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‘To recognize friendship is to hear the unspoken’

This year, my friend Anusha Yadav, a curator and photographer, created a unique birthday present for me. She put up a map of Bombay on my wall and ordered every friend who entered the party: “Mark the location where you first fell in love with Paromita."

People took to the task with enthusiasm, searching for the landmarks of our relationship. A former student, now a colleague and friend, marked the college where I had taught her, another looked betrayed because someone had already marked my favourite (once perennial) haunt, the now-shut Sea View Café, in Juhu. People also marked hospitals, offices, the Goregaon grounds where we volunteered for the humongous World Social Forum, and the houses of mutual friends who had since drifted out of our lives.

Some had been my friends for over half my life, some I had met in the last few years, and one I had met only two weeks ago. They were married, single, gay, straight, bisexual, and ranged in age from 25-67. One thread joined them all. No one questioned Anusha’s phrase, “in love", which we otherwise usually associate with an amorous relationship, to describe their friendship with me.

Is friendship a romantic relationship? I certainly think so. I’m a fool for love, and an even bigger fool for love at first sight, I admit. My friendships, like my other romances, have also been sort of love at first sight, followed by what the Japanese graphic artist Yumi Sakugawa describes in her comic I Think I Am In Friend Love With You: an intense desire to spend time with the friend, to discover things together, to talk and laugh and share secrets, being dazzled by them and wanting to dazzle them, to bring them delight with a poem or song they don’t yet know.

I remember, some 20 years ago, going to my neighbour and friend Meena Menon’s house after work, as I often did. Meena, a former trade unionist and 17 years older than me, was making gulab jamuns. “Who’s coming?" I asked. “You," she said. “I just felt like making something nice for you." My heart flooded with an indescribable feeling of being special.

This being the silver jubilee year of our friendship, it seemed fitting to discuss the romance of friendship. So I called Meena, who now lives in another city. “Hey," I asked, “do you think friendship is a romantic relationship?" “Yes of course," she answered, not pausing to think. “It’s a lot like falling in love at first, the same emotional and intellectual headiness. It doesn’t have that constant sheen of physical awareness, of sexual romance. But there is a great emotional sensuality in friendship, that feeling of deep, intimate connection."

I asked if she remembered when she fell in friend-love with me. “The first time I met you. In that peace march from Dadar to Thane—you were wearing a denim skirt and a striped T-shirt saying, ‘À nous la liberté’!" I laughed at this recollection of my earnest, youthful self, and replied, “I remember you put your hand on my shoulder and I had a feeling of warmth. Then you asked, ‘Are you the crazy kid who works for Anand?’ (he was my boss at the time) and I was indignant!" Our reminiscences lasted an hour.

My college friend, Swati Bhattacharya, now a mother of two and an advertising big shot, says: “My ECG while waiting for a friend will show the same reading as waiting for a lover. Only I’m not caught up in figuring if his degree of excitement matches mine, and consequently behaving like a fool. There’s a relaxed quality to friendship, because there’s a relaxed quality about the future."

One could argue that though intense like romantic love, friendship eliminates the anxiety that clogs the beginning of many an affair, since it is not based on being exclusive. We don’t enter into a friendship with caveats. It is assumed it will be forever, unless something really isn’t right; that we will keep reshaping it to fit into our lives as long as possible. Friendship is no utopia. Betrayal, anger, pettiness, coldness, competitiveness, have all featured in my friendships. Some trials expose fundamental differences in values and the friendships don’t survive. Chance meetings with these former friends can be as strangled as those with ex-lovers. But most friendships keep reconsolidating themselves.

My friend Anjali Panjabi, a film-maker, and I have often disagreed emotionally and drifted apart for substantial periods. But we always felt love in the hurt or anger, and that kept making us search for the right rhythm and fit. As she said to me once when we thrashed out our issues (never arriving at an agreement!), “Bottom line—we’ve been through so much together and I can’t imagine you not being in my life, yaar!"

