An Indefinite Sentence
In retrospect, it’s clear that the enduring themes of my life were present so many years back in that single night, which is why I recollect it all with such clarity even decades later. But I could see only with a child’s eyes then, simply, directly, without interpretation, without thought of what it might mean for the future.
The year was 1971, and I was ten years old.
I was at the Grand, Calcutta’s sumptuous colonial-era hotel. The orchestra had burst into a rousing flourish, and everyone moved to the sides of the ballroom as a light-skinned woman, petite but full-bodied, wearing just a shimmering two-piece bikini and a veil, emerged magically from somewhere.
The woman began to dance her way slowly down the length of the vast, carpeted room, her movements languorous yet purposeful, as she removed the veil and used it as a fluttering prop for caressing and seducing. She was flaunting her near nakedness, the expanse of smooth skin and soft curves magnified by the glitter of her bikini. I was entranced.
It struck me that, unlike the other striptease dancers I had seen (my parents often brought me along with them so I wouldn’t have to be left with my ayah), this one never pressed herself against the men in
the audience. Instead, she held the gaze of man after man for a measured moment, then moved on, almost dismissively.
She is like a snake charmer, I thought to myself. And indeed, all the men, including my father, standing across from my mother and me, seemed hypnotized by the dancer in a disturbed way, almost as if they were struggling to keep themselves from grabbing her.
The dancer approached me, and I immediately pressed against my mother, finding comfort in her familiar scent and the soft folds of her sari. In the past, to my burning embarrassment and the amusement of the adults, some Park Street nightclub dancers had done a watered-down version of their bump-and-grind routine against me, no doubt singling me out because I was the only child present.
But this one just passed us by, shimmied to the end of the room, and then—to a loud, collective gasp from the partygoers—threw off her bikini top to reveal peculiarly small breasts. In another flash, to an even louder gasp from the adults, she pulled off her bikini bottom—and, as she twirled naughtily out of the room, I espied what seemed to be a penis.
There was silence for a long minute—and then an explosion of clapping and laughter from the adults. But I was in turmoil. When things eventually quietened, I tugged at my mother’s arm and asked, “Mama, Mama, was that a woman or a man?”
My mother stroked my hair lovingly, and said in a voice bright with amusement, “Yes, it was a man!”
Though I was unaware of it at the time, the incident marked my first precocious introduction to some of my life’s preoccupations: the beguiling possibilities of gender beyond the conventional bipolarity of male and female, and the mysterious, limitless permutations of sexual desire. It was only as an adolescent, years later, that memories of it came rushing back with unsettling clarity and I realized that I had seen something of myself in that unusual dancer.
Just a year or two before that striptease at the Grand, I had become aware that I was a girly-boy, a sissy, different from other boys, and despised and ostracized by them.
I had joined La Martinière, one of Calcutta’s elite secondary schools, at the age of eight. Within a few days, I began to grasp that this school bore no resemblance to my tony elementary school, Miss Higgins, still run by its elderly, eponymous British founder. While her homely bungalow had somehow made me feel at once secure and carefree, the main buildings at La Martinière were forbidding, cathedral-like edifices, over a century old. High walls and gates enclosed the grounds. The towering pillars of the assembly hall and senior classrooms only underscored my puniness. Even the steps that led up to the assembly hall were intimidating, each one so tall and deep that I couldn’t climb from one to the other in a single stride. The whole compound seemed to be designed expressly to humble us children.
There were no girls here as there had been at Miss Higgins. Not one. They were all at a sister school across the street. I felt their absence as a difference in atmosphere, which seemed more boisterous yet darker than at Miss Higgins. When school ended, I would watch the girls spilling out of the gates on the far side of the street, always looking much happier than we boys did.
Soon, to my surprise, I became aware that I was not popular with my new classmates. Whenever I sat down next to someone in class or tried to strike up a friendship, I sensed I was being rebuffed. At first I wondered whether this was because our environment was so regimented.
