Bigots can cause great harm: Siddharth Dube on writing India's first gay memoir

The journalist-activist's life is a powerful testament for anyone who wants to live and love on one's own terms.

 |  Rough Cut  |  7-minute read |   19-11-2015
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Siddharth Dube's No One Else is a memoir which is as courageous as it is candid. From his years growing up closeted gay at Doon School, Dehrdun, to the height of the AIDS epidemic in New York, from his work in Calcutta slums to his study of Bihar villages, the journalist-activist's life is a powerful testament for anyone who wants to live and love the way he/she wants. Here he is, equally frank in his answers with me, on why he refused to let fear eat his soul.

1. How do you see the gay and lesbian community in India now? Any hope from the political establishment?

On this matter - as with sex work - I veer from hope to pessimism. There are countless outspoken gay women and men, all over India, of every background, who are determined to be decriminalised and to be treated as equals in every aspect of life. There are countless people who understand the rightness of these demands, that this is a human rights matter like any other, not just leaders and thinkers, but also everyday people, parents and families and friends. The opposition comes only from a small minority of bigots, but unfortunately these bigots can cause a great deal of harm in our largely lawless country, as witnessed by the ongoing attacks on secularism and diversity. So while this is unfortunately another era of danger, in a longer time-frame there is no doubt that justice will prevail in India - India is not Putin's Russia, however much some of our political heavyweights might wish to set themselves up as autocrats.

2. Why is the book called No One Else?

It is from "no one else in the world", that sense of really horrible, unmoored loneliness that comes from being both invisible to others like us and fearful (from being criminalised and the intense stigma/reviling.) This sense of loneliness is felt not just by gay men and women but also by the majority of sex workers in India, as they sell sex furtively (rather than from brothels.) The Gabriela Mistral poem that opens the book captures this sense of loneliness. As does this insightful quote from a gay American psychologist in 1981, on page 60-61 of the book: "it was 'a miracle' if any homosexual could become a stable and happy individual, since 'unlike women and blacks who can at least identify with one another, gays have no one to counteract the negative societal assault on their egos".

But then, while writing it, it dawned on me that it could/should equally relate to "no one else but me can do all these amazing things"! The "me" in the sentence being all the unsung heroic sex workers, gay women and men, and transgenders who have changed so much in India. One sex worker in Sangli told me, in essence, "anything anyone can do I can do better!" That is the other and completely opposite sense of "no one else" in the book - these transformed individuals, who go from being oppressed to being fighters for justice for themselves and others.

3. Where did you find the enormous courage to be so truthful about your sexual and emotional life?

More than anything else, I've hated living in fear - and my experience of fear began as a child when I entered boys' only schools. "Fear eats the soul." That's a poignant saying across many cultures. So for self-preservation alone, I've done all that I can to deal with the sharp fears that I've been confronted with - beginning with being a reviled "girly boy", facing sexual and physical abuse at Doon, the fear of being found out to be gay as a young adult at St Stephens College, and then the constant apprehensiveness when I began to live as an openly gay man in Delhi in the mid-1980s.

In helping me through all this, I owe huge thanks to my wonderful late father, and to the philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurthi who wrote so insightfully on living without fear. By now, in my 50s, I've lost any patience for bigotry and bullying by anyone, whether directed at me or at others. It's profoundly liberating to no longer feel burdened by fear, to not have it eating my soul.

Regarding my truthfulness about sex, it's vital to be truthful, because oppression around sex remains the cause of suffering for so many Indians, whether women who are accused of being sluts and un-Hindu/Muslim/Christian if they acknowledge or act on desire, to sex workers and gays who are brutally criminalised. So I've pushed myself to write frankly about my discovery of the beauty and wonder of sex, about how I progressed from a starting point where I had internalised the prevalent homophobia to developing a rational, healthy view about this human matter. There's really no rational reason not to discuss sex and sexuality with complete ease. It is not only the source of nearly all life - certainly human life - but it's a beautiful urge. It should be viewed and understood with the clarity of "sunlight", not in an oppressive darkness.

4. Do you think a gay man or woman has a better chance of being honest and truthful now than he/she did in the 1970s when you were growing up?

It was more the 1980s - in the 1970s I was still at Doon.

But yes, a much better chance: because gay women and men and trans-individuals are no longer invisible; and importantly, because there is no doubt that all right-thinking, decent-minded Indians (from Swami Agnivesh and Amartya Sen to millions of others, notable and "regular" ) support them and understand that this is a human rights matter like any other, a matter of love and equality and justice, not a demand by a criminal fringe as bigots like Swapan Dasgupta insist.

5. You mention several books that influenced your view of the world. Which one influenced your writing in the memoir?

It was all the books that spoke the "truth", often angrily. Hence the Richard Wright novel Invisible Man just as much as the memoir of AIDS, Becoming a Man, just as much as the history by Howard Zinn, A People's History of the United States. And definitely the brilliant Martha Nussbaum's Sex and Social Justice, published in 1999, and a great amount of her other work. Even, for a long time, Gandhi's The Story of My Experiments with the Truth - but then I was eventually disappointed with his struggles making him less human/embracing and more peevish/judgemental.

6. Are you a journalist first, activist second, or both at the same time?

Very much both at the same time - since my early 20s, my longing to do things for social justice has always driven me, whether this has been through journalism, as a policymaker at the UN, or as a researcher/writer.

7. The book ends on a somewhat dismal note with the Supreme Court verdict but all the heroes you mentions, from Selvi to Dominic D'Souza, do you think they died in vain?

No, they most certainly didn't die in vain. They changed India immeasurably, made it progress in breathtaking, vital ways. The painstaking transformations that I document in the book are the greatest testimony to the health of Indian democracy, a parallel to the emancipation of Dalits that I closely documented in my 1998 book on rural poverty. These gay and sex-work "activists" have forced feminism to progress; they have forced the discourse on human rights and social justice to progress; on activism; on "Left" politics; public health; sexuality and sexual/reproductive rights etc. (Not just their leaders - everybody who speaks up, who demands change; that is bravery enough!)

But the current tragedy of India is that all this democratic positive churning is perpetually squandered by the ineptness, sloth, corruption and cowardice of our political class. For women sex workers, for instance, some of the most deprived women in India, the political class in every state have failed to decriminalise sex work, to free them from the brutality of the police and the injustice of the criminal courts, and to provide them workers' rights and safeguards. This despite all the evidence and the support of intelligent feminists and other human rights defenders, from Rangarajan to Lalitha Kumaramangalam.

8. Have you got married finally?

Ah, no, sadly - my track record on long-term relationships is a source of sadness for me, a point that I make on page 209 of the book, that my personal life has sadly never been as fulfilling as my "social justice" life.

Writer

Kaveree Bamzai Kaveree Bamzai @kavereeb

Editor-at-Large, India Today Group

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