Essay: The Agony and the Ecstasy of Being Different by Manish Gaekwad
In this deeply personal and moving essay, Manish Gaekwad talks about his experiences of growing up in a brothel and being queer
I was five when the boys started petting me and kissing me in places other than my flushed cheeks. Once, when I was at home in Kolkata, a lady peeped through the door and saw that a boy older than me was lying on top of me and rubbing himself vigorously in ways that adults do. He must have seen someone do it to his mother. He was trying to replicate it to see where it goes.
It went sore.
His mother thrashed him. My mother thrashed me. I did not understand why I was being beaten for doing nothing. I was merely lying down and I don’t recollect how I got there. I did not have words then to express what I felt. I sensed that what was giving the boy pleasure was not acceptable to adults.
Soon, I too got a taste of that pleasure.
We were disappearing behind curtains, playing hide and seek in the afternoon when the women were sleeping after lunch. We were kissing and fondling behind those curtains, in plain sight of the very women who had objected to it. A boy once pulled my trousers down and shoved his face in my crotch. Another time he spooned me under a quilt where we were hiding to be startled. My body tingled with the thrill of these secret games. The games children saw adults play through peep holes.
When the boys went out to play, I played with the girls. We arranged the wedding of dolls. Sometimes I had to play the groom doll for the suhaag raat. I did not enjoy the suhaag raat with my bride doll played by some girl. We hugged, or kissed, all of it was numb and dumb.
The girls I played with didn’t touch me in special places. So I didn’t do it to them either. Playtime with them did not involve any covert moves. It did not have the hide and seek espionage action drama that the boys brought to the game.
What became inordinately clear was that I was playing the passive role in the dangerous boy-on-boy actioners. I had begun to enjoy the affections as rewards for my complicity. I sang and danced with the girls. To the young boys who did not play with girls, I became special as the one with feminine guiles and easy access.
The pleasure games came to a halt in the kindergarten boarding school in Kurseong. I vaguely remember jumping over hurdles, bracing toothaches due to sugar candy intake and fleeing from a mad man who was chasing the screaming kids in the compound. None of these involved sensory pleasures.
In Caspar David Friedrich’s nineteenth century painting Wanderer Above The Sea of Fog, a strapping young man looks impressively beyond the clouds. I imagine I was the child version of that man, sitting on a rocky precipice, looking glumly at an uncertain future in the mist.
I was nine when I had to change to a new boarding school in Darjeeling. It was situated on top of a hill. A serpentine road leads to the steep climb. In the foggy winter morning, my mother wrapped herself in a shawl, and waved goodbye. As she began to descend, she appeared and disappeared like an apparition. I looked at her with a forlornness that has defined me to date, as a friend once told me that I have the ‘eyes of an orphan’. I felt alone and abandoned, watching her fade. The majestic Himalayas in the distance surrounded me, the air was pure with living, but heaviness had begun to weigh upon my heart. In Caspar David Friedrich’s nineteenth century painting Wanderer Above The Sea of Fog, a strapping young man looks impressively beyond the clouds. I imagine I was the child version of that man, sitting on a rocky precipice, looking glumly at an uncertain future in the mist.
One night, a boy my age crept into my lower bunk bed at night and said he was going to tell me a story.
Ok, I said.
He began his story about a romantic couple.
And then the boy gave the girl a kiss, he said, and he kissed me on my lips.
What are you doing, I said.
I had forgotten my past.
Children often do not retain their early memory as fastidiously in their childhood as they recollect them as recovering adults.
I am showing you what happened in the story, he whispered.
He slipped his hand over my back to pull me towards him. He smiled to make me a sleeping partner in his criminal endeavor. He was the handsomest boy who had kissed me.
We began playing husband and wife. I took on the wife’s role with an ease of practice.
During the day, he played football with the boys. In the night, he kissed me like a champion stud. This lasted a short period when an older boy caught us in an embrace. He decided to harass me and not the stud boy. He would threaten to tell the teachers that I was kissing the champ. The harasser said I would have to kiss him too. I resisted it when he tried to force himself on me. I must have cried. The boy gave up. He didn’t tell on me , probably because I could have ratted out about him as well, in my innocence. We avoided punishment in our guilty silence.
The champ stopped his nightly visits.
The next year, the kids were shifted to a new dormitory room. Another boy snuck into my bed. This one was a quiet boy from a village, not a champ, and the visits lasted longer.
Then the great betrayal took place when I was twelve or thirteen. The champ had a reputation for chasing the girls and not getting lucky. One afternoon after lunch, when all the boys were lying in their Sunday-made beds and chatting, he slid into my quilt and carried on talking to someone on one side while I lay beside him, turned the other way.
Suddenly, a boy pulled the quilt away and found the champ stroking his swollen penis. Everyone rushed to see what happened.
The stud boy laughed.
I was getting ready for him, he wanted it, he said.