We wore identical uniforms of white shirts and shorts, black lace-ups with knee-high socks, and a school tie of gold stripes on black, held in place with our house pin. Mine was a bright yellow, for Macaulay House, named after Lord Thomas Babington Macaulay, the nineteenth-century imperial politician who had had an outsize, enduring impact on shaping the minds of India’s ruling elite, snidely known as “Macaulay’s Children” and “brown sahibs.” At morning assembly,
we stood in neat rows and sang Christian hymns after we had recited the Lord’s Prayer. In our classrooms, we sat at identical wooden desks and chairs, springing up anxiously when the teacher entered and singing “Good morning, sir!” or “Good morning, ma’am!” in unison, then quickly sitting down in silence. There was little time for fun before or after school hours. Perhaps my friendliness might have seemed inappropriate, given the circumstances.
However, I soon realized that the class was essentially divided into two groups: a number of studious or quiet boys like me at the front and a larger group of the rowdier kind in the rows behind. While the boys around me were cautiously friendly, the larger group in the back disliked me with a vengeance. In fact, I was the main target of their antagonism. Whenever I stood up to answer a question, they sniggered. When I turned around, I caught belligerent looks. On the few occasions when I ventured into their territory, I was shoved away by whomever I approached while the rest laughed at my humiliation.
Things continued like that for a few months. Then one day, as I stood up in class to answer a question, I heard a threatening chorus of hate-filled whispers from behind: “Sissy! Sissy! Sissy!”
A wave of shame swept over me. They were right to call me that.
I recalled how silent my parents had fallen when I had recently paraded into our living room adorned with my mother’s jewelry. Not only had I had earrings, necklaces, and bracelets on, I had also secured a pendant in my hair like a Hindu bride. I pranced around like a filmi siren, shaking my hips, stamping my bare feet in Kathak-like movements. I had even gyrated sinuously on the floor in an imitation of the starlets of that era.
I remembered all the times my mother had found me feeding and cradling my cowboy-Indian action figures as if they were dolls. Or playing nurse with our long-suffering dogs, swaddling them in improvised bandages. With sharp shame, I also remembered how I had preened whenever my parents’ friends remarked what a beautiful girl I’d have made, how I looked just like my luminous mother with my long-lashed eyes and fine skin.
Me with my first dog
At that exact moment, standing at my classroom desk and hearing the other boys calling me “sissy,” I began to see myself as a freak. I was overcome with self-loathing as I realized the many occasions on which, unthinkingly, I had shown my parents what a girly-boy I was. Now, much worse, I realized that the larger world saw me as only that.
Things worsened over the next few years. Of all the boys in my class who got picked on, I became the prime target. There were other victims, who were called “fatso” or “freak,” had pieces of chalk flung at them, or were shoved around when the teacher wasn’t there. But that happened infrequently. I was the only one who was unfailingly the focus of hostility.
Making matters worse, I became known as a girly-boy in other classes. It seemed to me as if everyone in school had been told to despise me. Older boys shouted “Sissy!” as I walked past or stopped in midconversation to stare at me with distaste. A few times, when I inadvertently caught someone’s eye, things got uglier. The taunts got louder and louder: “Sissy!” “Sissy! Sissy!” “Girly girly girly!” “Go to the girls’ school!” The bullies would move threateningly toward me as I tried to beat a retreat. Though the incidents never escalated into
physical violence, they were enough to make me feel constantly apprehensive.
My mother soon noticed that I wasn’t enjoying La Martinière. She didn’t question me about it, no doubt because she assumed that I was merely facing the routine challenges of school life. Moreover, given that she was facing struggles of her own, she probably no longer had the emotional strength to be as attentive as she had been earlier: her marriage to my father, once a powerful romance between strong-willed equals, had begun to unravel. My father relished Calcutta’s cosmopolitan life and had risen meteorically in the prosperous tea industry. But my mother, ascetic and serious-minded, was a misfit in this “brown sahib” world of elite British mores and corporate wealth, with its constant round of parties, golf, and polo matches. Her fears that she was losing him to one or another flirtatious memsahib tipped over into unrelenting suspicion.
By this time I had become my mother’s staunchest ally in their conflict, viewing her as the wronged victim and my father as the philandering offender. Still, in spite of my closeness to her, I couldn’t discuss with her the daily humiliations I faced at school. Given my worsening antagonism to my father, there was no likelihood of turning to him. And more than anything else, I wanted to avoid drawing their attention back to my shameful problem. I felt it was I who was despicable and needed to change, not the boys who hated me.
