BRB, setting up my biodata
Tick tock tick tock.
There is no technicolor line of cousins and relatives lined up and dancing at my wedding to bombastic bhangra. We are Bengalis; our weddings are somber affairs.
That’s not why, though.
The cousins and relatives who exist in my periphery—and seemingly only when there is a wedding or a funeral that brings us together—don’t know I’m a queer person. Or, if they do, they don’t understand what that means. I could be a number of things to them: A Western corruption, a deviant, someone to avoid at parties—but never really a human who actually imagines himself tying the knot and settling down.
Yet I’m not too torn up that there are no “Maahi Ve”s in my future.
I grew up only ever knowing the idea that a man’s family and a woman’s family meet—they are agreeable to their children marrying—and then there’s about a week of ceremonies, food, and loud aunties cackling about something absurd that happened in their childhoods. I grew up viewing marriage as a prism through which we crossed over from youth to adulthood: To be married was to be a grown-up; it was to position yourself to cross the next arc of your life, as defined by the purchase of increasingly large homes and a growing litter of kids. Marriage was a milestone that acknowledged you had done all the things you needed to do as an irresponsible kid—and now you were beholden to carrying out your family name, to spawning another generation.
My parents’ marriage is a beautiful, glorious partnership. It is glorious in how long it has lasted and how much adversity it has weathered. Like many Indians of their time, my parents got married, bid goodbye to their homeland and settled anew in America, where, with time, they would become experts in American customs—all so they could will a better world to my brother and me.
I once dated an obscenely wealthy investment banker who took me out for duck prosciutto sandwiches at ABC Kitchen near Union Square. Then we cabbed it down to Broome Street for eighteen-dollar margaritas. He paid for it all with his black Amex. He was a great kisser.
He told me about how he and Paris Hilton always went on joy rides in her limo whenever she was in town. It could’ve been the redwood trees of fairy tales he was telling me about, but I chose to believe him.
I would later find out that he was on a ton of serious psychotropic drugs, which frequently he mixed with alcohol and cocaine. A more sensible me would’ve cut him off right there, but it was 2009 and I was in grad school, hungry for success, and drunk on delusion. Expensive feasts weren’t something I wanted to turn down—at least not before trying to see if I could rescue this obviously lost soul. (It should come as no surprise that I couldn’t.)
A couple of times after, we ended up at his apartment and in the middle of doing the kinds of things two consenting adults do when they are wild about one another, he suddenly stopped to take a phone call. “I have to get a library book from a friend downstairs.”
In the intervening half-hour, maybe forty-five minutes, I checked my messages. I thought to myself, “Well, buddy, maybe he’s going to harvest your kidneys now. Maybe it’s one of his black-market buddies downstairs.” At some point, he came back up, his nostrils flaring and eyes bugging out. It would be another ten minutes before I would excuse myself.
I tried again. You can’t blame me for wanting it to work out.
Welcome to New York. It’s been waiting for you.
We all step into New York City with stupidly idealistic wishes we’d like to see fulfilled. It also helped that he was handsome.
And again, he had to go borrow a library book from a friend downstairs. It wasn’t that I thought he was a bookworm—but that he was just uninventive when it came time for him to make a cover story about going downstairs to do a line of coke with his dealer.
We soon fell out of touch.
Spreads of food might contain hot parathas, crisp samosas, enormous wedges of cake from Baker’s Square, packages of Parle-brand chocolate cookies, a take-out tray of chicken biryani, greasy fish cutlets—my extended family’s hospitality bordered on guilt-induced overeating. It’s not the twistiest mystery why I was such a round kid; I hail from a culture of enablers who encouraged me to eat more and more. Still, that is the India I grew up with: A place I’d go back to every several years, maybe for a wedding, maybe to spread the ashes of a deceased loved one along the Ganges—sometimes both in the same trip if the timing was convenient.
Six years ago, I was back in Kolkata for my cousin’s wedding. Relatives who never reach out to me to say hi or wish me a happy birthday were suddenly prodding and probing. “You have so many girlfriends! When are you going to settle down with one of them?”