And just like that, I was blamed for his throbbing hormonal desperation. That afternoon, when everyone stepped out for tea, I stayed behind, hiding in a niche in a corner, unable to face the others. I sobbed all night, shamed for seducing the jock.
After that afternoon, all the older boys got news of my sexual depravity. A steady stream of boys began visiting my bed at night. Sometimes I was forced. Sometimes I was willing. What choice did I have? If I raised my voice in the soundless night, I would be blamed.
My mother was singing and dancing, eking out a living as a courtesan, trying hard to not appear as a prostitute, and here, I was fulfilling that part. Our tragedies twinned more than coincidence.
No one was nice to me in this boarding school. A few teachers, day-scholars maybe, because they saw me for a few hours in a day and did not get as much of a chance. Boarders were irrepressibly horrible. The boys teased, bullied, assaulted, molested, and sexually abused me the entire time. And they blamed me for wanting it. I was both victim and perpetrator of violence.
Just my luck.
Although, to be fair to some of them, there were a few boys I was intimate with because they were gentle after the lights went out in the dormitory, but it wasn’t as if I went after them. They were exploring; they came to my bed. The jocks were emasculated with a midnight kiss. In the morning, it was all forgotten like a wet dream.
Why did I never report it? I guess I did not mind it after a while. I enjoyed the secret pleasures that a quiet night offered me, when the rest of the day was a chaotic struggle to get past. Some boys who held me in their arms at night did not bully me in the day. It was as if I knew something terrible that prevented them from fully releasing the rogue in them. I may have wielded control over them, but it wasn’t something I was conscious of or manipulated to my advantage. We grew up in simpler times is all I can deduce now, seeing how toxicity can wreck our lives.
The girls in school were not angels. I was sometimes allowed to hang out with them because I was a chakka – sissy, less than a boy. Because I knew the lyrics of popular songs, I could dance with grace, and I followed them around like a little lamb, doting on their handouts. I must have been annoying to some of them but at least they tolerated me – as long as I passed on their love letters and brought them chocolates from those silly, vain jocks. I was a harmless errand boy.
I was never quite aware; I was just treated differently. One is constantly reminded of being different from the others. That shapes who one becomes.
I have no idea how I survived those 12 years of boarding school. Most of it seems like a blur now, but the defining incidents have stayed. As I write this, for the first time in my life, I am able to see past it and address the illogical question every queer person is asked: So when did you realize you were different?
I was never quite aware; I was just treated differently. One is constantly reminded of being different from the others. That shapes who one becomes.
Once a year I went back to my house in the winters and saw violent things happening to so many women and thought this is how it is. Life is a struggle; we must keep enduring occasional fistfights and sexual compromise. The women in the kotha (brothel) would be quarrelling and fighting one minute and acting normal the next minute. Watching them suffer physical and sexual abuse filled granite into my veins. I could fall, cry, be hurt but I would be up the next instance, taking it in stride as if nothing happened.
The few men and boys who lived in the kotha also tried to take advantage of my effeminacy. Some molested, some made me believe it was the done thing to do, one tried to rape. I was afraid to step out of the house, aware that someone in the street would chase me for a forcible hug and kiss to exert their masculinity and resisting them with all my force and might would render me feminine, because I squirmed and shrieked with passive resistance. I think my effeminate behavior stemmed from constantly being told I was like a girl – that I had pretty eyes, that my skin was soft as butter, that my smile was sweet as a bride. I believed them. In the kotha, everyone is a girl impressed by a man who spouts poetry. I had no man to tell me the opposite. No father, no brother, no uncle, no cousin, no friend, no stranger. Manliness was never around to prepare me for manhood.
Back in the boarding, the teachers were getting wind of my sensitive personality and strongly disapproved that I was not like the other boys who excelled in sports. I spent my entire time in the library, reading, or hiding from mixing with the boys.
I was nine when I wore a skirt and danced on stage because the girls convinced me it was a good look and I believed them. I did what I saw my mother do. It came all too naturally to me. I continued doing so the next year but a stern look for a teacher dissuaded me. She said to behave like a boy. She didn’t teach me how to be one. I stopped dancing and singing.
If I appeared on stage, it was because I had adapted a play where I was the suitor, the husband, and the ideal man. In extempore and poetry readings, I tried to shield my effeminacy and assert my boyishness. These were lame attempts, not welcomed with applause. I developed stage fright.
I want to be a fashion designer, I said to a teacher in reply to the question about choosing a profession as an adult. Since my classmates wanted to be in serious jobs as doctors, pilots and engineers, I was booed for thinking like a rainbow.
I was called out in the assembly for my effeminate behaviour and I was shifted from the dormitory for my unnatural activities after a student I did not want to please sexually complained about me. I was humiliated and treated like a diseased person. The school authorities threatened to inform my mother about me trying to ‘spoil’ the boys. Corporeal punishment was frequently showered like flower petals – for low grades, littering the school compound, insubordination, for spending too much time with girls, and for pansy behavior.
