To my knowledge, we’ve met exactly twice.
The only evidence I have of the first encounter is a 4×6 photograph tucked away in an album at my parents’ house. Those left living on our shared side of the family sitting along a lush hillside. Your now ex-wife next to you, holding your young daughter in both arms, everyone’s faces so small it’s a deep-seated recollection more than recognition that makes any of us identifiable.
I’m sorry we never spent more time together, though that is not my apology to make. You had to know that they set the entirety of our breakneck schedule on those trips to India, and the fact that we made the slow, treacherous journey through the Himalayan foothills at all to see Masi-ji and Mama-ji and you all for, perhaps, one day and one night was a testament to how open-minded they were about women’s issues for their time — at least in their telling.
I can see the flash of memory in my mind’s eye for our second meeting. Once again, I was there for barely a day and night, taking three flights from State College to Delhi and then back again before I could mentally register the time difference, even if not physically. An unforgiving schedule created by them as they considered everything else — the auspiciousness of the day, my father and his family’s schedules, and I don’t know what else — in setting the date of my oldest sister B.’s wedding in India in the drop-dead middle of my last semester of college and grad school.
We met briefly in the rush of the crowd at the main ceremony itself, one of two events I had managed to make. Amma introduced us, but I knew you immediately. You looked the same as I had always remembered. Slight, something of an anomaly in our full-figured family, a thick, bushy mustache on your upper lip. The exact image I conjure every time I imagine a young Indian man. But you were no longer young at that point, middle aged with bits of grey showing here and there. And always, that awkwardness, that uncertainty, the discomfort clear in your silence.
You didn’t flash your teeth in a false smile like the dozens of other relatives I met in those brief few days, who mouthed pleasure at seeing me after all these years, as if I was a person they knew well enough that they could have any real feelings about our meeting again. In our tempered reaction, we shared in our lack of presumptions about each other and any connection we might have in the name of “family.”
Honestly, more than anything, I felt wonderment. Can you have any idea how often I heard about you growing up? Did you know that my stoic mother teared up a little when she said to your sister later, “I’m so glad [redacted] came”?
But this connection must have pulled at your heart, too, at least a little, because why else would you have attended your cousin from America’s wedding?
I don’t know you. I never did. But I presume that in all of our family, perhaps, I am the only one who could even begin to understand you.
You were so precious to her, technically her nephew but so close in age, I’m guessing you grew up together.
Except you didn’t, I suppose, because you went off to the Lawrence School, one of the few kids from a poor family granted permission to attend the prestigious boarding school in Himachal Pradesh with the likes of Sanjay Dutt as your classmates. The shining star of her side of the family, the one who would make something of himself and raise the family’s fortunes for generations to come. No pressure, just a small hope, with no room for failure.
Glowing with a pride she only dared show when he was not around, she’d tell me the story of how you were singly selected for admission among a group of kids in the final round of interviews.
“They asked how many steps were on the staircase from the landing, as the final question. And [redacted] was the only one who answered correctly.”
Do you know that to this day, I still count the steps when I climb a flight of stairs, as if that knowledge might benefit me unexpectedly in the future, might set me free from our family’s grasp?
In my family, no one would ever have such expectations of me. You have to know that. I was just a girl, after all, destined to marry into and serve another family and whose greatest success would be to give birth to promising sons. Like you were.
But whenever she talked about you, I realize, in retrospect, what I must have felt was something of envy. I wanted her to speak of me in lovingly glowing terms the way she talked about you. We both know, now, the price that comes at. And at some point, we both stopped paying it.
Sometimes, I wonder, when I ignore her calls and delete her voicemails without listening to them, if she thinks of you. You disappeared from the family after that incident and were barely heard from again until B.’s wedding, at least as far as I know. I don’t have the fortitude to fully disappear from her life. Ultimately, I’m not sure you did, either, except for maybe in death, and even that is debatable. But I think about it, not infrequently.
To be honest, I never really thought to wonder where you might have been all those years. The truth is, I couldn’t think of you without shame and some measure of disgust.
I can’t remember if I heard the story from B.’s husband’s friend directly or if B. told it to me secondhand.
So many questions I had at the time.
There are gay bars in India?
How could you trust a stranger like that? (This question only became more pressing after I learned about Section 377.)
Do you visit gay bars as an outsider seeking refuge, like I do? (Thinking back on it, actually, the place I went after landing in the States, after the last time I saw you, was the gay bar I frequented in State College.)
