When they found out that Sunita was a lesbian, everyone in her family reacted in their own way. Her mother told her to drink some hot ginger tea and take the heating pad out of the closet. She thought a lesbian was a girl with a painful menstrual cycle. All the women in her family suffered from bad period cramps. It was in their blood.
Her father, who knew about lesbians from the porno movies the “other” guys at the plant talked about, could not believe his daughter wanted to be porn star (in his mind, all lesbians were porn stars). After all the hard work he had put into providing a decent life for his family. The two jobs. The double-story house. The best schools for his children. The mini van with plenty of leg room and cushioned seats. Not to mention the Playstation he bought for Munna last week. But a porn star?
Where did his daughter get such ideas? They didn’t even have HBO.
And Sunita’s grandfather. Actually, Nana had no clue what a lesbian was. He thought perhaps Sunita had changed her major in college. Was she no longer planning on becoming a doctor? What kind of job did a lesbian do anyway? Perhaps it was some kind of lazy girl office job. Kids these days were so unmotivated. They didn’t want to work for anything worthwhile. Phones in their pockets. Beepers hanging off of their hips. Idhar udhar ghoomo. Running here and there. Nana blamed America for giving the youth too many choices and not enough common sense.
But when Nana saw his son-in-law sitting in the backyard like a sad, silent Buddha smoking a Marlboro Light, he knew that whatever a lesbian was, it was a very bad thing for his granddaughter to be. Nana called Sunita every bad-girl name he could think of.
“Gundee! Rundee!” He flailed his fists in the air for emphasis. “Sharam nahi hai!”
Nana blamed this whole lesbian fiasco on too much American life. Mini malls, mini skirts, Jerry Springer, Diet Coke, and whoever invented the bikini. If he had his way, he would make every young person in America read the Ramayana every night. Now there was a book …
But it was Nani, Sunita’s grandmother, who had to set them all straight. She watched Jerry Springer, Ricki Lake, and Judge Judy every afternoon and so had vast knowledge about the degenerate habits of Americans. She also had subscriptions to People magazine,Cosmopolitan, The National Enquirer, and of course, Stardust. Nani’s specialty was breast enhancements. She could look at a woman and spot fake breasts a mile away. “Look at hers. Too much perk,” she would say. “If doctors knew more about the laws of gravity, women wouldn’t look so ridiculous.”
So when Sunita made her “announcement,” it was Nani who had to finally step in and play the role she played best—Judge Nani. Out went the menstrual cycle and the porno star theories even though Nana still blamed America for making bad girls. And even though no one outside the immediate family was supposed to find out, in less than 25 minutes and 17 seconds, three aunts, two second cousins, one uncle, somebody’s grandmother, and a long distant relative no one had heard from in five years had called the house to express their “concern.” Then they called each other to express even more concern.
Sunita’s mother just started to cry when the lesbian truth hit her. The tears filled her eyes like a rusty bowl left out in the rain too long. They spilled onto her pink-powdered cheeks and glossed her dry, un-lipsticked mouth that opened and closed like a thick goldfish. Her chin dripped with fat teardrops. Her shoulders hung like a saggy bag of Basmati rice. She seemed to think that the more pathetic she looked, the more likely Vishnu or Ram or whoever handled all the homosexual problems upstairs would pity her and right her daughter.
Then she got really melodramatic. She lifted her hands in the air. “Hai Bhagwan! Why me, God? Why curse my only daughter? She never did anything bad. Please clean her heart and make her normal. Make her want boys. Make her be like all the other good girls in India.”
Nani said that there were lesbians in India too, but they all committed suicide. She had seen that on an episode of 20/20 a few months ago. Nani tried to explain to Sunita (in private, of course) that she didn’t have to like a man to marry him. “Just do your womanly duty and jhutt putt, they’re sleeping like babies,” she whispered.
But that just made Sunita even more depressed. She didn’t want a husband to take care of. And what was all this jutt putt stuff Nani was talking about anyway. Why force herself to do something if she didn’t want to? Why did people have to get married anyway? Why didn’t life come with more options? Why couldn’t life be like ordering a combo meal at Del Taco? Option A: Stay single with a side order of freedom and possible loneliness. Option B: Get married with a large cup of responsibility, extra on the commitment. Option C: A special combo deal that included a thick slice of “who cares just leave me alone and mind your own business.”
