My Mother's Gift

5.3.2011

By Rahul Mehta

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.

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