I found my own ways of coping. I would arrive at school only when classes were about to begin. I kept to myself and avoided getting in the way of the boys who taunted me. I didn’t react to their stares, their comments, or the chalk they flung at me. Shaking with apprehension, I would try to appear calm and walk away unhurriedly, as if I were doing so out of choice and not fear. That act of defiance helped me salvage some sense of dignity, despite being near tears and achingly aware that I was an outcast.
It was a difficult transition because, despite the eroding of my parents’ relationship, my childhood had been happy and almost carefree until I joined La Martinière. I had not given a thought to whether I
was boyish in my mannerisms and looks in the cheery mix of boys and girls at Miss Higgins, where I had found myself quite naturally at the center of most things.
Moreover, at home, I had felt no different from my brothers, Pratap and Bharat, and despite being the youngest—they were four years and one year older than I, respectively—I had confidently established my boundaries. While usually happy to follow my brothers’ lead, I would get notoriously feisty whenever I felt that they were treating me unfairly. My brothers still take pleasure in reminding me that my standard comeback was “Yeah, so?!”—in other words, “What are you going to do about it?” My brothers christened me “Yaso,” and though it no doubt honored my fighting spirit, it also made me sound truculent.
But on joining La Martinière my once headlong approach to life turned into an unrelenting battle with self-consciousness. To protect myself from further ridicule and shame, I began to ferociously weed out every girly trait that I could see in myself. I desperately wanted to be a regular boy, left with no damning evidence of who I actually was.
The psychological conflicts set into motion at this juncture of my life might have been even more traumatizing if, like some gender-atypical children, I had desperately longed to change my sex. But, looking back at those childhood years, at least as far as I can tell through the complexities of my own mind, I never clearly felt “that I had been born into the wrong body, and should really be a girl,” as the great British writer Jan Morris—who was James Morris before a sex-change operation—wrote in her pioneering 1974 memoir, Conundrum.
Nor do I recall experiencing any of the other feelings that strongly gender-atypical children experience: disgust at their own genitals, the conviction that they will grow up to be the opposite sex, and a strong desire to do so. While I relished some stereotypically feminine behaviors—wearing women’s clothing, dancing, or beautifying myself with makeup and jewelry—I never felt the urge to pursue them all the time. I was passionate about many conventionally boyish things, such
as playing with model racing cars and fighter planes, for instance; my keenest desire as a child was simply to go swimming or to play with our dogs.
So, though I doubt that I ever wanted to change my gender and sex and become a girl, I am equally sure that I would have blossomed in a setting free of gender-prescriptive prejudice and fears, like the one I was in before joining the boys-only La Martinière environment—where I could be a carefree child of an amorphous, undefined gender and not have to feel ashamed and anxious that some of my actions were “girlish” and hence taboo.
Yet, even while living through those difficult years of my life, I didn’t actually think of myself as unhappy or victimized. My stoicism was rooted in the childhood survival trait of attempting to live in the here and now using every psychological stratagem possible. I coped with the persecution I faced at La Martinière as well as the bitter battles between my parents by daydreaming about a peaceful enchanted place, populated only by noble wild animals (especially tigers and elephants) that lovingly protected my mother and me. Once safely back home from school, I blanked out all thoughts about my hours there, my fears returning only when I woke the next morning.
My mother was another great source of calm. After school hours, she and I spent much of our time together. With my brothers away at boarding school, we became even closer. Because of the problems at home, my father absented himself for increasingly long periods of time, touring the tea plantations in Assam and north Bengal. I savored being with my mother and was never bored, even when we spent day after day by ourselves.
It seemed to me that she had a magical way with animals. Our dogs would willingly do everything she asked of them, their eyes fixed intently on hers to see if they had succeeded in pleasing her. In the garden outside our Lord Sinha Road apartment, dragonflies seemed to choose to settle on her outstretched hands. She would tie a fine thread to their tails, so that I could hold them for a while—imagining them
to be pet fairies—before she released them unhurt. At the children’s section at the nearby Calcutta Club, the chital stag—who had been brought there when he was still a fawn—would unfailingly come to nuzzle her, though he would ignore me. Our shared love of nature kept us happy, poring over encyclopedias about pets and wildlife.
