An Experiment In Pride

From New Dehli to Dubai to Madison, Akshat Woodhouse Sharma grapples with what it means to live an authentic life when family and cultures clash.

I am not usually an angry crier, but I found myself coming close to weeping molten iron as I looked over the newest data set. It was generated from a series of experiments I’d been running in service of a long-suffering yet provocative study about a rare population of immune cells.

This is what I do: I am an immunologist working on my PhD at U.W.-Madison. Truth be told, the lab and, by extension, immunology, is all I have. The biology of the cells I work with is a precise kind of music I seem to not find with people anymore. People are dissonant, unclear about what they want. It used to be different when I—a Dubai-raised North Indian Brahmin (or, NIB, as I say; similar to American WASPs, just in burnt caramel)—had first moved to the U.S. in 2008. There are Facebook and Instagram pictures detailing the extroverted, debauched adventures of “Drunkshat” in Fargo, North Dakota (where I did my undergrad) and even, to a certain extent, in Madison.

Ways of coping  

Something changed in me after I came out to my parents. There was such strife that followed the declaration that I felt like someone with a chronic, dull ache in their jaw, like the kind you feel for a few hours after a punch lands. At first, I attempted to dull the pain with booze and boys, but that only made the pain more acute. Instead, I’ve become very solitary. Primarily, it was because I don’t think anyone really understood why I was so distraught—or why I’m still so distraught—about coming out, and being met with an unhappy response. I think it’s because a lot of my Madison friends have a different value system, one that differs so much from that of Orthodox Hindu families made even more prudish by Colonialism. So, I stay alone. It’s easier. It’s quieter. I hate myself less.

Back to the angry-cry-inducing data-set, though. When I showed this to my boss, she knew exactly what the problem was: “I know you said something about visiting your parents. When are you planning to do that?” Given that there was angry-crying, I knew it was time for me to step away from the lab bench, from my stentorian diet, and from discipline in general. The time away from structure would do me good. Moreover, regardless of the tensions, I missed my Ma and Daddy! I think that’s a sentiment anyone can identify with, regardless of whether one is dark chocolate or white.

Running away  

The last time I was in New Delhi—2007—the air was less opaque. But the smog that holds court over the ancient city these days is oppressive. It was early on a January weekday that I went for a run in the vast park near my cousin’s sprawling old house. I was on vacation and felt like such a piece of shit, spending my days eating, reading trashy fiction all afternoon, and then spending the evenings shopping or just hanging out in plush South Delhi cafes. This run was significant. This is how I sometimes begin my days here in Madison: cardio and then off to the lab to Get Shit Done.

I didn’t last very long: the smog filled my lungs, and I had to stop barely a mile in. Wheezing and unable to speak, I stalked my way home. Everyone had an opinion: it was too cold (it was 65ºF), the smog was too much for my “Americanized” lungs, I was “out-of-shape” for having not run for the past five days.

I will remember that feeling of suffocation forever because it is what I felt whenever, inevitably, someone—an aunt, a cousin, a great-uncle, a friend of the family—would almost accusingly ask my mother why I wasn’t married. These conversations would usually happen over meals or the millionth cup of ginger-infused chai of the day. “It is amazing!” they’d say to my mother. “Amazing that he isn’t married yet. Educated, handsome, and fair-skinned—by boy standards, anyway, so it is amazing! What’s the problem?”

My mother would smile tightly and provide some iteration of, “His PhD is his main priority right now.” I didn’t speak. My mother has a certain smile which says, “Keep it together.” I’d still seethe, but under the auspices of that smile, I’d keep my mouth shut.

The inquiries would sometimes bypass my mother: “What’s wrong?” they’d ask me. “Why is there no special girl in your life?” Or, “Is there someone, and are you afraid of talking about it? You mustn’t! We’re open-minded. It’s fine if she’s white. These things happen. The heart wants what the heart wants!” Tittering would follow, and I’d feel my lungs fill with that oppressive smog as I’d choke out the agreed upon line about my research being a priority. What I really wanted, deep down, was to offer a sharp riposte, saying “If you’re so open-minded, how about if she was a he?” Instead, I’d remember my mother’s particular smile, I’d keep it together, and I’d scream into my pillow at night.

You can’t go home again  

It occurred to me that I couldn’t be alone in this. New Delhi has queer folk, certainly. I tried to get this question answered via New Delhi Tinder. Now, let me tell you, New Delhi Tinder is so different from Madison Tinder. The guys were more forthcoming with pictures, clear about what they were looking for, and really wanted you to know that they had jobs/were in school/their lives were going somewhere.

Karan (not his real name), whom I met via New Delhi Tinder, was a student studying economics at Delhi University. He and I hung out at a local gym once, lifting and chatting. Karan liberated my formal, clipped-tones-of-a-Colonial-courtesan Hindi to the Punjabi-infused, rapid fire Hindi of New Delhi proper. It was fabulous! He, like me, was upper-middle-class, and out to some friends, his sister and a few close cousins. When I asked him if he’d ever tell his parents, he looked irritated. “Kya, yaar…” (“What the hell, dude!”) he muttered.

“Why are you mad at me?” I asked.

“This is such a downer of a subject!”

“But, I told my parents and…” I stuttered.

