mid-day Lunchbox: Parmesh Shahani, Durga Gawde discuss section 377 verdict, food and more
Parmesh Shahani and Durga Gawde discuss identity and the weight of the section 377 verdict while reminiscing about childhood and food memories
We haven't met many people who walk into a restaurant on a sunny afternoon and know what to order right away. But then we meet Parmesh Shahani — who heads Godrej India Culture Lab and knows his meal before the menu arrives — and sculptor and educator Durga Gawde — who is quick to reveal the secret. Khichdi, with less oil, mixed with Caeser salad sans dressing. So, we aren't surprised, when Shahani tells us that the two met seven janams ago. "What? You don't believe in rebirth?" he quizzes us. Even though they only met last year at this very place, we think we agree that this is indeed the "seventh janam".
Dalreen: Through the year, how has your friendship evolved?
Parmesh: After our first meeting here, we decided to meet each other at a mela in Prabhadevi organised by my friend Chetna Gala Sinha of Mann Deshi Foundation, a collective of women from across Maharashtra. It was fun.
Durga: And we actually bonded over local Maharashtrian food and ate very good dahi poha. So, we see what the other is up to but honestly we just keep bumping into each other at events.
Parmesh: I'm a fan of Durga's art but over the past year, visual art has transformed into performative art in India and looking at it as an activist, performer and theorist, I've seen Durga's evolution. That is also part of the evolution of young queer India. I belong to a completely different generation, and this is who we're going to leave our legacy to. And I couldn't be more proud.
Durga: Parmesh has actually known my parents for a while, so I think he's really proud of them for becoming such a strong foundation for me to stand on as a gender-fluid person...There's a difference between acceptance and tolerance. With the section 377 verdict, people want to rainbow-
Parmesh: Even in the op-eds I wrote after the verdict, I mentioned that as queer people, we know who have been supporting us over the years and we know those who are jumping in to do an Instagram post because its cool. Globally, organisations that are deeply committed to a cause do it on a long-term basis. So, many companies who put out posts after the verdict do not even have LGBTQ+ inclusive HR policies.
Dalreen: Both of you went to the US for further education. How have the two countries shaped your identity?
Durga: We actually went to college in the same region, but at very different times. Before I went to Rhode Island School of Design, I was in a very bad place. Even though I grew up 20 years after Parmesh, there is still little work being done for creating a representation for gender-fluid people in India. So growing up for me here was very stressful, I would wake up with this pain in my chest. And as a child, you don't have words to describe it.
When I went to the US, I also took a lot of classes at MIT and it became my second home. Both colleges just let people be in a non-judgmental space. Your role in society there is not dependent on your gender at all. If there is something different about you, and you speak of that — people will thank you for educating them. When I came back to India, I was put into this box. Last year, I decided to come out, and when it comes to owning my identity, it is only because of all that time I spent in America. My ultimate goal is to create an educational space in India that is absolutely ungendered. I just have to do my PhD and come back as Dr Durga so I can do all of those things.
Parmesh: Yes, and do you realise what day it is today? It's the first day of Durga Puja!
(The food arrives — Social khichdi, Caesar salad, killer kebab plate, ghee roast mutton bao, and shawarma yo mama)
Dalreen: What are your favourite food memories in Bombay?
Durga: Pani puri, hands down. Next, getting sick after eating pani puri, and feeling like it was totally worth it. I love the street food here.
Parmesh: I really think that Bombay is the food capital of the world and I like visiting local legends such as Kailash Parbat in Colaba for their koki and pakwaan dal on Sundays. I even like going to Kyani, K Rustom or Prakash in Dadar — it's very nostalgia-imbued for me. And I'm obsessive; if I like a dish I will have the same thing for years. A lot of my favourite places have shut down, Paradise in Colaba for instance, and Wayside Inn where Ambedkar spent time while working on the Indian Constitution.
Dalreen: What would you say to anyone planning on coming out?
Durga: It is very difficult and the only way out of it is to be vulnerably honest. For me it was just like, 'Hey guys, this is the truth about me, and I'm going to keep living this and letting you come to terms with it. And I will be there holding your hand along the way.' When I came out to my parents, their biggest concern was, 'If you were lesbian or gay, we'd at least understand what you're talking about!' So, it took me 24 years to come out, and you can't expect them to come to terms with this in one day.
Parmesh: But not all parents are as understanding. If there are young people out there who are considering coming out, I would tell them to be safe and take a call for themselves. Don't come out if you think your life will be in danger. There are many people in India who are misinformed even when it comes to being a good parent or human being. Even though the 377 verdict is out, it's not like families will become more accepting overnight.
It's going to take a long process of sensitisation across schools, colleges, offices and society.
What would you call your autobiography, and why?
Durga: I've been writing one since I was 12 actually — where I've been writing love letters to myself. I would call it Dear Durga.
Parmesh: Mine would be called Gratitude, because that's something I feel every morning when I wake up.
The most ridiculous remark you've ever received about your identity...
Parmesh: People always ask me and my partner, 'Who is the husband and who is the wife in this relationship?'
Durga: When people ask me, 'What's your type?' I just tell them I like good human beings.
A fictional character that best resonates with you…
Durga: The protagonist from The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery.
Ranjit: Lata from A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth.
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