Qatha: On the uses of 'sil-batta' to make you straight & more queer tales (part 1)

This main photograph shows pictures of B. Kumar and Rudra Kishore Mandal, the two interviewees for this article, from their earlier, youthful days. They are both all smiles in their respective photographs. B. Kumar’s photograph is accompanied with a dialogue cloud that says: “I used to keep boys away because they wanted to reach the girls through me, and I don’t want to play a second fiddle, but I would like to be a first fiddle!” Similarly, a dialogue cloud along with Rudra Kishore Mandal’s photograph says: “I used to scribble on the walls, I used to draw, and that was one of my biggest escapes from the reality around me, and I don’t know why I needed to escape but there was always this feeling that I’m not fitting in somewhere.” Photo credits: Rudra Kishore Mandal’s personal collection

Qatha, People, Jun '18
Varta brings you the next series of articles under the ‘Queer Kolkata Oral History Project’

This is an initiative to document five decades of queer lives in Kolkata (1960-2000). Our aim in this project is to go back in time and bring forward diverse queer voices through a series of interviews, which will provide a landmark to Kolkata city's queer history.

Typically, the focus will be on the queer scenario in Kolkata during the growing up years of each interviewee – how it was to be queer in Kolkata in different decades since the 1960s till more recent times. The effort will be to bring forward a mix of the well known and the lesser known voices.

Apart from the excerpts published here, the project also aims to publish a collection of the interviews in different formats. All interviews are based on informed consent and where requested, all markers of identity have been removed for reasons of confidentiality.

In this issue we bring you the first part of a joint interview with Rudra Kishore Mandal, 41, a Kolkata-based painter and graphic designer, and his friend B. Kumar, 69, who has been engaged in queer activism in Hyderabad since the early 1990s. Rudra has also been involved in queer community mobilization since the 1990s, and at one time was based in Hyderabad where he counted Kumar as his queer peer and mentor, and, in fact, still does.

In this part of the interview, Rudra and Kumar recount their childhood stories of queerness. Kumar narrates the pressures he had to face to conform to gender norms. He also talks about his experience of early sexualization. Rudra, on the other hand, may have had fewer pressures to conform, but nonetheless had to grapple with a feeling of not fitting in and wanting to escape. Kumar’s sense of humour lightens up the conversation with numerous bouts of laughter!

The interview was conducted by Pawan Dhall (with inputs from Prosenjit Pal) on March 23, 2017, and transcribed by women’s and child rights activist Soma Roy Karmakar. Long read alert!

Pawan: Kumar, could we begin with a short introduction?

Kumar: I’m B. Kumar from Hyderabad, Andhra Pradesh, now it’s Telangana. [I was] born in 1949, and realized [that] I’m completely different from others. I’m second in a line of my siblings, they’re all girls, five girls and one son, and I never used to consider [myself] male. My father had a great hopes, and he used to – being an air force personnel, he used to restrict my movement and my walking style or my talking style, my hand gestures were completely restricted, don’t walk like this, don’t talk like this, don’t be very girly, but I used to like whenever I’m alone in the home, just try out my mommy’s saree (laughter), my sister’s skirts and something like that, and I was ardent fan of that magazine Femina and Eve’s Weekly and I used to give suggestions to the girls how to wear and do things like that, and they were more, girls were more closer but I used to keep boys away because they had some type of a . . . they wanted to reach the girls through me, and I don’t want to play a second fiddle, but I would like to be a first fiddle!

This graphic includes a photograph of B. Kumar from his more youthful days accompanied with text that says: “I used to walk like this, and my father said you are not supposed to walk like that – it’s very bad. You know, you have this ‘sil-batta’, he used to place it between the knees or the ankles and asked me to stand, and they say that it reverses your bones, so that you won’t have a knee curve. And it worked, but given that it was me it never really worked!” Photo credit: Rudra Kishore Mandal’s personal collection

Pawan: Alright, thank you for setting the tone so nicely. Okay . . .

Rudra: Yeah, he had another, oh dear, anecdote to share – he used to share with us one that how his dad actually controlled his walking – you should talk about that!

Kumar: (Demonstrates) . . . I used to walk like this, and he said you are not supposed to walk like that – it’s very bad. You know, you have this sil-batta . . . he used to place it between the knees or the ankles and asked me to stand, and they say that it reverses your bones, so that you won’t have a knee curve. And it worked, but given that it was me it never really worked . . . (laughter) . . .

Rudra: Never worked, you still have the most graceful walk! He used to tell us this thing when we used to have a workshop or something – talking about how we used to, you know, face discrimination or even, you know, a little bit of violence within the family structure for being effeminate or just being girly as they say, sissy, you know, or being perceived as one.

