My uncle is sitting cross-legged on the daybed, feeding sweets to my partner, Robert. We are in his ground-floor flat in Mumbai. He holds the confections delicately between his fingers and pops them in Robert's mouth. 'I'm full,' Robert says, but my uncle pleads: 'Just one more.' Everyone is laughing: my uncle's wife, my uncle's mother, his teenage children, and me.
An hour earlier my uncle had said, 'Tell me, Rahul, in so many years, why have I never heard you mention a girlfriend?' Before I could answer, his wife hissed at him and changed the subject. Now my uncle is sitting with Robert -- whom I have never introduced to them as anyone other than 'my American friend' -- and feeding him sticky, milky sweets.
Later, in our hotel room, Robert says, 'This is silly. Why don't we just tell them? I'm sure they know anyway.'
The year is 2007; I am 34 years old, and at this point they have met Robert at least four times over 10 years. I'm sure they recognize that I love him and that he is a huge part of my life, but I'm not sure they quite understand that, in America, Robert is, for all intents and purposes, my husband.
'Telling them we're gay puts them in an awkward position,' I say. 'India is not like America.' Robert and I have discussed this often. The landmark court ruling decriminalizing homosexuality in India is still two years away. We've read about harassment, attacks. We are careful when we travel.
'It's not like we're lying to them,' I argue. 'If they asked me straight out, I would tell them.' Even as I say this, I realize it is not quite true. My uncle did ask me, in his own roundabout way. And I answered him with silence.
I was 21 when I came out to my mother. It was my birthday weekend, and my parents had come to visit me in North Carolina, where I was about to graduate from college. It was a warm day, and we were at an outdoor jazz festival. My mother and I were sitting at a picnic bench. My father had wandered off to get a closer look at one of the music acts.
I had wanted to come out to my mother first. I was nervous about how my father would react, and I wanted my mother's help in telling him. I also had certain constraints. I wanted to be in public, in case either of us was tempted to make a scene. I wanted to be somewhere loud. I wanted to be outdoors on a sunny day so we would both be wearing sunglasses. I didn't want to be able to see my mother's eyes. I didn't want her to see mine.
When I told my mother, she was surprised, which in turn surprised me -- how could she not know. If she was upset, she hid it behind her sunglasses. She said something about understanding that I was born this way. She said she was glad that after graduation I was moving to New York City, where I could find a 'gay-positive community.' I asked her where she learned that term, and she smiled and said, 'Oprah.'
Over the next few years, my mother slowly told all of my relatives in America that I'm gay. My father was the last. I wondered if we should tell him earlier, but my mom said she had to prepare him. Later, my dad said he was glad she had.
We decided not to tell my relatives in India. We reasoned that they are distant relations that I rarely saw. 'Besides,' my mother said, 'they wouldn't understand.'
The week I start making notes for this essay is the same week my mother is reading for the first time the manuscript for my short story collection, Quarantine. She'd been nagging me to send the manuscript, but I kept telling her it wasn't quite finished. Now, I've finally sent it.
Last fall, Robert and I went to visit my parents. Over lunch at a restaurant, I tried to explain what the book is about. I said that the stories are about families and relationships, and that many of the characters are gay. I explained that certain passages may be difficult for them to read. As we talked, my parents kept looking at the people sitting at the tables near us. I told my parents I knew that they loved me, and that I didn't need for them to read the book. My father said he probably wouldn't read it. 'I don't really read much.' My mother, a librarian, said she was eager to get her hands on it.
What I didn't say then was that I don't want them to read it. And now that my mother is, I am terrified. I am worried that she will object to the family stories I have stolen and altered and bent to suit my purposes. I am worried that every time she reads a passage in which a young, gay Indian-American man is having sex, that she will think it is me: me having rough sex in an alley, me masturbating in the back of the family car, me having unprotected sex in a loft in New York.
After I send the manuscript, I don't hear from my mother for days: strange, considering we usually talk multiple times a week. After a few days, I call. I get her voicemail. I leave a message about something banal. A couple more days pass.
While I wait, I remember that day 15 years ago at the jazz festival. I remember how terrified I was that my mother would get up from the picnic bench, turn her back, and walk away. Having her read my book is like coming out to her all over again.
I remember another incident from 2007, during the same trip when my uncle in Mumbai fed Robert sweets. We had gone to Ahmedabad for a few weeks. Robert was studying at the Darpana Dance Academy, and I was tagging along, since I have relatives there. These are my most conservative relatives, the ones I most feared would abandon me were they to find out I'm gay.
The hotel we stayed in was one block from Darpana and just a few blocks from my cousin's house. She had insisted several times that we stay with her, but we said it would be easier if we stayed at the hotel. Still, we saw her almost every day. She sewed buttons on my shirt. When I fell ill, she brought me khichdi in my hotel room, sat with me while I ate it, washed the containers in the bathroom sink. If she noticed that the two twin beds were pushed together to form a single, double-sized bed, she didn't say so.
When it was time for us to leave Ahmedebad, Robert and I went to my cousin's house to say goodbye. She cried and hugged me and pressed a money envelope into my palm -- a gesture I recognized as a tradition, since I was her younger cousin-brother. Then, still crying, she hugged Robert goodbye. I saw her press into his palm an identical money envelope. He was her younger brother, too.
While writing this essay I realize something I wasn't quite aware of before. My mother was the one who told all my relatives in America that I'm gay, not me. It was a gift. If anyone had a reaction that was hesitant or negative, my mother hid it, then fixed it. In India, my aunt and my cousin-sister were doing the same thing.
About a week after my mom received my manuscript, she finally calls.
'I've read the book.'
'When I first started reading, I was really surprised. I thought, 'He's writing abou that?' I was shocked.'
I interrupt my mom, trying to explain. 'Let me finish,' she says. 'I absolutely love it. You are a wonderful writer. The observations, the insights'.. you see things. I'm so proud of you.'
When she says this, I start to cry. I am worried a colleague or a student may come by my office and see me. I am also worried that my mother, on the other end of the line, might hear.
'I've given it to your father to read,' she says.
Quarantine will be published by Harper Collins on June 1.