Cover Story

India 2018: A Love Story

Rohit Chawla
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The lives and loves of Indian gay couples after the freedom verdict

IT WAS SOMETIME in November 2015, as the air began to grow cold in Kolkata, that Suchandra Das, riding pillion on a motorcycle, began to grow red with a warm thought. Till today she can’t explain why the thought suddenly occurred to her. But it pursued her throughout the day, through her photography assignments and her quotidian tasks. Until later alone at home, she dialled the one number she knew almost by heart. On the other end of the line in Chennai was Sree Mukherjee, her girlfriend of over three years.

“Why don’t we get married?” Das asked.

Mukherjee had spent a lifetime uninterested in the idea of a marriage. As a lesbian, growing up in Kolkata and then residing in Chennai, she had never imagined sitting across another woman in a wedding ritual and not just because of the unconventionality. A marriage between two women to her was just that—an empty ritual, without any legal recognition and attendant rights, from naming each other as the next of kin in insurances and financial matters to acquiring a home loan or buying a home together. “It was never my thing. I am a more practical sort of person. I had never once thought—actually I never really cared for a wedding,” Mukherjee says.

“But Suchandra has always been a bit this way, a little girlie, with dreams of a wedding some day.”

But now, the question, which was really a marriage proposal, had been posed. “I was aware how much it meant to her,” Mukherjee says. “And there’s one thing about us—if there’s something Suchandra wants, I get it.”

So a few weeks later in December, in a quickly arranged ceremony at a friend’s house, with a friend fulfilling the role of the pundit, without any of Das’ family members attending, although they were invited (Mukherjee’s parents died long before), Das dressed as the bride, and Mukherjee turned out in the attire of the groom, the two got married in a traditional Bengali wedding. Later they held a reception for their friends.

“It was beautiful,” Mukherjee says. “I didn’t care for it before. But there that day, it was something really beautiful and touching.”

“I finally feel at home in India. Regardless of my orientation, I will now be allowed to exist” - Vivek Kishore (right), an education consultant, and partner Vishwa Srivastava

The reading down of Section 377 marks a major, although much belated, moment in the LGBTQ movement in India. It was a humiliating piece of legislation that had no place in any country which aspires to modernism. But for years the Government had dragged its feet over something so explicitly unjust, and as the days after the Supreme Court ruling has showed, had little real opposition. Sure, there is homophobia but a lot of the country moves along a ‘don’t-ask-don’t-tell’ approach. You cannot mobilise people against a ruling that decriminalises homosexuality, at least not today, in the way you can have them threaten the release of a film like Padmaavat.

But the Government showed no gumption for all these years and Section 377 continued. Irrespective of it, however, people from the LGBTQ community across various sections have been falling in love, living together, as partners and sometimes as in the case of Das and Mukherjee, as married couples—either with the support or opposition of their parents—starting their own families, going to work, making friends, living lives like men and women in conventional heterosexual relationships.

Debendra Nath Sanyal and Ankit Andurlekar have been living together in a conservative Maharashtrian locality in the far eastern suburbs of Mumbai for over a year. It is a sleepy little neighbourhood of numerous small winding roads, old buildings that are no bigger than three or four floors, and dotted with a number of temples, many of which intrude upon the road.

In the compound of their building, a large pandal has come up, where soon a statue of Ganpati will be brought to celebrate Ganesh Chaturti. But nobody seems to know either Andurlekar or Sanyal here. Until a lean man appears. He is dressed in a shirt and a pair of shorts, the brim of his cap bearing down and covering much of his small face. His arms appear incredibly long, both pulled down by cloth bags filled with groceries. “Those two boys who live alone together,” a voice from underneath the large brim says in Hindi. “Why didn’t you say that before?” Two women from the same building who couldn’t identify Andurlekar and Sanyal by name earlier nod their heads in agreement. “Why didn’t you say?” they both repeat.

