It wasn’t until he finished university that Rishi Agarwal found the courage to come out to his parents.
When he was in high school, he knew of a gay Sikh student who committed suicide after coming out to his parents. And though he was aware of his feelings from a young age, he came to realise that he couldn’t change when he was university.
“It was a tough time for me,” said Agarwal, 35, an accountant by training. “My parents were social butterflies, and in that time frame we were attending about 15 to 20 weddings in a year. I was very happy for my family friends. But it also struck home inside, the feeling that I am never going to have this – marry a person I love, and share that with my family and friends. It was hard to accept that was the reality.”
But on a plane ride back home from a work trip to Vancouver in 2004, he knew he had to reveal his true self. During his two-week stay there, he had met someone. “It was the first time I held someone’s hand in public,” said Agarwal. “Even though my parents had a large social circle of family and friends, it did not extend to Vancouver. So I was able to try something new. And that person gave me his heart, through poetry. He gave me a card. It touched me, but I threw it away in the garbage. I cried the entire way on the five-hour flight back. And in that moment I knew that no matter what other people feel, whatever the reaction of my parents, they have to know.”
While Agarwal recounted his story at the family’s spacious home in Oakville, a suburb in the Greater Toronto Area, in Canada, his parents Vijay and Sushma Agarwal looked on. While the senior Agarwal carried a sheaf of papers for the meeting they had convened for the launch of a PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) chapter aimed at South Asians, his wife kept an eye on the kitchen timer. The smell of samosas being warmed in the oven wafted over.
In many ways, Vijay and Sushma Agarwal are like your typical Indian uncle and aunty. During my visit, one of their main concerns was whether I was well fed and hydrated.
“You must have a samosa,” Sushma Agarwal insisted, while ladling dollops of bhelpuri on my plate.
“I don’t how this girl is not thirsty,” Vijay Agarwal kept on saying. “I’m talking so much and I am thirsty. Here, drink water.”
But their reaction to their son’s announcement was not your typical Indian uncle and aunty response.
When Agarwal told his mother that he had something important to tell her, she ran to the garage to fetch her husband.
“I thought Rishi was in big trouble, maybe he had gotten a girl pregnant or something,” she said. But she was devastated when Rishi made his announcement. “I was just sitting quietly, all these different thoughts coming to my head. How will he travel? He loves travelling. I didn’t know anything. I came from such a sheltered life.”
Vijay Agarwal, on the other hand, who describes himself as the person who “does the most of the talking in this house,” started asking his son a series of questions – Was he sure? Had he read any books on the matter? Was it just a phase, a fascination?
Agarwal, meanwhile, was on tenterhooks. After 90 minutes of interrogation from his “engineer father with a logical mind,” he wanted to know where he stood. Would he still be coming home for Sunday dinner, or not?
“I asked them if I was allowed back home, and my dad said, ‘This is always your home. Don’t even think otherwise.’ I felt like a ton of bricks had lifted off my shoulders,” said Agarwal.
For the next three days, his parents went into deep research mode. They went to the local library and borrowed everything they could find on the LGBTQ subject – from books to DVDs made by the National Film Board of Canada.
Sushma Agarwal talked frankly about her ignorance on the subject at the time. “I grew up in India at a time when girls were supposed to get educated only to find a good husband,” she said. “My life was school and back, we didn’t go out anywhere… When we were taking out the books from the library, I was thinking what this librarian must be thinking of us.”
Getting a second education
The Agarwals also started attending meetings of the Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays chapter in Toronto that took place once a month.
“At that time, we really needed the support,” said Vijay Agarwal. “Because the thoughts were coming, why us? What did we do wrong? When we went to the first meeting, we felt – thank God we are not alone. There are others like us. This means it’s not that unnatural.
He added: “We never missed that meeting. I was so impressed that we volunteered to be on the board for a year. And we formed our minds that when we have some time, we will do our part to help. This is so unfortunate for people who are born this way.”
Soon after Agarwal came out, his parents insisted he start dating. They wanted to fulfill their duties as Hindu parents, and see their son well settled with a life partner. When Agarwal met Daniel Langdon, and eventually proposed, his parents went about throwing a big fat Hindu wedding. This was in 2011.
“We had already decided that as far as we are concerned there will be no difference between our elder son’s wedding – with all pomp and show – and my younger son’s wedding,” said Vijay Agarwal. “We did all the Hindu ceremonies – mehndi, sangeet, wedding, the whole shebang.”
But convincing a priest was not a simple matter. The Agarwal family approached eight priests, who refused to conduct the ceremony. Frustrated, Vijay Agarwal called his brother, who was visiting India at the time.
“I said get some wedding books from Dehati Pustak Bhandar,” said Vijay Agarwal. “And that if no priest is available, I will do the damn wedding myself… Thank god we were able to find one priest who was willing to do it. It was a beautiful ceremony.”
With their parental duties fulfilled, the Agarwals are now taking action on the promise they had made to themselves. The retired couple recently launched a chapter of PFLAG that will be open to all, but will primarily focus on helping other South Asians whose loved ones come out to them. As it is, they have already been informally helping people in their social circle to come to terms with their queer identified children. The new chapter is scheduled to meet on the first Sunday of the month.“When we used to attend the PFLAG meetings, there were so many conversations going, between people from all different backgrounds,” said Sushma. “One couple's son committed suicide on Father’s Day because his father would not accept him. And we realised that this is not something you can put under the rug and forget about.”
Added Vijay Agarwal: “There are many myths and misconceptions in our community. And my message is very simple. If you take time to understand the issue and gather the knowledge, not only the kids will be happy, you yourself will be happy.”As far as Rishi Agarwal is concerned, his parents’ support for the LGBTQ cause has benefited him on a personal and public level.
“Over the last 12 years, many of my friends, who saw the way my parents handled the situation, started talking to their own families," he said. "They told me how their relationships have improved. And those friends have now become some of my closest friends."
He added: "In the broader community, this has also had an important impact on my life because I can be very proud of my parents. Already, I can see how much they have helped people, just by doing this launch.”
All images courtesy Channa Photography.