This photograph is symbolic in relation to the article below. It shows an evening scene of a Kolkata road. The foreground is quite desolate and somewhat dark. To the left of the photograph, there is a man walking with a limp by the side of the road (the man is walking away from the camera). Ahead of him is a car parked on the road, but there are no moving vehicles in the foreground. On a poorly lit pavement next to the road, a woman can be seen washing some utensils on the kerb near what looks like a roadside eatery, though there are no customers in sight. To the right of the photograph, a Kolkata Police movable traffic barrier is placed in the middle of the road, with no apparent sense of purpose. In contrast with this scenario, in some distance one can see bustling traffic at a junction, bright lights from the vehicles zipping past and lit-up ad kiosks mounted on lamp posts. The junction is bathed in overhead halogen lights. But the sky and the trees overhead are dark and seem quiet in relation to the rushed activity below. Photo credit: Pawan Dhall

Vartanama, Dec '18
Some ruminations as 2019 takes off from where 2018 never stopped . . .

A year with a landmark human rights development such as the decriminalization of queer people in India just ended (assuming that the midnight of December 31 is the only time that a new year begins). The Honourable Supreme Court of India covered itself in rainbow glory with a cracker of a judgement. And since then celebrations have been galore, so much so that every time one blinks, one sees rainbow coloured spots and floaters.

Equally, the year end saw rightful protests against an abomination of a legislation called the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Bill, 2018. A majoritarian State once again displayed complete disregard for a marginalized section of society. The protests against the Bill, which was passed in the Lok Sabha (but thankfully likely to be stalled in the Rajya Sabha), became a part of the annual rainbow pride walks in Kolkata and elsewhere, and drew in many allies from other civil society forums and networks.

The celebrations and the protests, legal campaigns and petitions, as also the numerous carnivals, lit fests and other rainbow pride public events across the country . . . perhaps these can be seen as signs of the Indian queer movements becoming more confident and acquiring chutzpah. All good with y’all, but then something seems amiss. Is it with these movements or something inside me?

Is it a result of recent readings and viewings on mindfulness that I’ve been doing? As they say, this is the information age. It’s great to be informed and to be able to say, “I’m aware!” But then am I aware that I’m aware? Are my actions simply a function of information copy-pasted on my mind, where the information propels me rather helplessly into doing something? Not for me to question why I must do what I’m doing? Am I into something simply because it’s the done thing?

I know my rights, I pride in my pride and so I walk the pride walk. This perhaps has been the premise for the 15 times I’ve walked the ‘Kolkata Rainbow Pride Walk’. But what could have been a 16th walk for me on December 30, 2018 just didn’t seem like the thing to do. My knowledge of my rights simply didn’t cut the ice in terms of wanting to walk again. It suddenly seemed like a good thing to stay away and feel what it felt like to stay away (and I’m still processing it).

Similarly, must I be a speech-maker at protests against injustices? I still believe that the act of writing in itself can be an act of protest – even in this information age where information is increasingly absorbed audio-visually. Writing may not have the optics or sound bites of public speaking, but I feel far more committed when I write against a wrong.

Quote: The celebrations and the protests, legal campaigns and petitions, as also the numerous carnivals, lit fests and other rainbow pride public events across the country . . . perhaps these can be seen as signs of the Indian queer movements becoming more confident and acquiring chutzpah. All good with y’all, but then something seems amiss. Is it with these movements or something inside me?

This must be the time for me to stop and ‘honour’ the alienation I feel from both queer celebrations and protests, instead of dismissing it as a passing phase. Staying away from recent prides and demonstrations has set me thinking about the alienation that sometimes queer individuals seem to feel from the very movements that are trying to uphold their cause. This recently came through in my engagement with Varta Trust’s efforts to provide legal aid to queer individuals. Brief sharing here with identity markers modified or removed.

In one instance, two young women in love, both adults living in Kolkata, have been torn apart by the family members of one of them. They have managed to wrongfully confine one of the women in a clinic meant for recovering from addictions. That this should happen so blatantly after the reading down of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code must raise questions in the minds of queer individuals about ‘claims of a victory’ by queer activists against historical injustice.

Perhaps a good thing is that the other woman, initially traumatized by seeing her beloved being forcibly taken away, recovered enough to file a police complaint. When that didn’t yield results, she filed a habeas corpus petition in Calcutta High Court against the state of West Bengal and others. The court has ordered the setting up of a medical board to examine the mental health status of the woman confined and her ability to take independent decisions.

Even as the wheels of justice move at their own pace, the pangs of separation continue to assail the complainant, her peace of mind, ability to work and lead a normal life seriously compromised. Her eyes, her voice ready to burst open in a barely concealed flood of tears! Have we, as queer activists or human rights defenders, done enough to address her emotional distress? Are we able to see and feel the situation from her eyes? If she feels distrust in our ability to help her and her partner get justice (I’m not saying this is the case but that it could be a possibility), should we be surprised?

In a second instance, a trans man in Kolkata has been evicted from home by his parents, and under West Bengal’s inheritance laws, he doesn’t have very many options to fight back legally. Currently dependent on friends for shelter, he also lost the job he had in a different city when he agreed to listen to his parents and come to Kolkata (the eviction from home happened after his parents came to know about his desired gender identity, by which time the job was gone as well because of his absence from work).

It’s a miracle that he’s still able to smile every time we meet. Queer support forums in Kolkata have so far only been able to provide him one-off livelihood support and little else besides. It’s to his credit that he doesn’t dwell too bitterly on this aspect. But how must queer public celebrations and protests appear in the eyes of this individual struggling daily with an emptiness that threatens to engulf him?

* * *

Is this too much of negativity? Of course, I wish 2019 to be happy for everyone. The desire for not pushing away the alienation I feel is no hatred for optimism. But it may be that a detour at this stage may lead to my own confrontation with emotions that I’ve successfully dammed (or damned) away. And that a New Year will eventually dawn for me too. Just that it may not be determined by pre-set calendars or other such sundry conventions.

Main photo credit: Pawan Dhall