I travelled to Varanasi to meet Neeti, a 33-year-old openly lesbian program coordinator at Asian Bridge India, a non-profit focused on improving living conditions of poor and marginalised communities. She is also the president of Prismatic Foundation, a recently founded queer-community organisation in the city. The first thing on her agenda was a welcome party for me at the café Malkin’s Chai and Chuski, which she and her friends had made their adda (hangout). They are a tightly knit mix of masc lesbians, non-binary persons, trans women, cis gay men and queer persons.
There was Shanu bhai, a 32-year-old masc lesbian travel agent from an orthodox Gujarati family. They were given to joking around but also ensured everyone felt included. Their best friend Sushma is a bespectacled bisexual, dressed in formal attire and the heir to a chain of prominent medical centres in Varanasi. Shanu and Sushma met on OK Cupid, a dating app, but decided that they had bhai-wala (fraternal) feelings for each other. Shivani, also known as RJ Suraj when he moonlights as a radio jockey, is in his early thirties, and works as a solderer. Shivani identifies as male but presents as female for his beloved single mother. That evening, Shanu was having a hard time with the fact that Shivani had just pierced his ears.
Malkin’s owner, Ana, a 37 year old soft-spoken trans woman, sent out a constant stream of appetisers. Randhir and his boyfriend Rahul, who are students at Banaras Hindu University, slow-danced through the evening and were prone to elaborate displays of affection. The group experienced a freedom in this company, which was a stark contrast to life outside where, according to Shivani, “Na chahte hue bhi ek boundary mein rehna padta hai (We unwillingly have to maintain certain limits on our behaviour).”’
Till two years ago Neeti’s life was devoid from this easy camaraderie at Malkin’s. “The Neeti in front of you, I was the complete opposite,” she told me. She is now confident, outspoken, self-assured, and comes across as the mom-friend of the group. Earlier she was meek —a consequence of a 12-year relationship characterised by serial infidelity, possessiveness, lack of privacy, and relentless emotional and physical violence. At one particularly low point, Neeti had a broken finger and 14 muscle injuries. Her colleagues at the non-profit organisation Sahayog insisted she leave her girlfriend, when she showed up to work after a fight, unable to walk. “By then I’d stopped taking on domestic violence case-work because I felt like a hypocrite,” she recalled.
At that time, Neeti found her ex-girlfriend’s behaviour passionate and romantic calling it “aashiq wala type”, but now she described her ex-girlfriend as dictatorial, patriarchal, controlling and extremely masculine. Such behaviour could itself be a manifestation of a response to stigma. “How does a lesbian assert their masculinity?” Ritwik, a trans femme activist in Lucknow, ventured. “If you wear shirt-pant, you’ll still be clocked as a woman. So, instead, you up the masculine behaviour you’ve seen around you. You order people around, get aggressive, jealous.” Vibha Rungta, a queer psychologist formerly based in Lucknow said that the lack of awareness, openness and healthy models of behaviour, can lead to toxicity, violence, and substance abuse in some queer relationships.
Neeti comes from a lowered caste, described as OBC or “Other Backward Classes” in official records, whereas her ex-partner is Brahmin, a historically privileged caste. Her ex-partner’s mother would keep separate utensils for people from lowered castes and didn’t allow them to sit on her bed, but treated Neeti as an exception. The casteist practices led to frequent arguments between Neeti and her ex-partner. Neeti observed that people from dominant castes learn supremacy in their bodies in the same way that a man learns masculinity in a male body. She sounded conflicted about whether her ex-girlfriend’s violent behavior was connected to her caste.
Neeti’s relationship shaped her life to such a degree that she was still getting her bearings two years after it ended. “Sometimes I feel that I’ve fallen so behind, I’ll never get those years of my life back,” she told me. Still, as part of the non-profit space, Neeti had access to an affirming environment. Her colleagues and friends urged her to see a counsellor. During the pandemic, she had some telephonic therapy sessions with a psychologist in Kolkata. It helped her cope with chronic insomnia. Today, Neeti is a powerhouse juggling two projects at work, and coordinating LGBTQIA+ community activities in the city. “And since I met this group, I am ekdum relaxed. Humko duniya mil gayi (It’s like I have been gifted a whole new world),” she said, her face lighting up.
Neeti’s network of friends filled not only a social need but also provided a mental health safety net in a city that lacked safe access to professional mental healthcare for queer people. I visited the privately-run Deva Institute of Healthcare, which was one of the first results on Google when I looked for mental health facilities in Varanasi. The out-patient department was smaller, more private and less crowded than hospitals I visited in Lucknow. Venu Gopal Jhawar, the senior psychiatrist, told me that the hospital gets roughly ten queer clients in six months, and estimated that lesbians made up only about 20% of the institute’s queer patients. Like Lucknow, many patients were below 18 and their families had brought them to be “treated” out of queerness. Queer people who visit the facility themselves seek help from relationship-related stress and depression arising from discrimination, said Jhawar.
Next I visited Pandeypur mental hospital, a government institution, in north Varanasi. The psychiatric out-patient department was so crowded that it took me an hour just to get the phone number of Amarendra Kumar, the director and chief superintendent of the hospital. Over a call he told me that there are only three government mental hospitals in all of Uttar Pradesh-- in Agra, Bareilly and Varanasi—serving a population of 200 million people in the state. “I’ve been practicing for at least 15 years. Initially there would be 25-50 new patients at the OPD, now we get 450 to 500. The facilities should increase with the number of patients but this hasn’t happened,” Kumar said.
