In my novel Don’t Let Him Know, Romola, a young wife accidentally opens a letter that was addressed to her husband. She discovers that it’s from a former lover. And she realizes to her shock that it’s a male lover. But she hides that letter and keeps it a lifelong secret.
Why didn’t she just divorce him, some readers have asked.
That, I reply, would have been a different novel. It was another time and place. There was not even an Internet to turn to for help. The isolation was profound.
Gay was not a word that was in the realm of public discussion. The Supreme Court and Kirron Kher were not weighing in on it. It was difficult to fathom how Romola would muster up the words to explain what was wrong with her marriage even to her own family and friends.
As a writer I wanted to feel empathy for both of them, two people trapped in a marriage to keep a family happy. He is a married gay man but I did not want him to be a monster. She’s a victim but I did not want her to be a doormat. While the wound did not quite heal, life goes on around its scar tissue. The secret casts a shadow over the marriage but that does not mean the marriage has to be without tenderness.
Life unfortunately can be far harsher than fiction.
31-year-old anaesthetist Dr. Priya Vedi booked herself into a hotel room in Delhi on April TK, posted an anguished status on Facebook about her cheating husband, and slit her wrists. The husband, also a senior doctor at AIIMS, she alleges, was gay and was carrying on his affairs with men while his own marriage remained unconsummated. And she says as the marriage of five years soured, he would vent his frustrations on her and torture her. “You are not a human being you are a devil, who take away my life from me,” she wrote before killing herself.
Some of us must be shaking our heads and thinking in this day and age she could have just divorced him! Why did she have to commit suicide?
She could have even brought Section 377 down on him as the wife of a techie in Bangalore did not so long ago after catching her husband’s exploits on hidden camera.
But really the question is not why in this day and age didn’t she just divorce him.
The real question is why in this day and age did he get married.
Kamal Vedi is 34 and has been married for 5 years. That means there is a 29-year-old man, who is a professional, a doctor in a metropolitan city, who is still unable to resist family pressure and stay single. He didn’t have to come out. But the least he could have done was not get married.
In a deeply patriarchal society men might feel the pressure to conform. But women will suffer the real consequences as Priya Vedi has done.
Yes, Kamal Vedi is a victim too. He is a victim of a society where Section 377 criminalizes people like him. He is a victim of the stigma he could face as a gay man. And not just him. That stigma could extend to his family as well. There’s no telling how friends, family and colleagues will react.
But let’s make no mistake here about who has the more unfair end of the deal. She is the unwitting victim, he is merely unwilling. Unwilling to tell his family he does not want to married. Unwilling to honour his marriage one he goes through with it. Unwilling to admit that his caving in to his own fears could ruin someone else’s life.
One can empathize with Kamal Vedi but it’s hard to really sympathize with him.
Thirty years ago I would have more sympathy for him. It was hard to find LGBT resources in India. I remember the first gay men’s conference in Mumbai, organized by Bombay Dost in the mid-nineties. It include men in various shades of out – some out and proud and happy to be photographed by the media, some using pseudonyms, some using their names and willing to give quotes but unwilling to be photographed. It also included married men who had told their families they were away on a “business trip” and come to the conference. Many gay activists, especially those coming from abroad, were shocked. It seemed as if the conference was condoning the duplicity. But it did not take long to realize that to not include them in a conference of that nature would also have been a callous disregard for the reality of Indian society. If gay men had few resources, married gay men had even fewer resources to turn to.
That is not true anymore. Organizations like Humsafar Trust in Mumbai have helplines and counselors that are just a phone call away. These resources do not just work with gay men but also counsel their wives.
The Internet has opened up a treasury of resources even to those struggling with their sexuality in a small town. In a country with no official gay bars, where gay sex is still criminal, there is no doubt that the Internet has revolutionized gay life. When gay men in Delhi first tried to meet as a group in a cafe the eighties, one carried a red rose so that others could find them. It was called the Red Rose Society. Now even the founder of a gay Yahoogroup on the Internet does not have to come out publicly to find others like him.
Unfortunately the comfort of that anonymity means many of us would rather use the Internet as a playground to find hook-ups and flings. It has helped create a different kind of virtual closet with fake names and fake email IDs and fake statistics.” “For them, activism seems to mean nothing much more than partying. After the party is over many of them are happy to go back into the closet,” writes Vikram Phukan.
The Internet has made it easier for people to think that they can lead a double life – all the comfort of home-cooked dal chawal and social respectability at home and cruising websites and phone-apps for sexual release just a click away. No need to bother with the heartache of coming out or even resist marriage because you think you can have your beefcake and eat it too.
I remember years ago meeting an Indian IT worker at a Silicon Valley social gathering for LGBT South Asians. He was a techie on contract from India and he boasted that he had it all figured out. He was married with a child. And his long-time lover was also married with a child. The unsuspecting wives were friends as well and the men could spend a lot of time together without raising eyebrows. There were many who were aghast but there were probably a few in the room who were secretly envious of his “arrangement” as well even though we all knew the arrangement was a bubble of deceit.
Even if the bubble does not burst the way it did with the Vedis, the deceit cannot but eat away at the marriage. Priya Vedi’s despairing last note on Facebook is damning in its anguish and anger. She names names clearly wanting to make her husband and his male partners suffer for what she has undergone. But underneath all that anger and recrimination, there is a plea that is naked in its urgency.
If someone in our society is like him please don’t marry to a girl to save yourself , you people by doing so not playing only with someone emotions also with a girl and her family’s life, she said.
Gay men do not have it easy in India. But that cannot give them moral cover to ruin the lives of others. No one is asking them to march in Rainbow Pride parades. But learning to say No to marriage would be a good beginning. It is all very well to castigate the Supreme Court for its failure to affirm gay rights. But rights mean nothing without responsibility and as the Vedi case reminds us responsibilities begin at home.