A tightness began to spread across Sunita’s shoulders and back. Her skin felt like a bed sheet, stretched taut against a bed of shoulder bones and vertebrae. A heaviness filled her from inside, deep and swelling, like a water balloon ready to burst. Her sleepy feet buzzed with non-feeling. She felt like a loaf of day-old bread, stale and unwanted.
What was the big deal anyway?
If only Manju auntie hadn’t seen the letter, the one that had Rosie’s name with hearts all around it. It was so high-schoolish and yet Sunita felt compelled to express her silly love feelings. Rosie was a girl in her chemistry class. Their eyes had met across the Bunsen burners, separated by a thick flame of quivering blue. Later, they ran into each other at the campus coffee bar. It was Rosie who had approached her, tall café latte in her right hand, chemistry book in the other, and inquired about her name, her major, and all the other superficial things people talk about before they really get to know each other.
But it was Rosie’s eyes that made Sunita’s stomach Jello-weak. Rosie had a strange greenish tint in her eyes that almost seemed to disappear like a faraway hill that one only sees in dreams and oceans.
Up until then, no one had suspected anything. Not until that night when Manju auntie came over to their house and realized how cold it was when she went outside to go home. She came back inside and grabbed Sunita’s jacket, promising to bring it back the next day. The letter was tucked in the left pocket. And of course, Manju auntie found it and read it. Six-and-a-half times to be exact.
The next day she called and had a long talk with Sunita. She told her what a disgrace it was and how her parents would be devastated if they found out and how could she be so selfish and besharam this, and bejati that, until Sunita finally hung up the phone. She knew she had to tell her parents before her aunt got a hold of them first. But she didn’t even know the word for a lesbian in Hindi. How do you talk about something if you don’t know the words?
And so began all the period and porno-girl misunderstandings. Why couldn’t she have had a different family, one that didn’t mind marching in Gay Pride parades and attending lesbian festivals where women sans make-up sang songs and held discussions about women things like The Goddess, Sappho’s poetry, and the evils of the Wonder Bra?
It didn’t matter now anyway. What was done was done. Besides, how long could she continue turning down marriage proposals from eligible computer programmers and accountants? People had already started asking questions. “Does your daughter think she’s too good for my son?” “Who does she think she is … the Maharani of Amreeka?”
The following week Sunita’s mother called pundit Narayan and explained as best she could how an evil lesbian spirit had possessed her daughter’s weak, female mind. A prayer/exorcism was scheduled for the coming Saturday evening. Sunita was told to sit across from the pundit so that he could cleanse her of her evil lesbian ways. He sprayed her with water cupped in mango leaves. He burned camphor to purify her mind and soul. He tied circles of yellow thread around her wrist for protection.
He said sexual evils were all around, but they were difficult to recognize because they were so much a part of our everyday lives, like the dirty stains in a teacup. Or the pimpled blemishes on one’s skin. Or the warts that never really disappeared. Even a bad case of hemorrhoids. And he didn’t leave out the smell of sweaty socks, gum abscess, an overhanging toenail, constipation, and of course, stinky burps. Everything unwanted was attributed to an evil lesbian spirit that hovered above every good Indian girl’s head. Sunita was treated like she had caught a very bad disease and only the power of a Hindu priest could heal her.
He said she would be cured in a month’s time. He told them not to cook meat for seven days, especially shrimp because it was known to arouse women in the wrong places. He told Sunita to stay away from blonde girls because they whispered “devil words” in the ears of innocent, black-haired girls and made them do unnatural, un-Hindu-like things.
In the meantime, Nani had plastered Sunita’s room with sexy-men posters. Brad Pitt. Ricky Martin. L.L. Cool J. Akshay Khanna. Salman Khan. And some big-chested guy with a nipple-ring. Nani knew that these semi-clad, strong-jawed, manly men in tight jeans would make any straight girl swoon. Her goal was to entice Sunita back to heterosexuality. Unfortunately, Nani spent more time in Sunita’s room than Sunita did.
In contrast, Nana made Sunita read the Ramayana every night, the English comic book Valmiki version because that’s the only kind they carried at the local India Sweets and Spices and besides, Sunita didn’t read Hindi.
