Friday, 13 February 2015

THE PINK SHEEP — 18 SHORT STORIES ABOUT GAY LIFE IN SOUTH INDIA

MAHESH NATARAJAN AUTHOR OF THE PINK SHEEP
Braving the cold Delhi evening, a motley crowd had gathered in the auditorium to hear the author. He was reading a passage from his book:
Richie fell asleep. His head was on my lap, and his comic book on his chest…He looked beautiful…
“Excuse me…” A shrill voice from the front row splintered the mellifluous words of the author floating in the silence of the room. Collective annoyance glared at the raised bangle-clad hand. It was 76 years old and wrinkled with age.

“I have a question,” said the lady. “Have you never been attracted to a woman?” The room gasped.

The author smiled. “No m’am. I am gay.”

“Ever?” She persisted.

“Never,” he said.

Bangalore-based author Mahesh Natarajan’s book The Pink Sheep is not a contender for any literary prize. The plot and its characters are ordinary. It is this underlying commonality that makes it the first queer book of its kind. 

The Pink Sheep is a collection of 18 short stories that talks about gay life in conservative south India.

Born in an orthodox, middle-class Brahmin family in Madurai, Mahesh’s life couldn’t have been squar-er. “I came out of the closet very slowly,” says Mahesh, who for a very long time didn’t know he was ‘in’ the closet to begin with. “I did not accept my sexuality till I was about 18-years-old. It disturbed me a great deal that I was getting attracted to boys. Given my orthodox family background and the place I grew up there was no reference point for what I was feeling or how to deal with it.” 

Young Mahesh was a voracious reader. And the books that he read told him that same-sex attraction was just a phase in most people’s lives. “So I was waiting for my phase to pass and hoping that one day I’d actually get attracted to a woman.” That never happened. Instead he fell in love with a classmate in college. “It finally dawned on me that I was gay.”


The realization was traumatic. “All along, I had grown up with this image that once the phase of same-sex-attraction is over, I’d meet a woman, marry her, have children and raise a family, just like my father and all the people around me did. They were my reference points of how life should be. Awareness of my sexuality, though brought relief from confusion about my orientation, it also wiped away
my dreams of what I thought my future would be.”

For the next few years, Mahesh was a cauldron of emotions. Confusion, fear and unanswered questions accompanied him like lovers. It took him two years to come to terms with his awareness of his sexuality before accepting it at age 22.

At 23, he had left his small town and moved to Bangalore, found a job and was in his first serious relationship with a man older to him. And he decided to step out of the closet albeit gingerly. “Since I was close to my older sister, I wrote her a long e-mail telling her that I had fallen in love. But I deliberately kept it gender-neutral; because I didn’t know how she was going to react. After the second mail my sister called me. ‘Mahesh,’ she said, ‘you don’t have to struggle so hard to keep your mails gender neutral. I know you are gay. I kind of knew it right from the time you were a boy.’ What a relief! She had accepted me long before I had accepted myself.”

Every queer person aspires for acceptance by family, friends and society, just like the rest of the milieu. “Few of us get it with very little difficulty,” explain Mahesh. “Some struggle for it and manage to find it in pockets, while most of us are fearful that we might not get it and never come out. I belonged to the latter category. It was my fear that I might not get acceptance that contributed largely to my struggles within.”

But Mahesh’s orthodox, brahminical, middle-class family surprised him.  He came out to his parents exactly the way it is described in the story Dolling up, in the  book:

A few years back, after my brother got married, my parents started talking to me seriously about my marriage. I skirted around the topic for months, till they finally lost patience. One day, when we were in a car driving down to the family temple, they cornered me and demanded to know why I was so resistant to marriage.

“You should know,” I protested. “I don’t have to spell out everything! You have seen how I live; you know my friends. You know I live with Vijay. You can’t not know. You are not blind.”
A stunned silence later my father said, “I didn’t want to ask.”
Mother said nothing at all.
I did not force conversation. I was happy for them to take their time to process what I had said. I was also relieved that they had not immediately started off asking embarrassing questions about my sex life, wondering what had made me gay and talking about ‘cures’ and such.
I got back to Bangalore and lay low.
A week or so later, my father called. He was planning a special fund-raising project to construct a community hall close to our family temple. We spoke about how much our family should contribute, and he asked if I could spread the word and ask Vijay for a contribution too.
‘I will, Pa,” I said and added tentatively, “You remember what we spoke about in the car…”
My father dismissed it. “Just let me be. We will get used to it. I know our ambal (goddess) has our best interests in mind. We have always trusted her.
If this is what ambal has decided for you, who am I to question it? It is all in her hands.”
Mother took much longer to come around but, eventually, she relented.
“It is not as if you have changed overnight. If this is the case, then we won’t talk to you about marriage again.”

