Curry and Conversation: lesbians
ANNA LEACH travels to the
buzzing capital, New Delhi, to meet Sangini, India's first lesbian
Known to Westerners for silk, spices and call centres, India can
be a hot, noisy shock for the naive tourist. People, cows and
motorbikes fill the streets and smells of masala spices mingle with
open-air toilets in the hot sunshine, giving your average Brit a
sensory overload - and sunburn.
If you're new to India, seeing this many women with body-piercings
and tattoos is pleasant - but confusing. Nose-studs in Delhi are
more likely to be part of a dowry here than they are in Soho, and
with 46% of Indian women getting married before the age of 16
(according to UNICEF statistics), the girl with a nice smile
opposite you on the bus has probably been married since she was
Delhi boasts Tibetan monks, cappuccinos and Moghul forts, but
apart from a drunk-looking male transvestite stumbling around
Delhi's central shopping area in a sari, we didn't spot any signs
of a gay scene.
So it's nice to meet my first bona fide Indian lesbian. Maya
Shankar is a leader of the Delhi-based lesbian support group
Sangini, set up in 1997 and the first openly-lesbian organisation
in the country.
When I arrive in the south Delhi suburb where Sangini is based,
Maya is in the front yard of the group's house, wearing an Aertex
top, sitting on a small rocking horse and watering plant pots. Over
water and gobi masala in the quiet sitting room, she introduces me
to a few other group members. Cheerful and self-assured, Maya is
also infectiously giggly. I'm expecting saris and sob stories, but
the ladies are sitting around discussing boob competitions, dance
performances and a party-oriented lesbian social group in Agra
(better know for the Taj Mahal).
Maya is Indian but grew up in Vienna, where she did a research
project on lesbians in India. 'I asked my father about it. He said:
"There are no such people in India". So I did my own research and
found out about Sangini.' Maya came over to Delhi University for a
year, joined the group and stayed. 'I found it weird going to a
lesbian support group. I've never been to a support group for any
other aspect of my life, so why should I go to a lesbian one? But
seven years later, I'm still here. Maybe I did need support…'
Sangini comes up against a lot in its struggle to raise lesbian
rights and issues. Primarily ignorance. 'Some people think it's
infectious,' Maya says. Founder and co-leader Betu Singh relays the
sort of questions she gets: 'One female Indian journalist asked me,
"Where do you get all these lesbians from?"'
Typically, India's law banning 'carnal intercourse against the
order of nature' is used against gay men but never women, because
officially lesbians don't exist.
'Some people think it's infectious. One
female Indian journalist asked, "Where do you get all these
Thanks to Sangini's work and to Deepa Mehta's 1999 film Fire, with
its lesbian love theme, lesbian and bisexual women have recently
had a higher profile in India. But before 1997, there were no such
organisations in the country, and Sangini only started thanks to
Betu and a chance encounter with a British woman.
Betu is of the Rajput caste, from the same family as the maharajas
whose misdemeanours at Oxford occasionally end up in the English
tabloids. She has a certain authoritative way of smoking a
cigarette, but she gets a little coy discussing the start-up of
'This story is gossip - I charge for it.' Betu says. 'I met this
girl… She was dancing with a group of gay men at a club. She
pointed me out to a mutual friend and said, "I'm sure that girl is
a dyke". He said that he knew me and that I wasn't. Sometime later,
a friend told me that somebody wanted to meet me. He took me to the
toilets and she was there… and so we got involved.'
Kat was a British woman working in an NGO in India - Betu had been
with other women before, but never one who self-defined as lesbian.
'I said to her that I just felt like I was the only one.' So Kat
got Betu to set up Sangini. Another friend at Indian charity the
Naz Foundation gave them some space to house the group, and after
two years they got enough funding to set up their helpline.
Betu and Maya run the helpline from their sitting room, and talk
to women from all across India. It's Sangini's biggest project.
Betu explains why women ring the helpline: 'The main problem is
marriage pressure, then being lonely, growing old and being alone,
or being confused. And sometimes religion comes up if the woman's a
Christian - she'll ask if she's committing a sin. Also sex changes
are a big problem. Some feel that after a sex change they'll be
accepted by their community.'
It's not surprising that marriage pressure is the biggest single
problem facing Indian lesbians. To quote an editorial from Indian
women's magazine Gladrags: 'From the time a little girl turns into
a young girl, the one goal of her family and her is that she
attracts a good husband'.
Maya says, 'A lot of our members are 25-35. That's often the time
you have been with a girlfriend for five years and then she has to
get married. That's a lot of heartbreak.'
Marriage was the first objection that Anurima's family raised when
she told them she was gay. Of Indian descent, Anurima is a Canadian
citizen now living in New York: 'It wasn't religious; it was all
about not getting married.'
Poised, with a slow American drawl, Anurima is staying in the
Sangini guesthouse while doing research in Delhi University on
dance, and describes the differences between being out in New Delhi
and out in New York:
'I was part of Sangini when I used to live in Delhi. Sometimes it
can be difficult being out in this city - so having a connection
with Indian dykes and being able to be yourself changes your
experience. I'm out in limited ways in Delhi, but anywhere you have
to be careful. Where I live in New York my girlfriend and I don't
hold hands - it depends on the neighbourhood.'
Betu is surprised: 'You can't hold hands with your
'I live in the Bronx,' explains Anurima, 'Not out there, no way.
If you don't want to be bashed, you have to be careful. In India
there's much more same-sex affection but it's not sexualised,
necessarily - the hidden aspect makes more things possible.'
It's not just the secrecy that makes the Indian lesbian scene
different from Britain. The class distinctions and patriarchy that
play big roles in Indian society impact on lesbian life. The butch/
femme thing is too much in India, according to new member Gaythra,
just up from Bangalore. The heavy influence of hetero living
patterns, Maya explains, can distort lesbian relationships. 'Women
cut their breasts off for their girlfriends. People do daft things
for their girlfriends. They want to think they're with a man, but
obviously it's not very convincing... You need a background in
feminist issues to get over that pattern. Growing up in India, your
role models are your family, so when you get attracted to women you
either think that she's a man or that you are.'
THE L WORD
Gaythra, with big eyes and a good sense of humour, is a student in
Delhi and has a girlfriend back in Bangalore. Her story is
hopefully a more normal take on growing up lesbian in India.
'I'm from a relatively liberal family, so I thought coming out
would be OK, but it wasn't... It was all religious problems. My
mum's Catholic and my dad is Presbyterian. We had 'family
councils', as they were called: they'd sit around the table, pull
out the Bible and quote stuff at me.
'I didn't stop bringing my girlfriend home, and then I left, as
they were being obnoxious about it. But now it's like a non-issue.
They just try to pretend we don't have sex.'
The group's members are mostly well educated and English-speaking.
'We do have people from all strata of society, but we can only
advertise in English-language papers so our members are generally
from the middle classes. However, lots of the MSM boys [group for
gay men] do their cruising all over the place and meet a lot of
people - often working-class - and they'll refer women on to us.'
Betu asks me my who favourite character is on The L Word. 'I'm
waiting for Season Four, I was totally hooked on that,' she says.
'It's very easy to watch.' Betu smiles, proving that some
experiences are the same wherever you go.
Maya is upbeat about the future for lesbian and bisexual women in
India, based on its history of tolerance and melting-pot culture.
'India has complete potential to change. You grow up with 50
million different things - you know that they exist and you just
get on with it. I think things will get better.'