Editors’ Note In the summer of 2017, a group of LGBTQ+ South Asians got together in Pittsburgh and the world became a slightly brighter place for each of us. We began to meet, again and again, partially driven by budding friendships and partially driven by a desire to connect and build community. We found our diasporic South Asian communities to be notoriously exclusionary toward LGBTQ+ identities, and our American LGBTQ+ communities to be overwhelmingly dominated by white faces. We didn’t see ourselves in either of these communities, and until we met each other, we struggled to make sense of our seemingly disparate identities. A mirror reflects only what it can see, only what is illuminated. The desire to see ourselves wholly represented inspired this collection, Mirrors: LGBTQ+ South Asian Voices. We recognize that Mirrors is not the first publication to feature the stories of the LGBTQ+ South Asian community. And while the contributors to this collection do not speak to every intersection of this group, we hope that Mirrors is still a step toward reflecting experiences that are as American, as South Asian, and as LGBTQ+ as we are. A year later, we’ve collected stories, partnered with allies, and connected with voices of this community. We’ve been humbled by the overwhelming support we’ve received, not only from other LGBTQ+ South Asian individuals and organizations, but also from friends, family, and community members. We sincerely thank every person who shared their experience by contributing their work, who supported our project, and who purchased a copy of this publication. Because of your support, we have been able to make this project a reality and increase awareness and representation of this vibrant community. Love to all gaysis, Anish, Chandra, Deepshikha, and Satvika Rangoli Pittsburgh
Categorizing the Closet:
The Glass Shoe
Ghar Ki Lakshmi
Domesticity with Frances
Dilwale Dulha Le Jayenge
So Very Human
Gurnoor Kaur Sekhon
Gurnoor Kaur Sekhon
Gurnoor Kaur Sekhon
Categorizing the Closet: Nikhita Dodla
Angry as usual. Nowadays I don’t feel like myself anymore. I hate what I’ve become, Pride parades online but frantic excuses outside, An algorithm of likes and comments composed into the shape of a girl. Sambar spills on the table, My knuckles ache from holding the spoon. I’m not allowed to be angry, even when it was supposed to work, I was supposed to be near to her. For I’ll tear it all apart with a single tear. Am I to apologize for loving her? The girl who looks like cherries, tastes less like berries and more like chapstick? The rice tastes bitter going down my throat, The silence presses on my neck, Choking me, telling me to finish off my plate. We exist in the same house, But in different time zones. For when I turn to apologize, You’re already at the sink washing the dishes, Letting each drop bruise the silence between us. I’m an intruder creeping into my own house, Who got caught so they sit at the breakfast table.
Art by Nikhita Dodla
Gurnoor Kaur Sekhoon They say princes rescue princesses to marry them, but they forget princes can be brothers planning escapades, or that princesses can be captured by the people you least suspect. A girl’s honor becomes their weapon of choice. Anything is fair game when it comes to family. So they locked her away in their highest tower, where the world watched her and forgot all about our hero in the making. If you can’t fight dragons with swords, you can sneak past them in the shadows. Stories and secrets linger there, waiting to be heard if you’ll listen. He did, always, she told the best stories. A girl’s honor becomes their weapon of choice. Anything is fair game when it comes to family. So she wore a veil over her hair and prayed to the Great Sages, and the world watched her as they put a sword of shadows in his hand. It was his turn to spin a tale, to twist fate. Kirpans are for kindness, for breaking shackles, for churning fire into smoke. And into his tale, they disappeared. They say that knots are tied for eternal love, but they forget that love can mean the promise of a crimson-colored thread bonding a girl to her brother.
Art by Nikhita Dodla
Durga’s Hundi Anish Kumar
Pray to Hanuman he told his child — urging him forward with a five-dollar bill — He will make you strong. He circled Hanuman, praying his child would grow strong. But true strength Is not David Is not Hercules Is not Alexander, but rather our protective Mother — fierce and unyielding — perched atop her tiger. The child circled Durga, praying he would grow strong. True strength, the child knew, was not for show: it’s hidden from the world, woven into reams of red silk, and mixed into masks of turmeric. It’s forged every minute, of every day — not to slay the monsters who confront us, but to withstand those who live among us. And with every coming year, the father circled Hanuman; so the child circled Durga. Each, breaking the last circle with an offering to their deity, pretending they did not see the other.
Art by Nikhita Dodla
Splintered Deepshikha Sharma
i. she melts under my gaze and is that yearning that burns hot in my chest or is that a wanting for her lips skin hair clothes laugh sweet and delicate and graceful— everything that i have tried and tried and failed to become. what if envy and greed are the same thing? ii. they look like me, these ones: brown-skinned, long haired, full lips— though these women peer back at me from glossy pages and glaring screens unseeing, unknowing, eyes lined in silky darkness, clad in cloud-spun fabric embroidered with stars lovely and glamorous and breathtaking i am a woman— but i am not an apsara. i will never be so lovely. iii. where are the women like me? the wild ones, the vicious ones, the ones who destroyed the earth, who began and ended as unbeautiful Kali— eyes crowned with dark circles, matted locks, faces wrought of rage; the ones who were never appeased, who destroyed the universe and the god of beauty writhing under their feet. who is the goddess of saying fuck you to everything you are not? iv. my mother’s bangles break before they slide over my lotion-smeared wrists their splinters are knives and my skin too thin— red glass sparkling in cold light and drops of blood on linoleum look much the same— i realize these are the shackles to a prison that I can never enter.
Art by Chandra Potamsetty
The Glass Shoe Gurnoor Kaur Sekhoon
She escaped on fairy wings, the ones she dreamt up in her girlhood. Some said she was born with them, but that was a lie, a lukewarm excuse they sold themselves to protect their pride. She loved them, still, she loved them, but what did that matter when the world would only see a runaway with a single glass shoe? Stars spangled her silhouette like the draping silks of a Southern queen. Forget-me-nots dotted her hair that billowed like dark thunderclouds. Her eyes were a portal to the great beyond. But she was descended of runaways, not adventurers, not wanderers, not dreamers. Look at her feet, they said. Nobody ever asked who shattered the other shoe.
Art by Chandra Potamsetty
Ghar Ki Lakshmi Gurnoor Kaur Sekhoon
He said Lakshmi had come to his home the day she was born but goddesses donâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;t need glass slippers to dance at the ball. And she wondered if he would see Lakshmi in her Lady Love or if heâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;d shatter her slippers so she could dance nevermore.
Art by Nikhita Dodla
Steal Back Kamala Gopalakrishnan
• even from your prayers on friday winter mornings, i could tell, clinging to your paisley silk lap, that my last name spilled from krishna’s mouth -fuls of fresh churned butter •• watch me release this soft bread theory from its shredded peel and loosen our chains made of fraying wicker give you ghost sheets caught in snow -drifts that pushed us here— we will (never) call it ours.
•••• after three weeks, my therapist still says gerpayla…crunchun? go and stitch a nursery rhyme out of my insurance papers and wait for me to steam i want to pull his halting vowels into fresh brown sugar-banana taffy. want to say stay there ••••• no. i want to swallow what remains: bone ash, bitten steel hiding in the gums
••• my eardrums can still hear the way weevils throw themselves against third-floor emergency lamps. suppose there was a bad case of malaria at 8 turmeric-smeared temple bells year before my mother found a lover who loved another god my father throwing torn concierge pamphlets after she sighed
Art by Chandra Potamsetty
Public Fruit Kamala Gopalakrishnan
even if bruised plum heaps are marked as poison bulbs infecting bullock carts; a passing gnat ignores the stolen one i place at the top, air twisting burnt hurt, dull afternoon spores from under -ground will burst in whirls; even if they hope to bloom inside my eyelids, make me curdle a hot worry; even if i could keep my face blurred blank, boil the feeling of loss down to a dark pulp, i will first ask please, give me any juice starting with a slow motion fall into side street breakdowns. even if I emerge with skin still brown, holding ancient heat.
Art by Nikhita Dodla
Uncorrupted Anish Kumar
I’ve often felt that my identities as gay and South Asian are mutually exclusive. South Asian communities often erase and silence queer identities, while many queer circles in the United States can make South Asians feel foreign from the lack of our representation. Straddling both these identities has made me feel like I’m corrupted and will never belong to either community. This photo-series illustrates this frustration and shows that these identities are compatible. The first half of the series imagines two South Asian women loving each other in a world where our queer identities are celebrated, where it is unremarkable for them to marry in a Hindu ceremony. The second half pictures a man and a woman in a queer bar in the United States. Their traditional South Asian clothes evoke my own feelings of ’wearing my race on my skin’ and being othered by these queer communities. This series hopes to push the boundaries of what we as queer South Asians imagine for ourselves and our community.
Photograph by Anish Kumar
Two brides connect their pinkies to symbolize their union during సప్తపది (saptapadi), a ritual where they walk around a sacred fire seven times.
