There isn’t much that dots the poor town in West Virginia my grandparents have called home for the last half-century. As new immigrants in a period of American history that knew little to nothing of their home country of India, they were grateful to simply even establish themselves in the “promise land”, even if their slice of the promise land promised little. Over the decades, their roots grew stronger in the town. Growing up, I learned to accept it as a part of my life, even though the socially conservative sentiments of the area were never to my liking.
As the first-born of their first-born, my grandparents were a constant part of my childhood. Though my high school years felt their presence more distantly, I ended up going to undergrad 60 miles away from their house. With the decision brought an overjoyed reaction that I would become a staple part of their life for at least a few more years. Indeed, I lost track of the number of times I made the trip on the twisted, mountainous roads to their house to retreat from college life.
In the years since undergrad, my grandparents and I saw each other less frequently. I had made the decision during my Bachelors to dedicate my career to economic empowerment and poverty reduction. My drive saw results, and I have been lucky enough to live and work around the world in my career in international development. Between my trips abroad, New York City became home, and that tiny town in West Virginia became all but a distant memory.
A few years ago, I decided to reprise the memory of that town through my debut novel, The Paths of Marriage. Undoubtedly, the realities of a small, conservative, isolated town shaped two key characters in my book; I knew how to depict those effects largely from the time I spent in such an environment in real life.
One of the biggest lessons I hope readers will draw from The Paths of Marriage is that we can all find commonalities through our shared experiences of discrimination, even if the attribute for which we are discriminated is not the same. In the final section of the book, two of the main characters sit down for a heart-to-heart, the grandmother revealing she knows and is okay with her granddaughter being gay. The way the story progresses shows the grandmother has help in understanding, and she draws commonalities to growing up poor and of a low socioeconomic class.
I recently decided to take trip down to my undergrad alma mater with a fellow alumna. After a full day, I walked back to the car and began the once familiar journey through the country roads that lead to my grandparents’ house. My evolved culinary tastes now adore the Indian food my grandmother once had to coerce me to eat. Satisfied I had consumed a worthy portion, she sat down across from me with an uncharacteristic hesitation in making eye contact.
“My nephew called earlier today,” she told me.
“Oh?” I replied.
“Through the Facebook, his niece saw something you wrote. Something called The Advocate?”
I froze, nearly dropping my drink. I had indeed written an op-ed for The Advocate while I was abroad in central Africa working for UNICEF.
“She said the article said you are a lesbian,” my grandmother continued.
My frozen stance hardened. In November 2014, I publicly came out through the magazine. The post had been circulated widely around the web, revealing my queer identity to strangers and family in India, alike. Much like my character in The Paths of Marriage, my real-life coming out saga stopped short of telling my grandmother. “My grandparents are too old,” I had reasoned.
As I have had had to do so many times over the course of my life, I took a deep sigh and leaned in, starting with the most important question of the conversation.
“What do you think?” I asked my grandmother.
She sighed back, realizing the rumor was true.
“Maybe you’ll find the right man,” she replied.
I smiled at the comment, suddenly reminded how much of a difference context makes. I have heard the same line many times before, and usually react with anger. Somehow, coming from my forever loyal and unassuming grandmother, it made me laugh.
“Well, I have been gay my entire life. I have known my entire life. I have been with some really great women, and some not so great women.”
“Ellen DeGeneres is gay, did you know?” my grandmother immediately replied.
I could tell she was trying to let me know her “right man” comment was not coming from a place of malice, but of lack of understanding.
“I did know. Where did you hear?” I replied.
She told me of a segment she saw on the news, during which Ellen talked about her marriage and wanting to have a child. I explained to her that my orientation did not determine whether I wanted to have a family. In the seven years since I had first moved to New York, I had never told my grandparents much about my big city life. For the first time, I showed my grandmother a bit of my life through pictures — my queer female friends, some of the women I have dated, and how supportive my parents — her daughter included — have become.
In the evolution of queer theory, nothing we spoke of was particularly groundbreaking or radical. What was astonishing to me, however, was how she concluded the conversation.
“You know I was discriminated against a lot when I was young,” she said.
“In what ways?” I asked, though I already knew the answer.
“I was different. I wore pants and shirts as a girl in 1950s India. I was poor and of a middle caste, yet I still went to university. I married a guy because I thought he would treat me well, not because we came from the same part of India,” she replied.
“How does it make you feel that I am gay?” I asked again.
“Those people who discriminated against me weren’t right, Mala. These people who say you are disgusting for being gay aren’t either.”
The final lines of the scene I described above in The Paths of Marriage come from Lakshmi, the grandmother character. She says, “Many people in India said I did not deserve an education. Many people said educating a girl was unnatural. Just because there were many people does not mean they were right. I will not be a part of the many against you.”
Just like in my novel, my real-life grandmother sat before me, drawing connections of her past battles to what I have been through. Without any guidance and in spite of her immediate environment of the last 50 years, my grandmother gave me a hug and told me she supports who I am.
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Mala Kumar is an international development and ICT4D practitioner based out of New York City. Mala is excited to use her global network and The Paths of Marriage to connect people as part of a growing community and dialogue on building a more compassionate, open, and empathetic world. When not immersed in work or writing, you can find Mala exploring NYC’s culinary adventures, in an intense workout at the gym (often to mitigate the effects of said culinary adventure), planning her next international excursion, or blocking out subtitles on the latest French film. Contact her at [email protected].