Illustrations by Vidya Gopal
This is an edited excerpt from Maya Sharma’s book, Loving Women: Being Lesbian in Unprivileged India. Through ten intimate, tender narratives, the book paints an emotionally powerful picture of the lives of women, or those assigned female, that love other women, in small town and rural India.
Somewhere in the enormous chaos called Subhash Camp, in the midst of the hazy outlines of TV antennas, sudden pots of green leaves, clotheslines and sad shreds of discarded objects, dozens of women came to our women’s group meetings. Subhash Camp was illegal: non-existent on paper, yet in reality a thriving hub where women congregated defiantly to make a difference in their own and others’ lives.
One Sunday a construction worker called Babulal came to the meeting with his wife Meena. ‘People told us about your group so we have come to you, will you help us?’ he pleaded.
‘Shiela Sharma has been living in our house for the past two years. She does not vacate the house, nor does she pay the rent. Each time we ask her to pay up she brings along goondas or the police to intimidate us. She came to our neighbourhood with a wedding party. There she struck up a friendship with my daughter Lali. She told us that she had been orphaned at an early age, and her only family was a married sister across the Yamuna. We felt sorry for her and offered her the option of moving in with us till she found work. For two months we bore her expenses. Then she found a job, so we rented her the second floor..’
‘What does your daughter say about all this, where is she?’
‘We have sent her to her sister’s house. I just do not know what has come over my daughter. She wants to be with Shiela all the time. They were inseparable, eating, sleeping, walking around together. She seems to have discarded us, her own family, like an old piece of furniture.’
It became clear to us that at the core of the landlord-tenant conflict lay an emotional struggle, the attraction of two women for one another, perhaps not articulated directly, but visible.
I stated that before any mediation, a meeting with Lali would have to be set up to get her side of the story. However, I knew that this would have to be carefully handled, and for the most part by me alone, as in our team we had never till then broached the subject of same-sex relationships.
Babulal insisted that we accompany him to the village Shiela claimed she was from, to ‘collect evidence’ that would support his case.
The village was in Haryana, a good two hours away from Delhi.
Our inquiries about Shiela revealed that she had indeed lived there. It seems she had been well liked and well known. Though she did not conform to the traditional image and role of a woman, she enjoyed a surprising degree of freedom and social acceptance in most homes. We got various descriptions of her. She ‘was not a bad woman’. She was not linked to any man, so her character was without a blemish until ‘it was found out that her job was to sell women’. She had a close relationship with a Muslim woman. Their friendship was highly visible. When the family of the Muslim woman found out that their daughter was not prepared to marry because of her bond with Shiela, they plotted to have Shiela thrown out of the village. But she returned quietly on the day her friend was to be married, and eloped with her. A week later the two were sighted in a nearby village and forcibly brought back. Shiela was locked up for two days, beaten and stripped to verify that she was indeed a woman. Before being released, her face was blackened and she was paraded around the village with a garland of shoes around her neck. A man who took part in this proudly declared, ‘We did not report the incident to the police because our daughter would also have been dragged into the mess. Besides, the whole affair of two women developing such relations would have brought shame upon our village. We settled things amongst ourselves.’
The enormity of what had happened to Shiela, the magnitude of her brutalisation, took a long time to sink in. Nothing, nothing had been done to bring justice here.
Three days later we met Lali in our office space. Without hesitation or shyness she said, ‘I love Shiela with all my being. I gave her all of myself. But she has betrayed me.’
Babulal, cringing, quickly turned his face away. But Meena, the mother, looked at her daughter tenderly. Perhaps she understood her?
‘How has she betrayed you?’
‘She loves someone else. She is with her day and night. I loved her and did all her work—all the cooking, sweeping, sewing, cleaning—I did everything.’ Suddenly, without a pause, Lali asked, ‘Have you met her?’
I silenced my conscience and lied. ‘Yes, we have met her and she says you let her down. You succumbed to your family’s pressure. She says that those who betray their love are not friends, but….’
Furious, Lali interrupted me. ‘She is the one who has let me down. She used my emotions and my body. While she had a relationship with me she was carrying on with two other girls in our neighbourhood’ Over- whelmed, she could not continue. Her voice shook with emotion as she wiped tears from her face with her dupatta.
The next day we reached Babulal’s house early in the morning. ‘Shiela has just left, she couldn’t have gone far,’ he exclaimed. But there was no trace of Shiela.
