Saturday, July 12, 2014

Balbir-Michael Marriage: A Possible Beginning of a New Chapter in Indian Social History

(Michael Giangrasso and Balbir Krishan getting Married)

Balbir Krishan came to meet me all the way from Bagpat in Uttar Pradesh and it was in 2011. Facebook had brought me several friends from different places; ‘like’ ing spree was not an epidemic yet and in its naivety facebook-izens were updating their daily routines as status messages. Facebook had not evolved as a public interface of ideas and activities. Hung over by Orkut and Yahoo chat rooms, people were still using facebook as an exclusive chat room. When Balbir Krishan introduced himself as an artist, I happily accepted him as my ‘friend’ in facebook. One day he expressed his wish to come and meet me as he wanted to show me some of his original works. Reluctant as I am in meeting ‘strangers’, I politely discouraged him from coming. I found it was atrocious to expect someone to come and meet me from Bagpat, just to show few works. People still say that they would like to meet me; they call me from Dubai or Canada or Calicut and say that they just want to meet me. They are ready to travel any distance to meet me. I dissuade them, telling clearly that I am one of the most boring people available on the earth and they may be disappointed when they see me in person.

(Balbir with myself in Pradeep Puthoor's Opening at Nature Morte)

When Balbir called or when I agreed to meet him, I did not know about his personal details. I did not know about his life story, I did not know anything about his sexual orientation, nor did I know anything about his art. Generally I test the patience of the people who would like to work with me. I test their seriousness by showing some kind of disinterestedness. If they persist, I acknowledge their grit and even accept that offer to work with them. I made Balbir also to wait. But he insisted on meeting me. Finally I relented. He came to Musui Foundation, where I have my evolving dream archive, on a cold November morning. He struggled slightly to get out of the auto-rickshaw. Assisted by friend, Balbir came supporting his steps with a pair of walking sticks. He had a shy smile on his face and a mournful voice. He spoke to me about his life, its struggles, the tragedy that had rendered him a physically challenged person, his art, his village, his sexual orientation, the opposition that he faced from the society. I listened to his talk silently. He showed me the works. To cut the story short, Balbir had his solo show in 2012 in Delhi to which I wrote a catalogue essay introducing him to the mainstream art circuit. Some hooligans came to the gallery, attacked him, broke his works and left him shell shocked. But that incident made Balbir quite popular. Even Salman Rushdie referred him recently in one his speeches.

Balbir is a married man today. Michael Giangrasso from the US is his partner. They got married in the month of June 2014 in New York. In India, gay marriage is a criminal offense. However, as they are legally married elsewhere, they cannot be questioned. Balbir and Michael are now supported by many of the gay activists in Delhi and elsewhere. They lead a happy and normal life, just like any other married couple. They go out to see exhibitions, they just roam around in the city, visit friends, invite friends over and remain happy. Balbir’s transition from a lonely artist mourning over his fate to a happy, famous but a shy married man is not without its own suspense and thrills. Balbir was teaching in a school in Bagpet. When people came to know about his sexual orientation and his overt affair with Michael, they literally chased him out of the village, first forcing him out of the job. But in Delhi, at Michael’s place Balbir found a new life. A supportive partner, Michael does not limit Balbir in any manner to pursue his creative career. Their honeymoon days in the US were rather museum visits than indulging in any other pleasures that the US could offer. If you have seen the pictures of Balbir-Michael wedding in facebook, you know how happy they are about their marriage and also about visiting museums.

I have not visited Michael’s home where Balbir stays now. But somehow, they have taken me into confidence. Balbir calls me or writes to me about the developments in their life. He even asked for my ‘blessings’ for his marriage. I was overwhelmed. Balbir has always been a bit shy in front of me. Whenever I meet him at the exhibition openings, he speaks to me with great respect and discretion. Michael, though we are not friends in the formal sense, appreciates my writings and shows the same respect that Balbir has for me. I am very happy about their marriage and also very appreciative about their silent and normal life in Delhi. They keep themselves away from the fashionable crowd that generally pretends to be gay because that is much cooler than being a heterosexual. Balbir and Michael do not flaunt their presence anywhere so that they get noticed and looked at with admiration. They are not the activist-types who want to fight on anything and everything just because they are differently oriented, sexually or otherwise. Balbir and Michael, we accept it or not, represent a silent rebellion. Unlike many, they could get married there in the US and now fearlessly live in India. They are fortunate in that sense. But their dignified life in the Delhi society as a proud couple speaks volumes about the freedom that they have gained for themselves. I may be wrong, but I want to believe that Balbir-Michael marriage will be marked as an important event in future, as India would evolve more and become tolerant and reasonable about issues like gay marriages and general sexuality.   

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Dear Johnny,

Balbir and I hadn’t any idea we’d find ourselves on your blog. You hit the nail squarely on the head in lots of what you wrote, so thanks Johnny. We feel most honored.

We read your description of our leading lives of quiet dignity with particular interest. If we in fact do that, it’s partly by design, and partly because it’s our default setting. We don’t flaunt (yikes, that word!), but neither are we very private people. If we find it hard to contain ourselves on Facebook, it’s because we want to share “out” to friends and family that we are indeed happy, first. Second, while we don’t pretend to be role-models for anyone (transnational gay marriage?), we do want to send folks out there a message with our belief that happiness can be constructed, that dignity can be won, whether or not society sanctions you or not, and that we are living proof that life can get better. Not only did Balbir have the odds stacked against him. My own personal life was a mess.

We believe that just being who we are openly, be it in our real or virtual worlds, is in many ways an act of rebellion. We don’t run with the fashion crowd because we don’t fit in (we like museums more!), but we do hit the streets and raise our voices with our angry sisters and brothers when politics and society slap hard enough. We’re also at the pride marches to celebrate all that is good that we have. We believe fervently in the righteousness of our cause, and in many other causes as well. Our commitment to social justice doesn’t begin and end with sexual orientation issues.

We’d like to think that societies, no matter where, progress naturally toward offering greater individual liberty, but that’s clearly not happening in much of the world. We don’t take our freedom anywhere for granted. Even our gains in the US over the last decade seem tenuous to us at times.

India? We live freely here, but we’re not innocent of the peril in living openly in society, and that we do so to the extent that authorities tolerate. We understand that it’s homosexual activity, not identity, that is criminalized in the country - harmful enough, but how many local police offers understand, or care much about legal nuance?

We know that our marriage is not recognized here, but what we don’t yet know is whether being married elsewhere breaks any laws. This is probably all new legal ground, which we’re not interested in testing. We didn’t think that we’d be asked questions at the airport on arrival a few weeks ago, but we were bracing for the possibility; after all, Balbir has a fiancĂ© visa containing my name in his passport. Still, we get to live mostly how we want, and we’re grateful, every day, that we live in India instead of Saudi Arabia. If a worst case scenario is that we get booted out of the country, we still get to keep our heads.

We appreciate your optimism that India’s heading in the right direction, and we want to share in it. If there’s anything we have done to move society forward, we are truly grateful for having had that chance. If there’s anything more we can do, we hope folks will let us know. We care deeply about the India, not only our place in it.