Photograph by Anish Kumar
Each bride places a mixture of cumin seeds and molasses atop the other’s head as part of జీలకర్ రా బెల్లం (jilakarra bellam), a ceremonial gesture communicating an unbreakable bond.
A knot made from the చున్నిలు (chunnilu) of the wedding garments of the brides emphasizes their bond as they take their first steps as a married couple during సప్తపది (saptapadi).
Photograph by Anish Kumar
Photograph by Daniel Arnabar
A man adjusts the collar of his शेरवानी (sherwani), a traditional South Asian garment, in a gay bar.
Photograph by Daniel Arnabar
A woman in शलवार कमीज़ (shalwar kameez), a traditional South Asian garment, turns away from the crowd, alone in a gay bar.
Navarasa Sagar Kamath
Navarasa is a series based on the nine emotions of Indian classical dance theory. Literally translating to “nine essences,” these emotions are used to depict stories in traditional Indian dance and art. The theory of the nine emotions is described in the “Natyashastra”, an ancient Indian text. Through photography, drawings, and digital manipulation, I created images that represent aspects of my culture in a contemporary manner. This series is my first independently designed body of work that represents two of my passions; Kathak and art. These three pieces are the completed works of a body of nine pieces. The central piece, “Veera,” has been inspired from being a queer Indian. I am shown surrounded by images of trishulas and a lion, symbols of Shakti (power) and Shiva. By displaying myself in such a manner, I am trying create an image of someone strong and powerful, who displays their identity with pride.
वीर (Veera) - Bravery
रौद्र (Raudra) - Anger
शान्त (Shanta) - Peace 18
Domesticity with Frances Vidya Palepu
The bachelorette in the red dress was a coworker of mine. She sat in the middle of her living room, angel-winged eyes pouring adoration, pupils dilated and glossy. God, the intensity of that gaze. She might have been staring at some higher being, some half-lidded face of justice and love—but the truth was that she was looking at a picture of her fiancé, utterly regular Joe from accounting, who was still regular and boring despite being bikini-clad and draped across the hood of a car, wearing a baseball hat that read “BROTHERHOOD.” The room glittered with laughter at the sight. Beside me, Paige let out an uncharacteristic giggle that caused her entire body to wobble forward, a drop of her drink sloshing over the cup and onto the ground. These were those years of weddings and endings, of everyone I knew settling for less. I was aware then, more than ever, that my biological clock was allegedly ticking; every engagement, every pregnancy announcement rang like a morning cathedral bell in my ear—a beautiful noise in and of itself, but one that I couldn’t help but despise, disruptive and unwanted. None of that prevented me from coming to any of these things, though, nor did it prevent me from enjoying myself. Here, crowded together on a soft carpet, surrounded by beautiful women, I thought maybe I might just become one myself. At last, the bride came to a decision: “Not photo-shopped!” she nearly screamed. The room erupted into a fresh bout of laughter; Paige was wiping tears. I wasn’t quite there yet, but my stomach did hurt. “Fucking Joe!” she said, breathless. “Would you fuck Joe?” “No,” I said immediately. The bride clicked a button on the remote, and revealed that the photo was, in fact, photo-shopped. I wasn’t surprised—there was no way his butt was actually that perky. In defeat, the bachelorette lifted a fresh cup to her berry-stained lips and championed another sip; in encouragement, so did we. We were a mass of laughter and wetness, from spilled drinks and sweat alike. With every passing moment, we squished closer to one another, pouring ourselves into each other’s space as women so often tend to do. When I got back to my apartment late that night, I planted myself in Frances’s bedroom doorway. She turned to welcome me from her desk in the corner, and her anatomy textbook shifted with her, as if attached to her elbow. Pale, double-chinned, with tired eyes and bedraggled, curly brown hair that she only let me see, this was Frances at her loveliest state. I burped, and she laughed a real laugh—my highest victory. “How was the bachelorette party?” Frances was my perfect roommate. She believed in God’s plan, and she believed that meeting me was part of His plan for her. It made sense. Sometimes my body woke itself up in the middle of the night for water, because I always forgot to drink back then, forgot to eat sometimes, as well. Meeting her was like that—like I was being pulled in her direction not by my own choice, but by a latent need to survive. “It was lit,” I said. “Can I ask you something?” I pulled up a picture of Joe on my phone and pushed myself off the doorway to bring it to her, but then stumbled and changed my mind, opting to sit on the floor instead. Frances left her desk chair, walked over, and sat cross-legged beside me. “I’m not that drunk,” I said. “I’m just tired.” 19
Art by Chandra Potamsetty
“I know,” she said, laughing again. She always laughed, never mean, but joyfully, like I was the funniest person in the world. “What were you going to ask me?” “Do you think this guy is cute?” She considered the image and shrugged. “He’s not ugly.” I proceeded to fill her in on my work drama, and over the course of our conversation we ended up laying side-by-side on the floor, gesturing with our feet instead of our hands. It was funny, and we couldn’t get through sentences without laughing between emphatic feet-phrases. Then there was a peaceful silence, and I drowned in thought, picturing Frances in a wedding dress. I pictured her and her future Joe raising two pigtailed children, pictured them going on family trips to the local amusement park in a beige minivan. Ecstasy in simplicity. I wondered if they would bicker. I wondered if the groom would simmer like a tea kettle, exploding at the age of forty like a latent bomb. I wondered if the pigtailed children would grow up cowering under their beds, their eyes damp and their feet cold. All at once, I was hit with drunken nausea. I covered my mouth, the rest of my body glued to the carpet. I must have gurgled, because Frances immediately stood up, pulling me with her towards the bathroom. After the first three flushes, I stared at the swirling toilet water, tempted to wash my face in it. With her gentle doctor’s hands, Frances held my hair behind me, so lightly; it was as if the strands were floating all by themselves. She put me to bed and brought me a cup of water. I asked her if she was sleeping, too, and she told me she had to study more, that she needed another hour at least. She told me to have sweet dreams. I woke blearily in the afternoon, and Frances was gone. I found a note by my bedside. It read devastating news: her mother had had a stroke, and she’d driven home early in the morning to be with her. She didn’t want to wake me up. I remember the first time Frances brought me home to meet her parents in Ohio. I was a tadpole, scrambling to make a good impression. But it was easy—no kinder people existed than her family. Like something out of a storybook, they loved with a peace and generosity that was as warm as my sheets and as smooth as Lake Erie, just twenty miles north from where they lived. We rode a boat out into the lake’s deep ends, her father working the motor with peace, expertise. This was my second time on a boat, the first a ferry trip to the Elephanta caves in Mumbai two summers back, a journey I endured in the midst of a summer monsoon. It was so nauseating, so tumultuous that I stumbled when we got to the island, my uncle offering me a roadside banana to put me at ease. Despite the ordeal, the giant, ancient deities carved in the caves were so breathtaking and beautiful that Lake Erie absolutely paled in comparison. On the second morning, I woke before Frances did and wandered into the kitchen. Her mother, Teresa, was already there, a smaller, frailer looking Frances. She was reading The Bible on a barstool while something aromatic and rich boiled on the stove. She looked at me over her reading glasses, the kind with the cord that looped itself around your neck. “Good morning! Oh—” she said it round, the same way Frances did— “Do you eat beef? I should have asked you yesterday.” I told her I did, and took a seat beside her. The dog came bounding up towards us and plopped itself down underneath my stool. I took great care that my feet never touched its back. Frances’s family had never had an Indian person in their home before me—hell, they had never even left the States—but they didn’t act like it. We were all God’s children, after all. During my visit, we ate roasted chestnuts and sang karaoke and drove through the town amidst gorgeous autumn colors that my droughtladen California could never hope to see. We raked the dry leaves from the driveway and put the lights up in preparation for the coming Holiday season. It’s hard for me to describe what exactly about them was so warm, so comforting. I suppose it’s that they were all in love with one another—and likewise, I fell in love with them. 20
