Saturday, January 26, 2013

How I explored Religion & Sexuality

(A translated version of this was published in Prajavani Kannada Newspaper in June 2014

Really? What a weird combination? Why would anyone want to speak about religion and sexuality together? Yeah it's a bit weird. But I still want to speak about it - may be because I explored both of them together, one with me being on the side of majority and the other with me on the side of minority.

I was born in an upper caste vegetarian Hindu family in a remote village that was a part of a region ruled by Muslim rulers for centuries. When I was ten, I knew only two religions. I believed that Hindus were those who speak Telugu, and Muslims were those who speak Arabic/Urdu. The only time the word 'Muslim' was used in my house was when I made a mess while eating food; my granny used to say, "If you do that, you will be born as a 'Muslim' in next birth". I wouldn't say she was at fault, because her opinions merely reflected those of the community elders of her age, at that time.

I also knew there were many castes in Hindus. I could categorize them into three. Those who could eat with us in our home, those who couldn't eat with us but could enter our home, and finally those who couldn't even enter our home. My granny never allowed us to bring friends home. One day my brother protested. He brought home his friends. The very next day, my granny made sure the whole house was cleaned with tulasi water and the bed sheets they slept on were donated. Then my dad told us that we couldn't afford to keep re-buying the bed sheets. Although my mom and dad were moderate, they couldn't say anything against my granny and other elders of the community. I and my brother understood what not to do again.

My father was a primary school teacher, in the only school in our village which offered education till 5th class. But interestingly, although our names were present in that school, we never went there. I, my brother, my sister and some more kids were taught by a tutor at our home. That's how we studied. Partly because my dad knew that except him and a few other teachers, most of other teachers who were supposed to come from the town every day to teach, came only once a month. And partly because my granny did not want us to study along with Muslims and lower caste children.

Since my dad was the most educated person in our village, having passed his metric (10th class), he knew the value of education. He sent me and my brother to a Catholic Telugu medium boarding school, post lower primary school. He could not afford an English medium one though. We were happy because being boys, we were allowed to at least continue education. All our cousin sisters of our age had to stop their studies because one of our elder sisters in the extended family had fallen in love with a lower caste boy in her college. My sister was the only one who continued education because of my father's determination to get her educated by sending her to a relative's place in a bigger town.

The Catholic boarding school that we were sent to charged some fee for Hindu boys, but it was completely free for Catholics. It was there that I first met Michael. Michael was such a cute boy. The first question I asked him was, "Do you know Telugu?" I assumed that just like Muslims spoke Urdu, Catholics must be speaking some other language. We soon became best buddies. I didn't know whether I had a crush on him or whether I just liked him as a friend. There was something in him that attracted me at the age of 11. He told me a lot about his poor family, how he was working in fields along with his parents, before they converted to Christianity and then he was sent to this boarding school. I said to myself, "How selfish was Michael's family? They changed their religion for some petty benefits?"

The first term holidays came. My dad came to pick me up. Michael's dad didn't. I asked him why. He said, "I do not wish to go home. I get idli, broken wheat upma, boiled egg and so much more at hostel. If I go home, I don't get all that and moreover, I have to go to the fields to work with my dad. So I wrote a letter to my dad telling him that I didn't wish to come home for holidays". I was stunned. I thought for a second that it was probably the right thing for them to get converted to Christianity. But I wasn't completely convinced. After all, leaving Ramayana, Mahabharata, Puranas, and above all Bhagavat Geeta, just for some idli and broken wheat upma?. I stuck to my opinion of Michael's family being selfish.

I told my dad that they didn't teach us shlokas and padyas which I used to love being taught at home. I asked him to send me to a Hindu school instead. He said that the only Hindu school, 'Saraswati Shishumandir' run by RSS, was in a far off town and was in high demand. He could not afford it and so he preferred a cheaper Catholic Telugu medium school instead. "Wait a sec!?!?", I said to myself, "If Michael's dad was selfish, then what about my dad? Wasn't he being selfish too? No. None of them were. After all, religion cannot be more important than food or education!"

I slowly started getting adjusted to the Catholic school. I had all the attention of teachers as I was the topper of the class. Being a Catholic school, all Catholic kids were supposed to attend the prayer at the church every morning for an hour, and during that time, the Hindu kids were supposed to study, which we hated. One day, I bunked the study hour and went to the church with the Catholic boys. I did not like the church. There was no Aarti. There were candles instead of Agarbattis. Instead of Sanskrit Shlokas and Mangala Aarti songs, they sang some Telugu songs. I was confused. How could anyone pray god without an Aarti or shlokasWhich was the right way to pray to God? Or who was the right god? Is their god right or my god right? Won't my god punish me for entering into their god's space? I had so many questions.

