I know three different ways to say the word “love” in Hindi, but I’ve never once heard them spoken by anyone in my family. Nobody did anything for love but rather for honor. It seems like every South Asian story boils down to a story about shame and honor: the family’s honor must be protected at all cost – even, if necessary, that ultimate one — but if everyone would just hold onto their sense of shame, we wouldn’t have to go down that road.
So much went unsaid, and yet somehow the stories made the rounds. No one ever told me, but I always knew that my cousin, two decades my senior or more, put a lit cigarette out on his soon-to-be-ex wife’s hand. My mother reminisced about my cousin, her nephew, from time to time as I was growing up. How smart he was. How much potential he had. If he had become a black sheep, it’s because he had been sent to a boarding school for rich kids as a child and spent too much time around “bad” people. Lost in her memories, I was always afraid to interrupt and ask whether the shame of that incident was his fault for battering his wife or hers for deciding that she deserved better than a life of abuse.
Being in India often answered my questions without my asking them. I don’t remember living there, but I remember visiting it over the course of my childhood. One of my earliest memories is watching my father’s youngest brother spend an entire evening berating his wife because she talked to a man on the street that she — and more importantly he — didn’t know. My parents stood out of the way, saying nothing. That solitary, enraged voice, emboldened by the complicit silence around him, carried a clear message. Some people were in possession of honor, and others could only bring shame. Some people could say anything in defense of that honor, and others had to acquiesce into silence.
Some people were in possession of honor, and others could only bring shame. Some people could say anything in defense of that honor, and others had to acquiesce into silence.
No matter where we were, religion always elucidated the unspoken: the positions of honor and shame within a family are relative, usually assigned based on birth, marriage and — most of all — gender. By any account, Holi and Diwali are the two biggest Hindu holidays, but those aren’t the ones impressed into my memories. I remember Rakhi, where my sisters and I would be woken up early in the morning before school to tie beaded and decorated thread bracelets on my father’s wrist (in the absence of having a brother) to thank him for another year of protecting our honors. And then there was Karva Chauth, where our mother would join hundreds of thousands of women across the subcontinent and the diaspora in fasting food and water an entire day for their husbands. Some people were in possession of honor, and others’ lives only had value in relation to them. There was no escaping that.
But nobody uses the words “honor” and “shame” except in the movies, because if anything is said, it’s said indirectly. So shame becomes a matter of propriety and honor, respect. And in that translation, the burden shifts from how we are viewed to the lengths we must go to secure our place.
My mother always framed herself as more forward-thinking when it came to gender equity, although it was never clear to me who exactly she was comparing herself to. She seethed quietly about my uncle’s treatment of his wife on that trip. Such disrespect for women. My father’s eternal criticism of her is that she says too much. I’ve watched as she, often, silences herself in reply. Because the only way to compensate for behaving improperly is to recede into the silence.
Silenced feelings find their way out, in one way or another, and it doesn’t always end well. I grew up surrounded by a fuming anger that could ignite anywhere at a moment’s notice – including inside myself. But sometimes the silences were more terrifying because you never knew what was smoldering, just waiting to combust. And as the flames eventually burned themselves out, as they always do, we returned once again to our unstated familial obligations. Silence to silence.
At this point, the other first generation immigrants and the other Asians say to me, “Oh, but you know your parents cared about you. That’s why they immigrated. They just showed it in a different way. They did their best.”
Silence is about absence, so how can I possibly describe it to you?
What if we tried this: Think about every time in your childhood a parental figure told you that they loved you, in whatever language they spoke. Every moment of being cared for and knowing, truly knowing, that this person was putting your needs, interests and desires first and foremost. Every embrace, every caress, every pat on the back. Take all of those memories – can you hold them all? – take every single one of them and remove them from the narrative of your youth. Now look at the emptiness you’re left with.
That barren landscape is my childhood.
B. and N. and I broke the silences, in secret. We found solace in each other’s company because no one who didn’t live it could truly understand. And besides, barred from having friends, all we had was each other. We spent all our time together: after school, on the weekends, in the summer. Year after year after year. There was nothing else to do. We lost ourselves on the pages of fantasy lands. There was nowhere else to go. We had the closeness of people who shared everything.
But even among the three of us, the most important things were left unsaid. Growing up, anything that smelled of sentimentality was roundly mocked. When I was very young, I liked singing along with Barney, and my entire family teased me because, apparently, love was a ridiculous thing to profess. So I followed the example of all my elders, and buried that word deep inside myself, laughed at it — disbelieved it — if anyone dared to even imply it.
Oh, that we loved each other is undeniable. Love was always there: in the gifts we made by hand for one other, the letters we sent long after the world stopped using postage, the secret nicknames that no one else is allowed to use. Even through all the bitter fights that children and teens and young adults have, we found our way back to each other. We were never shown how to navigate those disagreements, how to put aside differences, how to apologize, but we taught ourselves bit by bit, for each other, because we were all we had.
