“Freshen this up for me,” says my father. The ice has melted in the drink he’s bringing from cocktail hour. As the wedding guests, a throng of Punjabi immigrants now living in America, file into the reception hall to find their tables, I head to the bar. The man stocking it greets me with beautiful eyes framed with impossibly long eyelashes.
“Can I have two gin and tonics, please—Bombay Sapphire?” It’s the summer before I begin college, and years before I come out to my parents. I know what a man’s touch feels like and I wonder whether I’ll know it again tonight. As the bartender prepares my drinks, I lean in toward him, holding him with a stare, admiring his good looks.
“How’re you related to the bride and groom?” I’m too naïve to realize the line between flirting and small-talk, but I imagine it’s flirting and I’m flattered. I want to stay with him, but I realize I haven’t done as I’d been told.
“Thanks—” I turn away from him after downing my drink in one gulp.
“Here—” I set the fresh drink in front of my father. I take a seat as the first toast starts. The hall’s spotlight dances through the clear beads of condensation running down the glasses.
During the speeches, I hear my father yell playful asides from our table. I cut him a quick stare but he doesn’t notice. He slurs his words. I lower my head. I’m embarrassed everyone is looking his way when they should be focusing on the speaker. In his mind, he’s allowed to let himself go. He has a right to his own pleasure. But I can’t watch his misbehavior. For years, I’d sat by, the quiet, dutiful, private, sensitive boy. Except that the daily, almost hourly prick of desire made me imagine a sort of subjunctive pleasure as if it were in the indicative mood. Sitting at the table, thinking about the shape of my own pleasure—if my father can enjoy his freely can’t I?—the bartender’s face alights in my mind. Desire isn’t so much a feeling as a messy, sticky substance.
My drink hits me and I stand up, fed up, whispering into my father’s ear, “Take it easy.” My delivery is so clipped I don’t see his face as I turn on my heel and march toward the bar. I don’t want people to talk about him. I don’t want him to hear from someone else that he can’t handle his alcohol. Isn’t it better coming from his son? I care about my father deeply, but there’s just one part of him I find unpalatable.
I can’t tell who of us has had enough. He should have slapped me in front of everyone for saying what I’d said. But I suspect he knows I’m right. He can’t punish me for his own wrongdoing.
I inherited my father’s taste for stiff, icy gin and tonics—one of the many gifts, he claimed, the British had left India. In the 1800s, the English had encountered vicious mosquitoes that caused malaria. But bitter quinine mixed with water made tonic, inoculating them against the risk of infection. Alcohol became a remedy to suffer the backward land the British vied to control. Alcohol was the thing I found distasteful about my father. It was the thing that made it possible to tolerate him.
“Hey—can I have two more gin and tonics—one for me, one for you?” I smile at the bartender, beams of light shining in his eyes. Did they sparkle the first time I peered at them? I can’t remember.
My father grew up in Delhi, the last child of six. “Naughty” was his nickname. He cut school and snuck into Hindi films featuring writhing actresses, eyelids heavily lined with kohl. He was left on his own, and I have the sense his parents only paid him notice when they disciplined him for misbehaving.
As guests applaud the last toast, the DJ turns up the bass, and a thrall of bodies heads toward the dance floor.
“Can I have another drink?” I stand there, teetering uneasily, eyeing the bartender’s smooth movements. His effortlessness reminds me to hold my liquor better. But he’s making me feel slippery. Am I blushing because I’m inebriated, embarrassed, enamored—all, some, none? His features in the dim light appear more beautiful than before. My desire grows more pointed the blurrier my surroundings become.
“Thanks,” I say, lingering, holding his gaze, my yearning resting on the hot night air. I wonder, too afraid to ask, whether he’d meet me in the bathroom. I give him a chance to ask me for something in return. His silence tells me he doesn’t want anything.
My sister and I take a spot at the edge of the dance floor, eyeing my father who’s the first to start dancing. He flaps his arms to the bhangra music. I didn’t learn to dance from him—actually, he didn’t teach me—or he did and I always looked away. My father dances with a younger woman, and I see my mother pretend not to notice his twirling this guest he barely knows, grinning and whistling. My father makes recklessness and letting go acceptable to display in public. He doesn’t need permission to indulge openly.