I hadn’t the heart to tell them, “They all have boyfriends, though.” So I said, “I’m married to my career!” I said it with the kind of twee whimsy Carrie Bradshaw might deliver such a line. I said it hoping they would get a clue.
Tick tock tick tock tick tock.
In coming out to family, I’ve always thought it silly that the burden of exposition lies with the person coming out. What a cruel and heavy weight to place on the shoulders of a person, likely a kid, who already carries more than his fair share of expectations. Our families suspect. They have an inkling. It is in the tea leaves. They do not think it mere coincidence that a teenaged version of you is upstairs in your bedroom, listening to Spiceworld in its entirety for the fourth time this weekend while drawing Sailor Moon fan art. They know it is an anomaly that while the other neighborhood kids are playing soccer or football, while your brother is watching basketball, you’re up there, in your bedroom, memorizing every last word to “Spice Up Your Life.”
“Slam it to the left if you’re having a good time, shake it to the right if you’re feeling fine .”
But they love you. They won’t say anything. If they’re my parents, they might strong-arm you once in a while to watch that basketball game with your brother—a feeble attempt to “butch” you up—but they’ll fail. So they’ll shrug.
Here’s the thing, though: In their feeble attempts to butch you up, your parents will learn all sorts of things about you that neither one of you intended them to learn. So by the time you head off to college, they’ll trust they’ve done mostly everything they can to condition you into being the best human possible.
One of my best friends is getting married later this year. They are going to make each other happy—and I can’t wait to deliver the speech at their wedding about how they are both wonderful and perfect.
Another best friend got married two years ago and he is due to be a father soon.
A writer who I look up to and his husband legally tied the knot a couple years ago. “Marriage isn’t without its challenges,” he said, “but it’s worth it.”
I grew up with cousins who are a bit older than me. They are now raising families—their kids are off to junior high.
When I moved back home to Detroit, one of the first friendships I rekindled was with someone I knew from college—she was someone who had enormously intimidated me then. In reconnecting with her, I noticed she had found a sense of calm that I think is elusive for most of us in our twenties. Marriage suited her.
There are those days when I feel like even if I re-created the Taj Mahal brick by marble brick, I’d still be falling behind. Then there are those months when, after a string of bad dates, I choke up. I think, “Oh God, I’m gonna die alone.”
My grandma says in passing quite often how much she hopes she’ll get to see me get married off to a nice girl before she gets called up to the sky. I laugh this off. I laugh it off because I’m complicit in perpetuating the myth of me as a straight man in this case.
For what it’s worth, though, I do hope I’ll get married off to a nice guy before she gets called up to the sky. That would be very nice.
Indian matchmaking sites like Bharat Matrimony or Shaadi.com, unlike their American counterparts, don’t let men seek out male matches, or women seek out female matches.
On American matchmaking websites, there are usually two columns: I am and Looking for and under each, you can typically choose “Male” and “Female.” More progressive websites even accommodate options for users who are trans. Indian sites have two general options in a drop-down menu: “Man Seeking Woman” and “Woman Seeking Man.” So even if I’ve graduated beyond Grindr and find myself stuck in a Tinder rut of matching up with all the finest gentlemen ever in a fifty-mile radius—only to never ever hear from them—I’ve got nowhere to go to expedite my own marriage prospects.
It’s a simple request I have—the chance to arrive at a first date at which the gentleman sitting across from me and I are under no misapprehension about why we are both taking an hour, maybe two, out of our schedules to entertain one another. We both know that the next logical step in our life path is marriage—finding that partner-in-crime. We both tire of tedious one-night stands, of noncommittal men still clinging desperately to their youth, of meat-market rituals that have defined our identities for so long.
While I’m a firm believer that romance often comes when we least expect it, I’m also a firm believer that sometimes it is up to us to create the best conditions to facilitate that romance.