“We’ll never be like them,” we used to say — still say — talking about our father and his brothers. “They fight about the favors they did for each other years ago and who still owes what.” In my family, the only understanding of love was as a price, once paid, you collected your dues ever after. But B. and N. and I wanted so much more than that.
You probably think I’m exaggerating. I’m given to talking in metaphors, after all. So, I’ll draw the curtain back just a little.
What if I told you about the time they threw N. out of the house because she couldn’t stomach the taste of cooked onions? Which time should I tell you about? It happened so often, I can’t even count how many times. Or how about the time N. and I got into an argument, and the only way they knew how to end it was by making her stand on the other side of the apartment door?
I’m sorry. I’m so, so sorry.
Twenty-five years later, and I still can’t think of this without —
“Why are you crying? What’s wrong with you?”
“You don’t cry out there,” B. told me gently after she dragged me by the hand into the bathroom. I got upset that he yelled at me for crossing in front of the TV too many times.
But as we got older, B. couldn’t handle my tears either, probably because she has worked so hard her whole life to swallow her own.
Isolation is too small a word. To be left to navigate a storm of feelings in silence on your own – sometimes I think people use the word “alone” without ever really knowing what it means.
Everything I learned about love – including the words – came from Bollywood. So often, in those movies, love was about destiny, as in Devdas, a predetermined bond between a man and a woman that transcended the trappings of family, marriage or even life itself. At times, love for a woman was about being gazed at by the proper man, as in Pakeezah, although it was never clear to me what separated the hero’s leering eyes from the villain’s that caused the heroine to fall in love with one and live in fear of the other. And if that love was unsanctioned by family, it almost always ended in either exile, as in Mughal-e-Azam, or even death, which is the story Devdas was really telling.
In the nineties that unsanctioned love started earning the family’s blessing, as in Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge. But that rested on the strength of a familial love that felt like a fairytale to me. A mother who loves her daughter so much she defies her husband on her daughter’s behalf? A father who loves his daughter so much he acknowledges her feelings and allows her to follow them? This seemed more fantastical than all those books I read set in made-up worlds.
My parents vastly preferred Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, which begins with a similar premise but ends with our heroine realizing that the man she should have loved all along was the man her father had chosen for her. That told me everything I needed to know.
Desire was so obscene that anything even remotely connected to it was silenced out of existence. I grew up with three other women, and yet the only time we talked about our bodies was when my mother told us we couldn’t enter the temple in her hometown because, They’re a little old-fashioned. I did my best to hide it — practicing how to open pads while barely making a sound and burying them deep in the trash. But I couldn’t be sure when I was internalizing her shame and when I was acting in defiance of it.
My parents shamed us about our bodies endlessly. Those shorts are too short. Only skirts below the knee are acceptable. That top is cut too low. Bare shoulders are indecent. But South Asian women are placed in a paradoxical position. Hide yourself endlessly for shame. Protect yourself from being marred so you could secure a good marriage. And then, one day, emerge from the chrysalis in perfect, untouched beauty.
The only time I’ve been to a salon with my mother was just before B.’s wedding in India. After two decades of being told that a dressed up body was improper, suddenly now I was supposed to care about looking good. Suddenly now, drawing attention to myself in that way was acceptable, but just for that one day. I was uncomfortable and a little unnerved by all the watching eyes because I was so deeply conditioned to believe it was shameful. But this is the love that was sanctioned.
You can say that I never had any bruises or scars, that there really isn’t much to this story at all, so what’s the problem? But what can I say? How can I explain that the world terrifies me in its vastness? That the deepest truth I hold is that people are fundamentally scary, unpredictable and untrustworthy? That dreams are a luxury when the mere existence of feelings could compromise the only place I had in this world?
My family moved around a lot, especially when I was younger, as my father chased one dream job after another, but the one constant was that I was always drowning in a sea of whiteness. My classmates taught me, at a fairly young age, that all the things that made me different were sources of shame.
“Why are your jeans purple?” (Why are you wearing those hand-me-down clothes, those dated, out of fashion pants?)
“Your mother has a red dot sewn into her forehead, right?”
I wanted so badly to fit in. I dreamed of having different parents, parents who I could go to with the simplest of my wants: a wardrobe that at least wouldn’t make me stand out. “No,” definitively, and more silence. If I asked too often, “What’s wrong with you that you would think of something so stupid as to want this? It’s such a waste of money.”
I turned, instead, to things seemingly more in my control. I remember looking at my hands and wishing with all my heart they were white, thinking that if I hid from the sun I could will my brown skin away. It didn’t work, of course it didn’t work, but as I grew older, I learned how to hide better. I spoke less and less about my family and anything that even hinted at culture, to the point that I still don’t use my sisters’ names when referring to them; sharing my own foreign name is more than enough to navigate.
But, as I grew older, the terms kept changing, and I couldn’t keep up.
