Parmesh Shahani wears his style and sexuality on his sleeve -- be it speaking at the high-powered TED conference, signing away his book Gay Bombay, board meeting at his corporate office or a gay party in town!. With a finger on the contemporary gay pulse and a global vision, he is an inspiration for the youth. Here is his story.
Parmesh Shahani was interviewed by Sridhar Rangayan. Excerpts:
Sridhar: Hi Parmesh, thank you for being part of Project Bolo. When and where were you born? And where were you educated?
Parmesh: I was born in Bombay and I have lived in different parts of the world. I have spent some years of school in the Middle East, I studied in the US for a few years as well. Wherever I am in the world, whether I am travelling or living somewhere else, I still identify myself very much with the city. I still think of myself very much as a Bombay person, belonging to a very simple middle-class household in Colaba.
Sridhar: Tell me about your first crush?
Parmesh: I had a very good friend in school, and which was actually my first relationship… So in that sense, we discovered it organically… and through each other and you know, we had what, when I now look back, my first relationship. But it wasn’t something that either of us knew about, it was something that just, very innocently and very sweetly, happened… whether it was the emotional aspect of it and certainly the physical aspect of it. We stumbled upon it and we were like, you know, this is really good! It was only years later when I, when one began to have a language for this, that you realize, ‘Oh! so all that stuff, maybe, that meant, you know, that one is Gay!!!’. But at that time, it was just quite organic.
In terms of the process, this was in the mid-90s, and even in the mid-90s, there were very few people who were not just out, but were comfortable talking about their sexuality. And one of the people that I met during the course of finding out -- is there a gay scene, what is it, and understanding the history of it -- was Riyad Wadia, the documentary filmmaker who then became quiet a big influence in my life… In fact, my book is dedicated to his memory.
And I remember very clearly, because he was actually the first person who was extremely confident about his sexuality… and he made no apologies about it and I was in my Xavier’s class and he had come to take a guest lecture. And he came walking in, wearing this tight pink T-shirt with shiny glasses on his head and he was like, ‘I am going to show you all a gay film, if anyone has a problem you can leave my class’!! and I was like, ‘Wow! Right?’!! So of course, then when I began, when I was doing my story I was like, ‘I have to call Riyad’.
So I called Riyad, and I went to his house… and I was like, you know, ‘I want to interview you because I am doing this article’. So he just took one look at me and said, ‘Honey, you are a fag, deal with it'!! I was like, ‘no, what are you saying’. He was like, ‘look, chill, it’s not that bad, why don't you stay over for dinner and I have some friends coming home and you can see, no one is going to eat you up, no one is going to you know…’. Because I was just so, so afraid at that point of time and I was like, ‘It doesn’t mean I am anything okay, I am staying for dinner’!! And I stayed for dinner and he had friends who came over and I realized it was, you know, more than just something that dealt with sexuality. It was my first insight into what it means as a ‘community’.
When I was in the US, in Boston, I realized soon enough that, Indian-ness like gay-ness and other things is not something you can wash away from your skin… no matter what soap you use, even if it is foreign soap! I don’t know if you have read the book, Bhupen’s amazing story called ‘Foreign Soap’… so it is not something that’s washed away from your skin, it is part of you.
Sridhar: Okay the big question! When did you come out to your family? Did you have any conversations with your mother or father about your sexuality?
Parmesh: When I came out to my mom, it was pretty late… which was in my early 20s... when I was still in Bombay, and I hadn’t gone, and I was just starting to see my first boyfriend… and I said, ‘Oh! There is something I want to tell you’, and she said, ‘what, why are you so nervous?'’ I told her, ‘I think I am gay’ and she was like, ‘do you think or are you sure?'… '’, I am sure I am gay’. She was like, 'okay, what do you want for dinner?' !! And I was like, ‘What! That’s not the answer' and she was like, 'yes what do you want to eat for dinner?' I told her, ‘aren’t you supposed to react properly’… She was like, 'no, what's the big deal'!!!
So it was a complete anti-climax and in a sense I felt quite cheated, because I was all ready for drama and tears and I was like, this is it?
But my dad made up for that with his response and his was the typical if there is such a thing… But he wasn't very accepting initially, I don't think he is accepting right now.
Sridhar: How is it being a 'corporate gay man'?
Parmesh: Actually most of all of my working life, (I have made sure) that I won't be treated any differently than anyone else… because of anything… certainly not because of my sexuality. So, whether it was the Times, whether it was at Mahindra, (wherever I have worked)… In fact one of the first questions when I was having a conversation with Anand Mahindra in Boston, when he first said, 'you should come back to India and enough of this Think Tank stuff you are doing in Boston… come back to India and start doing something'… He was like, 'come work with the company'… So one of the first questions I asked him was, ‘so does your company have a same-sex spouse benefit policy?’ and he was like, ‘ah… no, but we can create it for you, because we really don't want to treat you differently than anyone else’!!
Sridhar: Thank you so much Parmesh for being part of Project Bolo.
Ruth says she was never confused about her sexuality, she only needed time to discover it. After few years of study abroad, returning to India and teaching literature, she became part of one of the earliest non-formal LGBT intellectual circle in Delhi. Her defining book ‘Same-Sex Love in India’ with Saleem Kidwai is one of her many literary outings that form the spine of contemporary Indian same-sex literature. She is happily married to her same-sex partner and has a son.
Ruth Vanita: Interviewed by Sridhar Rangayan.
Sridhar: Hi Ruth, when and where were you born, and what was your family background?