By nightfall, my hangover had faded, and I plucked up the courage to reach for the phone and call Frances. The conversation was short. She told me the details, but I was too simple to catch all the medical jargon. Her voice was overly composed. “We’re all praying,” she said. “Will you pray, too?” The next morning, I went to Church in her stead. I sat alone in the back. The worship band songs were tacky and loud, but my mood was damp enough that I didn’t snicker the way Frances and I usually did. A woman in front of me, singing, raised her arm to the air in passionate praise. Her eyes were closed, and I was taken aback by the tears I saw leaking from the corners. The sermon was about God’s Love. I thought about how little it had to do with Teresa’s sickness. Nonetheless, for lack of something better to do, I took notes on the pamphlets they’d given out beforehand. There was ahab, chesed, eros. But the one that stood out to me was agape, self-sacrificing love. The pastor directed us to Romans 5:8. But God demonstrated his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. When we were given time to pray, it was towards Christ that I directed my thoughts. I pictured praying like a raffle drawing—the more entries you threw into the pool, the more likely He might be to draw them. My prayer was awkward and difficult; I hadn’t prayed since childhood. And back then, it’d looked different, my hands folded flat rather than curled, my eyes closed before a colorful abstract tapestry of Ganesha, my friend, the first stuffed plush that I had ever owned. Now, squirming on this hard wooden pew, I asked Christ if He was well. Stupid. I asked Him to watch out for Teresa, and to keep Frances happy. I signed off with best wishes, and wondered if He even listened to prayers from skeptics. Monday was quiet. I went to work, wrote a brief, and came back home. Without Frances, there was no one to talk to about my day. I cooked pasta, and it tasted like college. I watched a Hallmark movie. I fell asleep. On Tuesday I called my own mother and asked her if she was well. She chastised me for not calling more often, and then told me she was fine. “Dad’s out of work again,” she said in Telugu. I heard the dishes rattling in the background—my mother, the maid. I wondered if she’d been violent since I left, the dishes standing in as weapons of mass destruction on rainy days. “That sucks,” I replied in English. “You should call him. Talk to him. It’s been a long time.” “Is he not there right now?” “He’s sleeping. He barely ever showers these days. The house stinks.” Ah, yes, the slumbering king. I told her I’d call him, but I knew I wouldn’t. “Frances’s mother had a stroke. She left on Sunday to be with her,” I said. “This is why you should get married sooner than later. Save your babies the stress.” “I don’t want to talk about marriage. I’m worried about her.” “Good thing France is in med school,” she said derisively. “Frances, Amma,” I corrected. Wednesdays were when Frances and I usually watched improv shows together, but I couldn’t bring myself to go in her absence, to laugh at the imaginary worlds and the made-up characters that were so content in their short-lived humor. Then, I realized suddenly that with Frances gone, the apartment was brimming with wondrous possibility—so I pulled some strings and bought an eighth of Girl Scout Cookies. Hours later, I found myself glued to the couch cushions, having gone through two large bags of Hot Cheetos. I opened a third bag and held a Cheeto three inches from my face. I saw an entire galaxy in the seasoning, a galaxy made of flame, of fire. I lived a life there, and it was blissful, unfolding with gentle, rolling ease. Then the Cheeto fell into my cleavage, and I let it sit there for a while before plucking it out and eating it in one bite. On Thursday, I called Frances during my lunch break. Her mother wasn’t doing so well, and the office around me seemed to fall silent, the ambience of papers printing and fingers typing dropping off all at once. 21
After I clocked out, I went out with Paige and drank four whole beers. Paige was single like me, and she saw the tears brimming in my eyes and patted me on the back. “Did you have a secret crush on Joe too?” I was taken aback—Paige was way out of his league, with her cute dimples, her tiny frame. But something about her voice, her vulnerability, made me afraid to tell her the truth, so I just cried instead. I needed an excuse, anyways. “He’s a really nice guy,” she was saying. “I mean, we went to college together. I’ve known him for years. They only dated for like a month.” “I have to go,” I said. “I can’t be here like this.” She drove me home, and gave me a hard hug goodnight. I told her she was worth one million Joes. When I got back to my room, I stared at my phone, tempted to call Frances again, to beg her to come back. I know how it feels, I wanted to tell her. I can be there for you. I know pain, I know unhappy families. But I also knew better than to say such things. I pictured all the love in my body as water, and it poured, and poured, and poured. In my own bed that night I dreamt up a grand future vision of myself, up above, in the center of a luscious garden full of trees. They were the kind of trees whose branches beckoned one to climb, those fictional drooping trees that seemed to have been hand-crafted for gentle human play. In this garden I sat, a Goddess covered in jewels that sparkled a shocking yellow against my brown skin, gold nuggets embedded within a crumbly Californian dirt. In this vision I had no qualms about such a color palette—poo and pee, I used to tell my mother indignantly. In this vision, I was her best child. The grove was green. There were animals lounging here and there, peacocks and elephants and deer, cows and monkeys and tigresses—animals of a fanciful, ancient tropic that doesn’t quite exist. They drank and played in a stream where the water flowed clean and rich; the air above us was hot and sticky with flies. Scattered all around me were the most priceless gems of all: women, girls, female beings that were somewhere between women and girls. Beautiful. Hair cascading in liquid streams down their bare, goosebumped backs, their skin pale, almost translucent against my own. They were foreign to this land, alien-like as they appeared, but they were mine and so they belonged. They lay cuddled close to me, clothed if they wished, but I did not wish. I was Krishna with his gopikas and I was born for this kind of decadence; I was the savior of our time. I could see across worlds. With my third eye—a delicate papida billa, its pendant resting elegantly between my perfectly arched, thick eyebrows, its twinkling chain following the even white line that parted my hair—I could see the mortal world. And in that world a statue existed in my honor, fixed upon a lonely, jutting cliff in Santa Cruz, drawing millions to view it each year, more visitors than any Christ, than any Buddha, than the Statue of Liberty, herself. Sculpted in marble, it shone bright and stunning against the dark thrashing of the sea. I was the goddess of the twenty-first century. Upon first glance at my immortalized beauty, the tourists were moved to sobs, the Pacific pouring itself from their eyes, stinging, smarting, burning. In the statue, my head lay pillowed on my lover’s lap, my right ear sunk into the dip between her thighs as though I was trying to internalize the rhythm of her heartbeat, vibrating the strongest where her two legs met as one. As though I was trying to become her. My arms encircled her soft calves, and her chubby hands tangled in my hair, sending a galaxy of goosebumps across the nape of my neck—the mortal tour guides, smug in their possession of such an esteemed profession, pointed out this exquisite detail to the crying visitors, who craned their necks to catch a glimpse. Their eyes followed the goosebumps to my face, where my glance was cast upwards, past the fat 22
Art by Chandra Potamsetty
protrusion of my lover’s belly, past her chest, past her thick neck. One could place a perfectly vertical pole connecting my eyes to hers, which angled downward to return my moony gaze. “What modesty!” exclaimed the tour guide, his long hair whipping in the coastal breeze. “See how she kneels at her lover’s feet, how she devotes herself entirely, her pride absent, her dignity absent. Inferior. Beneath.” The tourists wiped their tears and took pictures with their year 5000 technology. A child tugged at her father’s skirt and asked, “What is inferiority?” The father replied wisely, “A plague of the old. Think nothing of it.” The waves rolled down below, invigorated. The tourist directed the attention of the group to the lover. “And there, the focus of this piece. How beautiful. How ethereal. How absolutely deserving of Our Goddess’ devotion. And her name—her name— her name—her name—her name—” The tour guide faltered on his cliff and I faltered in my bed and the Goddess faltered in her Garden, the women-girls screaming their names to her ecstatically, hoarsely, disrupting the serenity of the scene. The Goddess tore the third eye off her head and flung it away from herself as if burned, crawling towards it on all fours to reach inside its pendant, her fingers stained with green and mud. The tour guide was the first one she smote. She swatted him like a booger into the sea, and the universe, every last bit of it, crumbled. I woke up and ran to Frances’s room. It was three in the morning. “I just had the craziest dream,” I said instinctively, wiping spit from my mouth, tears from my eyes, sweat from my nape. But the dark room was empty, and I remembered that Frances was still gone. Hours later, when the sun was just working up to a decent glow, she called and told me that her mother had died. I don’t remember much after that—I remember the funeral, the cruel beauty of Ohio in autumn. I remember staring at a dead leaf on the ground that was the same color as my skin. After Frances switched schools so she could be closer to home, I entertained a succession of new roommates, all of whom came and went like she did. None of them liked to watch improv with me, liked to laugh about nothing with me. I remember the ad I copy-pasted onto Craigslist each time around; I have it saved somewhere. This apartment is small, but cozy. $750 a month for rent, including utilities. One and a half bathrooms, wood flooring, newly renovated, stainless steel kitchen appliances. Ample common space. Windows facing east, in-unit air conditioning. Two loveseats.