I refused to state the obvious as bluntly as B. did, as B.’s husband’s friend did, as my gay roommate would when I told him years later. I hated it so, so much, when people speculated about me. That knowing look, even when well-intentioned, always felt so smug. No, I’m not hiding anything! I wanted to scream back at the unstated presumption. It took me years, nearly a decade, to really understand the harm of my own assumptions.
But after that seed was planted in my mind, I simply couldn’t let it go. And it became increasingly pressing when I finally did stop making my own assumptions.
So let me ask you now: Are you—
No. I still can’t face that question so baldly.
Sometimes, I wonder what it’s meant for me and my life that some of my earliest memories are of watching the men in my family verbally abuse their wives. The homophobes would say that this is the reason I simply cannot trust men, and they would not be wrong.
Let me ask you a different question, one I can actually bring myself to finish: What were you thinking when you singed your wife’s skin with your cigarette?
I don’t know why I know, in such detail, this anecdote about how you battered your ex-wife, but that knowledge has always been inextricably bound with the understanding that as far as our family was concerned, the fault was hers for not staying and taking it. I know these truths the same way I recognize familial faces I haven’t seen in a decade or more: in that deep, undeniable part of consciousness we know is beyond questioning but we’d be hard-pressed to actually prove.
For years, I’ve held that masculinity is synonymous with misogyny, and your life was a testament to that belief. Your motivation always seemed so obvious that it never even occurred to me to ask. In my view, your reasons were the same as every other man in my family, every other Indian man I ever knew. Clearly, you did it because our culture has never placed any value on women’s lives. We exist to carry the honor of our families, nothing more, and, regardless of how well we fulfill that obligation, it doesn’t matter how badly our families dishonor us.
But again and again, I’ve become aware of the role that women have always had in enforcing that violence. Amma always made excuses for you, after all. “He learned bad things when he went away to school,” was her constant refrain whenever she mentioned you. Afterward, I’m told, Masi-ji blamed your ex-wife for concealing a blemish on her scalp: Clearly, she was marked from the beginning and brought her bad fortune to bear on our family.
No one, to my recollection, ever asked after your daughters. But, in all reality, I know that is for the best.
I’ve met so few of [redacted] and my mutual relatives and only when I was so young. But these are the pieces I’ve stitched together over the years.
My grandfather was a medicine man from a line of medicine men, with unfulfilled ambitions of becoming a real doctor, an MBBS, my mother always told me. Mixed in with the narratives of [redacted]’s brilliance and potential that I heard over the years, are tales of my grandfather’s medical prowess: being invited to study in England, serving the local raja, treating his own fatal injuries.
My grandmother, on the other hand, was uneducated, illiterate, and deeply religious. Their early marriage eclipsed my grandfather’s dreams, as he stayed in India with his young wife instead of pursuing the education he so badly wanted. Put another way, my grandmother was superstitious to a fault and — as my sister overheard as a child in whispered conversations between my mother and her brother — my grandfather, who drank and gambled his life’s disappointments away, would ridicule my grandmother for her beliefs, sober and inebriated both.
That tension between worldviews seems woven into the very fabric of my family, specifically. My grandmother passed her portentous reading of the world onto both my and [redacted]’s mothers, instilling in them the urgency of finding meaning in the stars and scars and coincidences alike so that they could fulfill their duties in steering us all towards the best possible destiny. But my grandfather threatened to disown my mother if she didn’t become a scientist, even though she dreamed of being a teacher like her sister, [redacted]’s mother. When my mother shares that anecdote with pride — so ahead of his time for my grandfather to have such aspirations of a daughter instead of marrying her off as soon as possible — I have to wonder if freedom really means having a new set of expectations placed on you, even if they are ones that you previously would have never been allowed to consider.
Ultimately, my mother’s job as a microbiologist is how she met my father, whose star chart aligned with my mother’s, as my aunt confirmed before they got married. My aunt, and not my grandmother, because [redacted]’s mother played a maternal role throughout my mother’s life, in part due to their large age gap and in part due to my grandmother’s many responsibilities of not only taking care of the household but also feeding the family. In our family, this seems to be a requirement of sisters, to fill in the gaps left by mothers while the men get all the credit.
My father’s ambitions would eventually take us to America, arguably giving our family the greatest opportunity for success of all. One can weave this story however they like, superstition and science both playing a part in tipping the balance of destiny.
As I tried to make sense of my parents’ decisions growing up in America, it felt like superstition won out over science more often than not, though. One of my very few memories of them seeking out medical care for me is when I was hit on the head playing baseball with some kids in the neighborhood. A profusion of blood, the fact that my friend’s parent knew about it, and the seriousness of a head injury were, I speculate, background factors. Mostly, they were worried about a scar on my face, especially after the stitches went in.