If I’ve been conditioned to learn anything about Indian culture—and the Bengali tradition in which I was raised—it’s that marriage is the happily-ever-after. Marigold garlands, epic dinners, the awkward introductions of relatives from both sides of the family to one another, the intimate “what-have-we-gotten-ourselves-into” gaze exchanged between the bride and groom that nobody else is supposed to notice: These are just a few pigments coloring that next step.
The works of Jhumpa Lahiri, Arundhati Roy, Chitra Divakaruni Bannerjee have taught me that life after that happily-ever-after is difficult, ennui-ridden, and sometimes never happy at all. But their work has chronicled heterosexual marriages—there is no framework for gay marriage in which one or both of the people involved are desi.
It is why my mind runs wild when I plan my dream wedding—will it be as elaborate as a Karan Johar film, or something minimal and muted?
I imagine something out on a beach or the woods. I imagine a reception for which we hire a riot girl cover band and a DJ with a sense of humor. I imagine food trucks. I imagine maybe twenty of my friends and another twenty of my parents’ friends. Some relatives in there, sure, but remember, most of mine don’t really know who I am—or, if they are wising up, they don’t know what to do with this knowledge. A ceremony of love is no place for hate or ignorance. Maybe I can tell those distant relatives in Dubai who I’ve never met to simply send money to my PayPal account and otherwise ignore me until the next major event brings us all together?
And yet, marriage remains the bedrock for Indian identity in so many films, works of literature. Almost any kind of contemporary Indian culture roots Indianness in the idea of heterosexual marriage.
I wonder what it means, then, for my own cultural preservation that the chances I’ll end up marrying a man who isn’t Indian are high. I already can’t read or write my parents’ language, and my ability to recite it with poetic ease wanes with each passing day. Customs will be lost with me; essential pieces of family mythology will be lost.
It is just a single reason why I think a lot about what it would be like if my parents helped arrange my marriage.
Too many times, strangers ask me if my parents have tried to set me up on an arranged marriage, or if they themselves were paired up in such a way. It is one of the handful of things that non-Indians feel comfortable asking me—and one of the few things they seem to know about Indian culture as a monolithic identity.
My parents and the generations that preceded them all had arranged marriages. Prospective matches were vetted for income, class standing, family history. Most arranged marriages are, after all, economic arrangements between families that are determined to have their surnames and legacies continue well into the future.
I want to be able to say that marriage wouldn’t be an economic arrangement for me. But that would be a lie. The idea is that at some point, I want to go all-in on the rest of my life with someone else who wants to take that same bet with me. We’ll buy a house, perhaps. We’ll invest time and energy in circles of friends we adore. We’ll buy expensive pieces of furniture. It will not be an economic arrangement bent on building an empire, but one centered on making the remainder of this lifetime wonderful. Our golden years will be spent drinking wine on the front porch of our bungalow, telling kids to get off our lawn, and telling one another filthy jokes.
And yet, I am driven to a fit of screaming, or tears, by the futility of dating. Each date is as tedious as a job interview. I date and date and date to chance upon the one exchange with a stranger who makes that tedium dissipate. Only when I do find the exception to the rule does the marriage fantasy spark.
I’d like to nominate my mom and my dad—two individuals on this rapidly-browning Earth of ours who intimately know my brattiest, worst qualities and a few of my better, marketable traits—to find me a husband.
One of the best qualities a guy I date could have—besides being a stone-cold fox—is having the ability to impress my parents. Part of impressing them would consist of being able to persuade them that they have the mettle to handle my neuroses. My parents have witnessed me at my best (let’s say, graduating college), my worst (being broke and unemployed after finishing graduate school), and at my most bewildering (when I came out to them). It only makes sense that they’d have the executive decision to come up with a shortlist of princely candidates.
It’s not that I don’t trust myself to find a sensible match. It’s that I’m tired. I’m exhausted. I simply want to outsource part of the process to people who have a direct stake in me winning at the end. My parents have a direct stake in me winning at the end. Not just in romance, but life in general.
The answer is not in online dating, either. If I wanted to increase my chances of ending up with a desi suitor, I can’t turn to a site like BharatMatrimony—the site is programmed in such a way that it prevents same-sex couples from matching.
