By Udayan Dhar
A brooding and disheartened Nikhil sat in front of the ceremonial fire inside the wedding mandap, surrounded by four improvised towers of festooned clay pitchers under an ornate red and gold canopy while watching his sister and future brother-in-law walk the seven rounds to solemnise their marriage vows. The priest invoked singsong mantras amidst the usual brouhaha of an Indian wedding, with extended families from both sides each making considerable contribution to the general clamour.
Two weeks earlier, Nikhil had made it adequately clear to his mother that he would give Shweta’s wedding a miss unless Shailesh, his partner of three years, was also invited. But Indian mothers are known to be insistent and here he was—sitting sniffing distance from the ghee-flavoured smoke—cross with his family, with Shailesh, and most crucially, with himself for having let this happen.
“It’s just that Rajat’s family is very traditional, Nikhil,” his sister had tried to justify the missing invitation. “You can never know how they’ll react if they know this right before the wedding!”
“If I were you, I’d walk out of a mandap than get married into a bigoted family!” Nikhil had retorted before disconnecting the phone.
“To be fair, Nikhil,” his father had said earlier today noticing his lack of enthusiasm, “no one asked him not to come.”
And introduce him as what? Nikhil had wondered. “Nikhil’s roommate of three years?”
Shailesh himself would have none of it. “I anyway don’t believe in weddings. They’re just a ghastly celebration of patriarchy and heterosexism.” But Nikhil knew the real reason was that Shailesh could write a master’s thesis on conflict avoidance. Any chance of their sexual orientation creating trouble for them or anyone else around and Shailesh would be the first to make it clear that it’s just not worth his time and effort.
I knew all along he wouldn’t come. What I don’t understand is what the heck am I doing here?
The only dignified response to homophobia, Nikhil told himself, was to make it unquestionably clear that it’s not acceptable. But how does one do that at your own sister’s wedding when you’re already bang in the centre of all the action, having already missed the chance to stay out of the whole sordid affair?
Nikhil looked at the smugly pristine face of his sister and cursed her for being such a sorry example of an ally. He looked at the satisfied faces of his mother and father, immensely proud of having accomplished at least one heterosexual wedding among their offsprings. On his left, his younger brother Sahil, almost seventeen now, was excitedly recording the whole scene on his handicam. His own grandmother, wrapped in a silver and jade silk sari, could barely take her eyes off from the proceedings.
Across the fire, Nikhil now studied the groom’s family. Grouchy father sported a walrus moustache and looked like an atrocious zamindar straight out of a 1970s Bollywood film, who seemed as if he would happily flog homosexuals and beat the shit out of his wife. Pious mother was decked up in more gold than the bride herself, and seemed colossally proud of being on that side of the wedding fire instead of this, as she looked on approvingly at the new couple. Their younger son Chirag, in a black and gold sherwani, typed away furiously into his mobile phone—for some reason his apathy only matched by Nikhil’s antipathy.
Sitting right behind the immediate family was a motley bunch of relatives and friends. Among them, Nikhil was surprised to notice Farid, a gay fashion reporter turned public relations manager with his own company that handled media assignments for a slew of multinationals in Delhi and Gurgaon—in Nikhil’s view, a very successful career trajectory for a thirty-three-year-old. Farid looked handsome in his white pearl-studded sherwani and waved to Nikhil when their eyes met. They had briefly met a few times within Delhi’s gay party circuit—otherwise regular bars that turn gay over weekends—every time with a group of their own friends, so that beyond pleasant greetings they had not exchanged much conversation between themselves, though Nikhil would have liked to know him better. He knew he had a partner and wondered if the poker-faced man sitting next to him, who seemed to be in his mid-twenties, was the one.
As the couple finished with their seven rounds around the sacred fire, having made the seven vows that now secure them for the next seven births as man and wife, they proceeded to touch the feet of the elders and seek blessings. Nikhil took the opportunity to slip out from what felt like the eye of the wedding whirlpool, and catch some fresh air on its periphery. Walking across to the reception area of the wedding grounds, which would in the next couple of hours be filled with guests for dinner, he walked up to the bar and asked for a glass of lemon juice.
It was seven already and the sky had turned crimson above the November haze in Delhi. He closed his eyes and longed for the moister, warmer air of Mumbai. He longed for the warmth and anonymity of the maximum city that he invariably missed in native Delhi. He opened his eyes and looked around. People had started spilling out of the mandap into the open space, soon the party would be on. Nikhil decided he’d had enough with the self-loathing and if he was to go back with a shred of self-worth and dignity, he needed to stand up for what he believes in—after all, he did not come out of the closet just to sneak back in whenever it gets too scary.