I spent a lot of time immersed in books. Every few days, we would replenish our stock from the libraries at the Calcutta Club and the British Council. I loved books about animals: Tarka, the otter in the English countryside; Flicka, the American mustang; and White Fang, the heroic wolf-dog. My two favorites were set in the wilds of India: Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book and Chendru: The Boy and the Tiger, an illustrated book about a real-life adivasi boy and his pet tiger cub.
But I also read everything I could lay my hands on—at the age of ten, I was reading Enid Blyton’s Famous Five series and Frank Richards’s Billy Bunter series, and, because my mother did not censor my reading, westerns by Louis L’Amour and potboilers by Harold Robbins. Jacqueline Susann became an enduring favorite, first for her tribute to her poodle, Every Night, Josephine!, and then for the steamy Valley of the Dolls.
I openly read novels by Daphne du Maurier and Georgette Heyer, thinking that my mother would assume that I liked them for their literary qualities. But in my bathroom, with the door locked, I read her Barbara Cartland and Mills & Boon romances. I loved the unceasing romance and the handsome, complicated heroes. I read them in secret because I now knew that only girls were supposed to like them. I began to spend so much time in the bathroom that my mother wrote on the door, in indelible red paint, “This is not a library!”
Our isolation was punctuated twice a year, when life reverted to a close approximation of the glorious earlier years of my childhood: before my brothers went off to boarding school, before my parents’ relationship began to disintegrate, before I joined La Martinière and became ashamed of myself. Those were the holiday months, every summer and winter, when my brothers returned from school.
My parents, Savitri and Basant
All the activity at home would help revive my mother’s spirits. My father would be around most of the time. My parents would fight rarely, and sometimes not at all, during those months, and I was spared the anguish of having to take sides against my father. Instead, there was once again a sense of love at home. What we children wished for desperately seemed to come true, however implausible it might have seemed for the rest of the year: our parents loved each other, they loved us, and we loved them and one another.
The company of my brothers made me feel normal once again. We would spill out everywhere together, playing cowboys and Indians and cops and robbers. We dragged our much-loved dogs into our games. Sally, our spotlessly white German shepherd, was particularly stage-worthy, seemingly born for playing the role of our indomitable protector against the threats of this world.
In the living room, our imaginations were set afire by the enormous tiger skins from our father’s hunting expeditions spread across the floor. When we stood astride them or sat on their stuffed heads—stretched in a ferocious permanent snarl, complete with daunting
incisors and raspy tongues—we became Mowgli, Tarzan, or the Phantom.
The weekends stretched out blissfully. A yoga teacher would arrive on Sunday mornings to give us boys a long session of convoluted poses, from surya namaskar to kapalbhati and nauli kriya. Few Indians did yoga in that era, but my parents had embraced it after Pratap’s crippling bout of polio, as a means to strengthen his legs.
One of the high points of the holiday weekends was watching my father at his morning prayers, something I studiedly kept away from during the regular months of antagonism. This was a daily ritual but on weekends stretched on for an hour or more. After showering and completing his yoga, he would sit cross-legged—wearing only underwear, bare-chested, somehow exuding cleanliness of every kind—on the carpet in front of the home temple, brimming over with statues of Maa Durga and Maa Kali as well as Shiva, Ganesh, and Hanuman—his favorite goddesses and gods from Hinduism’s infinite pantheon—as well as his worn copies of the Bhagavad Gita and Hanuman Chalisa, several gleaming lingams and yonis carved from black stone and photographs of his deceased father, grandfather, and grand-uncle.
He would smile at us if he saw that any of us was watching him, patting the ground to invite us to join him if we wished. The moment he turned his face toward the temple and closed his eyes, I saw that he had been transported to a place that I didn’t know of, a magical spot somewhere inside himself where he always, almost instantly, found peace. We would be stilled into quiet and immobility by our father’s single-minded concentration.
He would begin to chant, “Om, om, om . . . ,” that sacred, mysterious sound becoming more resonant with each repetition, like a deepening series of bells. I could see how with each repetition he moved even further into a state of peace. I didn’t understand the process that was under way, but I always felt happy for him.
A great joy of a very different kind came in the afternoons, with long swimming sessions at the Calcutta Club. Once in the cool embrace of water, we three consummate swimmers were like a pod of dolphins, flashing past the other kids, confident and joyous, always together.