I’m not sure that I would want to use such a site, since it divides people up by caste. Sites like BharatMatrimony and its competitor Shaadi.com further divide people by skin complexion—because brown is never enough: Fair, Wheatish, and Dark. Catering to people’s prejudices and hang-ups in this way makes Shaadi.com and BharatMatrimony no different than apps like Grindr or OkCupid. The cries of “No fats, no femmes, no Asians” is replaced by “Fair skin only, must come from a good caste.”
Remember the days when all you could want is for someone to be cool, be able to string together a sentence, and have a sense of humor?
I am at times consumed by the idea of The One. The One will make me cackle hysterically, will make trips to Ikea enjoyable, will listen to my silences as my conversation; The One will be a partner-in-crime. If he’s not Bengali, he’ll try to learn words in my language. I’ll try to learn his customs.
I spent much of my twenties dog-paddling through a honey pool of insecurity, getting stuck and unstuck, using every last emotional muscle I could muster to forge ahead: There were men who told me that my race, my weight, where I lived, what I did for a living, my income bracket, the unevenness of my toenails, were all dealbreakers. There were men who ostensibly had no problems with me for weeks—and at the first sign of a little friction, they fled.
I couldn’t find any brave problem-solvers. I didn’t need them to problem-solve me, I just wanted them to stick around long enough so we could laugh at the humor of it all. Maybe sometimes I fled, too, at the first sign of friction; I am not blameless.
I can probably stand to lose a little weight, I can probably stand to be a substantially less pig-headed. I can probably stand to _________.
In courtship, in finding The One, it is not about finding a man who inspires us to transmute ourselves into the ideal Ken doll for his comfortable adoration. It’s about finding someone who inspires us to be better versions of ourselves.
Lahiri’s The Namesake is a marvelous odyssey about two marriages: one that succeeds and one that fails. The former belongs to Gogol’s parents. We are encouraged to be extra sympathetic to the former example; it is an arranged marriage that blooms into something special. It defies the Western myth of arranged marriages shaped in the Eastern world: Women have agency. In The Namesake, Ashima tells Ashoke that even though theirs is an arranged marriage, she always had the final right of refusal. We are made to appreciate the journey on which Ashima and Ashoke embark, to raise a family in the new world. They make their marriage work, even when facing the crushing frustration of making do in an alien culture.
By comparison, when Gogol is able to settle down with an Indian girl—Moushumi—she is flimsy and selfish. Gogol is also flimsy and selfish. If The Namesake goes out of its way to make us sympathetic to Gogol’s parents, it exerts the same amount of energy in showing how it wants us to interpret Gogol and Moushumi as vapid. Their marriage ends when she reveals she’s been cheating on him. There is no desire to make this marriage work, even in the face of frustration. Unlike his parents, Gogol doesn’t feel forced to try to make his love marriage work by having to settle in a new land with his new wife.
I sometimes fear that people in my generation are taught to run from challenges in their relationships, instead of muscling through the discomfort and coming to a compromise. I sometimes fear that we are addicted to the easy, just-add-water instant attraction and are afraid to work towards something meaningful. There is a contrast here in wanting to make things work. The family that leaves entire lives behind in a far away world—perhaps with the understanding it may be decades before they experience that familiarity ever again—will work that much harder to create a family culture, even if conditions are less than ideal.
How hard are we willing to work through the frustrating parts of an interpersonal relationship to keep something that lasts for a long time?
Men will tell me they love me. As friends, as something deeper. They will tell me they love me and they will flee. They will exuberantly proclaim the word “love!”—exclamation point and all—and then deal me radio silence. They will make proclamations of love without quite knowing what such a proclamation entails, that these are not proclamations a person can make simply. These are proclamations the weight of which are tested the minute the heat is turned up. Will they burn up into dust the minute things get uncomfortable and difficult?
Love is a fucking gambit. Any utterance of the word without a feeling of vulnerability is a hollow act of martyrdom. Yet, all this goes back to the selection process. I don’t think I’m the best at choosing suitors. I think I keep finding men who aren’t sure what “love” means—and don’t understand that it is one of the most difficult words in the English language.