Babulal took us to another locality where Shiela’s friend Laxmi lived. ‘She may be able to tell us where Shiela can be found.’
We knocked on the door. When it opened we saw two young men and a woman in the room. We walked in and said directly, ‘We know Shiela Sharma has come to your house, where is she?’
‘I have not seen her for some days now. We had a fight and since then she has stopped coming here. But why do you ask?’ said Laxmi.
We introduced ourselves and told her about our work.
Suspicion hung in the air, but as we sat for a while and chatted to the inhabitants of the house, they relaxed somewhat. Laxmi introduced the two young men, saying one was her husband and the other her brother-in-law. Laxmi and her ‘husband’ were not married but were living together secretly. His family was from north India and belonged to a thakur caste. Laxmi’s family was Christian and from the south. If their relationship was made public, the couple would have to face all kinds of humiliation and opposition. All their young friends, male and female, came to the house to offer support. So the locals thought they were running a brothel.
This was also one of those areas of Delhi, which had come up unsanctioned, and acquired legitimacy by the sheer physical force of the needs and numbers of the inhabitants.
People looking for work, looking for anonymity, asylum and greater personal freedoms, in the manner of women like Shiela and Laxmi, fugitives who had broken the rules and wanted to cut loose from given identities, the locality took them all in without discrimination and sheltered them all equally.
As we drank tea Laxmi’s husband confided that Shiela generally hung out at the paanwala’s shop. In a bewildered tone he said, ‘I do not understand Shiela, why does she have only female friends, a young woman like her? Even here she hangs around Laxmi all the time. After a while I found it strange. I told Laxmi to stay away and to discourage Shiela from coming here.’
As we left, we saw Babulal hurrying towards us.
‘Come quickly, Shiela is at the panwala’s shop,’ he said breath- lessly.
As the shop came into sight Babulal stopped us and pointed to a young person dressed in a white shirt and green pants. Her hair was very short. She sat between two policemen in khaki uniforms, her legs slightly apart. She seemed perfectly at ease in the public world of men, one with them, drinking tea.
Coming up behind her, we slapped her on the back and said casu- ally, ‘Here you are, and we have been looking for you everywhere.’ Shiela was taken aback. Before she could respond, the paanwala said to us, ‘What is it that brings you here now? Last time you had rescued our locality boys from the police, this time what is the problem?’
One of us pulled Shiela away from the other people sitting at the shop, and said to her, ‘You cannot forcefully take possession of someone’s house. We have also learnt that you lure women and sell them.’
‘I have done no such thing,’ she said nervously. ‘If you are referring to Babulal’s place, let me tell you that I gave the man jewellery worth Rs 20,000 for safekeeping. Now he denies it. If you can make him return my jewellery I will vacate the house.’
We said, ‘Let’s go to your house, we would like to talk to you.’
‘My life is an open book. Whatever you have to say can be said here. These men know everything about me.’
This put us in a sudden dilemma. How wise would it be to talk of her relationship with Lali in such a public place? ‘Is this only a landlord-tenant conflict or also a story of your love affair? You love Lali and you have a sexual relationship with her. She feels you have betrayed her and says if you could meet her just once….’
We had touched a raw nerve. ‘Come,’ she said in a voice heavy with unshed tears, ‘let’s go to my house, I will tell you everything.’ As we moved off we heard one of the men exclaiming, Strange, how can two women do it?’ On the way Shiela said, ‘I had no idea you knew about these relationships between women. You talked so openly about them before the men.’ Her initial hostility and unease had turned into a kind of openness.
Back in Laxmi’s house we went into the inner room that was also used as a kitchen. Shiela spread a sheet for us to sit on and showed us albums and loose photos of both her and Lali. ‘She had named me Ravi. I called her Naina. She has lovely eyes, look at those eyes,’ she said, pointing to a picture. ‘I met her for the first time at a wedding party. At the bidai ceremony, when all the women were standing and weeping, I stole up quietly from behind and held Lali by the waist. She liked that. Then when I had gone away she wrote me a letter. We wrote often. When I began to stay with them, Babulal would say, “Take care of your pining patient.” I even put sindoor in the parting of her hair. Her mother was open to our relationship.’
‘Babulal denies that you gave him anything. Instead he says that you are staying in his house without paying rent. If you ask for anything back, he may have you beaten up.’
