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Fever, suicide and sexual lives on the margins

Picture credit: TK Sandeep
By Ashley Tellis*
March 8, 2021
It feels strange to be in Bangalore again. Stranger to be in my first International Women’s Day when I am not attuned to what is happening in the city I am in, to mark that day. Stranger still that it is the second International Women’s Day in a global pandemic that has forever altered public celebrations of any kind.
It is Sannuthi’s birthday. She was born on International Women’s Day. That feels appropriate. In the first year I met her and know her, 2016, I had organized a Stuff of Selves event to mark International Women’s Day at BALM in Kovalam, recalling our DU Gender Study Group’s (GSG’s) Stuff of Selves from 2011 or was it 2012 and Sannuthi had not even turned up for it, let alone be part of it. It was the year she was nursing her ill grandmother in Virugambakkam, her grandmother who died later that year, a woman, like all women, with an interesting history. Sannuthi who is bisexual, polyamorous and capacious in holding people through their pain, the true spirit of feminism, even if it is the pain of a polyamorous partner who suddenly turns monogamous and wounds her.
It has been a crazily hectic day, trying to buy her surprise gift, trying to buy Titus’ surprise gift, trying to co-ordinate the evening’s gathering in the Koramangala Local, the guests, who’s coming, who must meet whom. I must buy the flowers, I almost think, supposing for the moment I was/am Mrs. Dalloway, though this is not even my party.
I woke up in Simran’s house in Kodichikanahalli at 7 am, after sleeping at 3 am, to finally get off the mattress at 8 am the sounds of men at work, loud banging next door, repetitive, annoying banging, drilling, implements screaming on concrete, sounds that could wake up the dead. How does the neighbourhood accept this? Why? How is Vishal sleeping through this? How are Simran and her boyfriend (whom I discovered last night I do not like at all) sleeping through this?
I had earlier woken up at 5 am, my throat caught in a vicious constriction caused by sitting next to Simran and her boyfriend smoking last night, coupled by Bangalore’s pollution, coughing, my coughing exacerbated by the fan. I sat up, drank some water and Simran, who was still awake, kindly came to ask if I was okay and if she could do anything to help.
I said I was fine, needed nothing, sent her to sleep, drank some more water, was grateful that I did not painfully vomit up phlegm or bile as I usually do when my throat is infected (in Delhi, always along with blood), heard Vishal snore (I had to tip him over last night because it was so loud, I could not hear myself breathe), pulled my mattress to the door so that, should I have coughed again, I would not disturb him, saw the tyre of fat around his waist because his tshirt had ridden up, covered him properly with the blanket that lay across him, saw his beautiful bicep, and went back to sleep.
Went to have breakfast at Udipi Park on 100 feet Road, Indiranagar on my way back to Vishal’s house, bought Titus’ surprise gift, located Sannuthi’s surprise gift, instructed Titus how to get it and went to Vishal’s to bathe.
I appear to have lost the pens Aarthi sent me from Germany, Did they fall out of my Blossom’s bag. I can’t afford to lose those pens. Put a message on The Hedonists Whatsapp group to ask if anyone had it and went off for lunch with Sannuthi and Aashray at Koshy’s. Exquisite pork rice but should have ordered the mixed -pork-prawn-beef-chicken fried rice. The pens are with Sannuthi. All is well with the world.
It is always such a pleasure to meet Aashray. Such a bright and brilliant boy and we lunched and went off bookshopping for his birthday gift, which I had to give him last month and could not, in the various bookstores on Church Street, first stop Goobe’s. Would I not make it past Blossom’s today as well, despite the three bookstores down the road, ending with Bookworm, running out of time, money and bag space to carry books? Had a run in with the saddeningly insecure, singularly pathetic owner at Goobe’s, smarting from my telling him yesterday that his graphic comic book I had bought two years ago was shit and walked out and off to Blossom’s, all the while discussing books, ideas and authors with Aashray and Sannuthi, both brilliant young minds.
Hours later, back to Koshy’s, masala chai, more conversation as I waited to meet the broodingly beautiful and exquisitely damaged TK Sandeep, whose photographs and films are now part of my South Asia gayness book and whom I was meeting properly for the first time. I was to meet him two years ago to interview him, ended up doing that interview over email. I am in love with him; he is not in love with me.
