During a phone call last year to discuss my conversations with Shrinivas Ramchandra Siras, Apurva Asrani, who would script Aligarh, a film based on Siras’s life, asked me a question I had never asked myself in the four-odd years since I had worked with the reader of Marathi at Aligarh Muslim University.
Asrani asked if I had written on Siras out of solidarity with the LGBT cause — Siras had been suspended from AMU for being gay — or because it was a human rights issue.
Of course, the reason I came into the story was professional. I had been asked to follow-up on a single-column report that appeared in The Times of India in February 2010 about a “professor caught having consensual sex with a rickshaw puller” simply because I had been the reporter on the higher education beat in Delhi. The then vice chancellor was an unable-to-speak-Hindi Keralite who had shown distrust for all things Aligarh by surrounding himself with Malayalam-speaking advisors. This put me in a unique position to establish a rapport with him. I myself had been in Delhi for less than a year — I would subsequently pick up Hindi in time for the Commonwealth Games by watching television news in a hotel room while working on a story on Siras after his death.
Asrani was asking what drove me after I had been assigned the story. How did I establish a rapport with Siras and write, according to Asrani, sensitive stories about the man? I said something that has been rattling around in my head for about a year since: It had to be a human rights issue first, right?
If I had seen the big picture back in 2010, I would have chosen the LGBT option. That is a detail the filmmakers seem to have picked up on: the significance of Siras to the LGBT cause. His was the first high-profile case since the Delhi High Court decriminalised gay sex in July 2009.
I am sure my editors who assigned the story to me and made me go back for more had the high court verdict at the back of their minds. I am certain that it influenced me, too, at a subconscious level — my phone conversations with Siras touched upon the idea of being gay. But I did not see that the story had become a rallying point of sorts.
While working with the filmmakers, I went back to some of the stories I had written on Siras. One of the things that struck me was that I never spoke to those championing his cause. The first time I phoned some of the individuals who were helping Siras was when I was searching for him in Aligarh, not realising that he was already dead.
In one instance, a senior colleague, Georgina Maddox, who had been writing on LGBT rights, had filed an accompanying story about what various activists thought of how AMU had treated Siras. If I were covering the story today, I’d have done that myself. That I was less than nine months into the job could have been a reason for my blinkered attitude. Another could have been Siras himself.
His first reaction was to throw in the towel. Siras was ready to cede the fight to AMU if that would mean that he could collect his pension and leave with dignity. In the beginning, he was driven by a sense of personal preservation and the need to protect the young man he had been involved with — only once did Siras talk about him, but refused to give up his identity.
I like to think that Siras and I bonded over our naivety. Each of us assumed that it was about ourselves: A reporter after a story, a middle-aged man outraged that someone would barge into his home with a video camera. He was coy about his relationships and I never knew how to broach the subject with someone almost three times my age. When I did, we found his poetry to be a suitably vague medium for communication.
Siras began to realise his importance as he interacted with activists more. Our final conversation was about him leaving the country so that he could be “free to be gay”. This was probably the most political statement he had made. It was about being left alone more than anything else.
As for me, I have wondered how I came to write those “sensitive” stories. Before Siras, I had never met anyone who had come out as gay. In fact, all I have told my mother is that someone is playing a character based on me in a film — I am yet to break to her what the film is about.
I may be protecting amma from something I think would scandalise her, but I also believe she is the reason I was able to write those stories. Growing up, I was always told to treat everyone as equals — everyone was an aunty, uncle, chettan or chechi. Yet, today, I can see how discriminatory my mother can be — against other states, religions, castes, people. However, what she did not do was pass her prejudices on to me. Whatever prejudices I do have, I have scooped up myself. Amma was wise enough to filter out her issues with the world while introducing me to it.
That meant that I didn’t have to consult my moral compass to judge whether Siras was in the wrong when the story fell into my lap. It means that I don’t have to shift the goalpost each time a new moral dilemma crops up. It also meant that I could laugh at my mother back in 2012, when I was transferred to Jharkhand and, because of a few stories in newspapers in Kerala, she thought that all Jharkhandis are thieves.