It’s not that my parents must have a say in who I marry. It’s not that my life choices must be rubber-stamped by them. It’s that I’d really like for them to have a say in this decision. I recognize what they gave up for me to be here; I recognize that for my story to remain true to its origins, it needs to connect back to how my family got to the US in the first place. My choices in how I choose to build a family around me need to acknowledge this reality.
After all, my parents sacrificed their customs and comforts—sacrificed a world they knew well—to build a life on foreign shores. They came to an America that wore its racism a lot more cavalierly on its sleeve. They built a wonderful life in spite of that. They raised two pretty well-adjusted kids in this wonderful life.
More importantly, it was a wonderful life that didn’t entirely unspool when, in a letter, I came out to them.
Arranged marriage is not a tradition held over from antiquity that needs to be updated necessarily. It is a custom that reflects family values. Certainly we can’t force people to marry people they don’t want to—but the idea of inviting our parents into the selection process, it is not such a radical idea.
It is 2009 and a cousin of mine is getting married; in fact, it seems like all of Kolkata is getting married, and it takes us two hours to negotiate two miles of gridlock traffic to the venue where the wedding is taking place. Every other mansion on the street is playing host to a wedding. All the astrologers who have sold this day as an “auspicious day” to wealthy families around town have their work cut out for them.
I am opposed to everything about this ritual—from the lack of alcohol at all wedding-related festivities to the clockwork-like procession of how the groom and bride found each other, agreed to get married, and then proceeded to get married. It is 2009 and I am still very much whistling the tune of the empowered woman who puts career and personal interest ahead of marriage—and willingly naïve to the reality that if someone chooses a life of domesticity, we’re not the people to tell them no. Again, it is a more telling exposé into my own prejudices from that part of my life: That I would know—or deserve to know—what the motivating factors are here. And that I would assume a woman entering into this arrangement acted with no agency.
I think a lot, too much perhaps, about the kind of man I might end up with. Is it important that he be able to understand Bengali? Or that he at least have a capacity to learn my customs? How important is his capability for cultural competency to him joining my family?
Some of my most unsuccessful dates are with well-meaning white men who demonstrate no capability for this kind of cultural competency. These are men who believe in the idea of a single monolithic Indian identity—and believe such a thing is shaped exclusively by Bollywood, bikram yoga, and butter chicken. These are men who, when I call them out on their casual racism, are wounded and defensive; these are men who think they are immune to racism by existing in my vicinity. Education is not possible.
Many of these men are not shy about asking me what caste I am (it has no bearing on if they’ll marry me—it is an exotic quirk to them!) or where I was born. They ask me deeply personal questions with no understanding of how personal these questions are; they skip the “how are you?” and go straight to “what is the lineage of your ancestry?”
Of course, there are always exceptions. The exceptions are the ones who make me believe in all kinds of possibilities.
And I am weary. With each passing day, more gray hairs overtake my scalp. I’m pretty sure I’m developing some deep frown lines from scowling so much. Anybody— gorra or otherwise—is free to step up. They just need to make sure to impress my family first. And if they can’t impress me, they’re not scoring a single point with the parents.
Harish Iyer is a Mumbai-based gay rights activist with a mom who just wants him to find a nice man and settle down. In fact, she tried to place a matrimonial ad in DNA— but was denied. The passage of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, which criminalized queer identity, means that DNA was allowed to deny Mrs. Iyer’s ad on the grounds that it was illegal. She tried The Times of India and The Hindustan Times. Again, she was denied. Finally, an editor at Mid-Day agreed to run Mrs. Iyer’s matrimonial ad for her son, telling BuzzFeed India, “ Mid-Day stands for equal rights for the LGBT community and we campaign vociferously for it, regardless of whether there is a trial going on in any of the major courts. Our coverage is not ‘newsworthiness dependent.’ Our official stand is that India should not discriminate against any community, including the LGBT community, in any aspect of life.”