‘I do not care. If you say so, I will vacate the house without taking a single paisa. Just let me meet Lali once.’
A few days later we went to Babulal’s house in the hope of reuniting the lovers. Our entry was preceded by loud barks. To our surprise Lali was in the house, and it was she who held back the white fluffy ball of a puppy as we settled down in a cool dark room with a large television set in the centre. All three daughters and their mother were watching a movie. Though we were served water and later tea, it was clear that we were seen as those who had sided with Shiela.
Lali’s mother wanted to know if we were in touch with Sheila. She said, ‘We have heard that Shiela lives with another woman now. Those people also have a young daughter. They should be forewarned about the kind of woman she is.’
‘No one is going to believe anything bad about her. She has something about her, a certain inexplicable sweetness that attracts people to her. By simply looking into women’s eyes she can make them fall in love with her. She is so supremely confident about herself. We were even prepared to allow Lali to live with Shiela, but she simply proved so untrustworthy.’
Lali said, ‘I have torn up all the letters she had written, she used to sign as Ravi.’
Bhavana said, ‘Everyone blames us for being so naïve, for so completely and blindly believing her, but shouldn’t people also accuse those who deliberately set out to mislead others? I went up and cleaned the room, and there I found all kinds of scraps of papers put away in nooks and corners. She used to do black magic.’
I looked at Lali. But stubbornly she kept her gaze down. We could not meet Lali alone to check if she was happy with the decision. Some months later we learnt that both the sisters had got married.
But we had several meetings with Shiela, and she began to trust us. ‘My childhood name was Anuradha, until I changed it. I must have been 10 or 12 years old. I renamed myself Shiela. I liked the sound of it, so simple and straightforward.’
Androgynous, heavily built, Shiela looks taller than her five feet. She is like the neem tree—a bitter truth for the society that throws her from place to place because she traverses a path that cuts through sex, gender, caste, class and religion, challenging the received notions of womanhood. Though uprooted several times, she fights back to grow again in places with little water and harsh sun and cold.
‘I am the youngest among five sisters and two brothers. My father died in 1989 and my mother in 1995. I could not live with my brothers.’
A few days later when we went to meet her, she had disappeared. We walked down many different streets in the same locality, searching. Since Shiela is visibly different from the female norm, people remember her. We were told that she had moved. Now she was living in another household on the first floor with a woman called Manju. When we told her how we had traced her, she said, ‘I like to wear pants and shirt. When I was small my mother would make me wear a frock sometimes. But I would insist she dress me in an undershirt and shorts. But now looking at you, I think a kurta with pockets worn over a salwar looks great. I will also wear a kurta-salwar.’
We had found her sitting in the house alone in her vest and shorts. For the first time we saw her left arm uncovered. It bore the marks of a severe injury from the elbow downwards
I asked, ‘Have you been beaten up, ever?’ ‘No,’ Shiela replied with a vehemence that took us all by surprise. ‘No one would dare to beat me. I was riding my bike when a rickshaw loaded with those iron rods passed and the rods pierced my arm.’
In a manner that was both teasing and curious, I asked, ‘How did you find Manju, and how many women have you been involved with?’
‘Don’t ask me – I cannot remember the exact number now. But I remember the first time I fell in love. I was in the 8th class, or maybe 9th. At that time I did not know about these relationships. But I was attracted to women. And one such woman I was very drawn to taught me all about love between women. When we found one another we would not go to our class but sit under the trees and talk to one another. Then everyone began to notice us, and her parents did not like it. They took her out of the school. I missed her a lot. I intercepted a letter she had written to her parents. She was in Haldwani, a hill station. It was cold and dark when I got there. Before this I had not travelled alone for such a long distance. But I pretended as if I knew the place. The rickshaw-puller was surprised at my self- confidence. Finally I did succeed in meeting her. We kept in touch for quite some time following that trip. I even got her eyes treated in the eye hospital.’
‘Then there was Shashi. I had passed out of school one year earlier. I used to pick her up from school. I would take her brother’s scooter and we would return home after a ride. Once I thought she had seated herself behind me on the scooter, I started off. It was some time before I realised I was talking to myself. I returned. She was angry as hell. I bore her punches and tears quietly, it was my fault.’
