Back in school, as an adolescent, my love for a teacher was easy to camouflage. Unfortunately, it could not last long beyond school. In college, I learnt that two women who loved one another were labelled “cooing pigeons”, and they were mocked and commented upon. I locked away the memory of the woman I had loved on dark staircases.

Once, she came to visit me in my marital home and I was a good host, without meeting her eye. But now, when she is no more, I miss her. I am left with the pang that I did not go back and tell her that it was she who showed me that the love I held for her, and another classmate who did not reciprocate, was nothing to be ashamed of, an affirmation that her religion condemned as sinful. She interpreted many things differently and also taught me to cross lines while seeing their many meeting points.

By the 1990s, I was falling in love with women all over again. Being in a metropolis made it possible to speak of this love, though still in whispers.

The taste of the forbidden “L” word was new for me, and exciting. We wrapped it and its comforting secrecy around ourselves. From nothing at all, here was now a word that existed outside us, validating us.

The central park in Connaught Place was that one spot we knew by word of mouth to be a favourite haunt of our community and the policemen. Back then in 1992, I was one of those who marched on Delhi streets in the protest organised by ABVA against police harassment of gay people. I walked then as an anonymous activist from a women’s group, a closeted lesbian, fearing that if seen I would by association suffer the label of being “one of them”. I hoped no one would see through me.

While engaged in advocacy work, as a volunteer with CALERI (Campaign for Lesbian Rights), a Delhi-based autonomous group formed in 1998 in response to the violent protests against Deepa Mehta’s film Fire, we experienced a dearth of material depicting women’s same-sex love. In order to get our voices heard, I realised it would be useful to produce evidence that would validate the presence of people “like us”.

I began to explore the idea of research, undertaking field trips in the northern parts of the country. At the Human Rights Conference in 2002 organised in Panchgani, I found the opportunity to share what I had encountered during my research treading deep into rural areas of Rajasthan, and into silences of safety. One story, in particular, acted as a catalyst: both inwardly on a personal level, and outwardly in consequences that ultimately led to the creation of this book.

In a landscape of gender roles and codes, Babu Maharaj stood out as an “oddity” dressed in dhoti and kurta, with a pen in the upper pocket, her “maleness” and way of being simultaneously covering and uncovering the fissures in gender binaries.

I first heard of her described by another activist as “Babubai”. The name itself aroused my interest; “babu” is the generic term of address for a man, and “bai” is a generic term of address for women. The activist described her as having short hair and living with a woman. Despite warnings that she may not want to meet me at all, I managed to track her down and made my way to her home.

As the second man I had asked about Babubai in the village led me to her door, I remember feeling eager, yet anxious and uncertain. The woman who opened the door had a pale complexion and a sturdy build. I noticed that her breasts were bound with a cloth. Hurriedly I introduced myself, referencing my group and the specific co-worker who had told me about her. She offered me a handshake that I can never forget: strong, firm and warm.

There was another woman in the house, her name was Sita. I had previously been informed that she was a widow. I told the pair I was collecting stories of women who had managed to remain single. After offering and bringing me tea, Maharaj explained, “We are Ramsnehi bhakts (followers of a religious sect); our lives revolve around worship and singing kirtan-bhajan (hymns).”

I asked why they had not attended the women’s group, at which she began to swear. “At the meeting [on women’s health] I went to, they showed dirty pictures, talked about sexual organs and having children [...] What have I to do with such matters? It was so disgusting; I wished the ceiling would collapse upon us [...] I have had enough of such topics.”

Listening to her speak, I felt that she had rejected womanness. All of my inquiries into her personal life and my constant reference to “single women” aggravated her, and soon the mood of the conversation turned hostile. I became aware of the couple’s gaze and how they were scrutinising me, surely wondering why anybody would come all the way from Delhi just to meet them. I knew they would never admit to having a same-sex relationship because of their sectarian affiliation, which accommodated them as a unit on the condition of silence and denial.

I was asking the wrong questions, too abrupt and inappropriate. My focus on their single status had made them distrustful.

The conversation proceeded in a way that ended up with me leaving. I was uneasy, having a premonition of something worse to come. I had gone about interviewing Maharaj in such a self-absorbed manner that I didn’t realise that I was disturbing something serious, some- thing that was very strong and also very delicate.

I took a window seat on the bus that would take me back. Just as I settled in, I locked eyes with Maharaj outside the window. She told me this bus would take very long, and to take the next one instead. As I made my way off the bus, the driver warned, “Don’t be misled by Babu Maharaj’s words. Go back to your seat.” I soon understood that she was trying to lure me off the bus.

I was in deep trouble as she demanded through the window, “Give me what you are writing!” There was a huge scene, both of us talking and shouting together, until it finished with her tearing out the pages that I had written and storming off. She had caused a disjuncture at so many levels that I carried her picture in my mind’s eye for a long, long time afterwards.

It was an unforgettable experience of understanding the risks and the necessity of silence in the place where a subject was located. It threw up the ethical dilemma of writing about somebody that does not want to be written about; yet, I chose to narrate it, as I could see no other way to break the cultural silences.

Footprints of a Queer History: Life-Stories from Gujarat

Excerpted with permission from Footprints of a Queer History: Life-Stories from Gujarat, Maya Sharma, Yoda Press.