By the time I’m pulled into the circle, my self-control has melted away, and I don’t care that people see me dance with the suppleness of a woman—sweeping, sculptural movements flowing through me. I sway with a delicate, sensual grace, and stomp my feet in sync with the rhythm.
An Indian courtesan plays with my body, blowing air into my flesh and bones. Does the word “inspire” come from “breathe in” or “breathe into”? She possesses my body, makes it tensile. I willingly submit to the story a courtesan uses my body to tell—unrequited love, unfulfilled desire. I may be my father’s pretty son, the subject of hushed speculation. But the real history invoked through me is that some desires are so unutterable, they have to be shown instead of spoken.
My father has taught me, by drinking, how to let go—how not to censor myself. He can’t control who he turns into when he’s inebriated. I’ve learned from him that alcohol is how to show everyone the rose-pink color of my desire. It’s what unseals a quiet boy, one who tries to attract men at family weddings, one who struggles to find a language for what he wants. But should desire be safe, and hidden, or does it need to burn red with danger, flagrant and out in the open? Or should it sigh heavily, weeping and whimpering under the weight of its illegitimacy? And if desire is ever fulfilled, our thirsts quenched, does its fieriness melt away?
I see my father eye me from the sidelines. Does he notice the other guests, his friends, staring at me as I dance, or can he let their gazes fall away, as I do? The sweat rolling toward the small of my back dissolves some of my shame, but I don’t stop twirling. I feel somehow entranced. In no time my body is spent. My heart swells.
“Enough—let’s go,” says my father, sternly. He can’t tolerate the spectacle I’m making any longer. It’s as if he wants to fast-forward this scene. Maybe I have had enough. But I know more recklessness is coming. I’ve spent evenings hugging the backseat car door, my eyes wide with adrenaline, after my father has insisted he’s okay to drive us home.
Alcohol makes us see double. Can it show us there’s another side to debauchery?
I wonder why I can’t be released to a different elder’s care and tutelage. This one only disappoints me, leaves me feeling unprotected. Rumi says that what you seek is seeking you, but how can that be? Earlier, my emotions overflowed my body, that of a boy seeking to pull away. But now, done dancing, my pleasure melts. My father isn’t the tutor I need. All he’s taught me is how to feel melancholy, how to become queer.
I was precocious at three—my mother didn’t mind that I banged on her pots and pans on the kitchen floor. I grew shy at six—she looked the other way when I stole her scarves and twirled like a Hindi film actress alone in my room. I became diffident at nine—she encouraged me, in vain, to learn the tabla at an informal school for South Asian–American children that her friend ran on the weekends.
My father didn’t see the value of the arts. He made me practice math with him for an hour each night. Removed from proper instruction in India’s classical arts, I went in search of them myself. I danced in private, jealous of those children I knew who were pushed to absorb their country’s histories and artistic traditions. I taught myself, alone in my room, a language I didn’t think was mine to inhabit.
At my college’s Indian cultural shows each semester, I watched my friends dance with a gracefulness so delicate, so fearsome, my envy rendered me speechless. They embodied a vocabulary my body longed to imitate, to give the world.
Partying after a show, a friend asked me—I’d let it slip that I practiced these melodramatic songs on my own—to perform something for them that night.
The chance to let go of my melancholy excited me as much as the desire to give in to it terrified me. Eventually, I yielded, agreeing to show my friends the shape of my shame. I’d let them teach me how to turn my embarrassment into something beautiful and acceptable. I’d let pleasure pour out of me, the color of my aching a shadowy grey, buried deep within.
Sinking gracefully to the floor, my head covered with a scarf, I articulated a courtesan’s nuanced, polished gestures—a suggestively arched eyebrow, a quick flick of the wrist. I gave form to words I didn’t know how to join together. As the veil slipped from my face, I learned how to stay uncovered, all eyes on my body. I experienced the pain of enduring who I was without a mask, as well as the pleasure of letting go. I wasn’t trying to pass as a woman, or act like one. Copying and coping just looked strangely similar in that moment.