For a change, though, I am at least in love with a gay man and a man with a sensibility so utterly, unashamedly gay and lambent. He says he is coming half an hour late and Titus returns from the secret gift mission. Sannuthi and Aashray head off to Local as Sandeep and I talk. I will ride to it with Titus on his bike once I finish talking with Sandeep.
Titus has gone to return the damaged Alexievich book I had bought for Vishal, Second Hand Time, Vishal who should do that PhD in International Politics, when Titus returns to tell me that Muthu has killed himself in Madras.
Muthu whom I first encountered on Facebook when I set up Chennai’s first polyamory group in 2016, Muthu who identified as queer and pansexual and mainly straight, who had suffered intense sexual abuse as a child, who was forced into Engineering like scores of Indian men, who suffered familial violence, who really dug music and dance and the arts, Muthu who had become friends with Sannuthi since the polyamory group was formed, Muthu whom I had just met in Perambur in her house, last month in Madras and found sad and strange and damaged, Muthu who spoke of missing his daughter now with his estranged partner who, he said, his voice trembling with pain, would not let him see her, Muthu who spoke so refreshingly of the sudden epiphanies he accessed through BDSM, Muthu who was as much steeped in and critical of the vicious identity politics of the LGBT community in Chennai as he was critical of it , millennials entrenched in themselves, as Lawrence Cohen put it in a recent email to me, smart but only able to pull each other down, Muthu whom I sent loads of gay music to on whatsapp that evening, Muthu who introduced me to Pentatonix and relished repeating, mocking my mock horror, my words, saying how shocked he was that I did not know just like my shock that he did not know Rufus Wainwright or Anhoni, Muthu who said ‘’Love is Beautiful’ when I wished him on Valentine’s Day, Muthu who shared recent USidentityspeak Facebook statuses with me and I promised to send him critiques of them in an email. Muthu was now dead and he would never read my email. To whom might I send it so that it reaches him?
I asked Sandeep if he knew Muthu and he did not. I thought of Bhakti Nefertiti who also killed herself recently. Bindu had informed me, told me she was a pioneer in articulating sexuality rights politics in Kerala, as Bindu put it, Bhakti, also, like Muthu, estranged from her partner, Bhakti had killed herself. Bhakti was dead. Bindu was shattered though she said she did not know her. Kani Kusruthi, her daughter, is now a Malayalam cinema actress. Nithin told me about it in Koshy’s yesterday as well. Nithin who found my anger inhibited his loving me. Nithin who loves the beautiful Ravi who drives him to throw eggs on the wall.
Sandeep spoke of his grand amour, the damaged old man who threw him out of his life and whom he can’t get over. I tried to explain to him the psychic damage of older gay men, how and why they push away what they need the most.
On the way to Local, I thought about Muthu and Bhakti and what it is to kill oneself, to give up, to leave daughters, one an actress, the other still a child, more women in the world with histories of their parents in their bodies and future histories too, women like Sannuthi’s grandmother.
Sexuality activists, Muthu and Bhakti, articulating a politics for which there is no available, fully-formed language. Sandeep, telling me the first story of the man he saw enter his house while he was on his way to school (he faked a stomach upset, stayed home and watched this man all day working in his yard), the burly man who took off his shirt and left Sandeep mesmerised by his body, left him feverish.
I am feverish with the lack of sleep, the bad throat, the suicides and sexual lives on the margins. Who will tell these stories? Who will document these lives? Who will remember these bodily histories?
The Local gathering was lovely. I danced. We danced. We sang. We spoke. I spoke with Esther about the sexual lives of married women, I spoke with Shraddha about bisexuality. I commiserated with Ritika about her imminent marriage. I told Nikhil I found him hot. He said he found me hot. I told Shireen/Sherin I had spoken about her to Sandeep.
Sandeep whose photographs and videos document his melancholic sexuality, his love of older men, one older man he lost but still loves.
***
Inspired by Christa Wolf’s One Day A Year
---
*LGBH activist based in Hyderabad

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