This weekend, we will attend our first reception for a gay couple, as neighbours and friends of a child who shared her adolescence and youth with our children, grew into a lively young woman, found love and companionship in an alternate space, braved the telling to her parents, and is looking forward to a future with her partner whom she married a while ago. The reception is a public declaration of their outing and acceptance within the family and circle of friends, and if there have been hesitations and hiccups behind closed doors, at least, openly everyone has stepped forward with a smile and an embrace.
If this is a sign of a mutable India, such changes are currently confined to the metros and confines of the educated upper middle class. Acceptance of gay relationships in India is still a chimera, accompanied — in provincial capitals and smaller cities — by equal measures of derision and violence, sniggers and alienation. Small-town India can be frighteningly claustrophobic, now more so because the internet offers a glimpse of liberation that conservative societies quickly scotch. The fear of violence is always at hand.
If in Delhi, such celebrations are a one-day wonder for our domestic staff who seemingly take it in their stride, the taboo is still strong enough for their families to voice their disapproval of “urban” attitudes. Elders back home prefer that their children and grandchildren be brought up under their close watch so they can fortify their values. Stagnation rather than questioning marks the flagbearers of “culture” that is touted as “Indian heritage”. Our cook, for instance, was forced to send his family packing to the village because the school where his daughter had been admitted insisted that she cut her hair for fear of spreading lice — something they could not countenance.
India is changing in ways both good and bad. Even as the state bears down on public freedoms — of citizenship, religion, expression of views — personal freedoms are on the rise despite patriarchy, sexual viciousness and masculine vigilantism. Urban societies may not yet offer equal spaces and opportunities for men and women, but these disparities are prevalent as much in terms of gender as caste and class. Every domestic protest, therefore, opens a new door, or window, to an opportunity that was not previously available; every articulation of it makes its agent a role model for others.
Small freedoms and victories, thus, call for a cheer for their protagonists. But equally important are the people behind the dissenters who challenge their own and society’s mindsets to accept newer thinking. The parents who encourage diversity, the family that supports dissent, the friends who absorb rather than marginalise deviations from the norm — they are the unsung heroes of the churn India is experiencing. They are rarely acknowledged, but in extending the safety and comfort of their backing, it is equally they who are the agents of change. And just as often, it is they who are the target for the slurs and needles of social approbation. But when they publicly endorse change, society is silenced. To them then, our friends, who had the courage to uphold their daughter’s choice in the esteem it deserves — cheers, and a special buddy hug.