I met him when I came to the JNU campus in 2011. The interesting thing about Jawaharlal Nehru University is the alacrity with which people are willing to embrace newcomers. He welcomed me too, a lost young adult, fresh out of college, in cold, cold Delhi. He was warm, weird, friendly, funny, quirky, queer. In JNU’s relationships-riddled campus, I was very soon ‘adopted’ by him and I introduced him one day to a classmate as my Godfather on campus. He corrected me in his characteristic manner and said, “I am your Godmother”.
The journey from being the shy, wayward, amiable thing that Gourab Ghosh was, to becoming JNU’s first openly homosexual candidate to contest election for JNUSU 2013, was chequered. When he first came to the campus in 2006 he was ostracized because of his “effeminate” ways. He thought there was politics at work behind the delay in his getting hostel accommodation in an all-boys hostel. There were days when his fellow scholars had tried to take advantage of him, sexually. There were days when the world beyond the secure walls of the arguably inclusive JNU campus was brutal. But he has fought on, like several others, for basic rights of choice, freedom and expression (and no, the Supreme Court got it grossly wrong when it called this country’s LGBTIQ community an insignificant minority). Gourab Ghosh has several identities — a friend, a political activist, a PhD Research Scholar, a theatre actor, a son, a brother. The world has often chosen, however, to make him answer for his sexual identity — that ‘other’ identity which a heterosexual, patriarchal, normative, conservative, bourgeois society is unable to, or unwilling to accept. “I can’t physically be a mother but I like being a godmother to you”, he had once confessed to me. And Gourab Ghosh, as I know him, has never been apologetic for being who he is.
Deepak, on Satyamev Jayate, in a brutally candid conversation with Aamir Khan in the episode telecast on October 19th, says — “the more you apologize, the more you beg for acceptance or mercy, the more hatred you will get”. Deepak was on Aamir’s show to talk to the audience about his alternate sexuality and that alternate does not necessarily mean abnormal; that different does not mean dirty.
Satyamev Jayate, in my opinion, got a number of things right in their episode on ‘Accepting Alternative Sexualities’. To talk about a taboo topic on television for over an hour in a country as sensitive (verging, in fact, on becoming fanatic) as India was the first step in the right direction. We have seen pride marches and slut walks being organized in different cities of the nation. We have had Bollywood’s inane and frankly disgusting display of same-sex relationships in mainstream masala movies. We have had the RSS brigade erupting like a volcano and blaming the ‘West’ of having a corrupting influence on Indian tradition and culture, when Deepa Mehta’s Fire released in the 90s, and which in a number of ways, initiated a conversation, among the middle classes at least, on a topic which was, to put it in Aamir’s words, “covered up”, rather than discussed. We have had scholars pointing to the existence of homosexuality in India since times immemorial — the punishments mentioned (or in some cases, the references to monetary fines imposed) for same-sex rape, for instance in Manusmriti or the Arthashastra are testimony to this historical fact. These scholars too have blamed the ‘West’, but for another reason this time — that of imposing its orthodox, Victorian morality on the liberal society that India once was (and indeed, this was a society that came up with a treatise on sex and sexual behaviour much before anybody else in the world — the Kamasutra was the fountainhead of all such discourses).
However, all these discussions have been either exclusively scholarly, or crassly banal. The participation in these discourses has been chic, to an extent. Satyamev Jayate, with this episode, having already created an audience base in the last two seasons, targeted the masses of India that is neither too sheltered to be completely unaware of the issue of alternate sexualities (and truly, Bollywood in this case has done more harm than good because the awareness has been narrow and one-sided); nor is this mass radical enough to ‘come out of the closet’, as Eve Sedgwick, one of the leading theorists on queer studies, puts it. It is easy to feed a nation, drunk on Karan Johar’s ridiculous gay jokes and Dostana’s repulsive humour, warped notions of alternate sexual identities. To undo that damage Aamir Khan had to get people like Gazal, Deepak, Sambhav and his ‘Daadi’, Divya and Simran on his show to have a human, sensitive and quiet conversation on an issue which the masses still largely shy away from alluding to.