One day I asked my favorite Telugu-pundit teacher all my questions. I still remember his words. Even today they echo in my ears. "Srinu, There is only one God, they call Him with some name and we call with some other. Whatever language you talk, whatever way you pray, He would still listen to you". That‟s it. My religion was 'One-God concept' then on. Since then, no one was able to convince me, with any other concept.

Two years passed by. I was in my eighth class. One day, a classmate of mine, Ramesh, came and told me that, people laughed at me behind my back. They mock me. They mock the way I talk, the way I walk and so on. He said that they were afraid to say or do anything in front of me, because I was the teacher's pet and I might complain to the teachers. I wasn't upset to hear that, instead I was happy that he thought of telling it to me. I liked him. We soon became good friends.

Ramesh was probably one of the few kids who came from an urban area. He knew Hindi and English better than many of us. He used tooth brush, tooth paste, shampoo and Lux soap, whereas rest of us used tooth powder, detergent bar for washing hair, and Lifebuoy soap for bathing. He was the only one who used to get phone calls to the only BSNL phone available in the school.

Ramesh started teaching me Hindi. I didn't know Hindi because I always thought Hindi and Urdu were the same and were spoken by Muslims in my village, and so I was not supposed to learn it. I topped all subjects except Hindi until he taught me. I taught him Maths and other subjects in return. We used to spend so much time together. He told me the stories of what all happened in hostel at night. How some hostel wardens took boys to their rooms, how seniors used to ask junior boys to come to them at night. I never knew all that was happening. No one molested me at least. Probably because I was a topper or probably because they knew I had support of Ramesh. He used to fight for me if people mock or bully me. Soon I fell in love with him.I used to make sure I was present in his team during all evening games. I used to wash his clothes, do his homework, help him pass exams, and what not. I never had sex with him, probably because the kisses and hugs that we exchanged were enough. Everyone started calling us husband and wife. I used to enjoy that! But it all just lasted for a year and a half, till our sections got changed the following year.

It was in my 10th class when I came home for holidays that I met Ismail, a Muslim boy of my age from my village. I don't recall whether I got introduced to him by a common friend or I met him directly while playing. He took me along for swimming at an agricultural well with his friends. He tied a dried empty pumpkin to me so that I could float and tried teaching me swimming. I couldn't learn it, but I appreciated him for trying to teach me. He then taught me cycle. This time we were successful. I liked him a lot. I wanted to take him to my home for watching TV. Oh yeah, I forgot to mention - my dad bought the first color TV of the village during the same time. There used to be only one channel Door-Darshan at that time. Around 50-60 people used to come to my home to watch 'Rutu Ragalu’, a daily Telugu serial. But my granny didn't allow Ismail to come - after all he was a Muslim.

It was exactly during that time that my father fell severely ill. He had a very high fever. We had only two 'doctors' in our village. They were actually not educated doctors. They worked as medical shop salesmen in town, and then later became doctors in my village. One was an upper caste doctor uncle, who used to treat the chosen few like us. The other was a relative of Ismail, who used to treat Muslims and lower caste Hindus. When my dad fell ill, our doctor uncle was out of station. My family was very worried about my dad. Finally they had no choice but to call the Muslim doctor, who entered my house for the first time, and treated my father. It was only after that incident that Ismail was allowed to watch color TV in our house. Here once again I saw that 'Religion is no more important than one's life". I then started bringing Ismail frequently to my home, even to the Bhajans and Geeta Parayana at nights. No one opposed. Probably they understood the importance of human relationships compared to caste or religion or probably they just did not want to upset me. The time had come for me to go back to the hostel after holidays. I soon forgot Ismail.

Had I not met Michael or Ismail, my understanding of the religion would have been different. Had I not fallen in love with Ramesh and instead got bullied or molested by someone in the hostel, my understanding of the sexuality would have been different. Had people close to me not seen me and Ramesh in love, their understanding of existence of alternative sexuality would have been different.

Ultimately, its experiences that make our beliefs much more than arguments.

*Names of my friends changed to protect their privacy.


  1. Very nice article. Portrays a lucid picture of your teen-hood. :)

  2. Very nicely written. Apart from reading the words and sentences, I was also feeling them.

  3. Thanks prajavani-newspaper for publishing this article in kannada and Thanks to vasudendra for translation.

  4. ಧರ್ಮ ಮತ್ತು ಲೈಂಗಿಕತೆ: ನನ್ನ ಹುಡುಕಾಟ

  5. Telugu version of the same article is here:

  6. Lovely story :) Loved it and would love to connect with you :)