Indian-American author Rahul Mehta was in Mumbai this week for the release of Quarantine, a collection of short stories about gay Indians in the US. He spoke to DNA about the importance of ‘coming out’ and how different his life might have been had he grown up in India
Why did you choose to write about gay Indians in America? Why not stories just about Indians or just about gays?
I’m not sure I think of subject matter that consciously. I don’t usually sit down to write a story and say I’m going to write about this or I’m going to write about that. Usually, I write the first line and the story sort of flows from there. I didn’t have an agenda in terms of wanting to write about the gay Indian experience in America. Although, I suppose that’s what happened, in a sense that most of the stories involve gay Indian-American protagonists. But these stories are not about being gay. In a lot of cases, the character could just as easily have been straight and the stories wouldn’t be different. In that sense, I think it’s important for me to write pieces which have characters that happen to be gay, but the stories are not about being gay. Just the same way African-American writers write stories in which their characters are black, without the point of the story having to be about the black experience.
Your stories are narrated in the first person. Were they inspired by your own experiences?
I’m Indian, I grew up in West Virginia, I’m gay and most of the characters are gay. But the characters are very different from me. I did a reading of the book in New Delhi and several people commented afterwards: “Oh you’re so different from what I thought you would be after reading your collection.” Of course, I draw from personal experience. I think most writers do, even if their work takes place in another universe or alternate reality. You draw from reality. I’m not sure what else you can draw from.
You’ve said that you were almost ‘cowardly’ in not ‘coming out’ to your relatives in India. Why did you feel that way?
With my relatives in America, I wasn’t shy to come out at all. I think this is because for a long time, homosexuality was much less accepted, less discussed and much less open in India than it was in the US. But I felt my relatives in India wouldn’t have the kind of social context to understand this experience. They know very few openly gay people. So I only came out to my relatives in India recently. Having said that, I’ve never lied, never pretended to be straight, never pretended to be dating anyone other than my partner, Robert. In fact, I’ve been with him for 14 years now. I always come to India with him and all my relatives in India have met him.
Is it at all necessary to announce to the world one’s sexual orientation?
If you’re gay, your whole life, in many ways, is going to be different. I think any of us who choose a different path from the mainstream — or even the same path as the mainstream — need the support of those we love and those who love us. This is a fundamental part of living a healthy, happy life: being supported by your family. To be able to have that support, one should be able to talk openly. I came out to my parents and brother when I was 20-21. My relationship with my parents changed greatly — for the better. I was so much more open, so much more able to connect with them and tell them what was going on in my life.
What was it like to tell your parents that you’re gay?
I told them separately. I told my mom first. We told my dad together. They were quite supportive. If they struggled with it, they didn’t let it show. I’m sure they had questions, but they protected me from that. Our choices are sometimes difficult for parents.
Would this have been different if you had been settled in India?
It would have been more difficult for me to ‘come out’ were we living in India. The gay rights movement in the US is now 40 years old. There’s much more of a push for openness. They have more models. Even when I came out to my parents, they already knew people who were gay. They had seen representations. But, in India too, I think things are changing very fast.
What has been your experience as a gay Indian in India and as a gay Indian in America? Do you have to deal with a lot of homophobia?
When I come to India — and I come quite frequently with my partner — we’ve never been openly gay. We’re always careful not to make our relationship very explicit. It becomes difficult to make those adjustments at times. I never rest my head on his shoulder while on a bus, something I would be much more inclined to do in the US.
In America too, you find a difference between urban, and rural or semi-rural America. We [Robert and I] moved recently from New York City to a very small town in western New York State. We both teach in a college there. It’s a tiny college. The college community is very open, liberal and accepting, but the surrounding areas are much more conservative. It’s been a change for us. In the past year, I had two upsetting experiences. The first was when we were at the movies in a nearby town. Outside the theatre, I was called a ‘faggot’ by some high-school kids. It was upsetting to have that slur thrown at me. There was another incident where I felt a little threatened. I was walking past a bar when some guys came over and sort of harassed me. That was disturbing.
Do you think the attitude towards homosexuality is a test for how liberal a society is?
I guess I do. I also think that’s only one part of it. How a society treats members of the community that are outside of the mainstream — whether because they’re gay or elderly or uneducated or whatever — I think that says a lot about that society. It tells you about where that society is in terms of being compassionate and being committed to social justice.
Are there times you wish you weren’t a gay Indian in America?
Only at the very beginning, there was a time I thought that it would be so much easier if I were straight. But after the age of 21, I’ve never felt that way. I feel lucky because coming to terms with being gay made me question fundamental things about myself, the world, how it operates, what’s most important in life… I’m grateful for that. When I was very young, I got teased a lot for being Indian. It wasn’t easy. But, being hybrid — Indian-American — I feel like I have access to so much more than just being Indian or being American. I’m proud to be American, but I’m very curious as to what my life would have been like if I had been born and raised in India. If my father hadn’t impulsively decided to move to the US when he was 17, my life would have turned out different. It’s something I think about a lot.
Do you have moments of self-doubt or confusion about where you belong?
Most of us have identity crises. One of the fundamental questions that humans ask is ‘where is my place in the world?’ We all have to answer that question. I mean that in a metaphorical sense. If you’re asking whether I’m torn between an American self and an Indian self, my answer would be no. We live in such a globalised culture, that the question matters less and less. So many people who travel back and forth between countries, that it’s not so unique anymore.