Photo: Untitled #8, from the series “The New Pre-Raphaelites,” 2007, by Sunil Gupta
Padma Iyer’s personal ad seemed completely ordinary—banal, even. She was, like most mothers in India, looking for a good spouse for her child. The only difference between her request and the dozens of other ads on the page was that her son, Harish, is gay.
“What Padma did for Harish was revolutionary because it countered the alienness of LGBT lives in the public imagination with something very familiar: a mother’s search for happiness for her son through an arranged marriage,” explains Parmesh Shahani, the author of Gay Bombay: Globalization, Love and (Be)Longing in Contemporary India. He is also head of the Godrej India Culture Lab, an intellectual hub for discussing what it means to be modern and Indian.
And the controversy sparked a vicious fallout. “In the very first week, my mother and I received over 5,000 responses via email, text message, and Facebook,” says Harish Iyer. “A small percentage of these were suitors or their parents; a vast majority were hate mail.” Then BuzzFeed picked up the news of the ad, and “the mail got progressively more toxic,” he adds.
Many top Indian newspapers had rejected the advertisement until it was finally published by Mid-Day, but once it ran, an interesting conversational tangent grew out of its simple wording. Padma was searching for a suitable partner for her son among the Brahman caste, and the international audience — unaccustomed to reading analogous ads in India’s heterosexual community — found her request to be prejudiced despite its progressive agenda.
“People took the words out of context,” says Iyer. “The objective was to make a gay matrimonial ad look just like a heterosexual one, and in India matrimonial ads almost always state religious and caste preferences. Don’t families across the world prefer welcoming a person of a similar socio-cultural background into their fold? My mother is no exception.”
The criticism of Padma’s caste preference spotlighted the general difficulties that a globalizing India faces as it grapples with evolving attitudes toward arranged marriages.
The last decade brought a strong and sudden upswing in so-called “love marriages” (individuals selecting their own partners), and the astronomical rise in social media among India’s millennials has also led to the inevitable rise in dating app usage. While this starkly contrasts with the previous generation’s staunch commitment to arranged coupling, the dust seems to be settling in a compromise between the two: Parents play a crucial part in the spousal search, but ultimately seek the approval of their child before moving forward with a relationship.
Both Iyer and Shahani, however, note that the biggest philosophical gaps to fill when it comes to modern love are actually between urban and rural Indians, and not the different generations. “My parents have been rather accepting,” says Shahani. “When I came out to my mom some years ago, her response was ‘That’s OK, but what should we have for dinner?’ ”
“Our urban parents are exposed to international news and entertainment — this has made it more comfortable for them to take the first step and be willing to be a part of the conversation,” explains Iyer. “It’s rural India that doggedly holds on to outdated notions and practices, and cloisters and suffocates individuals coming to terms with their sexuality in traditional communities.”
The very urban Mumbai has been the backdrop of Iyer’s love story — a city full of people “too busy to take the time to discriminate,” he says. “We have gay parties, we have parents and family meetups, and we have our own gay pride called Queer Azaadi Mumbai. Here, there are many who are out and about, despite the law being a spoilsport.”
Hampering the acceptance of gay love in modern India is Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, which makes sex “against the order of nature” a crime. “We’ve had conflicted rulings from the court with regard to this law,” adds Shahani. “Interestingly, we have a progressive transgender rights law, but a regressive gay one.”
“Because of today’s [political] scenario, people do find it a little challenging to come out. There are even cases of extortion on the rise. But those who are out are out and about in revolt. Most of them are out to their folks as well,” continues Iyer. Shahani, however, is not convinced that overturning Section 377 will result in immediate acceptance. “I think that the struggle for the community over the next few years will be more about changing the hearts and minds of general society. This is why acts like Padma’s have become so important.”
Although Padma Iyer’s ad was intended as cultural commentary, Harish has indeed gone on dates with several potential suitors who responded. He regales friends with stories of his misadventures: “There was a man in South India who offered to marry me if I funded his business, a man who wanted to worship me as some kind of sex god, and a sheikh who wanted to keep me in his harem of men, but many just wanted to make a statement and be in the spotlight.”
Starfuckers aside, Iyer has had some positive experiences as well — a testament to the fact that the tide is turning in the most progressive corners of the subcontinent. “I’ve had the good fortune of meeting some genuinely nice young men who shared my passions and vision,” Iyer says. “Some had an excellent sense of humor, which for me is a huge turn-on.” Iyer’s met more than 20 people in total from the ad, but he’s yet to meet “Mr. Perfect.”
Although both Iyer and Shahani are active in normalizing all facets of LGBT life in modern India, neither one has met a gay couple that was matched by their parents, nor have they seen any other romantic prospecting in a public forum. “I do know many parents who would like to look for a groom for their gay son. They may not place an advertisement, but they would rather see their son mingle than stay single,” says Iyer.
Artwork © Sunil Gupta/SepiaEye Gallery, New York, Stephen Bulger Gallery, Toronto, and Vadehra Art Gallery, New Delhi.