I remember talking to Mahesh Natarajan, an IT professional-turned counsellor, psychotherapist and writer, a few years ago. He was recalling an incident that happened in Delhi.
Braving the cold Delhi evening, a motley crowd had gathered in the auditorium to hear Mahesh read from his debut book – The Pink Sheep (By the way, the digital version of the book, My Gay Life, has just been published by Juggernaut Books)
Mahesh was reading a passage from the 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 air in the room. It belonged to a 76-year-old woman.
“I have a question,” said the lady. “Have you never been attracted to a woman?” she asked.
The room heaved a communal gasp.
Mahesh smiled and said: “No m’am. I am gay.”
“Ever?” She persisted.
“Never,” he said.
I had always found Mahesh to be comfortable in his own skin. He is the kind you will not find on the rooftop, shouting. Sexuality is a part and parcel of life. Nothing to be put under a microscope. That was always the impression that I got from Mahesh.
But then, there was a time when he was not so confident and comfortable with his sexuality.
He came out of the closet S.L.O.W.L.Y. In fact, for a long time he did not know that he was ‘in’ the closet.
Born in an orthodox, middle-class Brahmin family in Madurai, Mahesh’s life couldn’t have been squar-er. Education was of importance. Marriage and kids mandatory. Family was the centre of their universe. This had been the norm for those around him and those before him.
So, he was greatly disturbed when he realized that he was getting attracted to boys.
Given the orthodox family background and the society that he was living in, he really didn’t have any reference point for what he was feeling or how to deal with it.
“The books that I read told me that same-sex attraction was just a phase in most people’s lives,” he recalls.
He waited for that ‘phase’ to pass. Hoping that one day he’d actually get attracted to a woman. That never happened. Instead he fell in love with a classmate in college. It finally dawned on him that he was “gay”.
The realization was traumatic.
“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. They were my examples of how life should be lived,” he says.
He did not acknowledge his sexuality till he was 18.
But when he did, it brought him relief from confusion about his orientation. “But, it also wiped away my dreams of what I thought my future would be,” he says.
For the next few years, Mahesh was a cauldron of emotions.
Confusion, fear and unanswered questions accompanied him like a new young lover.
It was only when he was 22, did he began ‘accepting’ his sexuality.
At 23, he 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, gingerly.
Since he was close to his older sister, he wrote her a long e-mail telling her that he had fallen in love. But he deliberately kept it gender-neutral. He didn’t know how she’d react.
After the second mail his sister called him.
“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.”
His sister had accepted him just the way he was long before he accepted himself.
Every gay 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,” Mahesh explains.
“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.”
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. And this is how it goes:
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.”
For Mahesh, his life is not about his sexuality but about human relationships.
Just like it is in the stories that he’s penned. If you replace the pronouns in My Gay Life it could easily be a book of short stories about relationships in conservative south India.
That’s because of the humanity or commonality of lives and experiences.
The matter-of-fact tenor that underlines the lives of his characters enable the reader to look at sexuality through the prism of normalcy.
As for the old lady in Delhi who wanted to know whether Mahesh was ever attracted to women…at the end of the reading, she walked up to him and asked: “Are you a Tambram? (Tamil Brahmin)”
“Yes, m’am,” he said.
“Me too. What about your partner, that boy, is he also a Tambram?”
“No m’am, he is a Chettiar. We are inter-caste,” Mahesh replied.
She was utterly crestfallen.
Who said relationships are based on sexuality! 🙂
My Gay Life, by Mahesh Natarajan. Published by Juggernaut Books
My Gay Life, by Mahesh Natarajan. Published by Juggernaut Books