It’s not that these friendships are replacements for sexual romances. If you asked me the difference, I would say that the romance of friendship is like sunshine on a winter’s day—lambent, enveloping, making you happy in your skin. Sexual romance, on the other hand, is the languor of an afternoon turned intimately dark by monsoon rain. One makes you shine in the world, the other makes you glow in the dark. They fulfil different parts of ourselves—friendship helps us articulate our individuality, amorous love allows us to surrender ourselves to an extent.

As a woman in my 40s, I may belong to the second generation of women for whom friendships are also a comradeship of feminist discovery and possibility, but I have seen these relationships in people of every generation I’ve known. My parents, aunts and uncles have friends they visit annually and write to regularly. I’ve heard stories of friends living as neighbours after Partition, one dying soon after the other, of sadness. One of my aunts often says about my late father: “I miss Ravi. He was not my brother-in-law, but my friend. He understood my heart. I feel alone in the world without him."

Despite its rich social existence, friendship is rarely accorded recognition as an important relationship, or to use the right Hindustani word, darja, that family or amorous relationships receive. One of my closest friends, Samina Mishra, a film-maker from New Delhi, told me, “I remember when we drew up the list of invitees for some function at our wedding, our families were bewildered that both of us wanted some of our friends at some family-only functions. But for both of us, our friends are as important as family. I can’t do without mine."

As with much else, the dominant culture pretends that coupledom, the “hum do hamare do" plus grandparents, are our only major personal relationships. Relationships that don’t fit into this grid are depicted as superfluous or temporary—giggling gal pals passing time till married. Emotional truths are more complex.

And they have always been. To paraphrase what the scholar Ruth Vanita said to me about her new book, Gender, Sex, And The City: Urdu Rekhti Poetry In India, 1780-1870, on Lucknow’s culture, seen through its popular poetry: Everyone was married off as a norm. That was not the sum total of their personal life, which was made up of a rich web of relationships—gay, straight, lesbian, bisexual and non-sexual friendships, which, while not exactly respectable, were not considered immoral or an aberration.

These are not elements only of an urban culture. Across more rural Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand, there are widespread traditions of ritual friendship. For instance, women who develop close relationships working in the fields, have a ritual of exchanging wheat seedlings (called bhojali) that have been sprouted for nine days and offered to the goddess to solemnize a friendship—after which they call each other Bhojali. A number of such friendships across community and caste, within and across genders, are named after the offerings involved in their solemnizing rituals—phul-phulwari, mahaprasadi, gangajali, and so on. In Varanasi, some women seal their bond by giving each other ornaments, a practice called “tying sakhi". And of course, in Bollywood, there’s Sholay.

For our own solace, we need to reinstate these social histories. They give a name and place to how our society feels about relational love—the intimacy we easily call prem, whether for friends, families or lovers.

Perhaps one of the reasons we have ceased to privilege friendships is because we’ve internalized Victorian definitions of hetero-normativeness, monogamy and familial relationships. Contemporary culture idealizes the couple who need only each other—my wife/husband is my best friend. The popular media stories around LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) rights and recognition too stick very closely to this paradigm of coupledom and love as an indication of “normalcy". This understanding only impoverishes our emotional lives, leaving us far more lonely than we are able to admit.

Two of my heterosexual male friends both hesitated to call friendship “romantic". RS, a teacher, said: “In friendships with the opposite sex there is always some hum of awareness. It’s pleasant, you like to see yourself through their eyes because they are women, but it’s also a source of tension. It’s more relaxed with men."

Women agreed there was a different feeling with men friends. Irrespective of their sexual orientation, they too spoke of being very attuned to female friends’ attractiveness from time to time. But they saw it as simply another interesting layer of the deep appreciations of friendship, not as a double-edged one.

Yet both the men—one married, another single—counted their friendships among their most important and sustaining intimate relationships, much as heterosexual women and gay and lesbian friends had done.

Those who value friendship in this way also share a more expansive idea of personal life, feeling it can’t be restricted to conservative definitions of family, any more than personal selves can be restricted by traditional expectations of gender, career, or sexual choices. Perhaps friendships make possible this host of less clearly mapped journeys which families often restrict. They offer understanding, conversation and love, which is not conditional on fulfilling traditional obligations.

