There was a time when memoirs were written by people in the autumn of their lives – their achievements, and most of their lives, behind them – with little to do except reminisce.
Two recent memoirs by gay men, both journalists, are exceptions: No One Else: A Personal History of Outlawed Love and Sex (2015) by Siddharth Dube and, now, Sharif Rangnekar’s Straight to Normal: My Life as a Gay Man.
Both are written by men in the prime of their lives. Both authors want to put their coming-of-age experiences in times when loving another man was a crime – and hence dangerous – behind them. They wish to get on with other concerns – issues of public health in the case of Dube and, for Rangnekar, activism against homophobia through prose and poetry.
Rangnekar’s book is a quick read and easily accessible for gay men going through a similar phase. It might be missing the traumatic experiences expected of such tales – rejection by family and friends, conflicts involving religion and self-loathing melodrama. Yet it is believable and moving because of its candidness, its amusing descriptions of sexual awakening and early attempts at romantic bonding.
It is a book that many gay men might relate to and a life many others might envy for Rangnekar’s apparent easy passage through what has been a long, painful and even damaging experience for others. For instance, his fortuitous escape from a commitment to be married.
Is Rangnekar playing down his memories to make them less painful? At times it might appear so. Or is this style an attempt to give hope to other men facing a crisis about coming out, rather than make them dwell on miseries? That the author did not wallow in personal anguish is obvious from the restraint with which he treats his brother’s unfortunate illness and demise and the depression that followed.
Rangeknar states that he was bullied just once for his suspected sexuality. This was when, as a very young child, an older boy pulled down his shorts and called him a sissy for letting a ball go past on the cricket field.
Yet, this absence of sexual bullying doesn’t mean that Rangnekar had an easy time at school. He talks of his intense isolation, his contemplation of suicide in class eight and his constant gastric trouble which led him to fail exams and fall behind his peers – followed by a period of obesity. These medical problems give the reader an idea of the level of stress he faced as a child. Does being bullied for being overweight rather than for one’s sexuality make it any less painful?
The book is defined by the way it is written. Rangnekar says that he wrote it in less than a month, with an average of about four hours a day at his desk. For an experienced journalist who writes news stories, this would obviously be enough. For someone talking of their life, he probably had to process the story in his mind at a much greater – and more personal – length before he penned it. He had been writing under a pseudonym for a while, and once he felt liberated, the story was easy to tell because it had been visited and revisited for over a decade.
He is not looking for sympathy, nor does he want to project himself as a hero. Instead, he tells a simple story of a life of anguish – of feeling at odds with the world and being different from his older brothers and peers; of being almost friendless for most of his early life, and then, stepping out into freedom once he had made up his mind to. It helped that he had an extremely supportive family and set of friends and that he developed strong friendships once he decided to come out.
The personal torment is very much there, albeit between the lines, but the overall message is one of courage and bravery. That he does not dwell on the pain is a relief. More careful editing, though, would have taken care of some of the obvious glitches in the text.
One wishes that Rangnekar had drawn connections between the horrific sexual assault he experienced to the larger issue of sexual violence and the plight of others – particularly women. The way he almost dispassionately describes the event and moves on is unreal. He decided to keep quiet, not sharing his experience with even one friend for the fear of being outed, which is completely understandable. He even tries to offer explanations for what was clearly a horrendous hate crime, suggesting that there might have been other reasons for it.
In retrospect, I am sure Rangnekar feels differently and wishes he had acted differently. This was the place to spell out, for the sake of other survivors of such violence, what he should have done. We know how often young men, too, are subjected to sexual violence and they should know that they have to call out the perpetrators.
Rangnekar’s story of coming out is a 21st century story and well worth the effort for what it documents. He learned of a gay support group which the extraordinary Anjali Gopalan, the AIDS activist and founder of Naz Foundation, had helped form.
Even luckier for him, or perhaps trickier, was that it was almost next door from where he lived. Humrahi was a short-lived support group but as Rangnekar tells it, invaluable for the help it offered him – not just in coming to terms with his sexuality but also for breaking his isolation as a gay man.
The time he talks about at Humrahi was a crucial one. Not only were young gay men coming together to help each other deal with their worlds and make lifelong friends, the petition challenging Section 377 was also being discussed and drafted at Naz around that time.
His testimony proves how invaluable such groups were at a time of total silence and argues for their need today – when social contact has been depersonalised through internet dating sites. It is also interesting that Nishit Saran’s tour-de-force documentary, Summer in My Veins (1999), where the young filmmaker came out to his mother on camera, played a crucial role in Rangnekar’s coming out process. The film had made a great impact on young gay men and Nishit Saran had himself joined Humrahi.
Rangnekar’s story is also one of tremendous hope – of an individual’s journey from fear to the point where he could compose and perform Head Held High, the first song devoted to the queer struggle in India. It is also one of his evolution as a gay man – for instance, for the way he looks at relationships. One hopes this book encourages other men to tell their stories because hidden lives, pain and successful attempts to live with dignity need to be told.
It is our history and needs to be documented. Families unaccepting of the sexuality of their children have a lot to learn from the support Rangnekar’s extended family provided him to achieve his potential. This is the other positive takeaway from the book.
Saleem Kidwai, who taught history at Ramjas College, Delhi University, is the co-author of Same Sex Love in India; A Literary History. He is now an independent researcher and translator.