The Pandeypur hospital did not have a fully-fledged psychiatric unit with psychiatric social workers and support staff that it needed. Kumar said that in his entire career he had seen only one openly queer patient – a gay man. “It’s very rare to see such a patient,” he told me. “The patient cannot openly express this [ homosexuality] because of social stigma and the perception that this is unnatural. Especially in this belt of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh where the thinking is more conservative and conventional. Here people think this is sickness.”
Neeti’s friends are all in varying stages of “being out” to their families. Many have told their mothers. But, mostly, they do not feel that they can be openly queer. None of them, apart from Neeti, has seen a psychologist even if they needed to. They fear that this official relationship between doctor and patient, no matter how private, could result in being outed and bring unwanted judgment.
“Ana is our counsellor,” Shanu joked. At Malkin’s they turned up the volume for a Bhojpuri song playing on radio. “You need the Banaras-wali feeling,” Shanu said, using the local, more intimate name for the city. At that point the night hit a euphoric fever-pitch. Everyone was drunk on whiskey and dancing in a room filled with the haze of hookah smoke. Abhishek, a friend of Neeti’s, who had the silkiest hair I’d ever seen, jumped up to perform a mujra as the speaker sang, “Saiya ji dil maange, gamchha bichai ke. (My lover asks for my heart as he spreads a sheet on the ground.)”
In Lucknow, I spent an evening with Priyam (“the app-queen and brand ambassador of Lucknow’s lesbians”) and two of her friends that was in equal parts melancholic and beautiful. I met Anuradha and Avni, whose names have been changed to protect their identities, at a café. Both are lesbians in their thirties, like me. I explained to them that I was trying to understand the pressures of queer life and access to mental healthcare in Lucknow. Avni stared at me mystified. “Humein kya hua hai? Hum toh theek hai (What has happened to us? We are fine),” she said.
Avni had a traumatic childhood, having been separated from her mother and sister when she was six. She had survived suicide-attempts, self-harm, and depression but waved it all away that day. “We’ve got only one life and we have 100% right over that,” she said firmly. “We do have a responsibility towards our parents, but only we have the right to decide how we want to live life”
She works in real estate and keeps her sexual orientation hidden at work. So does Anuradha, who is a teacher at an elite primary school. Anuradha wore no make-up, had a messy braid, and laughing eyes. Funny and charming, she is the only child of elderly parents whom she cannot trust to comprehend her sexuality. Anuradha told me how she was outed by a classmate she confided in. At that time, she only wanted to see what saying the words felt like.
Anuradha talked about the anxieties she faced—family pressure to marry and to wear feminine clothing which was dysphoric to her—that led to anger, irritability, the urge to break things and hurt herself by hitting her hands on a wall. “I used to talk to myself,” she said. “My mother would have left the room after our argument, but I’m still continuing the dialogue in my head for hours, with all the unsaid things, and literally grinding my teeth. I realised that something is very wrong.”
Six months ago she tried counselling in the form of three online sessions. It helped for a few days. “I want to be myself but I’m not able to,” she said. “My life will change only when someone tells my parents [that I am gay] because I do not have the courage to do it.” The weariness and resignation in her voice was painful to witness. I asked Anuradha and Avni whether they would consider therapy if they found a reliable queer-affirmative practitioner. “There was a phase where we desperately needed someone to be there,” Anuradha said. “[I had] daily suicidal thoughts and cried all night. If we’ve gotten used to repressing [our feelings], and passed that phase, we’ll get over whatever new crisis arises too.”
Avni felt that as older queer women they had been through the worst and learnt to deal with trauma themselves. But she thinks that younger people need not learn the hard way. They should access therapy if they need it, she said. “The kids can still be saved,” from acting out in self-harm and isolating themselves in distress, she hoped.
Before dropping me at my hotel that night, Priyam and Avni took me on a drive-by tour of Lucknow’s Chowk region. All three of us were on Avni’s motorbike. Avni wore a black leather jacket and a helmet. A lit cigarette dangling from her mouth, and mischief in her eyes, she looked effortlessly cool to me. We sped by the iconic Rumi Darwaza, the ghanta-ghar and the two Imambaras. At 11.30 pm the roads were empty except for us three dykes, whipping by the city at high speed and it felt a lot like freedom.
Kukum Yadav from Khabar Lahariya contributed reporting.
Riddhi Dastidar (they/them) is a Delhi-based writer covering disability justice, gender, rights, and culture. They hold an MA in Gender Studies from Ambedkar University. Their mental health reporting has won a UNFPA-Laadli Media Award and SCARF award.
Manimanjari Sengupta (she/they) is a painter and illustrator with a background in Sociology and Law. Their work is rooted in challenging the status quo laid down by patriarchy and highlighting lived experiences of women and non-binary folk.
Nayantara Narayanan (she/her) is an independent journalist based in Bangalore. She has worked as reporter, editor and producer for newsrooms such as The Caravan, Scroll.in and CNBC-TV18. She has a masters in journalism from Columbia University.
Malini Nair (she/her) is a consulting editor with Behanbox. She is a culture writer with a keen interest in gender.
Ankur Paliwal (he/they) is a queer journalist, and the founder and editor of queerbeat. He writes about science, inequity and the LGBTQIA+ persons for several Indian and international media outlets