‘In Babulal’s house I used to sleep in the middle of the bed. On one side was Bhavana and the other side was Lali. For a brief while I was actually involved with both of them. Later on Bhavana distanced herself, she was angry and jealous.’
But Manju, she is a different sort of woman, she is the first woman I know who cares for me genuinely. She cares to the extent of actually saving up money for me rather than spending it on herself. She insists on saving, she says that my first priority should be to have my own house, not a scooter. For this is my dream, to have my own vehicle to ride around. I understand that what she says is wise.’
‘I got to know Manju when I was involved with Lali. But our relationship began much later. It so happened that there was a wedding in the house and there was not enough room to accommodate all the guests. Since there were not enough beds, Manju and I shared one. She did not know that women could have such relationships. Lali knew, she had seen something about it on television and read about it in books. I reached out to Manju. At first she turned away. So I too turned away. I am not interested if the other person is not. But then she snuggled up to me. We kissed. Now we are together.’
Getting up, Shiela went to the end of the terrace, peered down and called out, ‘Manju…!’ A tall, slim girl came upstairs.
As Manju went into the inner room, Shiela whispered, ‘Now, do not ask questions about Lali or any other woman; do not even refer to my relationship with Manju, when she is present.’
Then, switching to a normal pitch, Shiela said, ‘I noticed Manju the first time in the market, she was selling vegetables. I thought to myself, “What is she doing in this place where mostly men run the stalls or at best, older women?” I observed her daily, sitting there in the market and conducting her business seriously. She held her own in the midst of all those men. Then I began to buy vegetables and talk to her. We became friends and grew fond of…’ Shiela stopped in the middle of her sentence. Manju had come in with cups of tea on a tray.
Shiela looked at her and said, ‘I was telling them how you and I met. Manju will confirm that I told her honestly that the marketplace was not a suitable environment for young women like her. But poverty leaves few choices. She has a brother who is the only earning member of her family. I also lend them money and I give rent for the room I have taken. I will contribute towards Manju’s wedding. But on the wedding day itself I will not stay here. I won’t be able to take it, seeing her go away with somebody else.’
We asked Manju, ‘But why must you marry?’
Shiela said, ‘She tells me that I should make friends with her future in-laws.’
Manju said, ‘It is the right thing to do. My brother worries because of me. Besides, people talk if daughters of marriageable age are not married off. We will be allowed to remain friends if I marry.’
We said, ‘Many women have actually stopped marrying. There are women here who live with one another, and there are groups who help women who want to live with one another. We ourselves have sheltered such women in our own houses, talked with their families, tried to make their relatives see that there is nothing wrong with women who want to share their life with women.’
The conversation drifted on to several other subjects. The sun had gone down when we left the couple.
It was the last day of the navratas when we next met Shiela. We knew Shiela too would have fasted. A large framed picture of goddess Kali rested against the wall of the terrace. Shiela was lying on the floor. Hearing us she raised her forehead, adorned with a tilak. A smile of sheer joy spread across her pale, tired face. She looked handsome. The red on her forehead, the mauli thread around her wrist contrasting with the blue of the shirtsleeve, and at that precise moment, a vulnerability which she otherwise carefully hid. Manju was standing near the gas with tears in her eyes. A silence descended. Clearly, it was not the best of times to have come.
We asked, ‘What is it?’
Shiela replied, ‘We had puja today, and I found Rs 100 short from the money I had given Manju….’
Manju said, ‘If you have to tell, then you must tell the truth.’
Shiela said, ‘At the puja many women came and there was singing and dancing. I asked Manju to dance. She refused. It is not as if she does not dance at all. When she is with me she does shake about. When I was specially asking her to dance in front of others, she could have danced for my sake, but no. And then I asked her, where is the Rs 100, and she answered me back, saying, “Am I a thief?” I replied, “Yes, you are a thief, a thief.” That is why she is crying.’
Manju said, ‘I am not like other girls, I cannot dance, why should I?’
Shiela said, ‘That is the trouble, she is jealous. Anyone who comes to see me, she resents it. I want to live in freedom. If you have to live with me, this is the way I am.’
Manju’s eyes were brimming with tears.
At the end Sheila said to us, only half joking, ‘Why don’t you begin regular meetings of women here, maybe twice a month, whatever is convenient. We can all meet and talk about such things. You know what I mean. We can drop in…’ and then with a twinkle in her eye, ‘but make sure there is a bed there…!’