Vartanama, Mar '19
Sisters (1994-95) was one of the first queer activisms in Chennai, remembers Pawan Dhall
These series of articles intend to create an archive of the queer movement in Bengal and India – not a chronological narrative of the movement, rather anecdotal histories capturing the little voices that are often lost in general historical accounts – voices from thousands of letters received by Counsel Club, one of India’s earliest queer support groups (1993 to 2002), the group’s house journal Naya Pravartak, and its assorted files and folders.
The first trigger for this article came up when Orinam, Chennai’s pioneering collective of queer people and their allies, turned 15 in December last year. But the turn of events overtook that motivation and the plans to write the article were shelved. It was a recent requirement to scan some of the letters in the Counsel Club Archives that rekindled the desire to bring forth one of the most memorable correspondences I had in my early years of queer community mobilization.
The correspondence in question – from late 1993 till early 1995 – was with one Lakshmi from Chennai. The letter writer had American roots but her family had been settled in India since nearly three decades. Lakshmi was her Indian name given by her father and she used it as her pen name because she felt it identified her with India. She was 25 years old when she first wrote in and a final year student at one of the colleges popular not just in Chennai but across India. Apart from her studies, Lakshmi was working to spread awareness about health issues (including HIV) among slum dwellers and college students. She was also looking for contact information on gay and lesbian support groups in Chennai.
Lakshmi’s first letter, written on November 30, 1993, was actually addressed to Fun Club, a fledgling queer group in Kolkata that had lasted only a year or so in 1990-91. I received the letter at my residential address as I used to be a contact person for Fun Club and the group never had a post box number or any other formal address. My response made Lakshmi aware about the existence of Counsel Club, which had started in August 1993 and where I was one of the founder members. I informed her also about the group’s house journal Pravartak (then without the prefix Naya). She came across the journal also listed in an issue of Trikone Magazine published from San Jose, USA.
Before I share further, I must point out that the letters preserved in the Counsel Club Archives rarely include any of our responses from Counsel Club to the letter writers. While messy carbon copies were on their way out and photocopying facilities slowly becoming accessible, desktop computers and the Internet were a rarity through most of 1990s. Neither did the group have anything close to an office space till the early 2000s. Thus making copies of dozens of hand-written responses or those typed on manual typewriters each month and storing them was a task we were not quite capable of. So this account is mostly based on what Lakshmi wrote in her letters to Counsel Club.
As the correspondence with Lakshmi progressed, her enthusiasm to reach out to and mobilize other queer women was obvious. We started discussing ideas on how she could contribute articles to Pravartak. She sent in an article on PFLAG and later a poem titled The Other Shore, which was published in the July-December 1994 issue of the journal. She sent poems also to Arambh in Delhi and Shamakami in USA for their newsletters.
On July 13, 1994 she wrote in saying that she was thinking of starting a support group called Sisters: “I’d be happy to be a contact person for Madras. I’m also starting a group ‘Sisters’. And maybe eventually we would have a newsletter. I’m interested in writing to women and I’d also counsel them.” In the same letter, she mentioned that she had come out to her parents: “Coming out to my parents is the hardest thing I’ve done. I respect you for having done it!”
When I asked her how her parents had reacted, she wrote in a letter dated August 6, 1994: “My parents are okay with my sexuality but not my activism – they don’t want any publicity. Hopefully they will read stuff & become more supportive.” This was something I closely identified with as I was in pretty much a similar situation at that point of time. But clearly her parents’ disapproval of her activism was not slowing her down.
Within a week of the July 13 letter, there was another mentioning that she had got a post box number for Sisters. By any standards, this was a fast pace of developments – so heartening and courageous of someone who was pretty much on her own. In the beginning she even planned to use her real first name for her contributions to Pravartak, but eventually settled on using the pen name.
Lakshmi also shared her residential phone number with me, welcoming me to call her any time for a chat. This meant that she quite trusted us, which was an early milestone of sorts for an infant group like Counsel Club.
Around this time, I introduced Lakshmi to other queer women writing in to Counsel Club from different states of India like Odisha, West Bengal and Tamil Nadu itself. But the going was still tough in her home town: “I have written to Malati [name changed] and have heard from women in Nagercoil & Auroville but not in Madras. I am not sure how to contact lesbians without being so open that they would be turned off from coming out to me (scared of being found out). Catch 22. A newsletter is a need for women here . . .”
On her correspondence with Malati, she wrote further: “You know you gave me the address of a woman Malati. Well I wrote [to] her & she doesn’t speak / write English. So her husband wrote back to me. They also somehow found my phone number (in the directory probably) and phoned me before I had a chance to reply to their letter. I said I’d write & hung up. In my letter I said I wasn’t interested in a friendship with a married lady (whether her husband knows or not). He wrote once more and then phoned once more . . . I said I’m not interested again.”