Gazal was born a boy. As she puts it, she felt like a woman trapped in a man’s body. “The gender of my soul”, she sighed, “was very different from the gender of my body”. Moments from Rituparno Ghosh’s heart-wrenching masterpiece Chitrangada flashed before my mind’s eye as Gazal calmly narrated how her parents supported her sex-change operation and went about from door to door in their neighbourhood in Patiala explaining to neighbours the rationale behind Gazal deciding to undergo surgery and become a woman after having lived the life of a man for the larger part of her life.
Deepak explains how his parents could not overcome their fear of how their son would survive in a discriminatory society when he confessed to them that he was gay. Their love, and the peace that Deepak himself had achieved by coming to terms with his own sexuality, helped them accept Deepak’s choice of lifestyle with time.
Simran was born a eunuch. She left her home when she was fourteen and the resentment in her voice is evident when she says how she never found acceptance in her own family. From begging on streets for survival to living as a sex-worker, to earning as a dancer in a bar in Khar, Simran has come a long way today — she presently works as a peer educator in a national outreach programme. The rejection that she suffered at the hands of her father and her mother, her brother and her sister bruised her. But the Hijra community, in which she lives and works, provided her the balm for her hurt. Hijras often appear disgusting to people — doctors do not want to examine them physically, people judge them all the time for their appearance (which of course does not subscribe to the accepted notions of either masculinity or femininity), and the society condemns them for begging on streets and thrusting their sexuality on people’s faces. Simran is unwavering in her criticism of such a society when she questions this attitude — “we have to beg on streets because you do not give us jobs”, she observes.
Divya was married to a man for ten years before she realized that she was a lesbian. While she shared a healthy, fulfilling emotional and intellectual bond with her husband, sexually she desired women and it took her some time to realize that she was homosexual. She eventually filed for divorce and her husband was supportive enough of her decision, as was her mother-in-law. To this day, she is friends with her husband.
‘Daadi’ supported her grandson Sambhav when he confessed to her that he was gay and she urged the audience on the show to realize that people with alternate sexual identities were born from the same wombs that produced otherwise ‘normal’ people and therefore as human beings they deserve to be treated as equals.
Despite getting a psychologist on the show who clarified that homosexuality is not a disease that can be cured by giving electric shock treatment and that it is as natural as heterosexuality; despite getting gay-rights activists on the show explaining to the audience the double standards of a hypocritical society that judges people on the basis of their sexuality; some members of the audience were not convinced. “I have two normal sons”, said a father. “I hope they are normal, that is. Will they get affected adversely if they play or hang out or associate with homosexuals?” This is the audience that a show like Satyamev Jayate is targeting. As academics or activists, we often exist in a well — the world, however, is not our niche. There is a burgeoning population that needs to be informed and educated and one needs to talk to them in a language that they will understand, coming from a figure that they have placed their faith in. Amir in Satyameva Jayate creates that space for the mass to come forward with their doubts and hesitations, questions and queries. It might not have been the most stimulating discussion, but it was honest, brave and heart-felt.
There are roles that society expects you to play. There are identities imposed on you. Being a male or a female is a biological condition; but masculinity and femininity are societal constructs. These are the constructs that we need to challenge and while arm-chair activism can raise awareness among a certain group of people (the Facebook going, Twitter using population) a more dynamic, interactive space needs to be created for the participation of the masses — the masses that we tend to either ignore or undermine, caught as we are in our own limited world of the intelligentsia. Yes, Satyamev Jayate, at the end of the day, is a programme being produced by Aamir Khan and aired on Star Plus, earning a TRP every week, running on corporate advertisements, and generating monetary resources. But somewhere, it is also speaking to an audience that we, often in our elitism, forget to speak to. And that is why it needs to be commended and applauded. No matter how decorated the sets might be, how edited an episode might look, and how scripted some of the reactions might seem, it takes courage for these survivors — and yes, all the people in this episode on alternative sexualities were survivors, were winners in their own right — to look into the eyes of a judgemental society and proclaim that acceptance is a human necessity and that acceptance is what they are — what we are — all fighting for. “Apnaya jaana”, as Deepak brilliantly concludes, “insaani zaroorat hai.”