It’s April – Ma would have loved it here now. Sitting in my modest balcony, I get a stunning view of the majestic Dhauladhar ranges, their snow-clad peaks kissed by the golden rays of the rising sun. The sweet, spicy fragrance of the rhododendrons and azaleas blends with the musty smell of the rough-hewn, towering pines. Just a couple of days more and then Tarun will be here, for good. I can’t wait to watch the glorious sun rise and set every day, sipping on our favourite elaichi tea from the artisanal clay mugs that Ma had gifted us.
Our landlady is a sweet, simple pahadi lady, one who has greyed more through experience than by age. This remote hamlet in the Himalayas cloaks me in a garb of anonymity – such a blessing to be away from prying eyes, vicious whispers and unsolicited moral policing!
I often wonder how it all began! Was it in school when we were put together in the same sports club? Tarun loved soccer, I did not. But simply looking at him dribble the ball so aggressively towards the crossbar made me try the ‘block tackle’, just to help him score a goal! Similarly, when I experimented with the colour palette in the Art Room, I could feel his breath on my nape, his intense eyes admiring the shades on my canvas. And that still remains the biggest rainbow moment of my life!
Academics, sports, co-curriculars – Tarun excelled in them all. Be it on the football ground or inside the classroom, he used to be the cynosure of all eyes. But today, I can smugly admit that (my chest swells with pride as I say this) it was me, Samar, that his eyes sought all the time, even in the midst of all this adulation.
Tarun and I were best friends from primary school – that’s how we both saw it. Our peers both respected and envied our rock-solid camaraderie. ‘Friendship Goals’ and ‘Bromance’ upped their popularity quotient through our example. Probably we both were destiny’s favourite children as we happened to enrol in the same college after completing school. Tarun chose BBA while I took up Liberal Arts.
I absentmindedly scroll through my phone gallery. My eyes rest on an old photograph of us, horsing around in college with our other goofy friends.
I knew I had let Dad down when his ‘only son’ opted for Humanities instead of the more scholarly engineering, medicine or law. After all, so many kids of his elite bureaucratic circle were busy chasing million-dollar dreams in the Big Apple! But then, Humanities gave me so many more options and mediums to express what I truly felt for Tarun. Emotions which I could never articulate verbally for fear of societal backlash, found a voice in the form of poetry, painting and theatre.
As for Tarun, where do I even begin to describe how he made me feel! Tarun, the macho handsome boy, teachers’ pet, the college heartthrob, the guy who enlivened every party with his charisma and magnetism, had eyes only for me – I couldn’t get any luckier! Frankly, I don’t know how the so-called normal (read straight) people define love but for me, that one casual smile from Tarun, a passing touch, an unexpected call, was enough to send me into a tizzy!
And so, the days went by as we continued being besties in college and soulmates otherwise. During the vacations, Tarun kept visiting me regularly. On the days that he wouldn’t, I felt so listless…agitated…so incomplete.
Once, Tarun and I hadn’t met for an entire week. His sister was getting married, so he was busy with the preparations. She and my sibling Anu Didi, elder to me by four years, had been classmates in school. Tarun’s absence made me increasingly fidgety. One day, impulsively I started ranting, “Didi, do you really think we need these outdated rituals like mehndi, sangeet, even marriage, in these modern times? Such a waste of time, I feel. And to top it, Tarun hasn’t shown up for days now, you know!”
Anu Didi cryptically remarked, “Oh yes, I knew…I always know when he’s here and what all you’re up to, but you must understand that you’re older now. Just like childhood ended, and school ended, and college ended, your childish ‘best friendship’ with that boy also has to come to an end.”
Her snarky response and stark tonal shift sent chills down my spine. Had Didi got a whiff of our relationship? Did it signify the end of the road for us? What followed was a week of deep deliberation and intense soul-searching at the end of which, I came out to my parents!
I give an imperceptible shudder as I remember those initial days of my confession – the self-abasement I felt back then, rankles even now.
I had often googled gay love stories to get an idea of how parents react when their children come out of the closet – does the trajectory of life change? Does life come to a grinding halt? The search yielded numerous and varied results but nothing prepared me for what I actually faced at home.
Dad was beyond himself with rage – the revelation ruthlessly burst the bubble of his happy, entitled existence and laid bare our stratified lives. Anu Didi had this smug ‘I-told-you-so’ look pasted on her pretty face. Both father and daughter kept routinely agonising over the fate of their beloved, precious Samar. The only modicum of sensibility and pragmatism was displayed, surprisingly, by none other than Ma. Ma, an erstwhile docile and retiring person, suddenly seemed to channelise her inner Jhansi ki Rani and sprung to my defence. She sat me down; we spoke for hours on end, we cried together on numerous occasions, and smiled a bit on others. She was the port in my storm where I could seek refuge without any fear.
The days passed mechanically and we all seemed to be simply breathing and biding time in a dystopian world. Meanwhile, Tarun had also come out to his parents.
The situation there was volatile as they were more conservative by nature. Our final exams were over, so I wasn’t allowed to venture out. Tarun was no longer allowed entry to our house. While I seemed to stare into an abyss of despair and uncertainty, I started looking for jobs. Even a nondescript profile was welcome as long as it offered me a distant location.