The last time Malati’s husband called Lakshmi was when he received a copy of Pravartak. On December 6, 1994 she wrote: “Malati’s husband called when he received Pravartak. He was very disappointed that there was no pornography. I hung up. Anyway, don’t feel bad since I am a strong woman & can handle a lot.” (See photograph below).
As luck would have it, most women Lakshmi got in touch with, including some in Chennai eventually, were “either bisexual or married”. She felt this was “very sad . . . slightly disillusioned here?” Should one read biphobia and bias against married women in this stance? One cannot be certain. But perhaps Lakshmi had more than activism on her mind; perhaps she was also searching for a personal one-to-one relationship with a woman and unconsciously giving that priority even as she strived to set up a support group for queer women. Yet she also wrote: “I still don’t mind you giving my address to any woman who writes, just give my name as . . . okay?”
Lakshmi also started corresponding with queer women associated with Counsel Club in Kolkata, including Sunayna, a key member of Counsel Club’s core group. This helped Lakshmi expand her circle of queer contacts, and things came full circle when she introduced one of her pen pals Priti (name changed) from Kolkata to Sunayna! Priti was then studying in USA (where Lakshmi was also eventually headed for), and a letter written by her to Sunayna in late December 1994 shows that she was overjoyed to have found a lesbian friend in her own city.
Occasionally Lakshmi wrote about her travels to other places in India. She travelled to Delhi, where it seems she visited the Sakhi lesbian resource centre (she used letter paper from notepads made by them to write one of her letters to me). But she was quite averse to travelling to North India: “The reason . . . is because of the language. When I went to Calcutta, I was so frustrated by not being able to speak Bengali. I hated it.” She did not mention when she had visited Kolkata and I have no memory of her visiting the city or hearing from common friends that she had. She was generous with her praise and critical inputs for Pravartak. On receiving the April-June 1994 issue, she wrote on October 14, 1994: “I liked your editorial. As gay voices get louder anti-gay voices will also get louder but we must be ready to combat them with education & information . . . I didn’t understand the point of the extract of Kusum Gupta’s piece but I appreciate your including women’s voices. Thank you. The report On the Streets of Philadelphia was good. ‘Mankind’ three lines from the end should we ‘humankind’”. This last sentence ended with a cute smiley that is difficult to reproduce here (see photograph above) and nothing like any of the smiley icons in currency, but perhaps it shows that Lakshmi was years ahead of her time! In the same issue of Pravartak, there was an article Don’t Look Away written by Giti Thadani, founder of the Delhi-based Sakhi Collective. It focussed on the myths related to lesbians in India and the absence of support from any feminist organization for Sakhi Collective. Lakshmi commented: “About Giti’s ‘myths’ I wrote to Manushi [journal] and the response from Ms. Kishwar was very disappointing. She is not interested in covering the lesbian issue. What a pity. I am writing to her again.” But in her next letter she wrote: “I sent Madhu [Kishwar] a good letter & tons of info. So they can’t make ignorance an excuse but never got a response so basically she’s just lesbophobic.”
By the end of September 1994, Lakshmi often wrote about her imminent shift to USA for studies. This did not happen till some time in 1995, but the uncertainty around her move abroad meant that Sisters was never listed in Pravartak’s resources (Mes Amis) column. By the time the group’s address was ready in mid 1994, the journal’s first issue of the year was out. By the time the next issue was being prepared, Lakshmi was planning to leave India. Sisters did get listed in Trikone Magazine as a support group for “polycultural lesbians”, but this was from around mid 1995, by which time Lakshmi had probably left India (the last letter from her in the Counsel Club Archives was dated January 23, 1995).
In one of her letters towards the end of our connection, she wrote: “I am disillusioned for lesbian women & no, no chance of meeting one (a soulmate) here.” I felt sad for her – for her sense of loneliness, which some activists experience even as they work to bring people together and often try to sublimate in the joy of seeing collectivization happen. I hope she found what she was looking for later in life, perhaps in USA. I am not aware where she is today – a common friend mentioned meeting her last at a queer conference in USA in 2000.
But Lakshmi need not have been ‘disillusioned for lesbian women’ at all. Her efforts could not have been in vain. Irrespective of whether or not her work contributed tangibly to queer activism of today in Chennai and Tamil Nadu, I do believe every drop counts. Someone somewhere must have been motivated by her efforts – I know I was, as also were other members of Counsel Club. I also hope this narration counts as a much belated ‘motivational’ birthday gift to the Orinam collective for its amazing contribution to queer activism in India.
About the main illustration: The Other Shore poem by Lakshmi published in the July-December 1994 issue of Counsel Club's house journal Pravartak. All illustration credits Pawan Dhall