Yet the hurdles Mrs. Iyer had to jump through to get her son’s matrimonial ad placed reflect the experience that sites like BharatMatrimony and Shaadi.com create for desis around the world—a homophobic experience which rejects queer identity.
Denial is a familiar strait for queer men and women. Denial is way too familiar for me—to have other people deny me rights. After Section 377 was passed, the day after my thirtieth birthday, I thought about how my motherland and Michigan—the state in which I was born and raised—suddenly had a lot in common with one another. They both allowed medieval principles to govern the personhood of their subjects. They had both shown their true colors as territories where people allowed xenophobia, bigotry, and hate to sway the laws of the land.
Mrs. Iyer’s victory is small, but unignorable. It is the ultimate act of motherly love—standing up against an unjust law to tell everyone that your son, even if he’s different, deserves to be loved like everybody else.
I adore the story of Mrs. Iyer standing up for her son Harish. I adore it because it defies both Indian society and Western expectations of Indian society. I adore it because while most Indians—on the subcontinent and abroad—turn a blind eye and a deaf ear to the horrifying reality of Section 377, here is one mother who won’t stand for it—and she’s willing to fight to flip the bird to Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
In my experience, the idea of parental love has always been unconditional. Mrs. Iyer’s love is unconditional. There are moments when the choices I made rattled my parents to their very cores. My choices—to reject careers in engineering and law, to open up to them about my sexual orientation, to tell them I needed to move to New York to pursue my writing—all came with their own cold fronts, a climate of anxiety that we had to weather together. These were all choices that contrasted sharply with their values. And yet their support has always been unconditional.
I weigh that kind of support against the transactional affection of fair-weather friends or lovers that faded when it stopped being advantageous for someone to continue knowing me or dating me. When I think about how easy it has been for the men I’ve dated to fall in and out of love with me, it makes sense that maybe I’ve been looking for the wrong kinds of men; maybe I’ve been testing them on the wrong criteria.
In Bollywood films, parents aren’t just antagonists who prevent their kids from falling in love with questionable characters—they are plot devices who mark a dramatic shift in these films. When they approve of their children’s romantic interests, the happily-ever-after soon becomes plausible. In Hindi-language TV soap operas, the root of tension is always about an evil outsider influence threatening to tear a family unit asunder.
The idea behind Indian identity is very strongly rooted in family—and even as I come of age as a queer desi guy, I can’t get away from this. My own values, traditions, and inclinations arc towards the idea of building a family. It is not enough that I find a Prince Charming, I have to find one that I can build a family with—whether that involves raising children, pets, or houseplants.
While approval from my parents on my ideal match is important, it isn’t critical. What’s critical is my parents’ ability to call a spade a spade. What’s critical is that after years of studying their marriage—a beautiful patchwork of inside jokes, compromise, and collaboration—they understand I’ve learned the right lessons. They’ve been part of that support structure that helped me with my math homework, stuck with me when I failed my driving test the first couple times, and—I can’t overstate this—didn’t cast me aside when I came out to them as queer. So it’s critical that they only have a say in who I elect to spend the rest of my days with.
If the men I’ve dated for the last decade have been a carousel of horrors, each so horrible to earn passing mentions in things I write, then I’d like to find the one who I don’t write about. I no longer want to date men who make for great happy-hour anecdotes. I would rather date a man with whom I could share happy-hour anecdotes of another era.
It’s not a stretch, then, that I would want the same people who have nearly broken their backs holding up a bridge for me—to ensure I could smoothly transition from one station in my life to the next—to then have a say, if not guide the whole process of, choosing the man I spend the rest of my life with. After me, they are the ones who have the most at stake in this decision.
There are moments when my parents do not realize I’m observing them. It is like looking into my own future. They bicker. They laugh. They disagree about the silliest things. They compromise; they give and take. There is nothing that’s impossible at the end of the day.
It is not that I want to re-create the Taj Mahal brick by brick. I’d be content building a monument of partnership that’s even half as lasting as what my parents have built.
This essay originally appeared on The Toast.