Freedom of choice: going beyond the ‘normal’
When you are not dependent on someone for your basic provisions, you are in a position to negotiate
New Delhi: Coming-out stories are hardly happy stories, ever, mostly because they breach what the majority perceives as the natural order of sexuality. When Mohnish Malhotra came out, it wasn’t the life choice his family had expected their son to make.
In 1999, Malhotra was a teenager growing up in a middle-class family in Delhi. Like many in the country would have, his parents thought it was a phase, and that time would make him “normal” again. That never happened and instead, Malhotra found ways of becoming independent. Why? Because financial independence meant he could channel access to income and information as a fall-back in negotiating sexuality.
“When you are not dependent on someone for your basic provisions, you are in a position to negotiate. You are negotiating for emotions and support, love and care. But you aren’t negotiating for roti, sabzi, makaan (food and shelter). Whether you are gay or a straight person, at some point, you have to start becoming independent. But when you have to negotiate for a very alternate piece in the theory... that they are not ready to accept, it is very important for you to be independent,” says Malhotra, 28, a New Delhi-based public relations (PR) professional.
It was sheer coincidence or may be luck, as Malhotra calls it, that the time when he decided to come out was also the time when India’s tryst with back-office outsourcing began, with General Electric Co. setting up a business process outsourcing (BPO) facility in Gurgaon.
Liberalization of the Indian telecom sector in 1994 gave a boost to the ITeS (information technology-enabled services)/BPO industry. The call-centre culture that mushroomed in cities such as Bengaluru, Mumbai, Gurgaon and Pune in the early 2000s, meant a job boom. And the primary reason for India being in the right place for the boom was the abundance of English-speaking youngsters seeking part-time jobs they could do during the night and go to college during the day.
Malhotra borrowed his uncle’s two-wheeler and drove to Noida from his house in west Delhi. Noida and Gurgaon were like these hubs where people were literally handing out pamphlets. The interviewers asked him how old he was, and whether he had cleared his Class XII examination. In two weeks, he was ready for action and at 18, he had his first job at a company in its back-end operations.
“These companies didn’t care much about your degrees, your upbringing, your sexual orientation. At that point in time, I was looking around, and pretty much everyone I knew wanted to make a career in call centres. My first salary was Rs10,000 when I was 18. My father probably made the same amount of money then,” says Malhotra.
No one asked, and Malhotra didn’t mention his sexual identity.
“It was a contractual job and there was so much work that there was no time for anything else. And everyone knew we are not going to be together for long,” he says.
Malhotra left the ITeS industry at 20, as an assistant manager with a salary of Rs40,000.
On the personal front, the entry of the Internet was a game-changer. It helped gay Indians to understand they weren’t an aberration. For Malhotra, the Internet was the only way then to know that he was normal.
“Initially, I thought there were no gay chat rooms in India, but then I found out that in the US, in Yahoo chat, a certain room number was for gay people. We used to go there and type anybody from India and then filter it down—anybody from Delhi. That’s how we used to meet people,” he recalls.
This is post the era of people meeting in Nehru Park or Central Park or leaving their landline numbers on certain books in a public library.
“I think Internet made this park much bigger and worldwide. Suddenly, around 2007-08, there were a lot more gay people in Delhi. In the 1980s, the published data said there were only five gay people. May be it is the by-product of liberalization... the Internet, this whole boom of all sorts of employment, which is when the queer knew they could sustain and support ourselves. And this is when they come to terms with their sexuality, and suddenly you see the graph going up, in terms of visibility,” he says.
Socializing in the gay community started really early, in small “dingy” bars, then farmhouses, where police raids were a norm. Malhotra says it was only after the community started becoming financially independent and travelling abroad or interacting with those who had travelled, that the “gay scene became mainstream”.
“After I got into the PR profession, I suddenly had access to these well-travelled businessmen who had seen gay bars abroad, and were not shying away from doing gay parties at their restaurants. Suddenly, we went mainstream, bang in the middle of the city, in places like Olive Bar, Veda, Zoe, Guppy. Suddenly, we were able to negotiate with these mainstream people, and say that we give you business, will you give us your space? Power, any kind of power, lets you negotiate,” he says.
Not that the community does not struggle now, but had it not been for liberalization, Malhotra says he would be forced to stick to the “normal” and never realize what freedom of choice felt like.
“Liberalization meant a lot more expression than we were allowed earlier,” says Malhotra. “We could express ourselves more because we knew options were open and you could survive on your own.”
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