So I don’t know for me growing up when, yeah, youngest of the three – oh, my name is Rudra Kishore Mandal, of course . . . and I was born 1977 in Girish Park, which is in Central Kolkata and we moved to Salt Lake in 1980 – around that time – so I was very young when we moved to Salt Lake. I had no problems, maane settling down here, but my sisters did. I have two elder sisters, I’m the youngest in the family – so I was always pampered yes – my mom used to pamper, my dad used to pamper, my sisters used to pamper me – so yeah a little spoilt, but on the other hand also there were a lot of restrictions on me for – because I was, I was quite a weak child, when I was younger and . . .

Pawan: Physically weak?

Rudra: Physically, I would fall sick very often, and my tummy will be upset and I’ll have stomach aches, headaches, that was there, and I used to like – food and all I was okay with, I never had any . . . I was very quiet also – mostly I lived in an imaginary world of my own, and I was very shy, which is contrary to what I’m now. Yeah, people will say you and being shy, like can’t think of it! Yeah, but I was so shy that I would actually means when guests would come home, I would hide behind the door, or get under the cot – I’ll stay hidden and they have to actually pull me out and to make me presentable and say go, go, go, tell him a rhyme, and I was always like mum, completely mum, I used to talk very less at that time.

The other thing that I used to do a lot – was I effeminate, well I will not know because it was very natural to me, whatever, I’m still the same, nothing much has changed for me – but yeah, but taunts and like lot of people actually used to mistake me for a girl because of my weak physical attributes, and I used to have curly long hair – I think that was my mom’s fancy. I used to wear a lot of hand-me-downs from my sisters, which was again another thing. My dad used to hate it and my aunts and my mom and everybody will put the discarded frock of my sister on me and say that this is good for you in summers, tie up my hair . . .

Pawan: Sounds practical . . .

Rudra: I think they did it for practical reasons and like we were not very well to do, so there was like, of course, a crunch on the money that my mom used to get to run the house, and she used to make do with whatever’s available most of the time – so that was one thing, and that I remember, I can recollect. The other thing was that I was very imaginative from the beginning, I used to scribble on the walls, I used to draw, and that was one of my biggest escapes from the reality around me, and I don’t know why I needed to escape but there was always this feeling that I’m not fitting in somewhere. So I used to always do my own thing – I wasn’t very popular in school with boys – I was very, very popular with girls as Kumar said – I had a lot of friends, girls around me – I was particularly always with girls. I had never had any qualms sitting beside a girl, means the other boys will die! That was the biggest punishment in our school, that you do something wrong and you’re made to sit with a girl. That is like the most shameful thing for a boy.

Pawan: How misogynous!

Quote: Rudra: I wasn’t very popular in school with boys – I was very, very popular with girls as Kumar said. I had a lot of friends, I was particularly always with girls. I had never had any qualms sitting beside a girl, means the other boys will die! That was the biggest punishment in our school, that you do something wrong and you’re made to sit with a girl. That is like the most shameful thing for a boy . . .Rudra: Yes, and that was the practice during that time, but I was like, oh-I’m-happy-to-do-that types, and the other thing is that I used to play a lot with . . . then in 1980s in Salt Lake specifically, the house that we grew up in was like isolated – this place was very isolated – we had only one or two houses in this entire block, the rest was all either coming up or empty fields. So, the houses which were coming up, they used to have these caretakers – who’ll have their family and they’ll have their children and they weren’t one or two, they’ll be like 10 of them, from all ages and all sizes – completely! So I used to play with them most of the time because I didn’t have any other friends . . . Somehow my mother never liked that part of me, but . . . during summer holidays and all I’ll go out, I’ll climb trees, I’ve done a lot of falling down, broke my teeth, cut my lip, and all that . . .

So yeah, that was my growing up and so I used to play with them, and they never judged me. That was a beautiful thing – I think that was why I used to be very, very comfortable with them because they never used to like, means I have never faced any judgment from those friends of mine. They weren’t educated – they were just getting by, may be they were getting one meal a day, but they were always happy to go out on adventures with me and . . .

Pawan: So basically this is a period of time you are talking about . . . ‘80s?

Rudra: Yeah, 1980s and onwards.

Pawan: So what was life like in Salt Lake in those days?

Rudra: Dead!

Pawan: As you said the house was quite isolated, so . . .

Rudra: That’s the whole thing, I used to play with these children and they used to have these heaps of sand everywhere . . . the playground was huge for us. So we never ran out of games at all, and they used to teach me a lot of [games] like pitthu, danguly and kanchi . . .

