way I want my life to go on…. So it was really dramatic and it was during the Pujas that I came out to my mom. And for three days after that, my mom would just cry…. Finally, on the fourth day, my mother and I were sitting across the breakfast table with my father in the middle and we were all talking. So my mother all of a sudden told my father that, ‘You will never see the face of your grandchild or grandson ever.’ Very dramatic (laughs). My father looked at her and said, ‘Why I have my elder son’. To which my mother said, ‘Oh your daughter-in-law is so figure-conscious she will never be pregnant’. So then my father looked at me expecting that I will say something but then I said that no, I’m not getting married and maybe I will adopt. To which my mom said, ‘Adoption? I don’t think so’. And this happened back in 2004. So the notion was that ‘I will not have any blood from outside the family’. So I said okay I will do surrogacy. My mother paused and said ‘I want a granddaughter’ and that is when the ice broke. Basically, I realised that for a lot of the Indian parents it is always about the lineage or the want for grandchildren where they feel this is where my family is going to end. And maybe when I gave her the option that was her way of connecting with me. And since then it has changed and changed and changed until 2019 when she first came out for the Pride walk with me. That is how far we have come forward.
I didn’t want the relationship to always be shrouded in a mystery. Until you tell them, it is your problem, but once you tell them it is their problem. Basically, we all carry somebody else’s problem by not telling them the way it is. So it’s a simple chapter in my life and I closed it. Now I told them and now if they want to accept me or not, that’s their problem. You always have to take a chance with anything, any decision you take in your life. But for me, it wasn’t the biggest pivotal decision in my life. For me it was always about the career, doing well in your life and doing whatever you want to do in your life. Coming out is not the most important thing but now that I look back it completely changed me as a person as well as my ability to interact and talk to other people. It does make a difference.
But it’s been a long journey Nil...
Nil: It’s been a very long journey, and my mother has been one of my solid supporters. She still looks at others and she notices somebody who might be gay and who has got married and she will tell me that thank god you never got married to a girl and ruined someone’s life.... Sorry, I’m not being judgmental because a lot of people have to get married for their own reasons and that is also fine, and they have to lead their lives the way they need to but this is how her acceptance came and that was it, in the sense, that I didn’t need anybody else’s acceptance ever. That changed the dynamics between the son and the mother and ever since there has been no looking back. I was always out there doing things and that gave me the confidence to do whatever I wanted to, whether I wanted to get involved in the community, whether I wanted to do things for the community, talk about my sexuality the way we are doing today.... Bobo has an interesting story too. Bobo? (Laughs)
Ayushman: The most amazing part of me coming out is that I don’t remember coming out! It was my father’s birthday and I woke up the next morning and there were so many calls and messages just asking me if I am okay. I go into the kitchen and I see my stepmom making this big dechki of nimbu pani and she just pours me a glass and I’m like what’s happened?!
What actually happened was that sometime around 12.30am I stood on the sofa, I looked at my father and I told him that I’m gay and I started howling. And my father supposedly looked at me and was like ‘okay’. I mean they had to be really dumb not to know that I was gay. I thought that I could not tell them but they always knew. Almost everybody always knew. For me, I always thought that I was bisexual. But nobody ever thought that I was straight.
What do you think the families are scared of?
Nil: We are brought up in a very much conditioned and heteronormative society. You are always shown the path of a man and a woman getting married, having kids and then you live your life through your children. This is the format that everybody follows through and through, and you are supposed to follow this. You date, you get married, you reproduce, you bring up your children and then you again get them married. So that is the cycle and the moment that is broken they call it ‘unnatural’. It is a big issue for all of us when you don’t realise and acknowledge the fact that being gay itself is natural because it’s just a part of who you are. It’s just another of life’s big mysteries.
So this conditioning makes us always doubt that ‘oh this is not the right path, this is not the path my child should take’. Funnily enough, everyone is really accepting until and unless they find that it’s in their family. The moment it happens to their own child, there is denial, which is deep-rooted in all these traditions and the societal norms. Obviously, the big societal norm is what will happen, what will society say. But I think that we have come so far that it’s all different now.
Ayushman: As a parent, you want a secure life for your child and they draw this security from whatever they understand and they know. Now obviously with matters of sexuality not having being dealt with before, they are completely unaware of what the child wants or what the future will look like. With reforms, education, understanding, visibility, it opens a lot of doors. Even if one parent is watching this, it is still opening up a window or a door. And that is all. You are obviously afraid of what is not known to you, what is stigmatised and what is fearful.
There might be issues regarding the entire scare with the HIV virus. But obviously over the last 10 years because of awareness and the kind of work people are doing around the world, people know what this is about. So there is still judgement but at least now there is a certain level of awareness.
What kind of changes has the striking down of Section 377 done to the ground reality in India?
Nil: The first reading down of 377 had an immense effect at that point in time and that is when I saw the whole scenario changing completely for the LGBTQ+ community in India. I remember in that two-three years (following that) so many of my friends went ahead and got married because there was a sign of hopelessness you know because they said that there will never be any acceptance in India and that was the most depressing time for me. When this 377 verdict came, the judgement that came through was so solid and well put out that that is when the actual rejoicing happened.
So it’s just been two years and obviously 2020 just passed away in a jiffy. You saw so many prominent Prides around India taking shape. So many prominent personalities are coming out. Small-small changes, small-small steps, but we have a long way to go.