And I follow the man with the grocery bags, over several flights of stairs, until I reach the fourth floor, where the man puts down one of his bags, and stretching his long hands, pointing a long bony finger at a door says, “There” and runs away before anyone can answer the door.

“It is basic human nature to love and be loved and no government should be able to restrict it. Decriminalisation of 377 was long overdue” - Mallika Vadehra (left), owner of Vadehra Real Estate, and partner Cinthya Marquez

Inside, even though it is close to afternoon, the curtains have been drawn, and the two, Sanyal and Andurlekar, have just begun to awake. “Ankit,” Sanyal says in mock-exasperation, when he has managed to wake up fully and take in the mess of the bedroom. “I’m going to kill him. This was his job,” he says and points towards a clothes rack. There are several clothes here, piled one atop the other. “He was supposed to fold and put it inside the cupboard. Ankit, where are you? ”

Sanyal works in an advertising firm. And Andurlekar works as a marketing and communications professional in a real estate firm. The two, still in their 20s, represent a new type of gay couple in India. They may have suffered bullying in the past, even hidden their sexuality at school and college, but are now out of the closet to their families and friends, unafraid of having their pictures and names in newspapers, sure of who they are and who they love, unembarrassed and assertive of their rights.

BUT IT WAS NOT ALWAYS like that. Sanyal remembers a period once, early in his adolescence, when he would be extremely conscious of the way he presented himself lest others become aware of his orientation. He recalls several moments in school when during regular conversations with other students, he would hardly be able to engage because of the worry that his gayness would show. “But now I don’t care. What others think of me means nothing to me,” he says.

Sanyal had everything carefully planned about coming out to his parents. First, he was going to get a job, and then find a place to live independently, before revealing his sexuality. But an argument with his younger brother, after he had already found a job, where he admitted he was gay, laid the plan to waste. In anger, he first walked up to his mother, telling her he was gay and asking if she had any trouble with that. “Oh dear,” she told him, “but I already knew.” Later in the evening, he repeated the same routine with his father.

“Now I don’t care. What others think of me means nothing to me” - Debendra Sanyal (right) and partner Ankit Andurlekar

“Dad, I like boys. Do you have any trouble with that?” he asked.

“What do you mean you like boys?” the father responded. “I like other men too.”

“Not in that way, dad,” Sanyal replied.

To his father, Sanyal explains, gay men were colourful, exaggerated figures with limp wrists and effeminate mannerisms, the kind of stereotype portrayed on TV and films, and his son did not fit that image. Sanyal moved out of home though, although without any animosity with his family.

The two of them, Sanyal and Andurlekar, first met in 2016. Sanyal’s office was trying out various co-working spaces in Mumbai. And one such place was where he met Andurlekar.

“He won’t admit, but he totally checked me out,” Sanyal says.

They later found each other online, began to chat, and soon they were dating.

Andurlekar, in comparison to Sanyal, comes from a more conservative family. Five of them—his parents, a grandmother, Andurlekar and his brother—used to live in a small single-room house in the Maharashtrian locality of Lalbaug in Mumbai. When Andurlekar came out to his parents—his brother had chanced upon his text messages to Sanyal and compelled him to tell the rest of the family—his parents broke down. “My grandmother even began to grasp her chest like she was going through a heart attack,” he says. Andurlekar had to abort his plan of moving in with Sanyal by another few months.

“Even though we think of ourselves as married, she isn’t considered my next of kin and can’t inherit the property” - Sree Mukherjee (left) and partner Suchandra Das

When the family eventually gave in to Andurlekar’s wish, both parents came to drop him at Sanyal’s house. When the time for goodbyes came, they all formed a circle, Sanyal recalls, even reeling him in, where they hugged each other for several minutes.

“They are dog people, always hugging and touching,” Sanyal explains. “We (Sanyal and his family) are cat people, more independent.”