“Do you do any stuff that normal guys do?” My heart reacted before my mind did. I felt the rapid drum of my pulse against my skin. It was a conditioned reaction to a much too common question—this time from a friend in gym class. I stared at the red doors of the gym that seemed to mock me from far away, across the huge expanse of grass. I wished I could escape into those doors and blend with the sea of students milling inside the gymnasium and the echo of voices resonating against the walls. The concept of a “normal guy” used to elude me as a child, but I found an answer in an unlikely place: my middle school Spanish classroom. Nouns are gendered in Spanish, distinguished as masculine by the articles el/los, or feminine by the articles la/las. And from the very first day that I learned about gendered nouns, it seemed obvious to me that those gender assignments paralleled the gender roles of society: video games, sports, muscles, hallmarks of the teenage boy, are all masculine (los video juegos, los deportes, los músculos). There is no ambiguity about a noun’s gender—a concept I came to understand only after seeing the bright red ink of a -1 on my Spanish quizzes, reminding me that I had again mixed up an el with a la. But it’s a mistake that I seemed to make a lot. “You play the clarinet? That’s such a girl instrument.” -1. “You’re a guy and you don’t watch sports?” -1. “Why do you have so many girl friends?” -1. I desperately tried to learn the difference between el and la, but I was never able to get it right. Carefully keeping track of every -1, I hoped that I would finally be able to internalize the el, but each one was nothing more than a stinging reminder of my own disappointment, with my sexuality and with myself. Consumed with embarrassment, I believed that anyone I told would only feel the same disappointment that I felt with myself. I liked to play a game with myself back then: if I could go a whole day without having to worry about whether I was acting el or la, then I had won. I don’t think I ever won. Every time I played, I struggled to find a reason as to why I was supposed to be el, why I couldn’t be la, and why it was fair for me to feel disappointed in myself for something beyond my control. After six years of trying and failing, I decided to look elsewhere. One day I offered to drive one of my close friends home. Though I could feel my brain pulling at my tongue, willing it to go numb, I managed to say the words “I’m gay.” I waited for the red -1. It never came. She delivered her response: just a single word. But in that word, I heard more than just an acknowledgement of my confession. Perhaps it was the inflection of the word, or maybe it was the steadiness of her voice. Whatever the reason, in that one word, I understood that she was not only accepting me for who I was, but also telling me that it was okay to accept myself. My eyes remained fixed on the red gym doors. They were still too far away to offer any escape. As my mind raced to answer the question, I remembered what my friend had said to me just a few weeks earlier. I remembered the inflection of the word, the steadiness of her voice. I couldn’t help but smile as I thought about the way she had simply said “okay.” I felt the red -1, still burning brightly in my head. But for the first time, I didn’t care. “I guess not,” I finally answered, without looking back. 24
Art by Chandra Potamsetty
Dilwale Dulha Le Jayenge1 Amal Nanavati
Dedicated to my aunt, Nanhi Mausi, and the many family, friends, and mentors who have provided spoken and unspoken support to make this piece possible.
“Chhup na sakega ishq hamara, chaaro taraf hain unka nazara. Pardaa nahin jab koi khuda se, bando se pardaa karna kya? Jab pyaar kiya toh darna kya?”2 (Our love cannot remain hidden, it manifests everywhere around us. It is not veiled from God, so why veil it from society? Having fallen in love, let’s not fall into fear.) —0— — Prologue — From a young age, Bollywood has shaped my interactions with the world. At five years old, I asked my relatives why their Hindi conversations couldn’t have subtitles. By eight years old, I had memorized all the dialogues from Sholay (1975). Given their emphasis on romance, Bollywood films unsurprisingly played a significant role in shaping my views about love and desire. I idealized the pyaar dosti hai scenario in which best friends conveniently fall in love.3 I dreamt about having the same conviction in my love that motivated Veer and Zaara to wait 21 years for each other.4 I imagined myself with the strength of love and courage that motivated Raj and Bobby to rebel against society.5 Yet, as I grew up, my attractions no longer aligned with the male-female romances I saw in Bollywood movies. My former ideals of romance became a source of confusion and questioning. It took 20 years to fully accept myself for who I am and to be comfortable talking to people about it, while not letting it solely define me. But as much as Bollywood movies contributed to my confusion, they also contributed to my ultimate acceptance of and openness about myself. “Main chaand hoon ya daag hoon? Main raakh hoon ya aag hoon? Main boond hoon ya hoon lehar? Main hoon sukoon ya hoon kehar? Koi yeh bata de, main kaun hoon.”6 (Am I the moon, or a blot on it? Am I ash, or a fire? Am I a drop, or a wave? Am I peace, or havoc? Tell me, who am I?) —1— — Kuch Kuch Hota Hai7 — (Unexpected Stirrings) “Ek ladki ko dekha to aisa laga, jaise khilta ghulab, jaise shaayar ka khwab, jaise ujali kiran, jaise bun mein hiran, jaise chandani raat, jaise narmi ki baat, jaise mandir mein ho ek jalta diya.”8 (I saw a girl and I felt like a blooming rose, like a poet’s dream, like a glowing ray of light, like a frolicking deer, like a dark night pierced by a full moon, like a soft word, like a burning flame in a temple.) There he is. He looks so cute, sitting next to her studying. I’ve seen him with her before—are they dating? I hope not. I walk nonchalantly by, acting as if I haven’t noticed them. “Hey,” she calls after me. Dang it, I can’t go unnoticed. “Why don’t you join us,” she asks. My heart speeds up, nervousness moves up my chest to my throat. I pull up a chair. She introduces us, we start talking. He cracks a smile, and, oh, there goes my heart! He laughs from his eyes. His every gesture is so expressive and we share so many interests! We talk through the night and I feel warm and satisfied. But dare I tell him? How will he feel about it? This is the magical step that I’ve heard about in the lyrics of Bollywood movies. But of course, in Bollywood movies this step happens over the course of a song; how will it feel for me to take this step in the real world, a step I have feared for my whole life?
—2— — Dard-E-Disco9 — (The Dance of Pain) Were my hands tainted? Was my soul polluted beyond restoration? Ever since I had felt the first stirrings of such desires, they were accompanied by negative thoughts. No one I knew or saw in movies had them. They seemed unnatural and immoral, deviations from what I was supposed to do in life… “Tere haath itne jaldi nahin dhul sakte… Gaur se dekh… Sirf tere haath hi nahin, tera sharir, teri aatma, sab mehle ho chuke hai.”10 (You can’t wash your hands so easily… Look closely… Not just your hands but your body, your soul, have all become tainted.) Even though I tried to portray perfection in multiple aspects of my life, was the ultimate dirt, the ultimate immorality, buried deep within me? “No,” I told myself. “Stop dreaming about that boy in English class; think about that girl in chemistry instead. Don’t get that fluttery, excited feeling when he talks; treat him like everyone else.” Ugh, why couldn’t I stamp out these feelings? Going down this route would result in the broken hearts and estranged families that whole Bollywood movies were premised on. Would this prevent me from becoming the ideal, family-oriented, and morally pure person I wanted to be? “Ajeeb baat to yeh hai, ki is ghar ke kone kone ko tum saaf karti rahi. Par aaj sabse jaaga gandh tumhi ne karai ho.”11 (The strange thing is that although you tried to clean every corner of this house, today you yourself have brought the most filth into it.) —3— — Kya Karoon?12 — (What Shall I Do?) “Dil hain kahin aur dhadkan hai kahin. Saansein hain magar kyun zinda main nahin?… Kyun main jagoon.”13 (My heart is somewhere and my heartbeat is somewhere else. I am breathing, but why am I not alive?… Why should I wake up?) It took many years of struggle and denial, as well as learning from and listening to the world around me, to finally acknowledge that these desires and stirrings were a natural part of me. They were not something I could change, nor something I wanted to change. Yet, should I act on these feelings? How could I act on them without making them the defining feature of my life? My friends and family had all these expectations of me that were incompatible with my attractions. In Bollywood movies, such deviations from traditional norms would split up entire families. Maybe I could live the rest of my life knowing the truth for myself, but not showing it to anyone else? No, I wanted that ideal romance, that feeling that everyone from Lata Mangeshkar to Arijit Singh has sung about. But how could I reconcile my acceptance of these inclinations with other people’s expectations of me, in order to live out my ideal future?