Driving home as a family from the club, my father—after grueling sets of tennis, followed by drinks—would flirt with my mother. The attraction between them in those moments was evident even to us kids. He made mischievous sexual allusions while my mother pretended to be shocked. My parents’ favorite music played once again at home: Connie Francis, Eartha Kitt, Frankie Lane, and Millie Small, interspersed with Tom Lehrer’s wisecracks and the pathos of Begum Akhtar’s ghazals. We sprawled out on our parents’ bed with them, vying to rest our heads on our mother’s stomach, wonderfully soft and cool to the touch.
Come bedtime, we would settle heavily into our single beds, with the dogs at someone’s feet or on the floor, the air conditioner humming loudly, and the door to my parents’ bedroom left reassuringly ajar. We would close our eyes and pray silently for a few minutes. Our parents didn’t guide us about what we should pray for or how or why.
My prayers consisted of wishing good things for everyone in our family, including our dogs. For each individual, I had a set of wishes—for Pratap, that his polio-torn legs would be miraculously healed or at least would not handicap him; for my mother, that her choking asthma would be cured and that she and my father would live happily; and so on, an endless detailed list of things that I prayed fervently would come true. I prayed in Hindi—virtually the only time that I reverted to using my family’s original language, replaced in Anglicized Calcutta by English, which for all practical matters was my mother tongue.
After we finished our prayers, Papa would settle down on a low chair to tell us riveting bedtime stories about our zamindar ancestors in the Uttar Pradesh badlands, more than seven hundred miles to the northwest.
In one of them, set in medieval times, a magical giant cobra lifted one of our ancestors onto its hood, thereby preventing our clan from being wiped out in a murderous late-night assault by rival zamindars. In another story, my widowed grandmother and teenaged father, armed with shotguns, rode off on horseback at dawn to a relative’s haveli to wrest back jewelry that the latter had wrongly laid claim to.
A particularly dark story that our father rarely told, but of which
we remembered every detail, was about how his own father—newly married and barely into his twenties—had been murdered by cousins trying to usurp his inheritance. Even here, good eventually won—our treacherous relatives had not known that our grandmother was pregnant with our father, her first and only child.
Despite the grim tenor of those stories, I felt safe and secure. Even at that age, I understood that the moral of Papa’s stories, which he wished us to absorb, was that it was our family dharma to endure even the most terrible suffering without complaint or recourse to dishonorable actions. That was the core message of my father’s favorite texts, the Bhagavad Gita and Rudyard Kipling’s “If,” copies of which he kept not only at home but also in his office. However shattering the blows faced in life, we boys—like our grandmother and the best of our ancestors—were to remain superhumanly brave. We were to do good for others without giving any thought to self-interest.
In such moments, my father seemed to embody the goodness his stories spoke of, revealed in the steadiness of his gaze even when his eyes were soft with affection. Despite the palpable awkwardness between us, persisting from the months of strain that had preceded the holidays, I knew for a fact that he loved me, too, and I was safe with him. Even when I faced hardships in school and later in life, the recollection of my father’s absolute protectiveness and of our family history of fortitude gave me the strength to endure them.
Looking back, I realize that neither of my parents ever admonished me for my feminine traits and behaviors. There were no rebukes, no hostility. As an adult, when comparing my childhood experiences with others who had also had gender-atypical traits as children, I realized how lucky I was. The majority of the people I spoke to, in India and elsewhere, told me that their parents had persecuted and shamed them. A friend in Delhi told me he had been beaten mercilessly, abusively called a hijra—the common term for India’s traditional “third gender”—and
locked up in isolation for hours by his parents, all because he insisted on shaving his legs and wearing dresses at home.
It made me think about why my parents handled that matter more kindly than did others from their era. I know that my mother had always half wished that I were a girl so that I could remain at home with her and be the loving confidante she desperately sought. That longing may have contributed to her setting aside any discomfort she felt about my behavior. In my father’s case, despite his being a manly man in the colonial mode, it’s likely that not having a father himself led him to follow his natural instincts as a parent rather than being hamstrung by tradition.
