It was almost a year ago, at a Cafe Coffee Day in Lucknow, that she first stunned me with the comfort with which she carried herself. She had paired a dark men’s suit slightly too big for her petite frame with a sky blue and silver tie, a colour combination that synced well with the blue glow emitting from her Bluetooth earpiece. She was still chatting away on it when she sat down, splaying her legs wide and hunching forward slightly as she brought the conversation – a work-related one – to an end. Once she put the phone down, she apologised for making me wait, and extended her hand to shake mine briskly.
Other than a hairband keeping her shoulder-length hair away from her face, nothing about the 24-year-old woman’s dress or gestures was feminine by conventional Indian standards. Her androgynous features, not to mention an obvious self-assurance, worked to her advantage. Hardly anyone cast a second glance at her even though cross-dressing is not by any means common in Lucknow.
A mutual friend had suggested we meet, as I was reporting a story on Lucknow’s gay community at the time. Aside from the city’s elite circles, the LGBTQ scene here is virtually nonexistent. Lucknow is a growing city, but at the same time it climbs to modernity, it clings to the past. It remains tightly conservative. Local organisations working in HIV/AIDS prevention double as social support groups for its more working-class employees and target populations. These populations often refer to themselves as “MSMs” – men who have sex with men – since labelling a behaviour is easier than labelling an identity. Most of them remain closeted to everyone except their closest friends.
Though there have been attempts, establishing a similar group for lesbians or women who have sex with women is nearly impossible, simply because it is harder to find and reach those women. Men might find each other after sunset in public places like parks or railway stations, but most women in Lucknow are never unaccompanied after a certain hour, if they are out at all at that hour.
Yearning to be free
Needless to say, Arshi* was rare, even to herself. In a city population of nearly three million, she knew of only three other lesbians. But rather than shying away from her feelings, she embraced the freedom they offered her.
She would often hit on other girls by “giving them punch lines, making them feel shy, or giving them stray looks,” she told me. Even if people picked up on her sexual inclinations, no one took them seriously because she was a girl. Not even her mother, aunt or grandmother (she has never known her father) acknowledged her behaviour as anything more than a joke.
Arshi never had an honest conversation with her family about her attraction to females, she said, because in the back of her mind, she feared their reaction. She is an only child, and she would not do anything as rebellious as be with a woman or defy certain expectations because that would devastate her mother, who is a fairly religious Hindu and raised her as a single parent.
“Obviously I will get married, just for her,” she told me. “I want to give her each and everything she got in her life, not from her parents, not from her husband.”
Like the other gay and bisexual men I interviewed, Arshi accepted she would never fully come out. Her identity is too intrinsically tied to that of her family’s. And breaking that social structure was not necessarily her goal.
But she did want to be free.
“That’s why it’s even more important for me to build a good business,” she had told me, “because if I can build a good lifestyle, then nobody is going to force me for marriage.”
So alongside her schooling at a local technical college, Arshi stayed busy with various work schemes. Meanwhile, she allowed herself to explore her sexuality.
“I met with many girls who were interested in being bisexual because the only thing they wanted at that time was sex,” she said. “It’s just because a lot of the times they can’t find a male partner. And also because girls are generally considered ‘safer’.”
‘A phase in teenage years’
People’s perceptions of women in India and their expectations of them – especially in an emerging city like Lucknow – always remained in the backdrop of our conversations. It had seemed to me that Arshi’s projections as a confident, cross-dressing lesbian was as much about claiming her female identity as it was about asserting a gay one.
So when I met with Arshi again recently after months of not seeing each other, I was surprised to find that she had willingly allowed her mother to create her profile on the matrimonial website shaadi.com, and that she no longer considered herself a lesbian.
That identity started unravelling when Arshi confessed to one of her best friends – who is straight and about to get married – that she had feelings for her. Her friend, in response, told Arshi that she wants to see her happy too. But, given the circumstances of her life, she should be happy in the way that she can be.
In other words, her friend was encouraging Arshi to marry a man.
When we met again, gone was the suit that she had once sported so brazenly. In its place Arshi wore a Chinese-collar kurta that her friend – the one she had confessed feelings for – had given as a birthday gift. She had also allowed her hair to grow out, though she preferred to keep it in a low ponytail tucked into her coal-coloured jacket instead of allowing it to flow free.
Her way of speaking was the same – voice chipper, words articulate. But the now 25-year-old was viewing her previous behaviour and attraction to females in a different light.