Art by Chandra Potamsetty
—4— — Kar Chalna Shuru Tu14 — (Come On, Get a Move On) “Kuch to log kahenge, logon ka kaam hai kehna. Chodo, bekaar ki baaton mein kahin beet na jaaye raina.”15 (People will talk [about us]. It is their job to talk [about us]. But ignore them, lest we spend the whole night on their nonsense.) I felt an urgent need to tell someone, to shrink the gap between who people saw me as and who I was, the gap between the me-I-pretended-to-be and the me-I-wanted-to-be. Yet, I didn’t want it to be a big reveal that made these attractions seem like my sole defining characteristic. I wanted to tell someone, but in a nonchalant way that made it clear, “yes, this is part of me, but I am so much more.” A moment came when I could tell a friend. The command went through my brain, I began moving my vocal chords to say the words, and they got caught in my throat. It was the strangest feeling, one I had never before experienced. The moment passed, I didn’t tell her, and I tried to calm my pounding heart. A few minutes later, another moment arose. I began to tell her, pushed past the feeling in my throat, and said it. “Oh,” she said nonchalantly. We discussed it briefly and then continued our conversation. That was it? That was the big moment I had feared? I felt proud. Not just because I had said it, but because my friend viewed it as I wanted the world to—just one part of the more complex person I was. Over the next few months, I told select friends and family. They all reacted the same way—completely normally, making it clear that this was something neither I nor they should or would make a big deal about. “Wow,” I thought. “If my friends don’t have the expectations of me that I thought they did, maybe I don’t have to make this a big deal. Maybe I can live out my ideal life, where my attractions are not a focal point of my identity but rather one part of a more complex me. Living this ideal, I won’t have to make a big deal of telling others about my attractions.” With that, I slowed my rate of actively telling people. The normalcy of my attractions had been verified. From time to time, however, I still felt a nagging concern. Maybe I was deceiving others by not actively telling them? Maybe the fact that I wasn’t actively telling people was a manifestation of subconscious shame or fear? Maybe the only way to live out my ideal life was to tell everybody about my attractions and make them a defining part of my identity? I realized I was caught between two limiting pressures. If I didn’t constantly announce my identity, was I simply succumbing to mainstream society’s heteronormative, homophobic views? If I did constantly announce my identity, was I succumbing to pressures from the LGBTQ+ community to make these attractions a primary part of who I am? I knew I would have to continuously and consciously work to wean myself away from both these limiting pressures. “Jab hum apne aap ko achhi tarha samajh lete hai, to doosre kya sochte hai, it doesn’t matter. Not at all. Agar hum apni zindagi ka steering wheel apne haath mein nahin lenge, to koi doosra driver’s seat pe beth jaayega.”16 (When we understand ourselves well, then what others think doesn’t matter. Not at all. If we don’t take control of the steering wheel of our life, somebody else will take over the driver’s seat.) 27
Art by Nikhita Dodla
—5— — Dil Chahta Hai17 — (The Heart Desires) “Bholi si surat, aankhon mein masti, door khari sharmaye. Ayy hai!”18 (An innocent face, with mischief in her eyes, is standing far away, blushing. Oh, wow!) We sit, gathered around a table. It’s late at night, and we’ve been playing board games, singing, and generally having a relaxed evening. He begins singing, a shy grin on his face. He’s completely absorbed in the song, and I’m absorbed in watching him sing it. That warm, fuzzy feeling engulfs my chest again. He is so cute! His eyes playful, his skin silky, his smile flooring. What if I could date him? We would be such a cute couple! He leans back into me. I know he’s doing it as a friend—he doesn’t have a pillow. I feel the warmth of his skin. If only we could be this close every day. I hope he can’t hear my heart pounding in my chest. There’s no way to hide the nervousness, shyness, and joy pulsing through my body. I decide to relax into his body, and continue the game… —6— — Mere Khwabon Mein Jo Aayeh19 — (The One Who Comes into My Dreams) “Kahin to, kahin to hogi woh duniya jahan tu mere saath hai. Jahan mein, jahan tu, aur jahan bas tere mere jasbaat hai.”20 (Somewhere, somewhere there is a world where you are with me. Only you, me, and our feelings.) It’s warm and cozy. Friends sit around the table, talking and playing games. He and I are sitting right next to each other, on the same sofa. My arms are around him, gently stroking his hand. Someone makes a joke. We laugh together, and he playfully pinches my cheek. Suddenly, people start leaving and it’s just him and me left. He slowly leans in and plants a kiss. I can feel the wet, exciting warmth emanating from our lips and moving through my body. All my senses are alert. I can feel everything, experience everything. I am happy, content, and comfortable. I relax into the kiss… I wake up—it was all a dream. Except for those lingering feelings of warmth, happiness, and satisfaction. In the security of darkness, in the confines of my mind, I had been dating him. The whole dream had been so visceral, so real. And it was having the effect on me that a Bollywood dream sequence has on the main characters—reinforcing my feelings for him. If only that dream were real life! If only we lived in the dream world, where my feelings would automatically be reciprocated, where romance develops over the course of a song. If only… —7— — Jaane Tu Ya Jaane Na21 — (Whether You Know It or Not) “Agar yeh tujhe pyaar karti hai to yeh palat ke dekhegi. Palat. Palat.” 22 (If she loves you then she will turn and look back at you. Turn. Turn.) How can I live like this? I can’t keep interpreting our interactions from a perspective of love, while he seems to interpret them from a perspective of friendship. I can’t keep building an “us” in my dreams when I have no idea whether he has similar thoughts. I decide to search for hints in everything he says and does. His small hand gestures. The fact that he says “significant other” instead of “girlfriend.” I also begin giving him subtle hints: asking pointed questions, sharing personal anecdotes, and talking more about LGBTQ+ topics. In my desire to subtly convey my attraction, I fall into stereotypes I firmly believe to be untrue: the idea that men who are attracted to men are more effeminate, wear brightly colored clothes, and are more animated when they speak. Yet, aligning with these stereotypes seems to be the easiest way to convey my feelings. At one point, I even decide to tell him about my general attractions to men, to give him an opening to bring up any similar attractions he might experience. He gives no indications; my hints are left unreciprocated… 28
—8 — — Epilogue — “Mere sapnon ki rani kab aayegi tu? Aayi rut mastaani kab aayegi tu? Beeti jaaye zindagaani kab aayegi tu? Chali aa, tu chali aa.”23 (Queen of my dreams, when will you come? The season of love is here, when will you come? Life is passing by, when will you come? Come, please come.) The search for love is ongoing. The search for self-understanding and self-acceptance is as well. As much as Bollywood movies contributed to my confusion and self-doubt, they also contributed to my eventual selfacceptance. This is due to a subtler understanding of Bollywood that has emerged from my experiences. I now ignore the gendered aspects of films and instead focus on the core emotions they explore. That first spark of love. That desire to spend the rest of my life with someone. That feeling that I will do anything for them. Similarly, I look for bridges between the struggles presented in Bollywood movies and the struggles I see in my own life. Bollywood characters fight to get their families to accept inter-class, inter-community, or inter-religious love interests. They quarrel with their parents over tradition and modernity. Their struggles are not so different from the struggles I feel between a heteronormative culture that values tradition and reputation, and my own, less common but no less normal, attractions. I no longer focus solely on the struggles of Bollywood movies—that main characters disappoint their family members by not conforming to social norms. Rather, I focus on the happy endings—that main characters convince their family members and the rest of society that their feelings, love, and existences are no less legitimate than what is traditionally valued. Though Bollywood movies can’t provide perfect role models for me, they provide venues for me to understand and explore my emotions, experiences, and struggles. At their core, Bollywood movies strive to grasp what unites humans in our quest for happiness and romance. Bollywood movies have helped me grasp that in order to express myself fully, I have to accept my multiple identities and not reduce myself to just one. And Bollywood movies are what continue to push me to find my own love and to accept myself. “Haste, gaate, jahan se guzar. Duniya ki tu parvaa na kar. Muskuraate hue din bitaana. Yahan kal kya ho kisne jaana? Zindagi ek safar hai suhaana, yahan kal kya ho kisne jaana?”24 (Move through life laughing and singing. Don’t worry about the world. Live joyously. Who knows what will happen tomorrow? Life is a beautiful journey, who knows what will happen tomorrow?) Translation: The Big-Hearted Will Get the Groom. From Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (1995; The Big-Hearted Will Get the Bride). All translations in this work are by the author. 2 Mughal-E-Azam (1960) 3,7 Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (1998) 4 Veer Zaara (2004) 5 Bobby (1973) 6 Secret Superstar (2017) 8 1942: A Love Story (1994) 9 Om Shanti Om (2007) 10 Agneepath (1990) 11 Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna (2006) 12 Wake Up Sid (2009) 13 Patiala House (2011) 14 Ek Main Aur Ekk Tu (2012) 15 Amar Prem (1972) 16 Dear Zindagi (2016) 17 Dil Chahta Hai (2001) 18 Dil To Pagal Hai (1997) 19,22 Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (1995) 20,21 Jaane Tu Ya Jaane Na (2008) 23 Aradhana (1969) 24 Andaz (1971) 1
