I walk on, pretending not to pay attention. I don’t even know what ‘faggot’ means, but I know it is not something polite. It is making my skin crawl – and when I turn around, I see it came from the mouth of Deepak! The moment appears before my eyes as vividly as if it were yesterday. It was one of those moments when everything seemed futile.
I felt like I had been kicked hard in my stomach, but I soldiered on and smiled at him:
‘Don’t be silly. You speak such garbage sometimes.’
He was with Sudhir, one of my other so-called friends.
‘Really, now? Tell me you don’t like me. Bol!’
‘Of course, I do. You are my friend.’
I said it in all innocence and meant it. I did just like him as a friend. It was one of those close relationships and there was nothing else on my mind.
Deepak was one of those boys whom puberty was beginning to attack. The signs were there: the gruffness in his voice, hair all over. One day he was smooth and the next day he wasn’t; there was this sudden change in which he almost became a man and my first crush at the same time.
‘You are gay, na?’ he said.
That was the first time I had heard the word and I didn’t know how to react. At the most basic level, I knew what it meant. It didn’t mean ‘happy’ for sure – I could tell that from their faces. From what I remember, I could see Sudhir and Deepak laughing at me after Deepak said that. I remember tears stinging my eyes while I tried desperately to hold them back. I also remember trying to get away from the situation, but I could not. I froze.
I also vaguely remember checking Deepak out in his shorts and feeling ashamed because I did this right after he asked me about my sexual preference.
‘You are like Madhuri Dixit from Saajan and we are Sanjay Dutt and Salman Khan,’ they said, and I blushed a deep red. It was as though the wind had been knocked out of me and I couldn’t do a thing. I wasn’t Madhuri Dixit. I didn’t even relate to her. I liked the movie – a love-triangle – and I loved Salman in it, but that didn’t mean anything. Even when they said what they did, it really didn’t mean anything, but why did it hurt me? If I wasn’t who they claimed I was, why did it affect me so?
Was it because they gave me the part of a woman in a movie? Did that bother me? It did. But there was more; the bullying did not stop. Soon, two more boys added themselves to the group of my tormentors. It was four against one now. I was ashamed of myself; not because of who I was or what they said about me, but because I could not stand up to them. I could not stand up for myself.
As I grew older, that did change, but some scars just don’t go away that easily.
I think this was one of the first incidents that shaped my mind to even think that way, to steer my heart in a direction that maybe it always knew it wanted to go. But as a child grows rapidly into his teens, what does he know about sexual orientation? You like who you choose to like, and that’s about it. I liked boys but didn’t think much about it.
At that time, I don’t even think I knew what gay or homosexual meant. It is funny how the people I believed to be my friends were the ones who bullied me. I was constantly called faggot, gudwa (slang for gay in Hindi), homo, pansy and what not. And all this because I was not involved in sports at school, because I preferred to read, because I realized some of the boys had caught me staring at Deepak and it did not take a genius to put two and two together. I didn’t know how to react. I didn’t always understand the meaning of those words, but they stung. The harshness and the bitterness with which they were spoken bothered me.
My parents were two of the most liberal people I know and yet there was something that stopped me from telling them how I was being bullied. Maybe because of the Sadak incident, I didn’t have the heart to confide in anyone.
I wonder if this was where it began? One incident is all it takes for you to not confide in your loved ones. You think they will not be able to understand what you are going through, and maybe you’re right. Parents are supposed to be there for you, at every step of the way, but when you realize you might be remotely different, is anyone really there for you? I guess that means you just have to go out there and find your own comfort zones. Which is exactly what I did.
It was the books that saved me. Losing yourself is perhaps the most singular thing you will experience in life. And books did that to me. My school library was one of a kind. It was sprawling and had almost every book I could imagine at that time. From classics to comics to what was then known to people those days as smut literature, our library had it all. Can you imagine a school library ever venturing to stock such books? Well, ours did, and no one said anything against it. I would forget the bullying, all of it, the name-calling and how bad it made me feel.
Excerpted with permission from HarperCollins Publishers India from the book – So Now You Know – Growing Up Gay in India by Vivek Tejuja.