Maybe it is their faith that has made it easier for these small-town folks to accept their son’s sexual orientation without questions. Or could it be that we usually underestimate the capacity of human love and acceptance?

“My father and I, don’t discuss my sexuality, in as much the same way he doesn’t discuss my siblings’ sexuality with them. However, he is there for me when I am going through some difficulties in my relationships the same way he’d be there for my siblings. He advices me or simply listens to me. I love that. I don’t want him to march in a gay parade or carry flags supporting gays or cry from the rooftop that his son his gay... I just want him to be my father. And that’s what he’s been. It is beautiful and very precious, though sometimes it does feel fragile.”

 Mahesh does not wear his sexuality on his sleeve neither does he shy away from speaking about it if questioned. To him, his life is not about his sexuality but about human relationships, just as it  was for his 80-year-old grandmother. “She was an orthodox, brahmin widow, who  lived all her life in a village. She was a stickler for traditions and rituals.” But, when the time came, the old lady batted for Mahesh. 

Mahesh had taken his boyfriend to a festival in his house. His relatives were miffed that he had brought a  non-brahmin partner to partake of the ritualistic and traditional lunch, meant only for Brahmins. That’s when grandma took the relatives to task. ‘Isn’t it basic human tenet to show love and courtesy to a guest. Moreover this guest happens to be a person our boy lives with?’ she said. 

"Rest of the family was shocked and I was overwhelmed,” recalls Mahesh. Grandson and grandmom never had lengthy discussions about homosexuality, like it is usually aspired on celluloid. Yet there was acceptance and love in the relationship.

There is no melodrama in Mahesh’s life as well as in the stories that he’s penned. If you replace the pronouns in The Pink Sheep it could easily be a book of 18 short stories about relationships in conservative south India. Mahesh attributes it to the “humanity or commonality of our lives and experiences”.

Mahesh began writing The Pink Sheep to share certain aspects of his life, "since people have always asked me how I came out and my family’s reaction to it.” He sent these works to friends who in turn sent it to theirs. “The feedback that I got (from heterosexual people) was that the stories were not about sexuality but about relationships.” That encouraged him to write more. Mahesh clarifies that the book is not autobiographical, (except for one titled The Pink Sheep), but takes real life incidents and weaves a web around it. In the story The Pink Sheep a 12-year-old boy experiences, for the first time in his life, an attraction towards another man. “Many believe that most gays become gays because of some abuse or gay-experience in their childhood. It is not always so,” says Mahesh. “ In my case, I was a normal 12-year-old boy growing up in a typical, well-adjusted family. Yet I was gay at 12, I just didn’t know it.”

It is this matter-of-fact tenor that underlines the lives of his characters in the book. It looks at sexuality through the prism of normalcy. It does not sweep the associated issues under the pink carpet nor does it shine a big-as-a-football-field-spotlight on it, magnifying it a zillion times and in the process losing the plot to find a solution. That’s what makes The Pink Sheep a unique book about queer life. The story Dolling up, talks about a mother who has come to terms with the fact that she will never celebrate kollu with her son the traditional way because he is gay –he will never have a customary family! She feels that the traditions are going to die. That’s when her son’s partner decides to celebrate kollu and invites her. What unfolds is a beautiful story of acceptance and love. The mother teaches her son’s partner the traditions of kollu even as she pointedly avoids looking at the two groom-dolls placed in the kollu instead of the traditional bride and groom dolls.

In that cold Delhi evening, the motley group in the room, rise up and cheer as the reading come to an end. The 76-year-old lady, who earlier wanted to know why Mahesh was never attracted to a woman or whether he was the wife or the husband in the relationship, walks up to him and asks, “Are you a Tambram? (Tamil Brahmin)”

“Yes, m’am.”

“Me too. Is your partner, that boy, also a Tambram?”

“No m’am, he is a Chettiar,” Mahesh replies. “We are inter-caste.”

“Oh…” she says, crestfallen.

Who said relationships are about sexuality!