“You’re a girl, why do you have a mustache?”
I couldn’t tell the other kids about the time they had yelled endlessly at B. because she dared to do something about her pubescent hair like the other girls in her class. How improper that is for an adolescent girl. Had she ruined herself on purpose, because every South Asian knows the hair will grow back thicker? That was a memory buried deep in myself, like so many others, surrounded by silence — all shameful topics, never to be discussed inside the family and especially not outside it.
And besides, by that point I knew that anything I said would only be fodder for further attacks. I tried throwing my own jabs, once — I called a boy “so gay” and felt terrible about it ever after. I learned, after hurting someone else, that the kindest thing I could do for myself and for others was to hold my feelings even closer.
Every high school rom-com I’ve watched shows teenagers fumbling through adolescence together. But I had bigger concerns, and love wasn’t real anyways.
Eventually, first B., then N. went to college, and so I was left to navigate the unpredictability of school and home life ever more alone. Oh we talked on the phone every single day, but it wasn’t the same. And then there were all those things — the most important things — that we had never spoken about at all. How could we start now, over a landline? How could we start now, when we never knew if they were listening? How could we start? Now?
That’s when the feelings began to just spill out. The harder I tried to hold them in, the more intense they became. Feelings I could never find words for, so I drowned myself in music to express the things I didn’t know how to say. Still don’t. I can make you a playlist of all the most desolate musical moments written by composers of the Western classical cannon. Would that make it any clearer?
I receded further into other people’s stories. Young adult fantasy novels became my guide, and I particularly loved books with women at the center of the action. I relished the works of Patricia A. McKillip, Robin McKinley and Diana Wynne Jones, who showed me that a woman could be seen for everything she was capable of, that a woman could be herself and still belong. But, they also, unwittingly, showed me that love was a foregone conclusion if there was a boy and a girl, roughly the same age, who spent an adventure’s worth of time together. That’s all it took.
So I romanticized those rare moments when a boy talked to me and didn’t make fun of how I looked or what I said. That’s all it took, right?
One day, I stumbled on an excerpt from Stone Butch Blues in an anthology N. had recommended to me. I remember the wonder, the utter beauty that reverberated through me as I read an intimate scene between Jesse and Theresa, and I needed more.
One day, I stumbled on an excerpt from Stone Butch Blues in an anthology N. had recommended to me. I remember the wonder, the utter beauty that reverberated through me as I read an intimate scene between Jesse and Theresa, and I needed more. But what left a much, much stronger impression were all of the graphic descriptions of assault, of being unaccepted, of being abandoned again and again and again. I didn’t remember that Jesse found a place at the very end.
I closed that book, and, with it, locked shut a door so, so deep inside me I didn’t even know it was there. By that point, I was so removed from myself I had no way of realizing what had happened. Those feelings had long since hardened into imperceptible silence, hidden behind a mask so close-fitting I couldn’t feel it on my skin and countless others I adorned meticulously because that is what I thought acceptance meant. Perhaps, if I made myself small enough, I could make it out of this life unscathed.
And yet, in spite of all that, I continued to despair at the lack of attention I got from boys and, eventually men, as one after another my sisters and then my closest friends entered into relationships and got married. When would my moment arrive to be seen, to belong? To be loved?
But, on the rare occasions I was noticed by a man, my feelings ranged from indifference to fear. Most of the time, I felt nothing.
When love is a matter of desperation, how do you even begin to know what it is you desire? It doesn’t matter what shape love takes. Or does it?
People talk about being closeted. “What do you mean you assumed you were straight until you were almost 29? Didn’t you have any inclination earlier?”
I refuse to fill the silence with a voice that was never there. There was a word that just didn’t exist in my world. Couldn’t. I was already burdened by too many other labels that prescribed who I was and asserted that I would always be worth less in this world. I simply could not add one more to the list.
Sometimes — I would argue most of the time — there isn’t a single, solitary closet. It is a door within a door within a door within a door, each chamber going deeper and deeper and deeper, and if you make it to the innermost one you just might catch a glimmer of your heart as your eyes adjust to the darkness around you. If you’ve been told your whole life that opening even the first door is an act of shame, that opening the second door results in derision, that the third door ends in violence and beyond that who even knows — would you open any of them?
It took years of unlearning and learning the many shapes of love to crack open one door and then the next, close it, reopen and try again. And I have always, always been afraid of darkness, of things that I can’t see, of paths that I don’t know where they lead. But no one makes such journeys alone. With B., with N., with people who have come in and out and into my life throughout adulthood, I’ve begun to build a place where I can be and always belong — a place that is much richer than the flimsy love any of those movies or books could possibly imagine.
People marvel that in just a couple of years I went from assuming I was straight to being so comfortable in my queerness, from how I dress to the fact that I write here publicly. But I finally have the words for what I’ve been trying to say for so long.
It has taken me three decades to find this voice. I will not silence it.