Art by Chandra Potamsetty
So Very Human Satvika Neti
“It makes me furious,” she says, flopping down on the couch. “Like, how dare she?” “How dare she…?” I ask, humoring her, even though we’ve been through this song and dance too many times to count. “Exist!” Priya exclaims. “How dare she, like, exist in this world!” She flips over onto her stomach and yells into the couch cushion. “It’s not fair.” “What’s her name?” Priya blushes, fully and completely. You can’t tell with her dark skin, but I’ve come to know the other signs of a Priya blush in the past year and a half we’ve been living together—her toes curl, her eyes get this adorable far away look in them, and her mouth makes a small pout. “Her name is Ameyah, isn’t that gorgeous? We met at that fundraising event I was telling you about. Turns out she works for that organization. She was wearing this dress, ugh, and I’m—” “So gay?” I interrupt, lips quirking into a small smirk. “So gay!” She laughs. The next week it’s a boy named Allen she meets at a panel discussion, the week after that it’s Timothy from the foundation she’s trying to get money from, and then an Aditya and then a Gale and then a Deepica, all fussed over and Instagram stalked for three days, before she gives up and moves on to the next person. “Why can’t you ever actually make a move, Priya,” I finally snap when she interrupts a show I’m watching to talk about a nonbinary dude named Rafeh she met at a rally last week. “You keep talking about these people like they’re the love of your life, but you never actually do anything.” It’s frustrating to watch. I love her, she’s one of my best friends, but god, do I hate her sometimes. “I make moves, it happens!” she says, offended. She’s not wrong. She’s gone home with people and brought home others, some multiple times and sometimes with multiple people. She’s dated some of them, sometimes mutually deciding to stay friends, sometimes complaining about and fussing over her feelings to me for weeks before deciding to end it herself. She stops talking to me about her crushes for a month or so after that, and I feel a little bad about it, but then one day she comes back from the temple, eyes alight about Swetha, a Hindu girl who seems to understand social justice issues and who Priya is in love with—and we’re okay again. “Sometimes I just don’t... feel like I’m capable of love. It doesn’t feel like it’s for me—like, doesn’t feel possible for me,” she says to the dark. We’re sitting on our porch with popsicles and hard cider—it’s a hot summer night and there’s fireflies and mosquitoes all around us, but it feels like we could stay this way forever. I hum like I understand, but I really don’t. “I mean, my parents had an arranged marriage, and like—I get the whole ’learning to love’ each other thing, but—I don’t know. It all feels so jumbled in my head. The Indian version of love, which is so rigid and transactional, and the American version of love, which is all lightning and fireworks. None of it feels real.” “Maybe you just have to figure out your version of love,” I say, tugging on my shorts so they cover all of my ass, instead of just half of it, before sitting back down on our concrete step. It’s just rained, one of those ephemeral summer thunderstorms, and the smell of chalk and asphalt rises up like an old memory. 30
Art by Chandra Potamsetty
She laughs, leaning back on her arms. Her skin is glowing and her lipstick is flaking off her lips, and at that moment she’s so very human. “Yeah, that’d be easier if I knew how to love. Every time I start something with someone I feel like I check out of it almost immediately.” “Maybe you just haven’t found the one yet,” I joke. The air is hot and sticky, and I flick a mosquito away from my skin. The cicadas scream in the night air between us. She snorts. “That’s just the thing, though. American culture believes in ’the one,’ the soulmate, and Indian culture is just like, learn to love who you have, you know?” She sighs. “It’s just confusing, to grow up between two worlds, especially when neither seems to want to believe your sexuality even exists. I never know which one I want to believe.” I want to find some way to comfort her, but I don’t know what to say. I just take another sip of my cider and we sit in silence, staring into the dark. She meets a boy named Chad, and seems to want to try, with him. I can tell the spark is fading for her, like it always does, but she perseveres anyway. Eventually she comes home, furious, slamming cabinet doors and throwing my door open. “I finally came out to him, and you know what he said? You wanna know? He said, ’Oh, dude, cool, you wanna have a threesome?’ I dumped his ass immediately. What a dick.” She tries again, months later, with a girl named Manasa. Manasa is South Indian, and Brahmin, and makes it a point to let us know that every chance she gets. One night we’re sitting around our television, watching the Daily Show, and Manasa makes an offhand remark about drugs and violence in certain communities. We all know what she means, though, and I see Priya freeze out of the corner of my eye. She dumps Manasa before she even gets out of our house that night. “It’s occured to me—” Priya starts, bundled under some blankets, eating soup that I made her. She’s always such a baby when she’s sick. It’s snowing outside and she’s refused to get out of her blanket nest on the couch. She continues, “that I’ve probably hurt a lot of people, along the way, because I don’t understand how to do romance.” “What do you mean?” I ask. I pause my show, because she has the tone in her voice that means the conversation is liable to last hours. The heater turns on, blasting warm air from the vent Priya is pointedly sitting on top of, in a silent protest against my rule to not turn up the heat. “Like, there was this girl senior year, Emily. I’m pretty sure she was into me for the full year, but I just—didn’t know how to deal with it. As soon as I realized she liked me it was like any chance of anything happening went out the window, and I feel so bad about that.” Her mouth pulls into a grimace. “I’m sure I really hurt her.” “You’ve been hurt, too though,” I say, referring to Asif, who’d disappeared from her life for a full year without saying anything, and every other person who hadn’t been as good to her as she deserved. “I think that’s just how it works. You make mistakes and keep learning.” “It’s just so hard for me to get to that place with people. So hard to be able to open up and feel vulnerable. How do you do it?” I shrug. “You keep practicing.” So she keeps practicing. There’s Daniel, with whom it’s only sex until he wants more and Priya fully chickens out, there’s Noah, who Priya liked so much, but who wasn’t looking for anything real—and then there’s Melissa. “I like her—I like her a lot,” Priya says while we walk around Frick Park with our ice cream. “She has a boyfriend but they’re super poly so we ended up having sex on her futon and then she left to go sleep with him, and it was glorious. Like, so ideal.” “Are you going to see her again?” I ask. It’s a gorgeous day, with the light spring breeze in the air and the sun dappling through the trees, which finally have leaves again. I run my hands through the tall grass near the playground as we pass by. Children shriek with laughter, and I’m trying to soak in as much of the good weather as I possibly can. 31
“I don’t know?” she says. “I guess we should. I like her! And we’re good friends!” She picks a flower off a bush we pass, plucking its petals off one by one. “I think you should. It sounds good for you.” It doesn’t go anywhere. Melissa ends up breaking up with her current boyfriend and getting with another one, who is also poly, all while Priya doesn’t make her move. She ends up hanging out with both of them and hooking up with both of them. But then one time we’re all out together and Priya’s drunk and I hear her ask, “Melissa, why did we never date?” And Melissa looks at her, shrugs, and says, “I don’t know,” but it’s clear she does know. “It’s fine,” Priya tells me later, still drunk at the same bar. It’s loud, and she has to yell so I can hear. “I mean, we’re friends. Like, we’re such good friends. Probably too good of friends to be romantically interested in each other anyway, right? Like, I don’t even understand the difference. How do you know? What’s the difference between friendship and romance? I don’t get it.” She’s clenching her beer bottle a little harder than normal though, and my heart breaks for her. “What’s wrong with me?” Priya asks, voice quiet. We’re having a sleepover tonight, sleeping side by side on her bed. The glow in the dark stars on her ceiling look like translucent markers of where we’ve been and where we’re going plotted on the canvas of time. She continues, the confession more raw and painful in the dark, “Like, what’s wrong with me? I feel like I shouldn’t even be worrying about this. I feel like I should only be caring about my career, or my job or whatever. Like, how did I get here where romance is the thing I’m so hung up on?” “There’s nothing wrong with wanting love,” I say. A car passes in the street below, and in the light that washes over the room, she groans and flips over to face me. “I hate that word.” I laugh. “I know, I know.” I reach a hand out over hers and squeeze it gently. She squeezes back and we hold onto each other, and in that moment, we are so very human.
