It was 1994 I think when cable television entered our lives (by that I mean we discovered it at that time) and changed it. I was eleven years old then, and even though I was being bullied at school, life somehow didn’t seem all that bad suddenly. New images started appearing on the screen and we were fascinated by it all. Even though I was constantly picked on at school, I kept my head down and learnt to endure. Early on I understood that being invisible is the best policy. “Do not be seen” was my motto, and I stuck to it, no matter what. I think this was the way the two years before I entered my teens just passed.
We were the kids who saw change happen real-time. Up until then we only had Doordarshan and some serials and animated shows to fall back on, but all that soon changed with cable television. It revolutionised India and the way we fit in with the rest of the world to a large extent. I think it also gave us a voice, though muffled, but soon developed with force.
We learnt how to bang doors by watching American teens do it. We also realised that we were twelve and we knew things, we learnt how to question situations, ideas and emotions, not just taking our parents’ word for it. What they said wasn’t written in stone.
We learnt that maybe we didn’t always have to listen to our parents all the time – after all, we did have minds of our own. And when it came to me, I was a bit of a rebel – the quiet one, but a rebel nonetheless.
“Why do you have to always be this difficult?”
“Why must you say no to everything?”
“Is it that tiresome for you to mingle with others?”
These were my mother’s complaints as I was growing up. I was a mamma’s boy, so to speak. I was surrounded by women when I was growing up – my buas (paternal aunts), masis (maternal aunts – about six of them), the old maids and babysitters (those too have to be included), and my mother of course. Maybe that’s where my fascination for women’s clothes started.
On the one hand, when I was younger and would dress up in women’s clothes, I was the adorable one. On the other, as I entered my teenage years, I was no longer the cute one. It was no longer okay to dress-up, to play house or with dolls. Puberty hit, and I realised the hypocrisy surrounding me.
In all of this, let’s go back to cable television. I was eleven then – just the right age to soak up everything that the TV had to offer. I remember we had to fight with my parents to install a cable connection – we just had to be the early adopters and not the ones that fell behind in the race.
The world had opened up like a Pandora’s Box. We had finally come a long way in our heads – graduating from the good old Doordarshan to Zee TV, Star Plus and Star Movies. Discussions in school were all about TV and the characters we saw on it, something that had never happened before. We were taken in by the magic of the idiot box. It was anything but idiotic to us.
“Hey, did you watch Baywatch? Are your parents allowing you to watch that?”
“Did you catch the latest episode of The Bold and the Beautiful?” (Yes, there were boys who would also watch B & B, as it was popularly known then. My mother and I were hooked to it together and she never once thought of what she was watching with her child. It was just one of the many ways we bonded.)
What I remember most clearly was a serial called Tara. If you grew up in the ’90s, there is no way you didn’t know about this TV show. It was written by a woman named Vinta Nanda but directed by a man named Raman Kumar who was also the producer of the show.
For an Indian TV show, it was brazen. It dealt with four friends who move to the big bad city of Bombay to make something of their lives – Tara (Navneet Nishan), Sheena (Amita Nangia), Kanchan (Ratna Pathak Shah) and Arzoo (Neha Sharad). It was a one-of-a-kind show that spoke of feminism early on, that depicted uncomfortable topics such as pre-marital sex, live-in relationships, love between an older man and a younger woman, and homosexuality, bringing all of this to people’s living rooms.
Yes, homosexuality. It was in Tara that I first saw a gay character on Indian television. He was called Petha (coincidentally also meaning sweetmeat) and was played by Deven Bhojani – who was also famous as Kareema (a character from Dekh Bhai Dekh on Doordarshan at the same, and also borderline homosexual in the show).
Petha embodied what India understood then as the gay man. He wore floral shirts (which I hated), bandanas and flashy pants, and he hit on a straight boy in the show, played by Imran Khan, named Popo. He was made fun of and all the girls loved him.
Most men on the show looked at him suspiciously and didn’t even like him. So I never understood why his character was a part of the show. Perhaps the writers wanted to be progressive, but what they didn’t understand was how to be so, and instead ended up just being regressive, and miserably so.
On the one hand, you write a show about women’s empowerment while on the other, you are busy encouraging stereotypes when it comes to a gay man, down to even gestures and expressions, which to me were preposterous in retrospect. At that time, I think even I laughed at it. I gave the makers of the show just what they wanted from the audience – to laugh as if Petha was nothing but comic relief.
I feel ashamed now remembering this. I mean why couldn’t one be positive about gay people? After that, I think I stopped watching the show, realising what I stood for and how the show wanted to take that away from me.
Excerpted with permission from So Now You Know: Growing Up Gay in India, Vivek Tejuja, HarperCollins India.