No more hiding, Nikhil told himself. And on a day like this, it’s hardly an effort coming out. Twenty-five himself, he would be repeatedly asked by insatiable relatives and friends about his own personal life and marriage plans. I’m gay. That’s all he has to say. Out loud. Unambiguously clear.
So Nikhil, when are we getting invited to your wedding?
Considering the law of the land, not anytime soon. I’m gay!
Nikhil, you’re next I guess, eh?
Nopes, I’m gay!
No girlfriend yet?
Correction: a boyfriend. I’m gay!
Now that he had made up his mind on that point, the fog of frustration rapidly appeared to clear. In fact, now he cheerily began to wonder who would be the first person he’d drop the bomb on—would it be walrus-moustached grouchy father? Or silk-saried pious mother? He was sure Rajat already knew; he seemed the don’t-ask-don’t-tell sort, so he wouldn’t really speak out.
And so, full of newfound vitality and an impish sense of thrill, Nikhil walked back into the crowd and up to Shweta and Rajat, who were now beginning to pose for photographs. His sister waved and asked him to join them. The photographer—a tall, effeminate man in his thirties who looked like he was in his twenties—animatedly asked them to stand closer together, pushed back his wavy burgundy-coloured hair, and quickly took four or five snaps.
Rajat’s grandparents then joined them, and the photographer put on some extra charms to get the teetering nonplussed couple in place before taking some more pictures. Nikhil noticed Farid once again—alone this time, and even before he could decide if he should walk up to him, Rajat called out his name and asked him to join them for another picture. Rajat introduced him as his batchmate and “closest buddy” from Delhi Public School, and that they had managed to stay friends even after all these years. “Both of us always being in Delhi helped,” Farid explained.
Once the newlywed couple was surrounded by the next group of people for another round of photographs, Nikhil asked Farid if the man with him was his partner. “Oh no, I didn’t even know him until coming here. Just noticed him noticing me, and chatted up!” he said with a wink. Nikhil must’ve looked bemused, for Farid explained that his partner was travelling outside the country for work, and so could not join them. “Plus, Rajat knows about Sumit; they’ve met a few times.” Nikhil thought a man who has a gay man among his close circle of friends could not really be homophobic.
“But does his family also know you’re gay?”
“Not really, I don’t think even Rajat would be very comfortable telling them. Plus, why complicate our lives, right?” He smiled at his rhetorical question, but did not seem so sure of himself any more. “But why isn’t your guy here?” Farid asked over his drink, perhaps to change the subject of the conversation, Nikhil thought.
“Same reason—travel!” he lied.
“Oh, that sucks. You know what we should both do after all this craziness is over—especially since our partners are not around—go get some good ol’ fashioned fun! There is this exotic new gay spa in Kailash; we should get a well-deserved relaxing massage from one of those hot Jat boys from Haryana they keep.” He winked again as he noticed Nikhil’s interest in the conversation spike up.
“Oh no, too bad I have miss that. I have a flight to catch in another few hours,” Nikhil replied this time with more honesty, one of those rare occasions when he was regretting not being in Delhi. Even though his adopted city had a much larger and visible community of gay men, spaces to socialise were limited to occasional weekend parties in cramped suburban pubs, and support group meetings that he never really felt the need to attend. There were no gay bars, restaurants or saunas to speak of, which other Asian cities like Singapore and Bangkok offered in plenty, and Delhi had at least started to make an effort in that direction. Just then, Farid’s poker-faced newfound friend joined them.
“You want another drink? I can do with a margarita. And the bartender’s cute.” The bartender he was referring to was barely out of his teens, had sparse facial hair, and tad too many pimples. Not exactly Nikhil’s characterisation of “cute”, but he decided to reserve judgment.
“Yeah, but is he a fag as well?” asked Farid.
“Let’s find out,” his friend said with surprising keenness, and with that they looked at Nikhil questioningly. He politely told them that he wanted to rejoin his family.
He saw them walk towards the bar, Farid’s arms around the other guy’s shoulder. Meanwhile, people had begun milling around in the garden—dusk was settling in, and the many series of dazzling multicoloured rice-lights went on. Chairs and tables had already been laid out in the garden, and a carpeted platform was set up in the centre, curtained with flowers on three sides, a merry mix of rose, marigold and lotus. Guests would start arriving in large numbers in another hour or so, and Nikhil saw frenetic preparations for setting out the food under the many canopies erected in a semicircle around the platform where the couple were to be stationed for all the guests to greet and be photographed with.
But before the couple moved there, it was time for the one big family photograph of the wedding. Parents, grandparents, brothers, cousins and sisters all gathered in a whirlpool of celebratory chaos, and the photographer went into a tizzy arranging everyone in the way he felt would do justice to all his efforts. “Okay, say cheese!” he pleaded with the crowd, and everyone said cheese.