Vanita puts it elegantly in her book when she talks of the ghazal: “(Friendship is) a more hidden, (relatively) less stylized love." In being neither gay, nor straight, neither sexual nor asexual, friendship exists in that space we might call queer—which defies definition, but is yet vibrant and alive, and palpable and in fact, allows for the redefinition of social life. It has no reason to be, except that it springs from being human, and privileges and celebrates our humanity. To recognize friendship is to hear the unspoken, pay allegiance to human desire, to have the confidence that we may love and be loved for no reason, except for being us.

Paromita Vohra is a film-maker and writer whose work focuses on desire, feminism and popular culture.

All around us exist queer families that aren’t those we’re born with

The word family is deeply invested with the promise of love and unquestioned support. That’s why we sometimes tell our most loved friends, “You are like family." We do so because the only family model we are taught tells us that those with whom we have no blood ties are not our family, even if we get life-sustaining love and support from them.

We are also told that family is all-important; in our actions lies its good name. For the state it is our primary identity, through which it channels recognition and privileges to us from birth to death. But for many who can’t live by its unreasonable, unending maze of rules, family is not such a safe space. Familial love and support is often not unconditional for the rule-breakers—like queer people, single people, or heterosexual people in mixed-faith, cross-caste or same-gotra (family lineage) relationships, to name some. In many instances, the support is cut off altogether. Some of us rule-breakers, who find ourselves excluded from traditional families, find acceptance, support and love in the alternative families that we seek out.

But survival is not the only mother of invention. Alternative, or queer, families are also created by people not in conflict with their biological or assigned families. One of the most famous queer families, familiar to most English-speaking Indians in metros, are the six characters in the US sitcom F.R.I.E.N.D.S, tied together by that simple commitment, “I’ll be there for you."

All around us exist many queer families—same-sex families, the hijra gharanas, the single person, platonic or poly-amorous communes, to name a few. This rainbow of structures is deliberately excluded from the attendant privileges of the legal recognition of family. So much of the queer movement’s struggle is to expand contested terms to reduce their exclusivity, to push for equality despite difference. That’s why I use the term queer families to describe every kind of alternative family.

Like heterosexuality, the norm of a nuclear family with a married couple at its core, and surrounded by blood relatives, is not a natural family system, but simply one singled out for privilege, empowerment and protection by law. Queer families threaten that system as they smash traditional gender roles of breadwinners and housekeepers, and undercut the hegemony of biological family over resources by sharing property and income with non-blood relatives. MD, a 33-year-old academic in Mumbai who didn’t want to be identified, says he gets emotional sustenance, love and understanding, but also financial backing, from his queer family. “These can take various forms, and differ according to needs. Those who earn more are able to contribute more. Some monetary contributions are sustained over time, whereas some are provided when required. Contributions may also be in the form of providing food and shelter, which have an economic element to them."

Artist Sunil Gupta, 61, whose queer family comprises his husband, former partners, and close friends “scattered across the world", including lesbian couples and straight single women, says the anxiety of his biological family hasn’t diminished. “My queer family accepts me without question. I feel protected financially by them. And by and large it has been quite accepting of alternative lifestyles which the bio family cannot fathom. They live in constant anxiety that I will ‘die alone, and who will get the property’. But of course I won’t, I’ll have the queer family around me."

The lack of legal recognition in India, however, prompted Gupta to leave New Delhi for England in 2013, where same-sex marriage has been recognized by law since 2014, and civil partnerships, since 2005. “My husband and I decided that we would have to leave India, at least till some of the complications resolve themselves. It was unbearable to not have a joint lease for a flat, and to have no recognition by the bank and hospital. Completely unacceptable."

Queer families also question an underlying concept of family. Theirs isn’t centred around a romantic-sexual relationship. Many of us have come to accept that that fairy-tale idea of “happily ever after"—a single love relationship lasting a lifetime—actually occurs more in fairy tales than in life. But there are many others—whether they are romantic partners or not, blood relations or otherwise—who we do imagine will be with us till the end of our days. These are the relationships that form the basis of queer families.

