Would You Help Drape Your Son’s Saree?

May, 2024
Devarya Singhania, Contributor
Devarya Singhania (he/him) is a Third-Year Student at the University of Toronto, specialising in English with a minor in Creative Writing. He's occupying his day trying to express his hate for the colour yellow, Googling himself to see if he’s famous and scrolling Pinterest for his seventeen playlists with songs by Noah Kahan, Clinton Kane, and Dean Lewis. You can also find him staring at the trees during fall, because he wants to see them to change colour. He particularly admires Contemporary Indian Fiction and Non-Fiction alongside Contemporary British and American Fiction. You can read more about him on his website (www.devaryasinghania.com).

Content Warning: This post contains discussions of homophobia, and includes homophobic slurs in English and Hindi.

I come from a Brown household. A household in an Indian city whose geography is known to none, but whose ideals can be seen replicated in most Brown households, in some capacity. I’ve not regularly been at home though, always away. Currently, at a Canadian university, and earlier in a boarding school in Bangalore. It was in boarding school, though, that I first heard of the Hindi slur against the LGBTQ+ community: chakka, loosely and almost translating into the ‘sixth.’ Some editors (uncles at family gatherings) have suggested that I censor it in my writing and thoughts. The others have startled me by asking to use its English substitution instead: fa– the Fa-word. I have to italicise both versions to alienate it from my speech and thought. I was the audience when it was spoken by thirteen to fourteen year-old classmates. As the audience I’ve been both the spectator and target of its use, although I hesitate to call myself the ‘target,’ as at the time the word did not seem violent, nor did it incite anger, simply embarrassment. I was so scared of someone calling me ‘girly’ – even though I did quite like my mom’s perfumes more than my dad’s deodorants. I don’t know when I stopped villainizing femininity. In horrible attempts to fit-in, I tried to be amused when my friends were abused with the slur. I wasn’t shy of cackling laughter. My amusement was punctured, upon seeing the disdain from my female friends and disgust from some of my classmates. I then Googled the words. The dictionary shamed me, and liberated my femininity.

I write this with the fright of them reading, but my household never shamed me for using the slur. Not that they knew I used it, nor do they know now, but they never warned me against using either of the two. It was the silent-treatment of my friends and Google’s glare which proved effective.

I recently read Shyam Selvadurai’s Funny Boy in Toronto. Although the nostalgia for a Brown home was ignited first, it reminded me of the still-pervasive homophobia in my household. They don’t, in any means, radicalise it. You won’t find homophobic posters or pro-heterosexual posters in my house. But the prospect of me or my cousins having a gay, or better yet, ‘non-straight’ wedding gives immortality to their nightmares. They equate femininity with queerness. Funny Boy, though, made me question whether my household, like many Brown households, could ever accept a feminine boy.

The exposition of the novel shows Arjie (a young Sri Lankan boy, the protagonist) being shamed by Radha Aunty (his aunt) for dressing up in a saree – a draped cotton or silk garment, traditionally worn by South Asian women. The novel explores Arjie’s adoration for roleplaying a bride in the game of “bride-bride” with his female cousins in Colombo, and his realisation of his queerness. Radha Aunty is disgusted at Arjie’s femininity and scolds him in front of his parents and other family members. It is at this moment that Arjie’s uncle – Radha Aunty’s husband – labels him as “funny.” Contextually, “funny” was used to connote absurdity. In this instance, Arjie’s abandoning of ‘masculinity’ is deemed absurd, implying that Brown households want their boys to conform their identity to set notions.

I struggle to use the tags of ‘feminine’ and ‘masculine’ because I’m actively nihilist in their treatment. Who do I trust to inform me of what’s feminine and masculine? I apply nail polish in Toronto to feel ‘pretty,’ but also constantly flex my muscles in the gym to appear ‘macho.’ Does the onomatopoeia of the words render them either feminine or masculine? At home, though, my nail polish runs dry. We’ve got enough of them at home, but they’re not mine nor in my room. I’m embarrassed to confess, but I struggle to contest my family’s opposition to femininity in boys. In school, though, I was briefly defiant. But five of my Brown friends were appalled at seeing my nails painted in school – naming, and also, making me a chakka. The sixth.