Pawan: Bompat?

Rudra: Haan, wohi, and then playing with marbles, yeah, so those were the types of games that I grew up with. I never played cricket. In my school also like when the kids were, the boys were playing football, I was playing Frisbee with the girls. Like never really was too much into the physical aspect of sports, but I used to love badminton, played that, and I used to love swimming, so I joined swimming later on. Otherwise we used to play like you know lock and key . . .

Pawan: Oh wow! I’d forgotten that game – that was so nice!

Rudra: Yes, and then we used to have kumirdanga, and . . . another one was there, lukochuri, of course, was there, that’s hide and seek, and rumalchor.

Pawan: Haan!

Rudra: That was like one of our favourites . . .

Pawan: Sitting in a circle . . .

Rudra: Yes . . . so you have a hanky behind, exactly, so that was one of our favourite games. So yeah, that was how it was, and so I never felt alone, I was never lonely . . . even when I was alone at home with my mom and my sisters – my sisters were mostly in Kolkata, in Girish Park and those areas because they were studying in Holy Child, which was near Hedua. So the entire day they’ll be out – in the night when Dad is coming back he’ll get them back home . . . because buses didn’t use to ply that much out here – there were one or two buses, which used to go towards the main city. So that was how it was. School days, I got bullied, yes, I got bullied – everybody got bullied – so I never thought that I was singled out for bullying but everybody used to get bullied – even the bullies used to get bullied.

Pawan: Quite democratic . . .

Rudra: Yeah, means like there was never that thing in our class, because we joined school when it started – we were the first batch in and we were the first batch to complete 10 years and finish ICSC. So we had a different kind of bond in the entire . . . means there were some who left in between, new people did join. But there was this very . . . how do you say, it was like a family, means you know each other’s families, they all know you, parents teachers meeting, everybody is getting together – it was like a celebration . . . and I don’t think I ever feigned sickness or anything to not go to school – I always enjoyed it, I used to go there and like I was the teacher’s pet because I was very quiet, I used to do my homework, I was very nice. Even if the monitor will go and complain to my teacher, the teacher will say no, no, no, he can’t do anything – the sweetest chap around – so I had that reputation, I was always like that. But I like – peechhe mein karta tha, I used to be the michke soytan [covertly mischievous] as they say.

This is an indoor shot of Rudra Kishore Mandal from his toddler days. He’s wearing a sweater and dress with shoulder straps and a cartoon figure in the centre. He has curly hair. With sparkling eyes and a shy smile, he’s looking at someone not in the picture. He’s seated on a sofa, with other furniture in the room blurred out in the background. The photograph has a nostalgic sepia tint to it. Photo credit: Rudra Kishore Mandal’s personal collection

Rudra Kishore Mandal as a toddler (photo courtesy Rudra Kishore Mandal’s personal collection)

Pawan: Were you a backbencher?

Rudra: Never, always the first bench. I never used to score a lot – I was an average student, I was all through my career, studies I have been very average – because I will not put in that extra time or energy – I’ll do whatever is necessary and the rest of the time I’m doing my creative stuff. I was always into – I read a lot of books other than study books – that was another pass time.

Pawan: I think that is part of education. Kumar, how about your childhood, what else happened, other than your father asking you to walk ‘straight’?

Kumar: Imagine! My father was away most of the time, and because of our education we were stationed in Hyderabad. Mum is – though she is a trained teacher, she never used to work. She was a housewife, and she used to keep very restricted movement of me – don’t play with the other boys, don’t learn cycling, and don’t go for a swimming . . .

Pawan: Not even cycling?

Kumar: No, you know . . .

Prosenjit: Anyhow you have to protect yourself . . .

Kumar: I mean she was very protective indeed, of course. But I wasn’t pampered because I was [the only] male child – so called . . . (laughter) . . .

Pawan: Privilege?

Kumar: Biological, that I would say – I was a average student, I wasn’t a very brilliant or something, but I used to be very active in other curricular activities. Not games, games are out of my . . . I don’t want to play any games. Singing, I was a first, and I used to imitate all the female singers of South India, Lata and Asha were my favourites, as well as Susheela and Janaki – they were also my favourites. I used to . . . and whenever I used to sing, they used to ask me to sing behind the curtain so the audience will confuse themselves whether who is singing – it’s a girl, it’s a very sweet voice like and all . . .

Pawan: This is singing on stage?