Interestingly, queer families also challenge the notion that a family remains static and constant. Queer families are elastic; they can grow to include new sustaining relationships that form even as some older ones wane, unbound by duty and obligation that create artificial, forced relationships, for instance with cousins and uncles we can’t stand.

This is echoed by 46-year-old Pawan Dhall, a queer rights activist based in Kolkata. “I would say my queer family, as of now, would include about half a dozen individuals—very dear friends, colleagues, a couple of people I have been involved with emotionally. At this point in time, all these people are not in the same city, but our common past, common struggles in working and building queer support forums, tie us together quite deeply. I think what we have now is likely to last much longer, perhaps a lifetime. In my mind it is clear that we are something like a family unit. We keep in touch, helping out with information and advice, financial support. When we get together, it is invariably fun time and non-stop gossip, but we also tackle issues like taking care of old parents, financial planning and illnesses."

If this is the first time you are reading about queer families, one way to understand the social and economic discrimination they face is if you are having a hard time renting a house in our big cities. Real estate brokers and building societies currently occupy the frontlines of championing traditional family life. If they refuse to rent to you, you are perhaps single, sharing with friends or a live-in partner.

My queer family, comprising my same-sex partner, a former girlfriend, and friends of several non-conforming genders, is not the kind that qualifies as fit tenants. So extreme are some of these housing societies that a friend and her daughter are currently being refused flats because society rules exclude single women tenants. In most societies, transpersons in any kind of family need not even apply.

My queer family is completely separate from my assigned family, and despite wills, anything I choose to pass on to the former is vulnerable to legal challenge by some of my less supportive next of kin. For some others, their queer family includes both assigned and chosen family. A guru from the Bhendi Bazaar hijra gharana counts her mother, sibling and chelas in her family, her one safe zone of acceptance. This is true for MD too, who wonders how he will accommodate his dreams given current family laws. “My queer family consists of my biological brother and his same-sex partner, in addition to several friends. So the line between assigned and chosen families, queer or otherwise, is not stark.

“I’ve often wondered how the laws on adoption would work in my case, given that I am a single male Christian in India, and family law allows me wardship, but not adoption rights. I have never been in a position to be married to a significant other, but if I do in the future, I would like to decide what proportion of my property goes to my children, my partner, my biological family, and my queer family."

These are concerns Dhall shares. “As a queer activist, I have discussed and advised people on matters of inheritance. Within the queer family, I am hell-bent on ensuring that people undertake financial planning for their advanced years. Not that everyone listens to me, but then such is family life!"

It is obvious that we should all have the right to determine how we prefer to live and share love. It’s then equally obvious that the law needs to empower all kinds of families, not just one sort. But given that there are potentially as many kinds of family systems as there are people, it makes sense to legally empower that big threat to traditional families—the single person. Legislate for the rights of the single person to nominate anyone or no one as their family member. If law can provide for freely registering wills multiple times, each version replacing the last, it can enable the nomination of family members too.

There are so many ways that Indians live, love, survive and thrive in queer families of many kinds; and so much that Indian law needs to catch up on. But of course, only for those who wish to opt for a legally protected family. Deepti, 40, a queer feminist activist in New Delhi who uses only one name, has been part of queer families for a while, but has this to say: “I may be part of other people’s queer family but I never use the word ‘family’ to describe my jigris and community of friends, because I think the notion of family itself is patriarchal and problematic. It is an exclusionary space. I have a strong critique of family. Members of a family must think alike, vote for the same candidate, practise the same religion, inhabit the same space together or not."

She says it does not allow for any difference to emerge, such as inter-caste relationships, young girls asserting their sexuality, and it remains a huge risk to transgress family norms. “I understand it is tempting for queer people to reclaim some institutions, but I see family as an institution we should reject. And queer people who are already on the margins are in the best position to do so. I know that my jigris will be there. But there does not need to be this mutuality that family demands. I don’t want to be in a closed circle in which everyone fits, all neat and tidy. But in groups that overlap with others, like an endless galaxy of circles that are somehow connected to each other, and never closed."

Lesley Esteves is a queer rights activist and freelance editor.

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