In college, the men I slept with undid me. After a drunken hookup, neither my date nor I would promise to see one another. I was either embarrassed of whomever I’d let take me home, or I was hopelessly fond of him. Would he call me tomorrow? Or did the sight of him make me shudder? The restlessness I felt each of these mornings hung in the air, fluttering, unuttered, over rumpled sheets.
After I left, I felt the ache they’d left inside me. I felt the vacuum that had been stretched within me. And I wondered whether the empty spaces had existed before or whether they’d been hollowed out, only now, by men I was desperate to let inside.
Was this what gay was supposed to feel like? I felt then, at that age, after I’d left bruised, that “gay” didn’t encompass the other half of how I felt—that gnawing and pervading sense of melancholy that washed a night of unbridled pleasure and extreme closeness with a pale and shadowy haze. Would gay always feel like this, unfulfilling?
As I stepped out into the sunlight, these weekend mornings seemed the right time to call my parents at home, but I ignored the chance. My mind, hungover and heavy with regret, longed to slough off my body’s dirt and sweat. I pushed play on my iPod and texted my mother to let her know I was okay. I told myself I’d speak to my father another time.
A few songs into the train ride back to my dorm, all my compunction began churning inside me, throbbing my skull, eating away at my sense of ease. I calmed myself by focusing on the languishing tune of a Hindi classical singer. I met her undulating voice, as it slipped through my earbuds and under my skin, by swaying my wrist with a feminine delicacy I didn’t care if other passengers saw.
This doleful song was the story of a courtesan’s lament. She’d fallen in love with a good-for-nothing aristocrat who squandered his allowance on nights with her and often left her waiting in her salon all night. I imagined her, with masterful footwork, pounding the earth with her pain until the ground hurt as much as her heart. As the song reached a feverish crescendo, my mind swirled. I entered my dorm in time to relieve myself over the toilet, and make the world stop spinning.
The script gays and lesbians commit to tells us we’re born this way. But in other ways, which suggest our power to transform ourselves, we become queer. Queerness is longing to be connected to history, community, culture. Seeing ourselves in the past is how we imagine ourselves in the future. I learned the word “queer” after I knew I was gay, after I learned how a man’s touch felt. But before I knew I was gay, I learned how to become queer.
Riyaazat is an Urdu word for the ritualized training that matriarchs passed on to courtesans in the 19th-century salons they ran. I looked to my father to fashion me, yet he couldn’t teach me about the facets of life I felt mattered—poetry, style, taste. How to be gay. Or how to give men a bit of my heart. Or how to repair it when it had been trampled on. What he did impart—open displays of pleasure and a warped sense of responsibility—confounded me.
His own father had instilled in him, as a youngster in Delhi, a perverse combination of discipline and neglect. As children raised in the U.S., my sister and I felt buffeted between these poles. Sometimes we slept on the carpeted steps of my cousins’ home until the early morning, while my father caroused with their parents, too headstrong to abandon his right to fun, or to agree to drive us home. As I got older, I was expected to study for hours while just past a thin wall, the Hindi films my father watched on his new, big-screen television blared into the night. On the battleground between pleasure and responsibility, my father didn’t show me the rules.
In 2002, Devdas was released, a lavish Hindi film unlike anything I’d ever seen, arresting in its drama and decadence. I became obsessed with the story of a doomed relationship between a wastrel and a courtesan. It’s strange for a teenage boy to become infatuated with such a melodramatic story, or to make a film a metaphor for his own upbringing. But this is precisely what I did, what I made of myself. I let this film teach me how to become queer—and a whole tradition of period films that recalled the glamour and pathos of South Asia’s courtesan culture—that’s all I had. I watched Chandramukhi the courtesan as if I were her.
Devdas is a troubled character—his wealthy father punishes him for skipping school and wasting time with his childhood sweetheart, so he spurns her. Indignant, Devdas leaves home, unwittingly taking refuge in the arms of the courtesan Chandramukhi. He eventually destroys himself in endless streams of whiskey and soul-shuddering couplets, dying tragically after renouncing Chandramukhi’s devotion to him.
