Almost 260 years ago, the British came to India and established tyranny over my country’s rich and beautiful culture. In the process, they pulled a netted curtain over it, never allowing us to fully see it in its true glory again. It wasn’t until just 72 years ago that we were able to take back the reins once again. Amidst celebration and tears, the people of India—my people—forgot to unsheathe the curtain. Stories of kings kissing kings and queens, gods transitioning into goddesses (and if they felt like it, turning back) had filled libraries.
In Hindu mythology, Vishnu, the god of protection and preservation of good, during the great churning of the milky ocean, absorbed the form of Mohini—a female enchantress, to trick asuras (demons) into giving up the elixir of life to the gods. The Khajuraho temples, dating back centuries, are covered with venereal motifs of women embracing one another, hijras (transgender people) dancing, and men exposing their genitals to each other. There’s the story of Agni, the god of fire, and his affair with Soma, god of the moon, while being married to Svaha, goddess of life and afterlife.
But when the British arrived, they came with rules: no homosexuality and no gender fluidity. And more importantly, no fighting back against these fiats whatsoever. These rules stuck around a long time after the British retreated, and many stories were gradually hushed over many years.
The British Empire laid out a homophobic constitution, known as Section 377, that, in short, prohibited the “unnatural offense” of same-sex intercourse. It silenced the songs of my culture which had suggested a vast, infinite spectrum of gender and sexuality. Including my very own.
It was only with recent progressions in our society, such as the abolishment of Section 377, that I came to learn about these beautifully crafted stories. I was in awe. These stories were the very thing that gave me the confidence to come out. The concept of being able to come out was exhilarating, but it also paralysed me with fear. There were empty conversations and leaden sighs. I had an inability to move past the “I have something to tell you” starting point, and that was exhausting.
Nonetheless, I came out—I came out to my mom, my brother, my closest friends and, every now and then, I even came out to complete strangers. And, for the most part, it went well. My friends and my brother, thrilled I felt comfortable enough to tell them, nodded in understanding. My heart soared in acceptance. For the very first time, it was okay to be myself.
But all it took was one “I am not okay with this” for my beautiful new world to be ripped apart, to crash and burn. I wish I could tell you that I was okay and that the wings my heart had sprouted weren’t plucked out, but I was not, and they had been. Being unable to hold hands with a date in public, being referred to as “very good friends,” and my outfits being called too eccentric all contributed to this feeling of alienation.
And yet, the heart-wrenching feeling of being othered played the most pertinent role in my growth. It was my turning point and was what pushed me into the world of advocating through art, allowing me to go back to my roots—to start over and discover the queerness my culture represented. It wasn’t easy, but that didn’t mean I needed to stop growing. I always wish I hadn’t gotten that one bad reaction, that I wasn’t told “I am not okay with this.” But I also couldn’t ignore that this was my reality. So, I did the only thing I could: I grew in the best way my situation permitted.
There was no sudden epiphany when I knew exactly what I was doing. It was a collection of small moments ranging from the polite smile of a stranger to the electricity in the air at Pride parades. I made artwork after artwork, starting with a Lilliputian size of myself wrapped in the pride flag, and continued to illustrate the repercussions of my coming out. I participated in campaigns like Young Leaders for Active Citizenship’s counter-speech fellowship with Instagram to raise awareness surrounding the queerness of my culture that I have read story after story about.
My personal favorite is that of Mitra and Varuna, two male deities—first friends, then lovers—in an ancient scripture called Rigveda. And while a society that accepts these stories again is still a long way away, I have hope that one day the curtain will be fully drawn back and that these songs will no longer be silenced.