By Aditya Vikram
Illustrated by Shikha Sreenivas
“Okay, but first read my letter maybe? I’m too shy to say it out loud,” Alankrita brought her hand forward, a sheet of neatly folded paper pressed between her fingers. The overcast sky roared in deep grey. Her face gave away everything that her words would proclaim later, in the sugary language of love letters. This was possibly the worst time to tell her that I was dating men, but I knew that it had now become unavoidable. So, I came out to her in haste. She snatched the paper back and tore it to pieces. I sat there, dead silent, as she recovered from her shock, until we gradually began to talk. At that time, my sexuality was a fiercely protected secret between myself and my three very close friends. Alankrita was not a part of that circle as I felt that she would break ties with me if she knew. When she finally came to know, she felt betrayed that I had deemed her unworthy of my truth; of something that I had shared with others but kept from her. It had begun to drizzle by now, and the water poured heavier as we spoke. To the passers-by, we were a boy and a girl, soggy in July rain, lodged on a green bench under a huge tree. My head was on her shoulder. For the two hours that we were there, we received sly stares, repeated glances and policing gaze, as any romantic couple would.
For several weeks after, Alankrita kept saying, “I feel so foolish.” She was embarrassed because she felt she had misread the tension between us, the closeness whenever we were together. But had she been foolish? We shared the kind of trust and intimacy that she had never experienced with a straight man. We also shared a sensuousness. I liked how affectionately we touched each other. If she were a man, such physical proximity would probably have contained sexual expectations in my mind as well. Simply because we didn’t enter a ‘relationship’, didn’t mean that all that eroticism got washed away. But my coming out forced her to put our relationship in a different box – because that’s how our social relationships are pre-sorted.
At the National Institute of Technology, getting ‘proposed’ to was a rite of passage. If a boy and a girl grew close, the slightest pull of erotic tension would be followed by the obvious next step – a proposal. Relationships were noticed and speculated about, with all kinds of gossip, because that’s also how society works. Since I wasn’t out as gay, it would be assumed I was straight. I soon realized that this was only a localized version of how most of the world recognized romantic coupled relationships. They were seen as the closest companionships there could be. Friendships came after that; a side-dish, not the main course. The ‘friend-zone’ was where people imprisoned friends they did not desire, which seemed to easily mean ‘undesirable’. Eroticism was not supposed to exist within a friendship. Eroticism wasn’t a thing, unless it was followed by a conventional sexual act. Sex, even between conventional partners, was an obstacle course where people would cover ‘bases’. Everyone swore by these rules, and tried to put things back in place when they were flouted.
With Alankrita, sensuality was now out-of-place in our relationship because I had rejected her desire to date me. To fit this new definition, our friendship shrunk so much that it lost its identity, and eventually ended. But by the time Alankrita and I parted ways, my head was full of questions — Where did the act of sex begin? Why was all the focus on how far we went when we were attracted to someone? What about how fully you feel? Was desire and sensuality only about the body? Was it always supposed to lead up to something carnal – a linear progression of sex – or could it exist just by itself? Why could we not imagine serious companionship with a friend? I began to think about desire itself – the emotional and physical universe within which it existed. And as I stepped further into the complex world of friendships, the way I thought about sex, desire, and love changed.
After this, whenever I grew close to a girl, I would end up telling her about my sexuality. This was not only to be candid about myself and strengthen our friendship, but also to pre-emptively control ‘other’ feelings surfacing and floating like a sexy mist in the friendship. It was a bad attempt at trying to emulate what I imagined ‘good’ (read: not clouded by sexualness) friendships looked like. Then, I met Anchal.
Anchal and I met through the dramatics society, where we wrote, acted, and directed together. We began to unravel ourselves freely in our daily exchanges, on the way back to the hostel from rehearsal. We would go out on long walks, hold hands in moments of joy, reveal secrets on tense nights, hug openly in the middle of the street, make elaborate gifts for birthdays, and present each other with flirtatious compliments. I wasn’t anxious when I came out to her. Like those before her, she thought that it was going to be a proposal of sorts. But she was open in accepting what followed. “Arey Adi, ab saath mein ladkey taadengey!”
The blood surged to my face when I heard her response. It felt intimate to share with her something so private, especially because we could now speak about our desires and fantasies in the company of each other. This was something I had never done with anyone earlier. I began to find more comfort in her presence because we could do all this without panicking over what our relationship was supposed to be – or not be. We were not interested in naked sex, or a sexual ‘conclusion’, for the lack of a better term. But the eroticism that was conceived during our moonlit walks stayed – we craved to be in physical proximity of each other, do things together, express attraction, and seek each other’s approval. We were often teased as a couple because that is what we were seen to be. It felt exciting to be associated with each other in that way, and we loved hearing all kinds of insinuations about us. Anchal and I did not try to morph this into a ‘sisterhood’ or delete parts of our affection-attraction to fit the gay-boy-and-straight-girl friendship stereotypes. It didn’t feel necessary. It didn’t feel accurate. Her first boyfriend would categorise us in this way. Perhaps it was denial, or perhaps it was a way to accommodate the relationship without anxiety.