Couples like Sanyal and Andurlekar— urbane, confident and open about their sexuality—are quite common now. This is quite remarkable even when you compare the scene to, say, the early 2000s. All newspaper articles about the LGBTQ community then, for instance, fell under the lifestyle section. And they almost always followed a set template: quotes from anonymous gay and lesbian couples, some quotes from a shrink, one from Ashok Row Kavi, probably the only openly gay activist back then, and one more perhaps from someone like Mahesh Bhatt—because, well, he spoke on everything.

The filmmaker Sridhar Rangayan and his partner, the screenwriter and producer Saagar Gupta, who have been living together since 1994 recall how different things were back when they got together. “Ah, those days… everything was very hush-hush and underground,” Rangayan says. “The only safe place was our home where we lived together. Our home was also a place where our friends would gather together as an extended family; we all cared for each other and supported each other. The law, the society, the family, everyone was against two men being together. It was only our love that held us together.”

Gupta remembers sitting at Juhu beach late one evening, when they were suddenly interrupted by policemen who wanted to know what they were doing. “Somehow we got so scared, because Sec 377 and the taboo around homosexuality were frightening those days.” Gupta says. “For Saagar and me, we would take pleasure in simple things that cemented our relationship—even going out to a bazaar together was an event—people would look strangely at two men shopping for vegetables and household items together. Sometimes, in a public place, we would hold hands for a brief while and that would give us such a thrill.”

“A person’s sexuality should be a result of their own realisation without any fear of social stigma or expectation” - Gautam Seth (left), co-founder of Klove Studios, and partner Prateek Jain

They became very bold once in 1999, Gupta recalls, when during the anniversary of their becoming a couple, he arranged a surprise dinner for Rangayan by reserving a table at the Rhett & Scarlett restaurant in Juhu and asked the restaurant staff to keep a cake and champagne ready. “When we reached there it was not just Sridhar, but the restaurant staff also got surprised, because they never imagined my partner would be male,” he says. “In that flickering candlelight, we kept reading out poems to each other. The waiter who was serving us looked quite amazed.”

The two have always lived in rented apartments in Mumbai. And very often, Rangayan says, when they would approach a new landlord because they had to relocate, the landlord would refuse because they were ‘two bachelors’. “My grouse (has) always been that while we are able to own or nominate each other professionally, on a personal level, no insurance company or other (such) establishments accept us nominating each other,” Rangayan says.

“Oh yes,” Gupta adds. “Once Sridhar had to be hospitalised. While signing the hospital papers I had to mention my relationship with him. I wanted to write ‘partner’ but for obvious reasons, I had to sign as his ‘friend’. That moment I really felt sad and cheated.”

“The law, society, family, everyone was against two men being together. only our love held us together” - Sridhar Rangayan (right) and partner Saagar Gupta

Rangayan came out to his mother a couple of years after he moved in with Gupta. It was initially difficult for her to accept it, Rangayan admits. But over the years, she has accepted the relationship. Gupta has still not had that conversation. But he suspects they already know. “I think, being parents, they must have already sensed and quietly accepted it,” he says. “…after I introduced them to Sridhar, never once did my parents pressurise me to get married to a girl.”

The two began their professional careers working on TV shows. Although they worked on a number of shows, however much they tried, the two were never allowed to include LGBTQ stories within them. “Even when we proposed a simple gay love story for the series Rishtey, the idea was rejected because (we were told) it will not appeal to ‘family audiences’,” Rangayan says.

The two then set up their production house, Solaris Pictures, with the aim of sensitively telling stories of about the Indian queer community. “We were tired of watching the caricature portrayal of queer people in Hindi cinema. We wanted to bring forth stories… where the queer characters celebrate being themselves,” Gupta says. It was tough going initially. Their first film, in 2003, Gulabi Aaina (The Pink Mirror), considered the first Indian film on drag queens (transvestites), struggled to find a producer. Once it was made, the then CBFC refused to give them a censor certificate. They have tried to get it passed many times over the years, but every effort has come a cropper.