And then one day Ma suddenly said, “I want to meet Tarun, call him home. I’ve always known him as your BFF; now I wish to meet him as my Samar’s partner.” My heart did a happy somersault – were we making some progress? Was this a cue for a happily-ever-after moment in the offing?
I smile as I fondly remember those moments – tender vignettes of joy and eager anticipation in an otherwise cheerless stretch.
Ma called Tarun home in Dad’s absence. What transpired between them was a curious cocktail of smiles and tears, of banter and debate, of flashbacks and future roadmaps. I couldn’t be happier! Just when he was about to leave, Ma took out her favourite gold chain from the cupboard and put it in Tarun’s cupped palms.
“This is my shagun for your future life, for your health and happiness,” she said softly, drawing me into the conversation. “The road ahead is tough. I shall always have your back but I can’t say the same for others. Hence, you both need to hold on to each other, for better or worse….” she couldn’t continue any further.
Ma’s quivering voice and moist eyes marked the most precious and defining moment of our lives. Both Tarun and I touched her feet as she wrapped us in the tightest hug. That night I cried…I cried after a very long time. It felt as if the thick clouds veiling my universe had suddenly given way to a burst of sunshine and beatitude. I felt light…buoyant…ready to take on the world. But life, of course, had other quirky plans for me!
As the sun ascends, I move towards the kitchen. I light the gas and toss up some bread and eggs for breakfast. It’s a working day, after all!
Both Tarun and I were practically kept under house arrest. One evening Tarun called up. (I still remember the liquid panic echoing in his voice.) His family had decided to enrol him for a Gay Conversion Therapy at some shady clinic in the suburbs. The news choked me and I was left groping for words. I thought of all the reports I had read from various sources. Images of electric shock, nausea-inducing hormonal drugs, psychoanalytic practices and forced sexual reorientation danced luridly before my eyes. I knew we both needed to get out of this asphyxiated hell hole…and get out now!
Just when I thought I had reached the nadir of hopelessness and despair, destiny chose to smile upon me – I landed a job at a quaint, hippie book cafe near Dharamshala. The salary was nothing to write home about but enough to sustain the two of us. Most importantly, it gave me (and Tarun) an escape route to an unfettered life where we could breathe free, where we could live and love and dream together, away from primeval stereotypes and myopic judgements.
I congratulate myself on my freshly minted culinary skills. The crisp buttered toasts and spicy omelette taste delectable, as they get leavened by some freshly prepared grape juice.
Farewells had never been my forte. I never understood what one was expected to say or do at these times, especially now when I was raring to leave. Some quick goodbyes, hugs and feigned smiles later, as my cab pulled out of our manicured, pebbled driveway, I turned back to look at Ma – the only person who looked genuinely weighed down by my exit. But I knew she would visit me – us – whenever circumstances permitted her. The bigger issue now was getting Tarun down to Dharamshala.
“It’s a passing fad, one that you will get over soon. One of those foolish experimental things young, hot-blooded men do, you know…. a bravado of sorts!” Tarun’s businessman father had brazenly guffawed. “Don’t worry son, you’ll be just fine. One month at the sanatorium and it’ll be completely fixed….you’ll become as good as new,” he announced, an insensitive arrogance and complete denial writ large on his lined, ruddy face. Tarun’s mother was way too meek and passive to stand up for her son. She clearly understood that she was on the verge of losing him forever, but years of spousal dominance had robbed her of the strength to think independently and act decisively. Tarun knew he had to act fast.
Tarun will soon slip out of his so-called home – unannounced, unceremoniously, almost like a criminal. His only fault? He had dared to love a person whose heartbeat synced with his own; whose lips broke into a smile just by catching the glint in his own happy eyes. So while I’m settling down in my new job and house, Tarun is making last minute preparations for his stealthy exit this weekend. He has already bagged a few home-based freelance projects – ‘to keep the home fires burning’, I tease him.
It’s almost 8.30 a.m. and I rush down the wooden stairs, greeting our landlady on my way out.”Good morning, Aunty! I won’t forget to pick up the eucalyptus oil for your knees today, on my way back.” She grins and waves back at me. The golden sunrays envelope me in a warm, fuzzy embrace. A blue-throated barbet twits happily from a scented alpine scrub nearby. I inhale deeply as I wipe the dust off my second hand bicycle. God has been kind, life looks good – I look heavenwards in a silent prayer as I zip down the uneven stony path and lose myself in the crowd milling towards the town to start a fresh day’s work.
Author’s note: Conversion therapy uses pseudoscientific practices to reverse a person’s homosexual or bisexual orientation and make him ‘regular’ or ‘normal’ (read heterosexual). There is no medical evidence to support the efficacy or safety of such treatments. Several medical, scientific and social organisations across the globe have expressed their concern over the ethics and validity of such conversions. (Source: Wikipedia).
This piece, first published on Women’s Web, won me the coveted Orange Flower Awards, 2022, for writing on LGBTQIA issues: https://www.womensweb.in/2021/05/a-universe-less-equal-motm-april-may21wk2sr/