Vivek Tejuja’s memoir about growing up gay in India, So Now You Know, was published to coincide with the first anniversary of the striking down of the draconian Section 377 of the IPC. In this slender volume, Tejuja, a prominent figure in the English language books reading community online, reflects on his experiences as a child and a young man discovering his sexuality and then exercising it. Despite the subtitle, though, Tejuja’s memoir is about growing up gay in Mumbai – south Mumbai, to be more precise.
Tejuja was born in a (well-to-do) Sindhi joint family full of uncles, aunts and cousins who appear in his book as annoying and endearing in turns. An uncle of his slaps him hard when he finds out little Vivek twirling “like a girl” to Bollywood songs. But then there’s also one of his aunts who lovingly announces that she wishes he were lesbian instead of gay because “what can two girls do with each other? Nothing. Nothing at all. On the other hand, two boys can do a lot.” The book has many such moments to leaven what otherwise could edge close to being a tale of despair.
What other men do
Reading this book, one realises that all unhappy gay men are alike; every happy gay man is happy in his own way. Loneliness, lack of empathy and acceptance from family and friends, the fear of an uncertain future hounds us all – in varying degrees of course.
One of the most moving accounts Tejuja writes is that of his best friend from school turning into a bully and ganging up with other boys to humiliate him upon discovering that he is gay. But he turns out to be just one of the many men who walk in and out of the writer’s life, leaving mostly disappointment and heartache in their wake. Some departures even seem unresolved, like life itself.
Memories, Tejuja says in the book, are like ungrateful children; they rarely show up when summoned. As a memoirist, the writer tries to recreate as much as he can from his memory, though he admits candidly at many points that his recollections of many episodes are vague. Interlaced with his experiences is oodles of ’90s nostalgia – to that effect the book could serve as a companion to Amrita Mahale’s Milk Teeth. The thrills and travails of finding fellow gay men to befriend or bed in an age when no social media existed will sound almost fantastical to younger readers.
A light touch
For someone who has read so extensively, Tejuja’s writing style is breezy and chatty. The book is sprinkled with catty comments (talking about a straight man he tried to seduce he says, “How can someone be good-looking and intelligent? That’s asking for a lot.”) and digressions – mostly about the sea and Bollywood. It feels as though one is listening to an admittedly fallible narrator talk over a cup of coffee about his life.
The book has its share of contradictions too. While early on Tejuja protests against stereotypes and expresses his disgust on being subjected to them, later he acknowledges that stereotypes exist for a reason and some of them apply too. For someone who resists being a subject of generalisations, he generalises frequently, even if flippantly. “At the end of the day, men were men. They just wanted one thing – sex and nothing else,” he says at one point. At another, he says, “Everyone born before 2000 loves Madonna. Everyone.” But even if questionable, these observations sit well with the intent and content of the book.
As a reader, one may begrudge Tejuja for not talking more about books in depth (his Twitter threads are very popular) and how specific books shaped his life. There are constant references to how critical the act of reading was to him; but books per se are mentioned in passing. Perhaps that may be the subject of his next memoir for all one knows – a book that will be highly anticipated.
So Now You Know: Growing up Gay in India, Vivek Tejuja, Harper Collins.
Yashraj Goswami is a writer and teacher. His debut novel will be out next year.