My grades suffered. I used to stand first in class, but by the time I reached Class 10, I stood last. Before the ICSE board exams, the Principal, in full view of the students who stood frozen and horrified because the school’s clean record could be tarnished if I failed, thrashed me. I passed without merit.
When I went back home after my tenth-grade, I had no friends in the kotha. The business was wrapping up. The landlord of the kotha was forcing the women to leave. Girls I knew had grown up with had moved to locations where they could live as mistresses. Boys had become thick-skinned men of dubious character.
I could not relate to anyone above the age of five. I babysat the children in the kotha. I had no friends, or family, except for my mother who was also trying to hold on to the last man she thought would help her. He was a violent homophobe, who regularly instigated her that she had borne a hijra. He was a leech using her money, her home, and her body, to give her the false hope of security of having a dependable man in the house.
I was mentally disturbed trying to balance the two worlds, and often thought of suicide because of the frequent fights at home, but considered life far too dear to act on it. I didn’t cut myself, drink, smoke or take drugs. Those are luxuries from where I come. I did not have the money to purchase the poison needed for my destruction. What must have given me solace was that my mother never once called me out for my less than manly behavior. That would have been the last straw.
As I grew more aware of the world after boarding school, I realized I had to man-up outside. There was no room for a sissy boy like me. I became very self-conscious to fit it, trying to shed my ‘girlishness’. It could invite trouble. It had been doing so far. I went out on dates with girls a few times because that’s what teenagers do. Those girls must have been blind, which explains the date. My fingers didn’t dare to graze their hands. It was an act to appear manly.
I barely attended college out of my own social awkwardness to blend in. I did not pursue a master’s degree in literature because my mother could not afford to pay for higher studies, and getting a job seemed practical to survive. I began early. Professions demanded decorum, so I had to keep myself in check. Working in no-nonsense environments where poetry was not serenading me, I was not exploited for how I looked or behaved. My sexuality was shut down for a few years. I had un-feminised myself in these formative years of professional administrative desk jobs and as a call-center executive. Sitting in a cubicle all day ‘straightened’ my spine, and the phone was an equipment to master a more masculine, officious voice. It took over my personality where everything became about professional compliance. I became like my heteronormal colleagues, where it was assumed that I kept my personal life extremely private, when there was none in existence at all.
It is only after I left home for a job in another city that I discovered how normal it felt to be on my own. I started a new life without my sexuality defining me. I moved from desk jobs to writing. Writing was both a shell and a shield. It helped me individuate from the herd, and it gave me the strength to seek like-mindedness in others.
Friends began seeing me as a man in touch with my feminine side. I did not want to cross-dress, I did not want to role-play, but I also did not shy away from expressing that sensitivity wasn’t a particularly feminine trait.
Recently, a woman friend said I would never understand what it feels like to be a woman. I was offended but did not show any signs of outrage. I had lived half my life trying to adjust my femininity. She also thinks I don’t look queer at all. Have I blended in so well? I might have.
Straight men often tell me how non-queer or what they mean as ‘non-threatening’ I come across as. It is not exactly a compliment but it helps me homogenise in a slow-shifting heteronormative world.
Time tempers tolerance. Homophobia is now being addressed more so than ever before. Kids are being taught to respect differences arising from likeness. Men are learning to acknowledge their queer friends and colleagues. Women tend to have a slight advantage in accepting but not all women are embracing, as we have been presently reading about a certain TERF (Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminist) authoress.
My past may have shaped me, but it has not left a scar. If I were bitter, I would have never made it this far. If I held a grudge, school friends would not be in my social media friend list. I have not forgotten the unkindness but there is also nothing to avenge. Those kids could not have known any better. We were all packed in a boarding school, like a jail, where there was no one to guide our words and actions towards empathy. Society evolves from people who are singled out for being different. Sameness does not breed originality.
I was trying to grow up as a person, not conscious of being a boy or a girl. I could have decided that later, on my own, with time, say after a certain age of maturity well into my teens. That’s something I wish I had control over. Today I feel I was led to believe I am this and I should be that. I followed the rules. I did not exercise my choice. I cannot be sure I made the right one. I never fully grasped who I am !
But I am not unhappy either. I never will be. I know I made the right choice to be a writer after a few wobbly starts in other professions. It is through writing I have found my calling, my voice, my chameleonic identity as a person of fluid gender and sexuality. I can be whoever I want to be, just like an actor. Life is fair to no one, but making peace with its unpredictability is a choice we have, and I think I have exercised that option with perseverance.
Manish Gaekwad is a freelance reporter, writing previously for the newspapers The Hindu and Mid-Day. He has also worked for the news website Scroll.in. His novel Lean Days was published with Harper Collins India and he has also written a Netflix show with filmmaker Imtiaz Ali called She.