I can still see that scar if I look for it in the mirror, but most people don’t notice it. “Marked from the beginning.” But I was always so good at hiding it. Only now I think to wonder, if they did ever succeed in trying to marry me off to some good, sanskaari family, would they say nothing of it, like [redacted]’s ex-wife’s family? Or would they confess to it and insist that the scar signified nothing about our family’s karma, that I was not, in fact, born this way?
After B.’s wedding, I heard, you would disappear and surface again. Sometimes living with one sister or the other. Working by day as a chemist, or so I’m told, and drinking your sorrows away at night, or so it’s implied if I read between the lines.
(The same lines that know who you are, a man with a failed marriage, that know who I am, an unmarried woman in her thirties.)
Where did you go in those other times, and why?
(It’s so easy to project yourself on someone you know so little about, especially when you share a shred of a connection, no matter how nominal.)
When did you first find yourself in the arms of another man? Was it at the Lawrence School, as Amma always speculated? Did you have a lover like so many of the leads in the colonial-era, homoerotic novels about English school boys I read in my teens and early twenties? Or did you suppress yourself so deeply, like me, that you spent your life trying to make sense of your desires?
Did you drink yourself to destruction because your heart was broken? Or as a passive manifestation of your own self-hatred?
Did you batter your wife because we come from a family that takes all its anger out on its women? Or because that was the one thing in your life you could control?
None of these questions are mutually exclusive, I suppose.
They said that when you were found homeless and destitute on the streets of Bengal, over a thousand miles away from your nearest relatives, you were unintelligible. She blames that fact on the Bengalis, as if Hindi and English haven’t become near-universal languages after decades of political maneuvering and violence in India. But B. and N. and I speculate that a lifetime of trauma, manifesting in one way or another, brought you to that point of incoherence.
So the nonprofit that found you sent you to their main location in Rajasthan. It seems almost like a twist of fate: Nani’s family originally came from that desert, Amma used to tell me. In your final days, did you inadvertently make your way back to a homeland?
The story I heard thirdhand goes that in Rajasthan they could finally understand you. Sort of. “Dakshai,” you replied when they asked where you were from.
I have fleeting images of that house in my early childhood memories: dark wood, so different from the flattop stone and concrete constructions of his family’s residences in Punjab and Delhi, and the endless raucous of monkeys banging on the gable roof. I can’t see Masi-ji’s face in my mind any more, the house itself becoming my only remaining memory of her.
How many years has it been since anyone in your family lived there? I often wonder what happened to that house, that hillside, those monkeys. Only now I think to wonder if you even went to Masi-ji’s funeral two decades ago and Masar-ji’s some years after that. You would have been the one to inherit it all, regardless of your attendance — or so I assume.
Was your mind trapped in the childhood that was taken from you? Or the young adulthood you didn’t know what to do with but burn?
For all that family binds us, it is also our saving grace.
[Redacted]’s sister is the one who found out what happened to him, placing ads in newspapers after he went missing and unheard from for just a little too long. By then, it was too late. But at least she was able to arrange a proper funeral.
In one telling, he died alone, passing his days in the care of strangers who could barely understand him. But as long as there are people looking for us, I suppose, we’re never really alone, are we? There’s comfort to be found in that thought but also, it’s a reminder of the inescapable grasp of the family that made us this way.
My sisters are also my saving grace — this is another thing we share. But living in a different time and a different place, they were able to protect me from getting married off for family’s sake, from the certain destruction that would have lain at the end of that path.
I never really believed that I would see [redacted] again, that I ever could or would ask him about any of this. But there was something about knowing that somewhere in the world he existed: another person born into the same family, expected to carry on the same legacy, trying to make sense of how to exist in the midst of the same interminable conflict.
The queer community likes to say that we were born this way, that to resist our desires is a futile attempt to deny our own reality.
Our family insists that our lives have been crafted even before we were born, that any deviation from the course set for us can only lead to devastation.
But there are many things we are born into. I have always known there is a destructive streak in our family and, when I was younger, [redacted] was the face of it. But I’ve since learned that it is not a streak.
For years after I heard that he danced with other men, I couldn’t help but wonder if violence is the only real path available for gay people in a culture and a family that vehemently negates our very existence. And if that were the case, then I could only wonder, who is it that gay women raise their hands against, other than themselves?
Destruction is the enduring legacy of both sides of my family. Destruction turned outwards, destruction turned inwards, both stemming from the same emotional repression and lack of agency we’ve all been raised on since before birth.
They say abuse is a cycle. Are we destined to repeat it?