I’ve felt rebellious in front of my family, this irritation to say once and for all. There’s a temptation to go Hollywood, to perform a scintillating monologue. One engulfed in rhetoric, sarcasm and utmost fluency, redefining all notions of public speaking, cherried with a score of 80s rock: AC/DC’s Shoot to Thrill. But I’m too dependent on their company. I’m afraid of the humiliation my own Radha Aunty will provide me in this small Indian town. I wouldn’t be performing any illegal actions, but I strangely foresee an imprisonment.

I’ve been bi-curious for a while now. Not news to my friends, but it would break the headlines back home. A phrase I hear in response to femininity back home, if detected in boys, is: “he’s a gay.A gay. There’s something animalistic about the description. I often hear the article ‘a’ attached to nouns in movies, to commend or embolden certain individuals. It’s most prevalent when the football coach is motivating his team who’re losing by 35 points: You’re a goddamn lion, McQuaid! Show ‘em what you got! You can understand my confusion when I see Brown households bracket men who wear nail polish and lions under the same umbrella. I’ve either seen lions in safaris in Singapore or on the snug t-shirts of overly brawny, twenty five year old tattooed men in my gym. Never in Pride parades. So, now when I hear households call someone ‘a gay,’ I automatically assume they’re calling them a lion too. It’s often with disapproval that they identify a gay individual. Not that they know whether that someone is gay, but they hope that he’s not. Growing up we were often taught to value the lessons our elders taught us. This synonymy of queerness and lions makes my identity unclear. Knowing that I am a lion makes me not know my humanness. I suppose this learning of knowing how to not know and unlearn my identity is, valuable. I know what not to do, if I want to know who I am. And I know exactly what to do, if I don’t want to know who I am. Or at least, I know how to confuse my family. It’s a confusing mess.

It’s funny because my grandfather often used to call me shera, Hindi for ‘lion.’ Did he always know of my bi-curiousity? He used to tell me to be brave, resilient. He doesn’t approve when I am resistant to his dismissal of my bi-curiousity now, though.

It’s not just my household though. Even a lot of my Brown friends seem to echo what I call ‘Youtube Comment Behaviour.’ They throw out inaccurate statements like ‘gender is binary’, ‘sex is a spectrum’ and even ‘you’re not allowed to feel like a man some day and like a woman the next day.’ I often find these types of notions on the comments section of video essays on the LGBTQ+ community by Indian Youtube channels. One of my friends called my bi-curiousity ‘impossible.’ It’s astonishing, the underlying tones of homophobia which exist in conversations back home. Yes, this generation is of ‘today,’ but if the adults don’t rectify their speech, their children will learn about love more slowly. Obviously there are exceptions. But even my Brown allied friends have experienced a similar interaction in their friend groups. There’s no straight explanation to their rationale except their alienation from progressive literature. They daren’t read writing about or by a queer author – who’s to say they might learn about love’s multitudes? They fear rediscovering who they can love.

Brown households view queerness as an endpoint. It should not happen in our family, they often underline. They view it as a disaster. I’ve not had an uncle who married gay nor met friends of my parents who admit to their queerness— I’ve made theories based on my interactions. Most of the gossip which I hear is of divorce, dowry and domestic troubles (which I infer from the conversation) – none of queerness. Maybe they haven’t reached that far down the alphabet, or maybe it isn’t worth talking about. The standard disagreement is: if my child is gay, it is the end of our bloodline. I doubt that the child would want to carry such a bloodline.

Would I be accused of ending the bloodline too, if they saw me in nail polish? Would I be a boy if I tried on one of the many exuberant sarees of my mom, aunt, or grandma? Would my mom help me drape her saree? Before my partner, the town would know of my otherness. Would I have ever been a chakka if I didn’t go to boarding school? Would I call someone a chakka instead? I live in the country which is adjacent to Arjie’s homeland. I suppose, the ideals naturally diffuse across borders. I write this in a tank-top and shorts. Tank-top to validate the progress of my biceps and shorts to flex and view my quads. I write this having highlighted a collection of essays with a pink highlighter and bookmarked them with flower page-pins. There’s less of a resolution I can derive from my nihilism. In fact, I’m taming the rebel within to keep the family in-tact. For, I’m now from Toronto. And my femininity would be western propaganda – a disobedience to my Brown heritage.

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