When I was in my 11th standard, I used to study far away from home in Vijayawada and unlike my school days, neither my elder brother nor any of my cousins would travel with me to the hostel after each term holidays. Probably that was the time when my knowledge of the world (lokagnanam as my dad calls it) was shaping without the intervention from my family. I started becoming independent. But my dad didn't trust me. He was afraid of giving me the college fee and personal expenses. He believed I might lose the money bag on the way in the train or someone might cheat me and take away the money. Those were the days without any online transfer. And the bank was in a town so far off from my village that no one would use its services. So he had no choice but to give a big amount to me in cash. It was then when he came up with this idea that I should carry the money by splitting it, part of it in my trousers, part in the luggage bag and part in my wallet. His point was that, even if I lost some, rest would act as a cushion temporarily.
Cushion. It is such a nice word. I feel so comfortable on hearing this word. May be there are better words to explain this concept, such as support, back-up, help etc., But none of them would make me feel as comfortable as Cushion. Now when I look back, I always had cushions, in one form or the other. Probably I was fortunate, unlike many others.
When I start to think about it more, I can see that my parents were one of the biggest cushions of my life till I grew up. My dad had always told me, ‘Son, never worry about failing an exam, never look at it as a prestige issue to fail a class and discontinue studies. Worst case, I will make sure you have some or the other work in our village to lead a life”. These words were so powerful that I never ever had exam fears. Probably that was one of the reasons I always topped every exam. Had my dad not showed that support, had he not been that cushion of my life, things might have turned out different. I studied well, crossed mile stones one by one and got into engineering in one of the well known colleges.
Those were the days of my final year of engineering at Madras. Being a Telugu student, it was expected by everyone that I should go to US. That was the minimum expectation from an engineering student from the parents, family and society, in those times. Personally I had no clue whether I wanted to study further, whether I wanted to settle in US or India. All I knew was, I may not be able to show my face back in my town if I didn't go to US. So I had two projects in my final year. Project A, the technical project to be completed for the degree and Project B, was to go to USA after Bachelor studies, for what ever reasons.
I worked hard for both these projects. I did whatever I could. I got the best grade in Project A, but I failed in Project B. How come? Reason was Osama Bin Laden. What? Really? Yes, I am not kidding. Post 2001 attacks, US Government’s funding for all US universities reduced so much that many of us didn't get scholarships. Many of my friends went ahead to US without a scholarship, in the hope of finding a part time job to pay the university fees. Some struggled and survived there. Some couldn't and came back after losing money. I didn't go. Because I needed a cushion to take that risk and I didn't have one. My father wasn't rich enough to support me if I didn't get a job there. So I chose to stay back.
I don’t regret not going to US. Life had offered me much more than what I had imagined I would get if I had gone there. No, I don’t mean ‘money’ by ‘much more’. I had taken up a job in Bangalore. I started learning to face the society with a smile, for breaking their social norm of going to USA. Yes, I did answer in every function I attended, every chat that I had with friends, every time I faced my relatives, why is it OK for me to be in India. It was tough but I had to do it.
But I also started to think from these experiences what it means to not have financial cushions in life. How can we expect an unprivileged child to leave his/her work and join school when there is no cushion for hunger of their family? How can we expect rural people to compete in studies and get into high paying professions, when there is no cushion for their daily living? I thought and thought but didn't know what to do. I was a small guy in a big system. What could I do alone? All I could do to satisfy myself was to sponsor some technical education and accommodation fees to couple of my school and other childhood friends, so that there were able to get jobs here and abroad and could repay my money back. Probably I wouldn't have felt that satisfaction in anything else but being the financial cushion for them.
In the meanwhile, Bangalore treated me very well for first few years of my career. I got good roommates, good friends, nice job, good company, all was well. But I didn't know that there were many more things to face in life. I knew, I was “different” from my childhood; but there was something that hit me very hard when I was 26, the fact that “I will remain different”. Yes, I am gay, I was gay and I will remain gay, no matter how much I act straight, no matter how many conversion therapies I undergo, no matter which yoga, meditation or ayurvedic medicine I take, no matter how many poojas that I do, no matter how much I lie to myself, I was gonna be gay, remain gay. From the core of my heart, I could only, only and only like men and never ever women. I could fake love, I could fake sex, I could fake being a good husband, I could fake being a good son but I could never ever be truthful, neither to myself nor to others, It would only be fake. It hit me very hard, really really hard. I cried. I cried and I cried for days. I had many sleepless nights. I wept in office rest rooms. I wept during the bike rides. I wept everywhere, every time I got reminded that the time has come for me to choose between a fake but stable life versus a truthful one but one full of thorns.
Unfortunately I didn't have cushions to fall back to. There was no family support to handle this. There were no friends. I didn't know of other people like me. For the first time in life, I was unprepared. There was no one to understand me and advise me. But I had to do something. I had to step out of my comfort zone and do something about it. I needed help badly. And I decided to seek help. If I didn't seek help then, I would have probably not been writing this article now. Like many whom I know now, I would have either taken away my life, without the world knowing why I died, or would have chosen a life in which I would continue to live a double life and weep every night out of guilt and helplessness. Fortunately I didn't do either. I grabbed the cushions that I got in the form of counselling and support groups. I survived. Yes I survived. Not only that I survived, I realized there are many more people out there who badly need cushions of life and I started to become one for many of them.
Well, the story doesn't end there. Although now that I chose a truthful life over a fake one, my natural instinct of being risk averse didn't allow me to be peaceful. I got into a relationship but within a few years, life gave another hard shock: dreams turned around, things changed, the bonding of love ceased to exist, the meaning of a relationship seemed out of context, I had to walk out of it. I became alone, all alone, once again. Fortunately I had the shoulders of my friends to quickly fall back to, as cushions.
But I thought to myself, how would it be different if I were straight, married and gone through a divorce? How would it be different, if I had lost my wife? How would it be different, if I would have been abandoned by my children at old age? How would it be different, if I were a straight woman, who lost her husband leaving behind a couple of kids and society raising eyebrows on the talk of a re-marriage? How would be it be different if I were a woman with a useless drunkard husband? How would it be different in all such cases? What are the cushions available to all such people? Where would they fall back to? May be society is the cushion for them. May be their siblings are cushions for them. May be they would remain so strong that they would themselves be cushions for them. May be a professional counselling becomes a cushion for them. Or simply they die without having any cushions, struggling with life again and again, scolding their fate, angry with the God they believe in, portraying themselves to be victims of life and others to be villains. Does that really help? Don’t know. To each their own.
So at the end of the day, it might just be a choice whether to recognize that we need a cushion, look for it, grab it and fall back, or whether to curse oneself, one’s past, fate, God or others and continue to live a life without actually having any fulfillment.