Art by Chandra Potamsetty
Breakfast Chai Deepshikha Sharma
Vishu woke up to the smell of ginger and cardamom, three texts, five notifications from the DeSi gIrLZ whatsapp group, and a knot in her stomach: part festering guilt and part cranberry vodka. Though Raja, her husband, had already gotten up, the smallest ray of his warmth still lingered under the covers. She pushed away as far as she could, trying desperately to reach the cooler spaces beneath the blanket. Her hangover was settling as vague nausea somewhere in her throat and she needed to get up before she started dry-heaving in bed, but her phone had not stopped buzzing. Maybe, somehow, they had all seen her last night. Balanced on the edge of her bed, Vishu unlocked her phone. The notifications from the DeSi gIrLZ had multiplied by three in the time it had taken her to drag her phone from the nightstand and into the bubble of her blankets. DeSi gIrLZ: Ladies….. please keep Charanya in ur prayers!!! DeSi gIrLZ: what hs happened? DeSi gIrLZ: she filed for a divorse! DeSi gIrLZ: oh no :"( :"( :"( DeSi gIrLZ: is Sri OK???? DeSi gIrLZ: why did she do that?!!!? And so it went, in long and short messages from the twelve women in the group, half gossip, half rumor, and somewhere between the two, half-truth. None of the women had any real answers—though Charanya and Sri had never seemed very happy to Vishu to begin with—but most of the women in the group had already rallied together and decided to visit her in the apartment she was staying in now. Despite the fact that her headache had multiplied like the whatsapp notifications, Vishu couldn’t help but smile at the way the women banded together. They were all surprisingly progressive too, despite most of them being recent immigrants from India and Sri Lanka. She couldn’t imagine her mother’s friends, a group of women not unlike these, doing anything but immediately disowning any friend who’d filed for divorce. Vishu had always been most comfortable with a steady group of women and moving to Pittsburgh after getting married hadn’t changed that. She’d gotten a husband, whatever that meant, but had suddenly found herself adrift without a circle of women to retreat to. She wouldn’t have said that DeSi gIrLZ were close friends of hers—mostly they were the wives of her husband’s friends or acquaintances from the Hindu temple they visited once or twice a month—but they’d taken her in, and had at least nominally become her friends. Vishu could have done without the good morning memes and the shock videos that sometimes circled through the group, but other than that, she was grateful to be a part of them, grateful to have a group to call home. Her phone buzzed again, and Vishu winced. There were the desi girls, girls Vishu thought of as a gaggle of extended, distant cousins, and then there was Adelaide, who was everything the other girls were not: dark skinned, doe-eyed, and a heart as large as the universe. Becoming friends with Adelaide had not been a problem. But everything else that had cascaded into place after? Adelaide Costas: text me when you wake up Adelaide Costas: are you up yet??? Adelaide Costas: girl. we need to talk. Adelaide Costas: ????? Memories of the night before unraveled in her head, and nausea rose past Vishu’s throat. She sat up, throwing the blankets off the bed, her heart pounding. Flashes of Adelaide raced through her mind: the 33
turquoise ring on her hand, the dark curls bouncing on her shoulders, her laugh when she’d decided they were drunk enough, the feel of her orange-whiskey flavored lips as they finally gave in to the heat that had been building between them for nearly two years— The door creaked open, and Vishu jumped, tossing her phone like it was about to burn her. She looked up and saw Raja, walking over to their closet. “Good morning,” he said, in his usual good humor, gathering clothes from a hamper. “How are you feeling?” Vishu swallowed hard. “Awful,” she said, after a moment, and it wasn’t a lie. “No wonder. Six shots? Are you a woman or are you a drinking machine?” he laughed, dumping the clothes on the ground to sort. His laundry, and hers. “There’s chai in the kitchen. Eat something too.” He leaned over the bed and pressed a kiss to her forehead before heading into the bathroom. Vishu shrunk under the feel of his lips on her skin, but he didn’t notice. He hadn’t noticed… yet. She could hide under the excuse of her hangover for now, but he would know, sooner or later, because the guilt of what she’d done the night before was surely tattooed all over her face, because she knew she wouldn’t be able to keep from telling him, the way she’d told him almost everything else. Vishu had known Raja since Hindi school in their small, mid-western, white-American-as-white-American-gets hometown. Her parents and their friends would gather in the mildewed basement of the local Methodist church and attempt to impart on a group of fourteen rowdy children whatever bits and pieces of their homeland they could. It had worked— mostly, since Vishu’s Hindi was about 70% English—and they’d all pretended, just for one day a week, that they were the majority, that their faces were the normal ones. They were friends, even then—sort of. He said hi to her when they passed each other at school, and she said hi back. He was the only other Desi in their majority-white elementary and middle-school and unlike all the other boys, he didn’t chase her, or try to trip her, or throw his toys at her when she tried to play with them. But it didn’t really matter; Vishu preferred the company of girls, and soon enough Raja and his family moved away. His father’s H-1B was being transferred, and he and his family would become another one of those lost, H-1B contractor family friends. She’d forgotten all about him, until they ran into each other at a college party in Michigan that she definitely wasn’t supposed to be at. The drinks at the party were too suspicious to drink, the boys were freaking her out with their drunken hands and sloppy demands for intimacy, but she’d spotted a familiar face out of the corner of her eye—or maybe it was just that he was brown too—and started to make her way over to him. He’d recognized her and given her a warm, too-long hug. Other than the brown skin, he’d become indistinguishable from the rest of his frat brother friends, but he still wasn’t a jerk, and to Vishu, seeking somewhere to moor herself at the party, that meant something. They’d texted for a few weeks after the party, nothing deep or important, mostly jokes about their old middle school and Hindi lessons. Finals week hit, and she forgot about him again, then the rest of college hit, and before she knew it, she’d graduated college, was working at a bank, and a slightly drunk Sanjana Aunty was at their house two Chirstmases after graduation, yelling Mein rishta lekain ayi hoon Vishu keh liye! like it was some kind of Bollywood movie, and not the middle of the night. Vishu was twenty-two. Raja, twenty-four, and in med school. Vishu’s parents had already started pressuring her to marry, marry, marry, and marry well, but the prospect of marriage rocked a deep hatred in her. She’d had tried dating (secretly in high school, not-so-secretly in college), but nothing had never clicked. There was never that spark, never any sort of desire, not with any of them, white, black, or brown. Raja, though… he was a safe choice. A choice she could live with. Her parents would expect her to get married 34
Art by Chandra Potamsetty
eventually, and this would satisfy them just fine. And if he’d liked her enough to go to his parents and ask about her? That was fine too. She didn’t dislike him, every time they’d interacted wasn’t terrible, and that was more than enough. Her parents hadn’t loved each other at first, but they got along just fine, and at least she’d known Raja most of her life, a luxury denied to most of her parents’ generation. Vishu said yes to Sanjana Aunty, and like desi magic, she’d gotten a text from Raja the very next day. Her heart hadn’t fluttered, she hadn’t pinched herself to make sure she wasn’t dreaming, hell, she’d hardly even smiled, but… it was slightly cool to be getting this phase of her life over with, so soon. As it turned out, Raja had had nothing to do with Sanjana Aunty’s rishta. That had all been his mother, who’d been joking around with Sanjana Aunty over the phone. Sanjana Aunty apparently had not been able to resist her chance to play matchmaker, and had set it all up without anyone ever asking. Vishu was fine with it. Her parents, at least, had stopped pestering her about getting married. They’d all laughed about the mix-up during the wedding, and Vishu, under her layers and layers of make-up, jewelry, and fabric, had thought about telling her kids the story, and how that was the beginning of how their parents had fallen in love. That was during their reception, and Raja had turned to her, smirking slightly, his eyes sparkling with excitement. He asked her what she was thinking about, and she kicked him under the table. She didn’t love him like he was beginning to love her, but she’d hoped then, and, later that night, as he took out countless pins from her hair, untied her ghagra and choli, and pressed soft, suddenly hesitant kisses against her skin, she prayed that love would come. She prayed it would come before he realized that almost everything she’d told him about her feelings was not a lie, but a half-truth, and a half-wish. Vishu had spent the three years of her marriage so far wishing for that spark. Raja had never noticed. Vishu blew on her tea, tightly gripping her favorite chipped green mug. Their kitchen was small with dated, yellowing appliances, but it was cozy, and at the little table in the corner, the two of them drank chai together on Sunday mornings. Despite everything, she loved the little routines they had fallen into, and this one was her favorite. They’d sit and talk about their week, he’d compliment her, and she’d tell him bad jokes until they were both keeling over with laughter. It was like therapy for them, and it was how Vishu had grown to love him as one loved a best friend. She wanted to tell Raja what Adelaide had sparked in her, what she’d learned about herself last night. A simple kiss with Adelaide had set her heart pounding like she’d just run a marathon, and Vishu couldn’t stop thinking about the feeling of Adelaide’s soft, sweet skin on her own. There was also a serenity in the flashes of images roiling through her mind, like she’d uncovered something important in between the soft kisses she had shared with Adelaide last night. Was she gay? Was that the answer to everything? But Raja was her husband, and though her hangover was beginning to subside thanks to some Advil, the guilt, the panic, and the creeping feeling of shame did not. Vishu wanted to retreat back under her blankets, feigning worse than a hangover, but she knew Raja would coax her into a nest of blankets in their living room and take care of her until she found his kindness stifling. Besides, he’d already come back into the kitchen, freshly showered, laundry running upstairs, his hair ruffled in just the way that made him look like a Bollywood hero. He’d poured her another cup of tea without asking, and Vishu was genuinely looking forward to their Sunday chat. She may not have loved him like she was supposed to, but she loved him in other, smaller, not-insignificant ways, and surely that meant something. Vishu ran her finger along the rim of her mug, trying to ignore Raja, her eyes fixed on the stream of 35