The night I first saw Devdas, as a teenager, I left the theater spellbound. Audiences around me muttered that he was an ungrateful, selfish, pitiful character. I didn’t think much of him, either. Rather, I was besotted with the idea that all love had to remain unfulfilled.
Months later, my sister gave me the DVD for my birthday. My body trembled, remembering how Devdas had disturbed me. “Should we watch it tonight?” I asked my family.
“It won’t be different from the older version,” my father said.
“What do you mean—it’s a remake?” I hadn’t assumed this miserable tale had a history.
“Dilip Kumar acted the same role in the ’50s. A drunk—a mess.”
“But was it as beautiful as this version?” The dazzling opening credits began to roll.
“Not exactly, Rajat,” my mother said. “It’s actually a very simple story, based on an old Bengali novel.”
“Devdas’ love interest was beautiful—Vyjayanthimala danced as the courtesan,” said my father, taken by the old actress’s scintillating performances on screen. He made it seem as if Vyjayanthimala had seduced not only Dilip Kumar, but also an entire nation, as audiences gazed at Chandramukhi in theaters. I made a note to get my hands on the black-and-white film for my own self-schooling.
As this lush retelling washed over me, I noticed a feature I’d missed the first time. Devdas was set against the backdrop of a decayed era of India’s history—a sophisticated, highly prized, aristocratic courtesan culture. I’d never visited India, and I didn’t imagine I’d ever encounter this sexually liberal culture being put on such blatant display.
“This was a different time,” said my mother. “Aristocrats went to kothas to hear poets recite poetry and see women perform for them. Men kept these salons open to house these dancing girls. In exchange, they taught the men good manners and the arts.”
This system of patronage betrayed my skewed perception of India as conservative, backward. I had only my father’s experiences to form a picture of India. His words, “hot,” “dirty,” “corrupt,” colored a seedy image, like nothing I was seeing on screen.
“So what happened?” I asked.
“This old system collapsed. When the Britishers arrived, they closed the salons and threw the girls out onto the streets,” said my mother, stressing “Britisher” as if it were a real word. “Their social status fell when the princes had to abandon their palaces,” my mother continued.
“Nahin, these women were low-class prostitutes,” my father argued. On screen, Chandramukhi commanded the passions of Bengali noblemen, and seemed respected for her artistic training. I wondered how my father had inherited this censored thinking. Didn’t he see how the British had ruined the sexually progressive milieu of his birthplace?
“Vyjayanthimala’s character caused a big stir,” said my father.
“Suniye,” my mother chimed in, “many actresses around the time of Independence played courtesans on camera because their families were descended from that class. During the Britishers’ time, low-class families of performers hung on, and they came back in the early films Bombay was making in the ’40s and ’50s.”
“So they’d reenact their old dancing traditions on screen?”
“Funny, yes—they acted in films as if they were their ancestors,” said my mother.
In that moment, I saw how history worked on the body, and how stories lived on.
The roles these women were playing weren’t necessarily their choice, then. Who else would play these parts? Courtesans brought back from the dead represented an inconvenient truth India couldn’t shake—men’s desires need a receptacle. The British had rendered men like Devdas impotent, aristocrats only in name. They drank to ignore their loss of privileges, while the women they gazed at danced to keep themselves from dying a lonely death as social outcasts.
I got chills hearing the stirring couplets Chandramukhi recited during the film. “But no one spoke this way, really…” I asked my parents.
“It’s a very formal way of speaking,” said my mother. “These women were well-educated, not low-class—the way the English thought of them.”
Suddenly, Devdas blew up after hearing Chandramukhi’s sweet poetry, brimming with insight. He began to smash bottles, yell, slur his words, calling out to her: “Who the hell drinks to endure… I drink so that I can sit here, so that I can see you, so that I can tolerate you!”
My father lowered the volume, shifted in his seat, tsk-tsk-ing. My father held a dim view of the spectacle unfolding before him, and I stared at him from the other couch, puzzled.
“Was this scene in the older Devdas?”
“This is much more overdone,” said my father, as Devdas broke Chandramukhi’s whisky bottles, shattering prisms of glass across her candlelit salon. My father reached for the remote to skip to the next scene.