Kumar: Stage, and singing – I was a bathroom singer, I wasn’t a very learned singer, I never learnt any classical music, though I like to – I wanted to become a nice ballet dancer, but I couldn’t because my father – in those days there weren’t much availability or chances to learn something which you desire to do and Father was the only person who used to earn, and giving these extra . . . educational qualifications was a hard thing because it wasn’t much. And because Daddy was a applying instructor, all his cadets used to come and visit him sometimes . . . my sexual encounters were very limited because bantering out and finding sex – but I used to feel that thing, I used to get attracted by the male – they should have that pucca macho male look, you know, they should be fragrant, two day stubble on them, and then they should be dark – not very fat, not very lean, medium built, muscular guy . . .

Pawan: Two day stubble is back now . . .

Kumar: I know, in those days . . . it was all that, you know – we used to come to school, I mean initial education was in my local area – this was a cantonment area, full of military, and military people used to just see that I’m very attractive and think like that, they used to make passes or something like that, I used to ignore them, I was frightened what [might happen] – and coming to the school was in a local train after my sixth class to Secunderabad. So local trains were fun, and my train, I mean my classmate, I mean we were in different sections but we used to travel together in a train and he was my first lover . . . And now he’s married and a grandfather, but he’s a good friend still . . .

Pawan: So that makes it how many years?

Quote: Kumar: What happened that time was abusive or something like that, I never used to pinpoint that thing, it happened, forget it, and I have that nature of leaving the things what happened, forget it, I don’t want to cling to the past like that . . . My first love affair started in my 8th class or 9th class and then up to my PUC level and graduation, then he got married, and I had to act as a best man to him and it was a hell . . .Kumar: I mean, say, early ‘60s . . . and then my childhood wasn’t very complicated, indeed, of course, but I was thinking that what is this desire, you know. In my times the boys used to write love letters to the girls and they talked about girls, things like that, which I used to hate. And I used to think that what’s this weird behaviour I have in me, and why I am desiring the men, why I can’t be like them. But . . . though they used to talk about the girls, they used to like to use me as a let out and wanted to use me as a sexual toy or something like that – sometimes they used to take my hand and put them in the crotch and asked me to jerk them off – sometimes they got more intimate rather than that. And oral sex was not a big thing in those days – it was entirely anal sex rather, and it was very painful indeed, of course, you bleed and all that something. Then one day my father decided I should be put in a Scouts – you know you have the Scouts and . . . and the first camping, my Scout master stepped beside me and he was using me. He wanted to have sex with me – I felt something is happening to me and if I didn’t like it, I would’ve thrown him out but he did it . . . and I wasn’t even having any ejections or something like that – I was not still . . . (laughter) . . .

Rudra: This means you were what, 11, 12?

Kumar: Twelve . . .

Rudra: And how old was this guy?

Kumar: He was [in his] 20s . . .

Rudra: Okay, yeah, clearly abuse.

Kumar: I can’t even report to anybody, that’s the biggest problem. He was in a camp site in a tent . . .

Rudra: Yeah, he would’ve given you hell if you had reported . . .

Kumar: Nahin . . . he acted normal, and I acted normal, like nothing happened . . .

Rudra: But if you had reported he would’ve given you hell . . .

Kumar: I know . . . it has not frightened me or something, I took it very natural about it – I don’t know, I . . . [my] inner thing, it craved for some attention . . . I was used for his satisfaction – this thing triggered me to [think], oh, people can do this! But I was not very bright or very . . . I can say that I’m not very intelligent, things like that, what happened that time was abusive or something like that, I never used to pinpoint that thing, it happened, forget it, and I have that nature of leaving the things what happened, forget it, I don’t want to cling to the past like that, bygone is bygone, I never cling on. My first love affair started in my 8th class or 9th class and then up to my PUC level and graduation, then he got married, and I had to act as a best man to him and it was a hell (laughs) . . .

Rudra: That’s like a film story.

Kumar: And in meanwhile what happened, my sister used to live in Nampally area, and I used to carry the local supply rations to her . . . while coming I used to stand at that gate of this [garden] and then I saw this very intimate movements there in the bus stop among the men. I geared up my courage and went into the garden and I saw most of the people – oh my god, this is my kind of people!

Pawan: You discovered something!

Rudra: That was your Public Gardens!

To be continued.

All photographs courtesy: Rudra Kishore Mandal’s personal collection (scanned from photograph albums)

Author Photo

Pawan Dhall

Pawan Dhall aspires to be a rainbow journalist and believes in taking a stand, even if it’s on the fence – the view is better from there!

Author Photo

Soma Roy Karmakar

Soma Roy Karmakar passionately believes in gender equality and women’s empowerment. She works on issues of child sexual abuse with RAHI Foundation, Kolkata.

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