“It fucking sucks for you. It’s awkward. At my place, it’s not awkward. Why make it awkward?”

“What about acceptance? Being authentic?” I pressed.

“I am authentic,” he said, suddenly serious. “I love my parents, but I don’t need their approval to be authentic. I don’t need to cause them pain to be authentic.”

“So, what will life look like? What if you have a boyfriend and you guys fall in love, and…”

He shrugged: “Ki farq painda hai?” (“What difference does it make?”) This, I’ve learned, is a conversation ender in New Delhi.

As I walked home from the gym, I allowed myself to imagine what it would be like being Karan’s boyfriend. We’d be inseparable. We’d work out together. Our couplings would occur surreptitiously on trips to nearby holiday spots with a group of understanding friends who’d feel hella progressive in our company. His parents would call me their “second son,” as BFFs in New Delhi often become. And that would be it. A lifetime of being BFFs. Maybe someday I’d ask him if he loved me, and he’d shrug and say “Ki farq painda hai?”

Chasing Norman Rockwell  

As final as Karan’s pronouncement sounded, I had the time to explore a different shade of it as I moved onto the Dubai half of my vacation. To me, Dubai was more of a homecoming than New Delhi: Dubai is where I was raised. In some ways, going back to one’s parents’ house is an exercise in time travel. At 27 years old I felt suddenly 17 again, sleeping on the familiar, hard, orthopedic mattress of my childhood bed, asking my parents’ permission to do things I wouldn’t even think twice about were I in Madison, being hesitant about drinking liquor, swearing, and generally calling attention to the big gay elephant in the room.

However, I did find that Dubai Tinder was as vibrant and diverse as the city itself. I matched with Noah, a Yale-educated British lawyer who teased me mercilessly about my Jane Austen affinity, but at one point did begrudgingly admit to enjoying Emma as much as I do. Then, there was Derek, a rakish South African PR manager who had me at “CrossFit and then chill?” Finally, Vivek, an Indian doctor who, like me, had gone to similar snooty private schools in Dubai and then gone abroad (England, in his case) to study. He returned to Dubai, and lived happily with his partner of many years in an airy apartment in an upscale area of the city.

I was charmed by Vivek’s wit. I was charmed by how fast the jokes and zingers flew between us as we lazed about on chaises longue at a café called Shakespeare & Co: zingers as brisk as the Earl Grey we were sipping. At one point I straight-up asked him if he was out to his parents.

“Not officially,” he said. “But, I think they know. We just haven’t said it out loud.”

“What about your partner? What do they think of him?” I pressed.

“Oh, they love him. But, he’s my ‘roommate.’”

“Aren’t you offended? I’d be horribly offended! Oh, my God!” I said.

Vivek laughed. “Akshat, they leave me alone. No one’s pushing marriage on me, and no one is being weird about what I have going on. What does it matter if they acknowledge it or not?”

“It’s so dehumanizing, Vivek!”

“Idealistic rubbish, my man!” he exclaimed. “You’ve lived in America too long. This whole Norman Rockwell idea of coming out with tears of love and acceptance…it’s, like, so cinematic. Those aren’t our values.”

“So, there are no happy endings to be had for brown queer boys?” I asked.

Vivek, at this point in time, was incredulous.

“Who says?” he countered. “I have a job I love, a man I love, and a bitchin’ apartment. That’s a happy ending, Akshat. C’mon. What else matters?”

Seeking authenticity  

Dubai cabbies are known to be a chatty lot but, thankfully, the chap who picked me up wasn’t. I needed the time for self-reflection after the conversation with Vivek. Was my idea of a Happy Ending influenced by my adoptive America? Were Karan and Vivek right? Was the only acceptance one needed was that of the self?

I thought about Karan again, and how adamant he was about his authenticity. Never once had I asked myself if I was being authentic, or what that even meant. The question, “What do you want?” is a devastatingly powerful one, even more so when one doesn’t quite have an answer. Who was I to talk about being authentic when I wouldn’t exactly tell my parents that I was going to meet these men? In fact, I’d squeeze in my Tinder dates between actual group hangs with old high-school friends just so that when I told my parents that I was “going out with friends,” I wasn’t entirely lying.

“You’re a grown-ass man, dude!” my brother exclaimed from Minneapolis via WhatsApp when I told him about it. A grown-ass man, indeed, who didn’t know what he wanted.

I did find authenticity, eventually. I found it back in Madison. It seemed to hit me right in the face. Every grad student can attest to One of Those Days when you’re spinning about 18 plates. It’s one of those 16–20 hour days of work with no end in sight, but somehow your enthusiasm is boundless and your skills have never been better. I had one of those days: it was awash in tumors, cytokines, mice, and who knows what else, and I managed to make it to the gym, too. There was no anxiety, no catastrophizing, just me working carefully, methodically. I only feel this in the lab. The lab—to borrow a dated expression—makes me feel like a whole man.

To be authentic is to be at equilibrium with oneself, and the lab is the only place I get that feeling—not the bars where I find myself playing at Something Desirable. Not house parties which make me feel old. The lab: Pure and simple.

Maybe that is the answer for queer brown boys in my situation: to be authentic is to strive to be excellent. From excellence comes pride: a little extra pride to make up for what was lost when you came out.