It was never so with the straight men I became friends with. I had to withdraw myself from these men very soon. Even when I was simply talking to them, my brain kept playing iterations of ‘mind the gap’ as I spoke. It was not that mutual eroticism was missing here. I was once preparing for an improv show with a guy friend, and most scenes we played ended up becoming close encounters between us. In the course of the rehearsal, we performed a ballroom dance without knowing how it was done, breathing over each other’s necks until we were almost hugging. Then we were a newly-wed couple, or a master and servant turned lovey-dovey. The practice lasted only for a few days but we continued blushing when praised by each other on social media. It felt strange that this equation stayed only as long as my sexuality was not declared. After that, the compliments stopped, and the attraction was reduced to awkward hi-s in the college canteen where we couldn’t entirely avoid each other. When I came out to a college junior the next year, he said “You’re not into me, are you? I’m straight, okay?” My experience with straight men taught me that they had a lot of anxiety around handling the eroticism within a friendship. It was especially difficult when this attraction was not in tandem with the fact that they were ‘straight’. They feared coming to terms with their own sexuality, which is sometimes more fluid than a sexual label can hold. It was far more ambiguous, and did not follow social rules. I did not have these conversations with them because I feared homophobia. I could get punched in the face for being ‘indecent’ and giving that desire a name. That being said, there were several boys in college who I came close to. Maybe they felt towards me something similar to what I felt with Anchal? But it was difficult to grapple with, since they did not have the language for it. Perhaps they did not know that eroticism could exist without sexual intercourse and could be acknowledged instead of repressed.
My bisexual friend Suyash had had different experiences though, where eroticism made his friendship with a straight man stronger. “I met Tanveer, and found him interesting in the beginning, but not attractive. He was also intimidating, like most cis-het men around,” Suyash told me. “We started hanging out a lot and then I found out that it’s okay to be myself around him. That’s how we got closer. Once that intimidation goes, attraction comes. Our friendship grew, in a pure-and-pious-friendship waala way. My desire for him also grew after that. There was a situation where I had to shift residence, but I did not want to go to his flat. He eventually made me move in with him, after emotional calls and blocking all other options. ‘Nahi jayega tu, aur kisi ke saath nahi jayega. Come live with me only,’ he would say. I came out to him. Despite him knowing that I’m attracted to him, he continued to provide comfort to me. I mean straight guys are generally scared away by that, but our friendship remained unchanged and full of love.”
With LGBTQ+ friends, I found it much easier to inhabit the undefined. To not name a desire or a friendship, to let them bloom together and fill the space in between. They have created a new meaning of love for me, one without inherent expectations or pre-decided rules, each worthy of cherishing. I found a reflection of this in what another queer friend Raman, a law student at Gujarat National Law University, said to me about what bonds him and his female friends. “One of my friends, she is in a different university. We are exploring. She knows I’m gay and everything. We do every fucking thing which typical “couples” do. Like we are not in a relationship and she knows I’m not into girls and everything, but she loves exploring in bed with me and I like it too. I don’t know how to explain this to you, but it’s a different kind of sex, not fully only in the physical thing. We tell each other about our hook-ups. I ask her to tell me what satisfies her and everything, so I can. We are very close to each other and there is no shame. Just to tell you, I’m not itna comfortable with guys, even though I like them sexually. But these girls are not expecting anything from me, so that makes us comfortable about our bodies. We are so open! Somewhere I feel that girls are more accepting, they are more sensitive, so even though I like guys sexually these women are much more warm and close. I don’t like talking to straight guys because they always think I’m hitting on them and make fun like that. They are so fragile, so insecure about being around a gay man, because what if they like it? I have started identifying as queer now, because I think my affection towards her is queer. I don’t think we can set norms. that in a friendship you can not have this or you can not have that. It’s a mutual understanding.” All friendships are different, and measuring them by the same scale doesn’t help.
Anamika and Kriya, two Hijra friends from Lucknow, live that reality. “Kabhi ye meri husband bann jati hain aur kabhi main inki husband bann jaati hu”, remarks Kriya, wrapping their hands around Anamika’s shoulders. They said that the few men who do want to have sexual relationships with them mostly want them as ‘the second woman’. They are never accepted as legitimate partners, and seen as less than women because they are both from the Hijra community. There is no eroticism in their sexual relationships with men. In fact, friendship is the only relation that makes the erotic possible for them. It has not only helped them navigate the world more confidently, but created new notions of love that are necessary for survival. How would the world with all its regulations and norms categorize these relationships? Are they married to each other? Or is this how friendships work? Suyash also added, “Friend-zone is such a negative term. It takes away so much from the bond I have with someone. All these terms come with their own boxes.” These boundaries give our life order, but deprive us of deeper, more complex relationships, sometimes disrespecting those bonds as less than.
I have come to understand that there are all kinds of imaginations of friendship beyond its narrow definition. Queering love means that we escape (or shun) the hierarchy of relationships and live in our own realities. Why should kissing be reserved only for romance? What if our erotic relationships with friends are more than, or as important as sexual experiences with partners? What will it take to make space for different kinds of companionships, outside the compartments that are built for us; pleasures different from designated pleasures? What new worlds will greet us when we dare to name these ‘loves’?
Aditya Vikram spends mornings writing poems in a windowless room and evenings dancing on the terrace. Most of their work revolves around the aftermath of loss, negotiations of filial love, and the freedoms of queerness. They are currently pursuing a Master’s in English at Ashoka University.