“See here, how Sita is married to Lord Rama. She stays faithful to him even when Ravana wants to disgrace her. A woman is meant to be by a man’s side. That’s why God created Rama and Sita, not Radha and Sita.” Nana went on and on about good women and evil women. His goal was to shame Sunita back to heterosexuality.
But Sunita’s mind, like a tumbling, detached flower unwilling to stay attached to the stem of reason, began traveling down another path. Did Gods have parents and grandparents and if so, were they as unaccepting as hers? What if a God-parent discovered that their half-god-son/daughter was gay? Would that make it okay for regular people to be gay?
On the morning of the prayer, Priya, Sunita’s cousin, called. Priya had long ago suspected something was up with Sunita when Sunita didn’t go to Indian parties to check out possible future husbands. Priya knew that only three possibilities were possible. Possibility 1: Sunita was going through a really long “I hate men” phase, but this usually entailed a bad break-up from a previous relationship and Priya had never actually met any of the guys Sunita talked about. Possibility 2: Sunita was suffering from low self-esteem and didn’t think any man would be interested in her, but this depended on Possibility 1 because in Priya’s mind only a man could give a girl low self-esteem and make her feel like a zero. And Possibility 3: Sunita was a dyke. Not the biker-butch type. Not the porno-bombshell-Howard-Stern type. Not even the elegant “I can’t believe YOU’RE a lesbian” type. Sunita was the quiet in-the-closet type. The kind that wanted to be left alone, unsuspected, hush-hush, slide the door shut please.
So when Priya heard about the lesbian uproar, it was not a surprise. She felt sorry for Sunita because she knew how Indian parents were. All their good-girl demands could drive any girl into a life of lesbianism. Priya herself had been living the goodgirl lie for years. If her parents only knew she had lost her virginity at the age of 13 and had been with more guys than … well, it was a lot. She didn’t care that the other girls looked down on her. They were just jealous and besides it was hard work being sexy. She had to have all her salwar kameezes tailor-made so that they revealed just enough cleavage to make men pay attention, but not enough to arouse her mother’s suspicions. And what about all that money she had spent on facial peels, eyebrow waxes, and Victoria Secrets underwear. Being sexy was expensive.
Priya called Sunita to tell her about her latest escapade with her new boyfriend Raj and about her new breathable 50 percent cotton underwear that almost felt like silk and how it didn’t matter to her if Sunita liked boys or girls. “Besides, the more lesbians in the world, the more men for me,” she laughed. Before hanging up, she gave Sunita a final bit of advice.
“Don’t let the bastards bring you down.”
Priya was the typical feminist.
Sunita wished she could be like Priya. Strong, sure, and heterosexual. She wished she could like men, but they seemed so uninteresting and bland to her. Even though she did not believe in pundit Narayan’s “cure,” she secretly hoped it would heal her and make her normal. Who would actually choose to be gay?
But as the days passed, it became even more clear that the evil lesbian spirit was not going to leave her body. In fact, the more everyone tried to change her, the more she knew that men, even the big-muscled, nipple-wearing ones, just weren’t her cup of tea. She preferred café lattes anyway.
As she lay in bed staring at the sexy-men posters on her wall, Sunita tried to muddle through her choices, all the possible directions her life could take. Wasn’t that what America was all about anyway, possibilities, choices, options? The very thing Nana deplored.
She listed all her possibilities. Option A: Defend her right to be who she was which meant taking pride in her lesbian identity. This was all very strange because up until now she had never really called herself the “L” word. She was just a girl who liked other girls. Labels carried baggage.
Option B: Leave home and maybe live happily ever after with Rosie. It would be just like the fairy tales she loved to read as a child except there would be two princesses and no amphibious frog prince to kiss.
Option C: Join a nunnery and become a Hindu-Catholic ex-lesbian nun. (How many Hail Mary’s would that take?)
Option D: Marry an in-the-closet gay man and have sex with him once (or twice) for procreation reasons only. She could become a mother and never have to think about sex again.
Option E: Join a lesbian support group and try to meet other lesbians of color who could shed some light on her situation.
And finally Option F: Keep her options open. In other words, do nothing. Just let things cool off.
She opted for F.
At least until a better G came along
Reena Sharma’s works have been published in various magazines and newspapers. She also has a short story to her credit in the anthology “Contours of the Heart: South Asians Map North America.”