Queer Lives: Narrations of Research Abroad ( May 19)

A daily blog of my research abroad in India and Japan during the summer of 2024: I am conducting interviews with members and allies of the LGBTQ+ community in South and East Asia. May 19th, 2024.
Queer Lives: Narrations of Research Abroad ( May 19)
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I wake up, and for a moment, silence seems to hang in the room, draped over the windows and beds. I wait, half-expecting my appa to walk through the door, or come by to make sure I’m awake – but then I remember, he’s back in California. 

Throughout my life, I have learnt that research is always personal. There is always some inner drive, some core motivation – something deep in your gut which keeps you on track. My amma researches neurodegenerative diseases while her dad, my thatha, suffers from one. My previous supervisor, a biographer specializing in feminist literature, is a female writer and historian. A professor I’m meeting in Japan works extensively with queer students in university, after going through the education system as a queer person himself. And, of course, I am here to discover my own history and to connect with a community I can identify with.  

Coming to India, however, is also about family. Both of my parents grew up here, and although I was born and raised in the United States, much of my extended family still lives here. Due to multiple reasons – distance, time, pandemics, family politics – I haven’t met or interacted with many of my relatives. To me, family is my parents, and the tight-knit group of friends we have in California. My dad’s trivia group, my mom’s cousin and his family, my childhood best friend and his family: I have no dearth of support and love and care back home. 

That said, part of me has hoped this trip will foster new connections – specifically with Revathi Auntie and Asok Uncle. I want to know them better, and I want them to know me; I want them to come visit me in university, and I want to come back to Mumbai in the future to see them. I’m thrilled, therefore, to have the entirety of today to spend with Revathi Auntie; she’s offered to accompany me to my last Mumbai interview before taking me around Colaba once more. 

We leave in the late morning. A fine layer of dust has resettled on the trees; it sits still and dry, with no wind or rain to drive it away. Today, I’m going back to the film festival, but I’m only meeting one person – the co-founder of one of Mumbai’s most established queer support groups. It’ll be my last time heading to the main city, though, so I keep my eyes fixed out the windows. I want to memorise every detail: the skyline against the coast, the shops tucked into shops tucked into street corners, the smells and sounds and sights as we turn from street to street. If I could, I’d tuck it all into my pocket and steal it away – but, of course, that would be impossible. Pictures and words and videos must suffice. 

My interviewee is headed down from the other side of the city, so Revathi Auntie and I wait for them in a cafe just opposite the theatre. I’ve become an expert on pouring filter coffee, and I savour the feel of the metal on my hand, the steady flow of the coffee between vessels. Before we start drinking, though, I get a text from my interviewee and rush across the road to find them. They’re an old friend of Revathi Auntie’s, so I bring them to the cafe, where we all settle down for a few moments and begin our discussion. 

It’s my longest interview yet: halfway through, we move outside to a quieter location. My interviewee is extremely well-known, I soon find out, and we’re stopped often by people who want to meet him. It’s now, crouched in a shady corner by the theatre, that I learn the most about the history of queer communities in Mumbai, how they have grown and changed with the city and found ways to survive. As you have probably realised by now, I can’t share details – but it’s a conversation I can only really describe as eye-opening – beyond that, it’s my final interview in Mumbai, and when it finishes, I feel, for the first time, that I’ve accomplished something. It’s a strange feeling, one I'm not quite able to put into words, but I feel the most energetic I’ve felt so far on this trip. It’s like what I mentioned previously – that personal desire to research – it comes back to me, and I’m reminded once again of why I want to study what I study. 

After the interview is done, Revathi Auntie and I decide to celebrate, so we go to a nearby chocolate factory, where I discover a delightful snack which is essentially thick bread with three different kinds of chocolate spread – and what better way to end the day than that?  

Just as I think I’m done with new experiences in Mumbai, there’s one more: the train! The Mumbai Suburban Railway is the oldest railway system in Asia, covering over 390 kilometers and operating over 2,000 train services. It runs nearly 24 hours a day, and most commuters within the city travel by rail, making it extremely crowded in the mornings and afternoons. In the evening, however, it’s quiet and refreshing; the grated windows allow for a cool breeze, and I lean my head against the wall, suddenly tired. 

Mumbai is a city deserving of a proper reflection – deserving of poetry and song – but in this moment, I’m just grateful to be here, watching the houses spin by and the evening lights sparkling across the water.  

Sometimes, words fail, and you just need to take it all in. So I’ll leave it here until tomorrow – with an image of the station silhouetted against the night sky, haloed by an orange glow, people running everywhere, and a now-familiar heat settled in the air. 

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