This Indian life by Shoba Narayan: How to deal with family members who seem intolerant about issues you support
Don’t shut out the hypocrites and bigots in your family. Engage with them instead. You may be surprised.
BRUNCH Updated: Jan 04, 2020 22:34 IST
Six months ago, my beloved 29-year-old niece, Sumitra Sivaramakrishnan, overcame the blandness of her name and Matunga upbringing in one fell swoop by posting a status update that said, “Preferred Pronouns: They/Them.”
In the spirit of abundant caution – or was it controversy – Sumi, a film student in New York, sent a personal message to the Kiliroor Sivramakrishna Iyer (KSI) Family Group, which comprised 135 relatives, ages eight to 88, living in locations as disparate as Thrippunithra, Kerala, and Traverse City, Michigan.
“Dear Family. After a lifetime of being at war with myself about my gender, I have decided to embrace who I am – inside and out. I am changing my pronouns to “they/them.” I hope you will all support me. With love, Sumi/Sam.”
Alongside the message was a photo of Sumi with a beard.
An eerie calm settled on my extended family. Half of the elders ignored the status update, either because they didn’t understand what it meant, or because they were pretending that they didn’t understand. Soon, the phone calls began.
Sumi’s parents, my cousin, Shanthi and her husband, Venkata, were caught between denial, explanations and tears. Some cousins called with cheery “Good for Sumi” solidarity. Others rained shame and blame, all under the guise of sympathy.
“Don’t worry. It will pass,” they said, as if “it” was a virus. “At least your younger daughter is more stable. She is studying engineering, isn’t she? Unlike Sumi who did what? Operations research or something, right?”
I don’t know about you, but my family lives across eight centuries. I have cousins in villages around Kochi whose daily routine (and world) has remained unchanged for decades. I have aunts in Trichy who devoutly say, “Jai Shri Ram,” every chance they get, and yet turn vicious when anyone strays from their self-drawn code of conduct. To them, “love marriage” is an aberration. Gender fluidity is beyond the scope of their comprehension. Or so I thought.
It would be simple to dismiss these relatives as small town hypocrites and bigots – which they perhaps are. But they are also people I have grown up with. They irritate me no end, but they are also part of India’s (and my) rainbow reality.
How do you deal with the polarities within your own family? How do you deal with friends or relatives who have suddenly turned “Commie,” or “RSS” or “anti-national” or whatever label you affix to them with scorn and disdain? How do you deal with people whose views are different from yours – who seem intolerant about things you support – like LGBTQAI+?
In my self-righteous days, I used to think that the best approach was to shut them out of my world. These days, I force myself to engage. And you know what, more often than not, they surprise me.
After Sumi’s grand announcement, my aunt, Ambujam, announced that she was going to visit Sumi’s parents. I was sure she was going to make snarky remarks and so I insisted on going with her as a kind of buffer. This was after all, a woman who had become a legend in the family for all the wrong reasons.
Ambujam Mami had gone to Boston to help her pregnant daughter deliver a bonny baby boy. One morning, she carried her newborn grandson, stepped out of her building and marched straight into a Pride Parade.
Ambujam Mami with her green sari and violent orange skullcap fit right in. Till the moment when a mike was pointed at her with the question: “Ma’am, do you have a statement to make?”
Ambujam Mami lifted her grandson in the manner of Simba in Lion King, smiled weakly and asked, “What is a gay? It is there in all the signs?”
The video of Ambujam Mami’s question became “epic” amongst my teenage daughter and her pals – played and replayed countless times to hoots of laughter.
So here I was with this same lady, en route to Matunga. At the traffic signal, along came a transgender man, beautifully made up in a shimmering purple sari. He clapped his hands. The driver rolled up the windows. Ambujam Mami rolled down hers and handed over a Rs 10 note.
“Sumi thinks she is making some grand announcement with all this ABCDQ thing,” Ambujam Mami said witheringly. “We have had this sort of thing in India since the time of the Pandavas. Arjuna was a gay after all.”
She put her hands together in a prayerful namaste, and looked up piously. “I have decided to give money to all these aravani folks hereafter. Our scriptures say that if you feed a stranger, someone else will feed your child. And now that our Sumi is like this, we need to feed all the aravanis.”
“Sumi isn’t transgender, Ambujam Mami. She is gender fluid.”
“Same thing,” replied Ambujam.
Call her bigoted, call her a hypocrite, but in her own way, my aunt was wrapping her head around Sumi’s proclamation. To me, that spelled progress.
(This column addresses the issue of parenting our parents and other unique facets of This Indian Life and our culture. If you have stories about the weird and wonderful relationships that enrich or enervate your life, write in.)
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From HT Brunch, January 5, 2020