Art by Chandra Potamsetty
notifications flashing on her phone. DeSi gIrLZ was still buzzing, and the girls were starting to dissect all the rumors they’d collected into their constituent lies and truths. “Raja…” Vishu began, wanting to say something, anything. How did one even tell your husband that you maybe never loved him, and were probably gay? “Hm?” He was washing the pot he’d used to make the chai, and the sounds of steel grating against steel, water running and splashing, were too loud, too harsh. “Come sit with me,” she said, trying to keep her voice even. The sound of water running stopped, and the dish holder by the sink clinked. Raja sat in the chair next to her, setting his own, matching, chipped mug on a carved marble coaster that had been a housewarming gift from one of the girls in the group. Vishu’s phone flashed again. DeSi gIrLZ: Is she coming to the potluck? DeSi gIrLZ: should she still come? DeSi gIrLZ: if he is then he shld not DeSi gIrLZ: u cant invite one nd not the other! DeSi gIrLZ: how can we uninvite both???????? “Honey?” Adelaide Costas: VISHU Adelaide Costas: SERIOUSLY WE NEED TO TALK Her heart lurching, Vishu tore her eyes away from her phone. “Is everything alright?” She hit the power button and flipped it over. She would take it one step at a time. “Charanya is getting a divorce,” she said. She folded her hands around her mug again, and the ceramic felt like it was burning her. “I’m not surprised,” scoffed Raja. “I’ve seen how Sri talks to her. I’m just surprised it took so long.” “These things aren’t easy… especially if you love the person.” “You think Charanya still loves him?” “I think she’s just realizing that what she thought was love, wasn’t really.” Vishu’s phone buzzed and she couldn’t help but flip it over to read the notifications. DeSi gIrLZ: she filed a police reprt!!!!! DeSi gIrLZ: when? DeSi gIrLZ: only one week before DeSi gIrLZ: is she ok??????????????????? DeSi gIrLZ: did she say anything at temple last sunday? DeSi gIrLZ: we didn’t see her DeSi gIrLZ: i saw her yesterday but she did not say a word! DeSi gIrLZ: he bhagwan! Raja took one of the biscuits on her plate and dipped it into his chai. “Biggest gossip of the day, right?” “I think he might have hurt her.” Raja paused mid-chew, and looked away. “That… sucks. How could it have gotten so bad without any of us knowing? I’m sorry. We’ll be talking about it too, especially at the next potluck.” “That might be hard for you if Sri is sitting there.” “Then we’ll just have to beat him up if he shows.” “Beat him up?” Did men ever take anything seriously? He shrugged, non-committal. Vishu didn’t think she would mind Sri being socked in the face, but she 36
would rather not have Raja doing the punching. “She got out of there, right?” asked Raja. “Charanya? Yeah. I think she’s staying with Rucha right now.” “Godspeed to her divorce.” Raja reached for another biscuit. “Godspeed to your ladies’ gossip and the power of shunning. Shunning Sri, I mean.” He said it seriously, but his lips were curved into that half smile he wore when he was joking. Vishu decided she’d let it mean he wasn’t going to fight Sri. She was delaying. Her revelation sat on the tip of her tongue, and it wanted to come to life. She wanted it to come to life. After an excruciating moment, Vishu said: “What would it take for you to divorce me?” Raja, who had been reaching for another biscuit, laughed. “What kind of question is that? Do you want a divorce?” “I’m just asking…” “Hmm… let me think… You’d probably have to… murder someone? Commit an act of terrorism? Tell my mother you don’t want to give her grandchildren?” He winked. “I don’t want a child,” Vishu growled. “Yeah, but she doesn’t know that. I can’t let you break her heart.” He laughed again. “But… I don’t think divorce would be the answer in that case, more like… exile.” “This isn’t the Ramayana, Raja. Be serious.” “Why do you want to know? Has something…” he trailed off, and the space between them filled with the many possibilities of how the conversation could end, the many futures that depended on what she said next, how Raja reacted, and how they fell apart. “What if… there was someone else?” It came out in a hoarse whisper. Vishu was grasping her mug so tightly now, her knuckles were beginning to turn white. “What are you talking about?” His face grew serious, and his brows knitted together in confusion. “What are you saying?” “We kissed, Raja,” said Vishu, letting it spring to life, knowing there was no turning back now, that everything was going to spill from her like a dam breaking after a monsoon. “Nothing else will happen, but Raja, I want something to happen. I want it so badly, I can’t think of anything else.” “You only kissed.” “We started off as work friends, you know?” she started at a whisper, but Vishu’s voice grew as she spoke. “We were on the same team, then we got assigned the same project and we started texting, and talking, and hanging out? And then we got drinks and dinner, and she kissed me last night and it was like the world finally made sense to me. Raja, I finally made sense to me.” Vishu took a deep breath, trying to keep her voice steady. “Raja, I think I like women…” Vishu trailed off, emotion overwhelming her voice. It felt like clockwork falling into place to say it, and she wondered how such an essential truth had been unknown to her, for so long. Tears welled in her eyes and she wondered if Raja would see them as an admission of guilt, or whether their friendship would mean anything, and know her tears were tears of relief, of joy, of love. “You’re a lesbian…?” said Raja. He was staring at her like he’d never seen her before. “But you’re married—” “I know.” Vishu looked away. A thick silence engulfed them. Even her phone had stopped buzzing. When Raja finally spoke again, it was as though he was speaking to her from the bottom of a well. “What’s her name?” “Adelaide.” “Oh.” He was connecting the dots. She’d gushed over Adelaide many times on many Sundays. He pushed his chair out, as though he were going to stand, but he stayed where he was, bent awkwardly over the table. “Raja—” He buried his face in his hands. “What do you want from me?” “Nothing—Raja—I just wanted to tell you—” 37
“Do you love me?” He looked at her, making eye contact, and Vishu couldn’t look away. “Have you ever loved me?” Vishu’s heart sank. “No.” She shook her head. “Yes. But not like that. You’re my best friend, but I don’t love you… like that.” Raja buried his head in his hands again and let out a low moan, almost a wail, and Vishu knew he was crying. “Why did you marry—” “Because I thought I could love you!” Vishu snapped. “And I do. I just… don’t want to lie to you anymore about how I love you.” Raja took a deep shuddering breath, and wiped his eyes. He looked forlorn, and Vishu only felt ashamed that her realization about herself came at his expense. He would have been happy for her if they were just friends, and not entangled in the knots of marriage, of culture, of families. He reached over to her, wrapping her hands in his, knocking over her mug, spilling chai all over their plastic tablecloth and all over the linoleum floor. Raja looked her in the eyes again, and she wished she could be the person he thought she was. “Don’t leave me,” he said. “Not yet.” Vishu squeezed his hands, and he squeezed back. She nodded. “Okay.” The buzzing of Vishu’s phone cut through the silence. She didn’t look at it.
Art by Chandra Potamsetty
AMAL NANAVATI has wanted to be a writer since childhood. Although he is currently focusing on
other passions, including developing human-centered technologies and expanding computer science educational opportunities for underserved communities, he has not lost sight of his creative tendencies and goals. This piece is his first foray into creative non-fiction, and he hopes to continue to use his writing to build empathy, reflect human experiences, and explore the complexities of everyday life.
ANISH KUMAR is a proud Jersey native who currently works in Pittsburgh, trying to connect people
who speak different languages. You can probably find him annoying his friends by trying to take photos of them or getting lost in Wikipedia pages about syllable structures and writing systems. CHANDRA POTAMASETTY graduated from the University of Pittsburgh with a degree in economics. She enjoys consuming popular culture and playing with her dog. She’s trying to embrace being Indian and being queer, even if it’s difficult to be both at the same time.
DEEPSHIKHA SHARMA is an India-born Pittsburgh native, a Pitt grad, and a yinzer at heart. She’s a writer and poet (sometimes), an amateur birdwatcher (maybe), and a connoisseur of fine cheeses (not really, but she wishes she were). Catch her playing video games at golden hour with her three budgies perched on her head.
GURNOOR KAUR SEKHON dreams that she was a jamun tree in her past life. Today, she is a 25 year old graduate student sifting through stories about women and the world at the University of WisconsinMilwaukee.
KAMALA GOPALAKRISHNAN (they/she) is a queer, Southeast Asian-American poet & educator.
Since earning her MFA in Poetry from the University of Pittsburgh, she founded Red Moon Press, a grassroots publishing collective. They also teach community workshops on zine making & creative writing.
NIKHITA DODLA is a 17 year old Telugu American artist obsessed with Californian beaches and the
idea of frozen yogurt. She works as a freelance artist when she isn’t at a lecture or working on a personal project. Her favorite animal is the kakapo, she believes far more conspiracy theories than deemed normal, and is always on the hunt for some good food.
SATVIKA NETI is your average 23 year old desi girl that wants to change the world in every possible
direction at once. She works as a Digital Social Justice Advocate at the Women and Girls Foundation, serves on Mayor Peduto’s LGBTQIA+ Advisory Panel, and has experience working in policy and politics. Her favorite color is lime green, she has a lot of feelings about the constitution, and can usually be found in line for Chipotle.
SAGAR KAMATH studied Visual arts at Pittsburgh Creative and Performing Arts (CAPA) 6-12. After
competing in a sustainable design competition, Sagar decided to major in Civil Engineering at the University of Pittsburgh where he is currently a sophomore. During high school, Sagar began learning Kathak from Naina Green of Courtyard Dancers and has recently joined Pitt Nrityamala. Sagar still loves making art in his free time and hopes that Navarasa will be the first of many artistic endeavors.
VIDYA PALEPU will never strike it big because she’ll waste all her money on expensive food. She’s got
dreams of going to Hollywood one day, Oscar-winning screenplay in hand, but she’s too busy re-watching old cartoons to finish writing the damn thing. In her free time she sings a cappella and laughs with friends, usually about funny vines, mostly about herself.
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