After being photographed, Nikhil went up to Rajat and Shweta, and congratulated them, also telling them he’d be leaving for the airport in the next hour or so. “The three of us should have dinner when we’re in Mumbai next month,” Rajat said. No mention of bringing anyone along, Nikhil thought. The three of us indeed!
“Oh yes, we should. Anyway, you hardly spent any time at the wedding, Nikhil,” added Shweta, looking accusingly at her brother.
And no correction from dear sister as well. Tagging along already with the husband’s conservative values eh? Serves you right, Nikhil, for agreeing to be a closet queen at a public celebration of heterosexuality!
Once again that earlier sense of resentment and anxiety returned. He knew he had to leave in another hour, and still no one seemed to be interested in his personal life on the one rare occasion when he really wanted them to be. His maternal aunt walked up to him in her glittering silver sari, and hugged him tightly. “Getting skinny again, beta?” she jovially announced, pinching his cheek along.
Eeeh mausi, just ask me when I’m planning to get married na!
But she enquired a bit about his work and health, and moved on. He walked up to where Rajat’s parents were standing with his mother, and thought nothing could be a more perfect opportunity than this. But even here, the only thing that happened was his mother’s loud lamentations that Nikhil was going back the very same evening to Mumbai. She then escorted the rest of the bunch to the snacks counter, leaving him sulking and in the company of Chirag, who it seemed to Nikhil had barely spoken a word through the day.
After a few very awkward seconds—which dragged on like hours—during which neither of them could figure out what they could possibly say to one another, he asked Nikhil if he had come alone to the wedding.
Ah, finally! Telling Chirag wouldn’t be half the fun as telling his father, but this would have to do.
“Oh yes. Pretty ironic for someone who has a boyfriend, isn’t it?”
He did not seem to notice the statement at first. He kept looking towards the drinks counter, perhaps waiting for Nikhil to ask him to proceed for a drink. Then his face quickly turned, disbelief writ large on his face, his mouth gaping slightly. “Sorry? What did you say? Boyfriend?”
“Yes, I’m gay,” Nikhil said, perhaps a bit too aggressively.
“Are you kidding?” he asked, matching Nikhil’s aggression with animation, and for a moment Nikhil felt he would collapse under the enormity of that disclosure.
“Why should I? I’ve got to run, Chirag. Have a flight to catch.” Nikhil turned away, briskly walked towards the hotel building without once bothering to look back at Chirag. But even as he pushed the glass door open to enter the lobby of the building, he felt a sense of discomfort deep within the pit of his stomach. There was no euphoria of having accomplished the one task that he thought could have saved his self-respect in his own eyes.
In fact, he now felt childish at having committed something almost vindictive to mess up his sister’s day, that too to correct his own apparent mistake of having dealt with the situation poorly so far. He ignored the elevator and quickly walked up the stairs to his second-floor room, and in less than five minutes was done with the little packing that he needed to do. It was still a good twenty minutes for his cab to arrive and he did not know what to do till then—he certainly knew he did not want to go to the garden again. He walked to the window, sat down on the wooden stool kept beside it and watched the lighted grounds filling up with guests. The barman was already busy making cocktails, and uniformed waiters went around the tables serving snacks and appetizers.
Just then there was a knock on the door. The door was slightly ajar but he could not make out who it was. “Yes, come in!”
“Hey Nikhil,” Chirag said gravely as he came in. “I know you’re in a hurry—”
“Oh, that’s okay Chirag, I have a few minutes till my cab arrives. Please come in.”
Chirag smiled softly and then walked up to the window. He too scanned the shimmering grounds and milling crowds for a few moments, and then contemplatively said, “I thought I was the only one in that crowd.”
It took Nikhil a moment to figure out what he meant, and then realised how blind he’d been. He was too disengaged from the whole proceedings of the day to even figure out who else seemed as lost and disillusioned as he was.
“There are so many of us Chirag—even right here. It’s just that most of us have learnt to blend in way too much.” Nikhil reached out with his hands, smiling comfortingly, hoping his words would somehow lessen the pain and anxiety he could see on Chirag’s face. Chirag knelt down beside him, and held his hand. As Nikhil looked into those averting, pain-ridden eyes, he felt annoyed with himself for being so preoccupied with his own troubles that he became so unmindful of the world around him.
“Don’t worry, we will talk about it all, once this nonsense is over.” At that moment, Nikhil felt some movement across the room and turned his head to find Sahil looking at them from the corridor. “Hey peeper, what’re you doing there? Why don’t you come in?”
“Oh, that’s okay. Ma had just sent me to check if you’re doing fine. You seem pretty alright to me.” Then looking at Chirag who was still kneeling in front of Nikhil, he asked, “And do you want me to tell her that his folks are paying for this one?”