The two now always work with each other, with Rangayan serving as the director and Gupta taking care of all the writing, although internally, Gupta says, “we work in total tandem.”

“The new judgment brings freedom and hope. It means no fear of being punished for loving someone. And no fear of separation” - Harsh Agarwal (right), programme manager for Safe Masti, and partner Aliaksandr Kankou

So how does a couple stay together in a relationship for close to 25 years, when it has otherwise no legal recognition? Rangayan employs the services of a metaphor. “Relationships are like chewing gum,” he says. “We keep stretching it apart, but are still stuck together. But (you) need to know what is the breaking point, so you don’t land with a blob on your face.”

Several queer couples will admit that gay relationships often do not last very long in the way heterosexual marriages do. The truth is that in a heterosexual marriage, there are several factors from the social and legal to cultural working to keep the two together. In same-sex relationships, in comparison, everything is often trying to pull them apart. All they have working for them is love.

IN KALWA, ANDURLEKAR draws open the curtains of the bedroom to reveal, despite the messiness of the room, a well done-up place, with bright colours. At the window grille are a vast number of plants and creepers. Inside the bedroom, three large grey Persian cats linger around Andurlekar and Sanyal. One of them, Sanyal points out, is pregnant.

“Which is the father?” I ask.

“This one,” Sanyal points to a cat crawling at the window-sill.

“That one,” Sanyal points to the third cat seated away from the two other cats, “is gay. He is always humping the other male cat.”

“Maybe,” Sanyal retracts his fingers to make them look like claws, “It is our evil homosexual influence.”

Are the people in their locality okay with having two gay men as their neighbours? “Why does everyone keep asking us the same question?” Sanyal says. “Even our landlord (who is aware that they are a couple) keeps checking on us and asking if anyone is troubling us… The truth is, they (the neighbours) must know about us. But we don’t bother them, and they don’t bother us.”

Earlier this year, wanting to take their relationship further, the two exchanged engagement rings. According to their original plan, in a few years’ time, they were to relocate to another country where gay marriages are legal, and where they can live as a married couple enjoying all the rights heterosexual couples in those countries enjoy. They don’t fancy leaving their families behind, but this was their only option, the two say. But now with the reading down of Section 377, and the possible hope that gay marriages will at some point also get legal sanction, Sanyal says they have decided they won’t leave the country any time soon.

These issues—the legal recognition of gay partnerships and marriages, the protection such legal recognition confers upon people in such relationships, the ability to adopt children, to open joint accounts, to purchase loans, to buy houses together, to take out insurance plans that covers them both, to be able to inherit the others’ wealth if one of them was to pass away, and a myriad other everyday practicalities that couples in heterosexual relationships take for granted—will now increasingly become the focus in the gay rights movement in India.

“We usually dress identically. It is convenient. But it is also a social statement that we are together” - Elen Govel (right) and partner Kiran Mova

Mukherjee points out the way in which biases continue to work against them. A few years ago, Mukherjee and Das decided to purchase a flat in an upcoming housing project in Kolkata. The two returned to Kolkata in 2017, with Das taking up the job of the head of the HR division of a company that runs several fitness gyms and Mukherjee starting her own marketing company. But although the two would have liked to take a joint home loan and buy the flat under both their names, only one of them could acquire the home loan and flat under her name. “So I went ahead and got the loan,” Mukherjee says. “Also, even though we consider ourselves married, she isn’t considered my next of kin and can’t inherit the property. So now once I get the flat, I will have to draw up an inheritance will and have her as the inheritor (of the flat). It’s such a long circuitous route.”