But I protested. The histrionics, the flamboyance, the recklessness captivated me. “Let’s just watch it,” I insisted. The heightened glamour and pathos typified love as a sort of desperate, unacceptable, self-indulgent behavior, and I fetishized it instantly.
My father landed on the film’s final song, a joyful interlude before the story took its tragic turn.
“Don’t you want to see all the scenes?” I asked my father.
“Too much aiyyashi,” he said.
“A life of pleasure—flashy, over the top.”
“Aiyyashi is like recklessness, Rajat,” my mother interjected. I was too young to understand the distinction between the dual connotations my father and mother taught me. To this day, I cannot disentangle these meanings.
The song-and-dance scene was exuberant, and put my father at ease. If he imagined Chandramukhi was dancing for him, I watched as if I were her. While he wanted none of the tears that made her human, I looked to her to teach me how to endure.
Devdas’ desperation is so alluring that I’ve conflated beauty and melancholy. But this story holds glimmers of souls stuck in a lost past, who died with their desires unfulfilled. I didn’t need a happy ending, but rather, a story to echo the truth of my own experience. I colored queerness with equal shades, beautiful and melancholic. Sorrow made beauty more alluring. Melancholy made my own queerness beautiful.
Reading Devdas not as frivolous but as foundational, and as a queer text, is necessary, lifesaving, even. Though nothing in the film is explicitly gay—Devdas’ deep friendship with his confidant, Chunni Babu, is suggestively homosocial—what sustained me as a teenager was knowing that hopelessness was intimately bound to love. Devdas taught me to be queer. I made Devdas queer.
A tradition of Hindi period films from the 1970s and ’80s, cult classics that recalled the glamour and pathos of this courtesan culture, became a fixture of my upbringing. I shrugged off questions about what I got from these depressing films. I always wanted to reply with the line gays and lesbians have become used to repeating, I can’t choose what I love. But what I wanted to say was I was searching for a glimmer of myself in the rubble of a decayed culture.
Moreover, these films have shown me the surprising way my father and I are joined. Compared with my own despair, he isn’t nostalgic for a lost past. In fact, he’s always seemed quite present in the theater or living room, gazing like a spectator at these women. Me, I wasn’t present at all, but hurled far off into the future; not indicative, but constructed in the subjunctive; hovering between tenses and moods.
Courtesans in South Asia’s history were taught the formal art of seduction, embodying a range of moods—coquettishness, sexual prowess, or heartbreak. I watched and practiced the stylized gestures and sophisticated techniques I saw on film, overflowing with affect. I dreamt they’d benefit me on nights when the dance floor heaved with glistening bodies that longed to be touched.
Never visiting India has cut me off from myself. Still, I’ve peered into the apertures of India that feel queer, like courtesans. Their dances flow through me. They stand in my mind, perched on nimble feet, anklets chiming. They hover like specters who cannot trust their own desires. Refracted through their image, I’ve made hopelessness the most desirable state of union. Their stories express an impossible love. In films, they weep for a love they were never granted. And I’ve pined for a love I imagined I wasn’t allowed to flourish inside.
By the end of the wedding reception, I sense I’m shape-shifting into my father’s image. He exists at the corner of my eye, blurring, his borders turning fuzzy. By morphing into him, do I acknowledge everything he’s taught me, everything I’ve rejected? Even without proper training, I imitate a courtesan’s precisely calibrated movements and poses—the perfectly timed twirl of a wrist, a heel hitting the ground on the beat. I may not know the significance of these historical or mythological gestures, yet they allow me, not to take pleasure, as my father does, but to give the world a self I’m approaching.
Kathak, derived from the Hindi word for “story,” is the dance form courtesans have been trained in for centuries. As a performer nears the finale, she enthralls her audience with a series of mesmerizing pirouettes. The whirls appear effortless and balanced as long as she maintains her focus on a point in front of her. Drinking undoes me, but it also attunes me to the world, crystallizing my gaze into sharp glints of ice. Fixing on a lodestone is how a courtesan performer orients herself, always returning to a forward-facing position on the beat. I turn away from my father’s gaze, peering off in search of others—those troubled, unloved figures, cast out of society, quivering in exile.