“I personally feel that it was a phase of my teenage [years]in which I was confused at what I have to do, how I have to do it and what I should do,” Arshi said. “It was a phase which is now a bit clear to me.”
Giving up the ‘habit’
We were back where we had first met, Cafe Coffee Day. One of Arshi’s close friends, Anjali*, who is also friends with the friend getting married, joined us.
“Actually, I was pissed off when I heard that my bestie was going to get married,” Arshi told me. “But gradually, I met with my sister. She told me that, ‘Arshi, I think there is something wrong with you.’”
Arshi continued speaking, recalling the conversation with her female cousin. “She just examined me, and she came to the conclusion that, ‘Sweetheart, she is your very best friend, and you talk a lot. She is now like your habit. She’s not like your life. She’s your habit. That is the main point that you are feeling so crushed about.’”
To get over her best friend, Arshi’s cousin sister pronounced, she needed to change her “habit”. She must not message or talk to her friend daily. If she tried it out for two days, by the third day, she would not feel anything.
Arshi was resistant at first, but she gave it a try. The two days she did not talk to her friend were agonising, she said, but as predicted she could feel herself becoming less attached.
But when she would go and hang out with Anjali at their usual spot in front of a local park, her tears would flow. The fact that goons would come and suggest they were a couple angered them both, and Anjali was quick to yell at them to back off.
“She has been like my backbone through this whole time,” Arshi said of Anjali. “There are a few people who came in my life and cheered me up, like my sister who came and counselled me. They first knew who I am, and they said what I should do.”
“But how much do they know you versus how much do you know you?” I asked her.
Arshi paused, reflecting for a moment. She smiled. “Hmm, actually, this is a very vital question that you have asked me. I know zero about myself. These are the persons telling me who I am.”
Widespread gender bias
“I used to think I am a boy,” she continued. “When I was small, everybody used to say, ‘ladki ho, ladki ho, ladki ho’ (You’re a girl). But then I used to say, ‘No, I am a boy.’ And then people used to tell me, ‘Stay in your limits, be a girl. Don’t go out.’ But I used to be like, ‘Nahi.’ If I do like this, then my father might never come back.”
I interrupted her to make sure I understood her correctly. “If you act like a girl, your father will never come back?” I asked slowly. I did not have the heart to phrase the question the way I was interpreting it. That he would have preferred a son?
Gender bias is widespread across India. Recent data looking specifically at son preference and women’s attire shows nearly half of Indian families would prefer a son to a daughter. Meanwhile, 77% of those surveyed also disapproved of young women wearing pants – an act that does not so much signify “boyishness” as much as it does social status and modernity.
My face must have reflected my thoughts, because Arshi’s eyes softened a bit, and her pace of speaking slowed. “Yeah,” she murmured. “So I used to live a little like that.”
I did not know how to respond. But in my head, I could only imagine what others might say of Arshi’s change of habits. I had to broach the topic. Is this a way to go back into the closet?
Arshi responded with an emphatic “no”. But how she explained it brought up a different kind of social constraint in India – one men might face.
“I used to feel like I was hiding in the closet,” she said. “I was hiding all my feelings, my emotions. But now I am free, I can show my emotions to anybody without thinking ‘Oh, what will they think of me?’”
“Now I am free,” she repeated. “And it’s very relaxing and very soothing to be a girl rather than to be a boy. I would say this because boys take a lot of pains to make you comfortable.”
“Like what kind of pain?” I asked.
“Like a lot of emotional pain, some physical pain, financial pain. Each and every pain they are taking for us, to make us feel comfortable,” Arshi said, gesturing to the three of us women at the table. “When I lived my life like a boy, I used to take all these pains in for my friends, relatives, my family.”
There was a pause. “So what do you consider yourself?” I asked, drawing the words out.
“I don’t consider myself straight, I don’t consider myself gay, I don’t consider myself a lesbian,” Arshi said. “I consider myself a human being. And why not live like a human being? Because human beings have feelings for each and every one. A male or a female.”
“I am very emotionally attached to my best friend,” she said. “Maybe someday I will even get attached to someone else emotionally.”
But when we started talking about her friend’s upcoming nuptials again, her brave, direct front softened once more. “I will go [to her wedding]but I will cry quietly,” Arshi told me, “because I will be losing a very good friend of mine.”
* Names changed to protect identities.