Ayushman: Honestly, this is way more important for our children... at least there is some sort of security there and in the mind of their families that their kids will not be seen as criminals.
What kind of moral policing does the community go through even now, after so many years of struggle?
Nil: Moral policing is linked to so many other rights. Obviously, LGBTQ+ rights is one of the key rights we are talking about here, but we live in such a patriarchal society that it is ingrained in everything. For example, how we portray women in our society like in the regular ads where the woman is always in the kitchen and the husband is sitting and the woman is serving tea. So our rights are interconnected with them. Because the ‘L’ in the LGBTQ+ stands for lesbians who are women. So if the rights of women are not recognised then our rights of the ‘L’ are also infringed upon.... The transgenders are one of the most under-represented people and are still talked about in a hushed manner.... So moral policing is there in the whole bandwidth. Bobo, this reminds me of when we shut down a club because moral policing was happening there.
Ayushman: We were in a nightclub, about five of us. And we were all there and having fun, you know. The DJ on the microphone then said “hetero couples on the floor only” and said that two men do not make a couple. All hell broke loose. Mid-song we went to him and told him that he must apologise, and he did so in front of every single person who was there at that nightclub. I came back home with such a big smile that day because I realised I was friends with real superheroes.
Nil, tell us about the work you have been doing. You have been doing a lot of community work…
Nil: It is a community project. I have been involved from 1995-96 when it used to be the Council Club of Calcutta. So I was there with those activists and I can’t claim that I have done all of the work back then because post that I moved to Nagpur and then to Australia. But when I came back I realised that there are so many dots we need to join, so we formed this small online organisation called Pink Party Kolkata. So we were doing social events, hosting coffee nights, drinks nights and having one-act plays and that is how the ball started rolling and we hosted a social event every month. Eventually, we got involved with the Kolkata Pride, which is a community event owned by everybody. There was no solid platform as such that was bringing it together, and eventually, it kind of made me push to create the Kolkata Pride Trust, which is coming up under the banner of kolkatapride.org so you need to document and put it all together for the rest of the world or all the probashi Bengalis or NRIs who want to see what is happening in Calcutta. We have not been silent, we have the oldest Pride in the whole country. We were the first people to march on the street, asking for our rights and protesting to create visibility.
The 20th anniversary was in 2019 and this is going to be the 22nd year. So we have come a long way and all this needs to be sewn together under a bigger umbrella. So from that year onwards, we started the Kolkata Pride Month. Though June is the International Pride Month, the Kolkata Pride Month happens in December when the weather is more conducive and all the other organisations also agreed to it, and we also agreed to it. So that’s when we do a lot of fundraisers. So it is a community-based event. I don’t have any claim over it, I just spearhead and connect the dots.
It’s amazing because you see how diverse this community is. People from all walks of life come together to walk in the Pride (parade), which is obviously a sign of protest but also a sign of celebration and a sign that we are there. Bobo and us, we have all walked together and we are hoping that the Pride will take a bigger and better shape. So many people need help. The pandemic has affected people so badly. We have to support all the organisations that need funds so we will be doing a lot of fundraising events to make sure that things happen.
What are your favourite representations of the community in popular culture?
Ayushman: Honestly, in all forms of media I would have to say Bengali cinema because of Rituparno Ghosh and Aparna Sen to a degree. I mean I was growing up in those days. I was 12 or 13 when I discovered their cinema and I was a cinema student at
St. Xavier’s… so cinema, specifically Bengali cinema, was one of the highlights of queer identity. And I would also say Durga Puja. Because it is such a fluid form of celebration of identity and the kind of clothing and the kind of drama you see at Maddox Square or Triangular Park, it is like a fair or a fashion week or a celebration of queerness. I was there with my grandparents and my mum and I would pause and admire people who would cross-dress or would dare to come out in the best manner they could.
What is the way forward and what needs to be done to sensitise a whole generation?
Ayushman: I would like to go first because I would like Nil to make the closing comments. Looking at everyone around us and not just queer people, it is time that people are aware that there has to be a sense of belonging, a sense of oneness and a sense of humanitarian wellness. And this needs to spread to various spheres of life. I hope and I know that this will happen and that our lives can be celebrated the way every other life is, without even having specifications of being queer or homosexual. Soon in this country and hopefully, before that in this city, I am hopeful of wellness and love and I have my fingers crossed.
Nil: In life, we are taught to look at things as black and white but remember we have greys also. So we are all part of that spectrum. It’s not about the rainbow, I’m talking about the greys. So try to understand the grey, the spectrum is so wide and we exist in all those nooks and corners — the gays, the lesbians, the bisexuals, the transgenders, the queers and the intersex, all of them are there. If you can love each other as different individuals, forget about who they are sleeping with and what their preferences are, you will be able to understand them. This is lacking in our country at this point in time. We are going through strange times. I can’t request for us to fight for only LGBTQ+ rights because we have human rights to fight for as well. I might differ in my opinion with others, but we all know what is happening right now around us. Queer rights and LGBTQ+ rights can only be achieved when basic human rights are recognised and taken care of. Hopefully in this country in the coming years, we can say that human rights are all recognised and hopefully we can move forward with a lot of love as Bobo always says.