A FEW YEARS AGO, Elen Govel and Kiran Mova, a gay couple in their 40s in Bengaluru, managed to get their health insurances provided by the companies where they work to extend their coverage to include each other. “If I took an insurance plan on my own, there was no way that Elen would also get covered in it. In fact it’s not strictly per policy. But the (insurance) firm made an exception because my company pushed for it,” Mova says. Both Mova and Govel are software professionals. Govel reveals that Mova— who works in an IT startup and hence is flexible and amenable to such requests— first got his company to push his case. Once that was granted, Govel successfully approached his office. The two have also managed to open a joint account in a bank, something which is very difficult for same-sex couples.

Govel and Mova have always been open about their relationship. They attend each others’ office parties where spouses are invited. They both use the others’ last name on their Facebook accounts. They usually dress in identical clothes, right from their shirts and t-shirts to their trousers and pyjamas to their slippers. “It started as a kind of joke in 2010. Friends buying two sets of the same clothes for us as gifts. But now it is more like a habit. Whenever we have to buy clothes, we get two of the same,” Govel explains. “It is convenient. But it is also a social statement that we are together.” They also live with each others’ families, the day mostly spent in Govel’s house, where the first floor has been set aside for them, and the nights at Mova’s, where they have been given the ground floor.

The two first met through common friends in 2003. They became close friends only after Mova moved to the US the following year. They would frequently chat and email each other. Govel would do small tasks and run errands for Mova’s parents in Bengaluru. By 2008, the two were in a long- distance relationship.

The turning point in their lives came in 2009, when Mova returned to India for almost a month-long break during his sister’s wedding. Both began to help out with the wedding arrangements. “All throughout he kept asking, ‘Should I stay back? Should I go?’” Govel recalls.

Mova had not moved to the US because of his sexuality. But it would have been a good enough reason for him to stay back there. As his leave drew to a close, he decided he would remain in India and take their relationship forward.

The two did not have a ceremonial wedding. But they conducted a prayer ceremony (Satyanarayan puja) that is often conducted by couples right after their marriage. “Even today people keep telling us you two have to get married the real way. But in our heads, we are married to each other,” Mova says.

As the years have progressed, other concerns of middle age have also no doubt begun to press upon the two. They invested their money a few years ago in a villa on the outskirts of Bangalore. Several friends, seeing how good they are with their nephews and nieces, keep insisting that they should adopt a child and start their own family. In India, same-sex couples are currently barred from adopting a child. “Some (of our friends and relatives) say (either) one of us should apply to adopt a child as a single parent. But we don’t want to do that. We don’t want to do something that is somewhat illegal. And the moment you identify yourself as a same-sex couple, the adoption agency cancels your application. That’s how it is unfortunately,” Govel says. “But hopefully that is going to be the next chapter in the LGBTQ movement (in India)— adoption, legal recognition for same-sex unions, inheritance.”

THE LGBTQ MOVEMENT will now perhaps fight for these rights. It is at a promising new juncture. Young urban homosexual men and women are more confident and assertive of their rights than they have ever been. Gay sex is now legal, and much of Indian society, happily or grudgingly, will have to accept this change.

But very often caught up in this new moment in time of assertive young queer men and women and a changing society are parents whose children now suddenly reveal their identities.

Back in 2012, when Das came to meet Mukherjee, after she had opened up about her sexuality to her father and told him that she would be moving in with her partner, she handed Mukherjee several sheets of paper stapled together. In it were a set of 64 questions neatly typed for Mukherjee, ranging from questions of her background, her job and the salary she earned to how she intended to take care of his daughter. After every question, a space had been left for Mukherjee to jot down her answers.

To Das’ father, such a relationship was unacceptable, but he was not going to let off his daughter without knowing who his daughter was choosing as her life partner.

Her father hasn’t yet warmed up to the relationship, even after so many years. Mukherjee has still not met the man who had sent her the questionnaire. But in some other aspects, things appear to be gradually changing. A few months ago, Das returned from a visit to her parents with a lunch box. Mukherjee is one of those rare Bengalis who dislikes fish. In the container was a chicken dish.

Mukherjee recalls Das’ explanation, “Mummy sent it for us. She says, she remembers you dislike fish.”

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