Ruth: I was born in 1955 in Rangoon, Burma. My parents' families were there. Both my parents had grown up there. My father is a Tamilian and my mother is a mixture of North Indian communities. They both belong to the Christian Protestant extreme puritan kind of group. But when I was two years old, they moved to Delhi so I don't remember much of Burma. I was brought up in Delhi entirely. In Delhi I went to Springdale's School up to 8th grade. I had very weak eyes, I had myopia. My doctor told my mother she is a girl, you can take her out of school, don't let her study further…
My mother took me out of school, but she educated me herself. She is a teacher herself so she educated me at home and I did all the exams privately. Then I joined Miranda House. There I did BA and MA, and then I started teaching in Miranda House. Then I started teaching English… in Delhi University, did my PhD from Delhi University.
Sridhar: Miranda House was totally a girls’ college, right?
Ruth: Yes, it’s a women's college and I wanted to be in a women’s college. My father wanted me to be in a college closer to home and not to travel so far, but I insisted I wanted to be at Miranda House. But I used to spend most of my time in the library. I didn't hang out with groups as such. I lived a very quiet life, under-the-radar kind of life. I was very shy and was that kind of a person for a very long time.
Sridhar: Did you see any girls at that point of time?
Ruth: I think the first attraction to a girl, which I feel was a clear attraction, was when I was 18.
Sridhar: Tell me more about your first crush on a girl and what happened?
Ruth: I was at Miranda House, I was doing MA. She was a friend of mine and I had this attraction for her. The interesting thing is that I had no language for that… and I didn’t think of it as I would have thought of it, if it were a boy. I didn't think it should go somewhere or in some direction… that we should live together…
But I wrote a lot of poetry to her… and gave her that poetry and it was clear to her. I used to hang around in the hostel with her, sit around near her and do all those traditional things that people do. Even though I was doing all that, I didn't think of it as I don’t know what I thought of it as, but I didn’t think of it as love for her, I didn’t think in that sense. I still thought that I would get married to a man, but I didn’t see that as the contradictory. This is what I am trying to say…
Sridhar: Ruth, do you think there was space for lesbian voices in the feminist movement in the past? What are your thoughts on that?
Ruth: I think now it has changed a lot. Few years ago in the marches here, the CPM women’s wing and all, had objected to the banners using the term lesbian. Now I think that has changed. It is changing at least slowly. Now there are so many groups, which are openly talking about it… but at that time there weren’t any….
Sridhar: So how did your family react to your being gay? Was there any opposition?
Ruth: At some point of time in ‘87-88, I did tell my mother. I didn’t tell my father. She asked me a few questions, she didn’t get terribly upset, but of course, she would have preferred it not to be the case. She kind of accepted it… and over time we have talked about it a little… they accepted it, they were fine. With all my friends and all… now with my partner also she is fine… She sometimes introduces her as her daughter-in-law!
Sridhar: And did you have any relationships earlier?
Ruth: Yes, I did have a few relationships… but none of them really were ‘out’ to their families or were out to themselves in some cases. I had sorted out, and I had told my family before. Then it becomes difficult to have that sort of a relationship where you cannot talk about it to the other person’s family or to your family. Not that they don’t know… but you can't introduce them as your partner, or introduce them to your friends or so… After a point, the whole thing becomes exhausting.
Sridhar: After the book 'Same-Sex Love in India', what did you do next?
Ruth: I left the Delhi University job and took a job at the University of Montana (US), then I keep coming back at least once a year.
Sridhar: What made you go in for this change?
Ruth: Several things… but I think the primary thing was, perhaps I felt… that it is almost impossible to find a long-term relationship that really works here in India. It was my own experience also, and also by observing other people’s experiences… I felt not that there are no relationships that work, but there are some which work, but they require a kind of iron will to fight it out, there isn’t any support system in place for it. And I just hadn’t been successful at it… and I was kind of tired of being single. I think that was the main reason which prompted me to leave. And I think it was a very high price I had to pay. And I think a lot of people have paid. Sunil Gupta has written about it in Sexual Exile… you have to migrate because of this, which I think is really a high price to pay.
Sridhar: And personally did it work out for you?
Ruth: I have a relationship and a partner now… So yes, I succeeded in that sense… but I lost so much…being at a distance from my friends. At a later age like this, you don’t make the same sorts of friends again there… So it is the distance from my friends… I don’t have that same sense of community there… So you pay a price for what you want. Not that it is great in America, I mean the support system is there, but here there was no support and at that time, even it was illegal in 1987… there was no sort of recognition or support… If you die, your partner will have no recognition, won’t inherit anything, nobody will pay attention to her… in terms of giving her the rights.
That makes it very difficult then… About my partner, we got married in New York and it was a Hindu ceremony and a Jewish ceremony. She is Jewish and we invited about 50 people including relatives… four friends from India actually travelled all the way for it. And friends from all over America were there…It was great, it was very nice.
The DVDs of Project Bolo can be bought at Queer Ink. Book your DVD at queer-ink.com
About Project Bolo
PROJECT BOLO, meaning ‘Speak Up’, documents Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender (LGBT) persons -- their lives, career, love and struggles through recorded interviews. Through these recorded interviews, ‘Project Bolo’ hopes to serve as an inspiration to the LGBT community and offer real-life role models. It hopes to reconstruct the unique history and progress of the Indian LGBT movement from the early ‘40s to the present day. Project Bolo in its first phase Vol 1, carried out during 2010-2011, recorded and documented oral histories of 20 LGBT persons in four cities -- Mumbai, Pune, New Delhi and Lucknow.