I wish we had met somewhere less banal, maybe a cafe in Paris or one of those calendar beaches or the streets of our city shouting slogans about what imprisoned us, within without. Instead, our meeting was ordinary, mediated by one corporation and spurred on by another.
It has been a month since and you say you have barely parted with your phone in that time, save for, tragically, academics. You blame me for distracting you during your nine-hour classes, but you must understand that I forget you are a hotshot academic. Instead, I remember the chiffon evening we spent the first time we met, hesitant steps in your university, your triumphant stories of pork and roast beef, and me slipping my hand into yours when I thought you weren’t looking. Why we didn’t kiss that evening I still don’t know. But if love is a lie we tell ourselves, I want that lie to be messy, grand.
So, let me tell you something about myself. I have always wanted to own a nice pair of shorts.
Growing up, we were always running and would often exhaust the little money we had in appearing independent of my father. We didn’t have the resources for much else: a life for my mother, a toy train for my birthday, or shorts. It was fine when we lived in Calcutta, that unwieldy mass of colonial decay where the un-genteel live only in half memories of pogroms. My friends and neighbourhood bhadraloks were so invested in looking like their imagined British ancestors that they wore full-length trousers even in the searing heat of May. I didn’t have the ankles and thighs that could be snugly hugged by flower-patterned fabric (I think I was gay before I thought I was gay) and willingly submitted to the sweatypatched torture for years.
Things became trickier once my mother fled the city. I panicked. The next few years were a haze of looking enviously at men and women and then nervously at my ankles and feet, too hideous and too damaged to bare. In the playground, in the school buses, and even at home, I was wary of revealing the scars. I refused to go to beaches because I was scared the waves wouldn’t wash the damage off my feet. Even in the brief moments of intimacy that came my way, the ankles came before the orgasm, and I always kept a sheet handy to pull over my feet before anyone could see them, even me. I am older now, but of the many dreads I have let go of, my feet aren’t one. I fear that one day we will meet and come close, that you will be as magical in person as you are over text, but I will recoil because I would not be sure about how to bare this callused skin to you.
Do you know that my favourite photo of you is the one where you look perfect in those cream shorts—I think it was at the crafts museum—looking like what I could never be?
My mother tries to console me sometimes. She reminds me that, at the age of four, the abrasions had been diagnosed as skin cancer. We didn’t have money then, or people, and my grandmother had just started going mad. Maa had spent all day running from doctor to doctor with the reports, one grim shake of the head after another, and my grandmother paced up and down our small flat, alternately cursing and praying. The evening the results came, we sat on the floor, held each other and cried. There was no rice at home that day, no tepid fish curry. There was just the devastation of Maa knowing that her only child would be dead in a few years; that the man she ran away from would win.
I think we relive those memories to somehow forget how our relationship is slowly devolving, eroded by waves of resentment over, among other things, shorts. How do you bear losing something when you have nothing else? Sometimes that’s how I think of you. Except to lose something one has to have it in the first place, and I’m not sure I ever had you.
Over the years, my mother has applied tubs of ointment and made me swallow hundreds of pills but to no effect. The calluses are stubborn. They have refused to leave, instead slowly stamping their authority over my ankles. I think they knew they were the only link to my childhood, to my mother, and so they have remained as memories.
Sometimes you say that random things remind you of your childhood. I carry my childhood in my shame, in my skin. But blemishes couldn’t hold Maa and me together. She calls me occasionally and the only things she knows about me any longer are my ankles. How are they doing, she asks, as if they are the only things she recognizes of the man she gave birth to. Do you think she regrets that I am no longer a man? I am ashamed that my fears are so facile—that it’s not about the radicalization of Dalits, or modernity among Adivasis, like your many friends and teachers. But I don’t want to hide it. My mother and grandmother taught me the art of hiding well, having honed their skills over a lifetime of hiding their caste. They gave me dignity, two women hiding a boy away from a world of men—scared that he, too, would turn out to be like them.
I knew I couldn’t be gay and lower caste together. I knew I couldn’t fend off the little jabs and innocent queries and supportive pats. So, I hid my caste away. Instead, I quietly learnt the tricks of your world, I learnt to speak in that way you people call cultured. Many summer evenings were spent gobbling up English television, hanging on to the words, noting them down in small notebooks to be used the next day. Many years later, a lover told me that Will & Grace had taught him to embrace his sexuality, assured him that it was okay to be gay. I didn’t have the words to tell him that it had shaped my sexuality too—by teaching me English, that when he was basking in the gentle shade of acceptance streaming out of the New York sitcom into our nineties homes, I took anxious language lessons. That this too—the ability to not just be them but to speak like them—was tied to our different worlds and how this thing called ‘gay’ came to us.
In any case, the white protagonists were too alien to my queerness. And I didn’t even know how to pronounce queerness then. For many years, I quivered before beautiful men, afraid that the bridge of the clipped accent and refined pronunciation would be washed away by desire, that I would have nothing to say, or worse, say something that would invite mirth-laced ridicule and slight. The single greatest joy of my adolescent life was when, in college, an unknown strapping senior walked up to me and said appreciatively, ‘Oh, have you been a Xaverian all your life?’
Now, I don’t think I would have dared to love you if I didn’t know English.
You see, caste taught me everything I knew about sexuality, it was the bank from which this currency flowed. It taught you everything too, but you had denial and I had Ambedkar. When I came out, your friends asked me how I spoke such good English, wore good clothes or had a good job. I laughed, Ambedkar had warned me. So I didn’t panic. You know, many of us don’t think we deserve happiness. Caste broke our hearts and love cannot put them back together.
Your forefathers taught us that our skins were blighted, our bodies foul and our colours dark. We have long memories— your forefathers crossing rivers on full-moon nights, armed with sticks, torching our huts, raping my foremothers. Our relationship with feeling less than human spans centuries. What is our love in front of this?
When I first saw your gorgeous, luminous smile on my phone, I knew that my desire had already been fixed by caste. I had been trained to know what good looks are (Brahmin), what good queerness is (English-speaking), and what attractive background is (urban rich). You were casteless because you had all of these. I just had my ankles.
You know, I have loved this past month because I don’t know your caste, or you mine. But I worry that when we lie in bed together, I will fear how much you will recoil from my body if you knew my caste, or whether you are recoiling because you already do. And if we aren’t ever to meet after that, will you do something for me? Will you buy me a pair of shorts, the cream-coloured, flower-patterned ones you are wearing? To you, and to the man who taught me to live, and to my mother, I now want to flaunt my ankles.
Excerpted with permission from Eleven Ways To Love: Essays, Penguin.