An Indian Among Indians
I wish I could write this in the nature of some undercover spy report, or even a fascinating account of some rare new species by a researcher. While it feels like I am doing something of the sort, the subjects of my article are far from treason-committing criminals or an animal species. They are a bunch of queer women of Indian origin, a group of girls in an educational institution unnamed, brought together through to a weird gravitational force yet unaccounted for by the laws of physics.
How did I get to know these girls? Quite honestly, mainly through an ex-partner. For one and a half years, I have been hearing reports of these women and their exploits from more than one source, and met a couple of members on occasion. But last week was the first time I met them en masse, a mass of black-and-brown skinned girls (to be quite politically correct, boys too, but we shall get to that later), representing maybe half this unique sub-culture.
Sitting down with them at a coffeeshop was an experience in itself. In my life, hanging out with more than two other Indian people at a time can only happen when I am visiting my best friend’s family (a pleasant experience) or forced to visit Planet India by my parents, namely their family friends (a not-so-pleasant one). It is an odd thing for someone who originally came from India, but I can offer no explanation for this phenomenon. I am by no means unappreciative of Indian culture and life, but it is a private matter unto myself and generally unexpressed in terms of my social circle or activities. Most of them are Tamil-speaking, though there is a token Punjabi (or as I called her, Funjabi) and my ex-partner, of mixed ethnicity. Due to my interesting childhood, I have the gift of understanding three Indian languages, so I am able to laugh at their banter in bastardised Tamil while my ex-partner glowers at them and demands they speak English or translate for her.
The second defining moment about the experience was that it was a substratum of people my parents would decidedly be horrified by, should they ever learn my association with them. It was definitely a substratum that I would be horrified by too, 2 years ago, but age has taught me tolerance by a small measure. Those who live in Singapore would be familiar with the phrase ah beng – these girls would certainly be classified by most as the Indian equivalent – anjadi. Not so much gangsterish as being decidedly laisse faire about life, smoking like chimneys and drinking like fish (they demolished 2 beer bottles per half an hour). Karan* exhorts me to stay longer around 6pm, and I wonder whether I should visit a doctor to have my lungs cleansed after further hours of exposure to passive smoke from 8 people.
A few of them had decided to skip school for the afternoon, after having started drinking at midnoon. In the more sober moments, I hear snatches of conversation about what university they are going to go to in Australia, and the courses they might take. They are a culture unto themselves, not so much lawless as law-indifferent (I highly doubt they have done anything illegal or questionable). I have it on the best authority that a week would not go by without them hitting at least one club or bar, and hardly gay clubs at that – nah, those are too tame for them. They pick up women at straight bars and clubs, almost effortlessly, it would seem, without a need to communicate or think about their sexual orientation. Never chinese women, but women of all other ethnicities – Malay, Indian, Eurasian, mixed, lie before them as a field of possibility.
They are unashamedly lesbian, that’s one thing I noticed. Hardly any of them present here have had prior heterosexual encounters (though I know it to be different for the entire group of them, for the girls who are not there), a fact that came spilling out when playing the infamous “I’ve Never” game, and I blushed under their reproving glances after I had to drink to “I’ve never had sex with a man”. They must have thought I was a swinging straight girl, though the truth could not be farther away from that. You see, I have not yet revealed my unacceptable activist leanings to any of them, wisely choosing not to other myself even more than I already was, being a shade lighter-skinned, femme, from-an-elite-school, tertiary-educated (or rather, in the process of being so) upper middle-class girl. I share the same ethnicity and sexual orientation as these girls, but I might as well have been a green-skinned martian for all the belonging I felt there. Not that they weren’t nice to me, a relative stranger to the group by far.
They don’t know it, but I know a lot about their histories within the group – all it took was a few people to loosen their tongues, and a fun afternoon spent carefully drawing up a simile of the L Word chart for these girls, with a couple of group-members I had met 7 months ago. I still preserve that chart (which happens to rival the L Word Chart in its complexity and incestuousness) and treat it with more confidentiality than I would a future client’s file. It was scary how complicated that Chart was, and even scarier to see my name buried in the web, strategically connected to my ex-partner. Most importantly, it was the number of Indian queer women implicated, within that small group – many many more than the number of women I was hanging out with at the coffeeshop, mostly from that particular education institution. We had not even started on documenting the Chinese or Malay queer women, who surely existed and were intertwined within that web somewhere.
They are surely fond of each other, I can tell. Today was a slightly special occasion, it seemed, because it was one of the girls’ birthday. (Though I am not sure the drinking had anything to do with that, because they already had a huge celebration planned on Saturday, they assured me) They hug each other without reserve, the “brothers” of the group extremely comfortable displays of affection with each other. Friendly flirting was rampant and unremarkable.
At least two members of the group are visibly butch/FTM. One of them, Hari*, I know to be a pre or post-FTM, from the gossip prior to this meeting, the other, Jaya*, I had just met, and took a slight umbrage when I accidentally referred to him as a her. He was nice enough to correct me gently later though, instead of scolding me. There are a thousand questions I am dying to ask, but hold back for the fear of scaring them away. I wonder how their families have reacted to their visible transformation, to their obvious masculinity. I wonder whether Jaya are really going for the operation or staying in the grey area of masculine identification with a female body, given I knew he used the Ladies Toilet earlier, but Hari used the Men’s one. Giri is an another one, with an androgynous body and mannerism – violating my stoutly-held belief that Indian girls could not “do” andro to save their lives. They are remarkably at ease with their gender identity, despite, I am sure, having read none of the literature or debates, and Jaya even remarking that “gender didn’t mean anything”.
A sub-culture unto themselves, a sub-community held together by the fragile or strong – I can’t tell – bonds of ethnic and sexual difference. I am sure none of them really care about rights or the community as a whole, about feminism, about the struggles faced by us and our gay brothers in the face of discriminatory legislation. But they are happy, free from any legal blight, self-contained, if not a little dysfunctional when it comes to relationships (this judgment I make knowing all the things I can’t reveal here), not having a role model or an ideal to look towards. I do not know what their career aspirations are, whether they are going to do the best they can, or settle for mediocrity.
I was an Indian among Indians, and I walked away with a renewed appreciation of not my Indianness, but my own group of friends, mostly concentrated within Sayoni. I could not have found a group more different, even compared to the Indian girls I know of. Perhaps it is a result of class and economic differentiation, enmeshed by the strict streaming in the education system.
Perhaps I will spend time with them again. When my lungs finally recover.
*All names have been changed to protect privacy