And though they looked like quintessential products of their class, my parents were more unconventional than many of their friends. They broke social rules, big and small. In an age of arranged marriages, theirs had been a love marriage. My mother spurned jewelry and makeup and was drawn to yoga rather than to parties. They also had a naturalness about both sexual matters and nudity—my father routinely wandered around the house in a jockstrap or briefs, and my mother in just a thin petticoat, bare-breasted—that I later realized was unheard-of in families like ours. They thought nothing of taking us children to striptease performances, flirting with each other in our presence, letting us read adult novels, or, in my father’s case, teaching us raunchy British songs such as “Roll Me Over in the Clover.” Perhaps that freethinking streak made them more capable of withstanding the fears that other parents felt about their children’s gender-atypical behavior.
Their response was close to the best that could be expected, given the times. Even if they had been actively supportive and had sought to give positive direction to me as a gender-atypical child, child psychology services barely existed in India in that era—and very few parents of their generation anywhere in the world would have had better alternatives. Gender-atypical children were viewed by most psychological and medical professionals as deviant or sick individuals who would grow up to be homosexual. Given the oppressive stigma attached to homosexuality and the laws criminalizing it, their approach was to “cure” children through “aversion therapies,” including electric shock
treatment to the genitals or other areas while the child looked at images of the “wrong” gender. The idea was that such images would become frightening rather than arousing. Those so-called treatments were not only ineffective but left children at high risk of depression, anxiety, and self-destructive behaviors.
However, while my brothers and I remained very close, they, too, began to see me as a girly-boy, like the students at my school. One day, when some of my parents’ friends were visiting, Bharat—to whom I was particularly attached, as we were just fourteen months apart in age—blurted out, “Siddharth reads Barbara Cartland and Mills and Boon! And he plucks his eyebrows. Look at them!”
Everyone turned to look at me. I sat there in shock and then said in a trembling voice, “I don’t.” (I was referring to plucking my eyebrows; they are naturally arched and tidy by some twist of androgyny.)
“Yes, he does!” insisted Bharat in his most convincing voice. I was close to tears. Forever after, throughout my childhood and teen years, Bharat would repeat those announcements to adult audiences at unexpected moments. I would sit speechless, at best mumbling in protest. Though I knew that it was just Bharat’s bull-in-a-china-shop way momentarily getting the better of him, my sense of shame was so intense that I could never speak about it to him. I thought bringing it up would only confirm that I really was a girly-boy.
By the age of nine or ten, I began to be attracted to boys and men. The first object of my attraction was one of our drivers. It was a vague kind of desire, not the headlong sexual pull that I began to experience a few years later. I’m not even sure why I found him attractive. He wasn’t handsome, and his skin exuded the rancid odor of cheap alcohol. My desire had something to do with his dissolute style as well as a somewhat transparent, creamish nylon shirt that he often wore that displayed his smooth, hairless flesh.
I’m not sure what I felt first, romantic desire or sexual desire. I
know I first experienced romantic desire through the pulp novels I was reading. I longed for the heroes to love me obsessively, to sweep me away—preferably on a magnificent Arab stallion—to the land of happily-ever-after. It was an inexplicable yearning, a strange ache that made me feel as if I had been separated from an unknown someone for whom I continually pined.
Even though the books depicted romance only between men and women, I didn’t really wonder if that implied that I would have to transform myself into a woman. I only concluded that I would have to be alluringly feminine, because it was feminine charm that drew the heroes to the heroines instead of the other women.
I first felt sexual desire through the Barbara Cartland and Jacqueline Susann books, but it was only in the Harold Robbins books that I found regular snatches of explicit sex. I fixated on the description of the men’s bodies, their cocks, what they did, the pleasure they felt. I came across a thrilling section in The Pirate, several paragraphs long, where a gigolo about to have sex with a wealthy woman instead remembered the headlong pleasure he had recently experienced while being fucked by a handsome black man. That elevated my excitement to a degree that I had not known before, with those passages remaining forever alive in my mind.
Sexual desire became another yearning within me, and this one was a force located in my groin—single-minded, insistent, and attention-seeking. It led me to discover the joys of masturbation, an inexhaustible source of pleasure. And though I was furtive about the practice, locking myself up in my bathroom, the fact that my parents treated sexual matters openly and casually spared me the common trauma of thinking that the act itself was sinful or deviant.
At that early point, and for many years later, I did not wonder whether other boys—my brothers, for instance—fantasized about men or women or whether the nature of my newfound desires had any link to my feminine behavior. Such was the blissful ignorance of childhood, not knowing that my desires, like my femininity, made me disgracefully different from most other boys.