What do you want to be when you grow up?” a ninth grade English paper once asked me. It was a 20-mark essay, and I had 20 minutes to earn them. I rolled up my sleeves, and pulled out my cursive best.
The thing is, I wanted to be a great many things.I wanted to be a chef, an actor, a painter; I wanted to be an astronaut, and, for two weeks after I turned 11, I wanted to be a National Geographic correspondent — if only because my older sister said that she wanted to be one. From the age of six to 16, I raced through changes. My styles, my sexual leanings and my haircuts changed, and so did my dreams.Only, what did I never dream of being? Myself.
I was so used to pushing my problems under a hypothetical carpet, that I never realised the lies I was hoarding. It was an easy, lazy life. Through adolescence, I used this complacency as a security blanket, and wound it around myself whenever thoughts of the future terrified me. What would coming out (as a gay man) be like? Would I have to talk about my feelings? Would I have someone to talk about my feelings to (a fair question, because I grew up thinking that you were only allowed to talk about your feelings at expensive therapy sessions, sappy book clubs or when watching romantic tearjerkers)?
Growing up signified independence — no more staying at home, no more rules, no more restrictions, no more getting worried over your mother’s 18 missed calls (well, almost). But I didn’t know what I would do with all the freedom. Independence petrified me. What would I do being free? Would I finally have to be myself?
People are terrified to be themselves, especially when bravery is an option, and not an obligation. I’ve been called manipulative, selfish, a coward and a sore loser. Why would I want to be myself then? I’d rather be someone nicer and more admirable; I’d rather be someone else.
Some enjoy the peace that comes with accepting who they are, but most of us get stuck on the fence in the middle. Take sexuality, for instance. We can stir ourselves to walk free and fabulous, but we’d rather stay safe and sound in the cage of heteronormativity. I made myself feel at home in the cage till I was 21. The thing about independence, though, is that it doesn’t come gift-wrapped and express delivered to your front doorstep. It needs to be earned, or fought for.
Coming to terms with your sexuality and stepping out of the closet isn’t easy — especially in a country like India, where minds can be as narrow as Bandra’s bylanes, even if you are an upper-class, well-educated man (and sometimes, especially if you an upper-class, well-educated man). As countless films and American television shows have told us, you don’t just wake up one morning and walk out into the sunlit world. To reach the closet door, you need to push through your woollens, those “buy-one-get-one-free” shirts you bought on an impulse, and the odd tangle of smelly socks, greying underwear and smutty novels you don’t want your mother to find. It will be tough, especially if you’ve been hoarding — and holding back — all your life.
And even when you do, it’s a never-ending process. Those closet doors that everyone talks about? They are revolving. Week after week, you will find yourself coming out to friends, family, acquaintances, and (occasionally) drunken strangers at the bar. Perhaps, one day it will not be the big deal that it is today, and you won’t have to worry about whether your words are followed by a kiss to the cheek or a punch to the mouth. Every new acceptance is a fresh slice of independence, and you’ll wolf it all down.
Fortunately, my personal coming out story reeks of acceptance and Hallmark cards. I sat my parents down and told them everything in a diligently rehearsed 17-minute monologue. In 18 minutes, it was done. Questions were asked, hugs were exchanged, a tear was shed (that would be me). My mum went for a walk with her friends and my dad continued solving the crossword puzzle. They accepted it with a simple shrug (and lots of love and support over the next couple of years, but this is not that story). My sexuality was just another fact.
What about the war of words I had been expecting? The emotional bloodshed? The years of torment at the hands of society? They never came, even though history books said that they would. Times are changing, and somewhere over pop culture references and more inclusive media representations, my parents and peers had changed as well. The history books had it wrong.
What they did get right was this — freedom felt liberating. The freedom to stay single. To be a sexual deviant. The freedom to wear a skirt (if you are a man) or a jersey (if you are a woman). The freedom to wear both, or neither. The freedom to never find your way back home.
What do we do with the freedom then? Do we let it consume us? Terrify us into never seeking it out? We do neither. We simply unwind and enjoy it with a cup of tea. Preferably, chamomile.
Mahale is a Mumbai-based architect and gay writer.