In­dian ra­dio show with a broad con­cept of love

‘Gay­dio’ is the first to fo­cus on LGBTQ is­sues in a na­tion with sex­ual taboos.

Los Angeles Times - - THE WORLD - By Shashank Ben­gali shashank.ben­gali @la­

MUMBAI, In­dia — The topic of the ra­dio talk show was love, and the new­ly­weds sit­ting side by side be­hind stu­dio mi­cro­phones were brim­ming with it.

He had no­ticed her on Face­book and mes­saged her sev­eral times, fi­nally trav­el­ing 125 miles to see her af­ter she agreed to a date. She touched his arm, re­mem­ber­ing how they had talked that night un­til af­ter 4 a.m.

The host smiled. “We don’t want to prop­a­gate Face­book stalking,” he said, “but in this case it seems to have worked.”

Just your av­er­age Sun­day af­ter­noon ra­dio fare — ex­cept that the host was Harish Iyer, per­haps In­dia’s most out­spo­ken gay rights ac­tivist, and his guests were a trans­gen­der woman and her straight hus­band.

They were speak­ing on “Gay­dio,” the first ra­dio show ded­i­cated to LGBTQ is­sues in In­dia, where ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity is taboo, same-sex re­la­tions are of­fi­cially il­le­gal and most mar­riages still take place within so­cially pre­scribed bound­aries of caste and re­li­gion, not to men­tion gen­der.

The weekly two-hour pro­gram air­ing in Mumbai and two other cities since midJuly is a qui­etly revo­lu­tion­ary ex­per­i­ment in broad­en­ing In­dia’s con­cept of love. The week be­fore Mad­huri Sar­ode Sharma, the trans­gen­der woman, and her hus­band, Jay Sharma, were in­vited on the show, its guests were two men, a Mus­lim and a Sikh, who have been to­gether for more than a decade.

“I’d like to bring on a bi­sex­ual man — they are one of the most in­vis­i­ble com­mu­ni­ties,” Iyer said, sip­ping wa­ter af­ter the tap­ing in sub­ur­ban Mumbai. “The point of the show is to cre­ate a safe space, an in­fra­struc­ture where you can come and speak about your lives.”

By hav­ing the Shar­mas on the show, Iyer said he hoped to open lis­ten­ers’ eyes to the dis­crim­i­na­tion faced by trans­gen­der peo­ple, who oc­cupy an un­com­fort­able limbo in In­dian so­ci­ety.

Like many trans­gen­der In­dian women, Mad­huri Sharma is a hi­jra, part of a com­mu­nity that ap­pears in an­cient Hindu texts and is of­ten in­vited to dance at weddings be­cause mem­bers are be­lieved to bring good for­tune.

In­dia’s Supreme Court has en­shrined a per­son’s right to iden­tify as trans­gen­der and set aside places for such peo­ple in schools and gov­ern­ment jobs. Some states even sub­si­dize sex re­as­sign­ment surg­eries, such as the one Mad­huri Sharma, who was born as a man named Prakash, un­der­went be­gin­ning a decade ago.

But most hi­jras still live on the mar­gins, re­duced to pros­ti­tu­tion or beg­ging on street cor­ners. Un­til De­cem­ber, when the Shar­mas were wed in a tra­di­tional Hindu tem­ple cer­e­mony — she wear­ing a red sari and gar­lands around her neck, he a white suit and tur­ban — no trans­gen­der In­dian had mar­ried openly.

In the tap­ing, Iyer asked Mad­huri Sharma, who is slen­der and chatty, about the rep­u­ta­tion that hi­jras have for be­ing bel­liger­ent, par­tic­u­larly when ask­ing for money.

“Trans­gen­der peo­ple don’t get love from any­where,” she said. “That’s why they are ag­gres­sive.”

Later, Iyer came back to the topic of their first date, 15 months be­fore they were mar­ried. Given that hi­jras are so of­ten ex­ploited for sex, wasn’t she scared when she in­vited Jay Sharma to her house af­ter they had only chat­ted on Face­book?

“I had al­ready been cast off from so­ci­ety,” she said. “We have got­ten so much pain. So if some­one gen­uinely wants to meet me, why would I be scared?”

Iyer and his pro­ducer liked that line, and ended the tap­ing soon af­ter that.

After­ward, Iyer said that ex­plor­ing such sim­ple, re­al­life sto­ries was the goal of the sta­tion, Ishq 104.8 FM, whose name means “love” and whose tar­get au­di­ence is young ur­ban adults.

“We are re­ally speak­ing to them about their lives and the lives of the peo­ple they en­counter on a daily ba­sis,” he said.

Iyer, 38, has long been a trail­blazer. Two years ago, he made in­ter­na­tional news when his mother took out a clas­si­fied ad look­ing for a “groom for my son.” Mat­ri­mo­nial ads — with their of­ten deeply spe­cific re­quire­ments for a suitor’s age, height, ca­reer, caste and com­plex­ion — are a sta­ple of news­pa­pers here, but this was be­lieved to be the first such ad for a gay In­dian.

His mother wrote that a man from the fam­ily’s Iyer caste — an elite com­mu­nity of Brah­mins from south­ern In­dia — would be “pre­ferred,” lead­ing to charges that the ad per­pet­u­ated the same sort of dis­crim­i­na­tion it was aim­ing to fight. Iyer said that his mother just wanted a man whose cus­toms she was fa­mil­iar with, and that the ref­er­ence was meant to be slightly tongue in cheek.

Sev­eral men re­sponded, in­clud­ing one from the Iyer com­mu­nity who vis­ited his house and im­pressed the fam­ily with a ren­di­tion of tra­di­tional Car­natic mu­sic, but there hasn’t been a match yet. “I’m still sin­gle,” the ac­tivist said.

In a 2009 mag­a­zine piece, Iyer re­counted in gutwrench­ing de­tail how, start­ing at age 7, he was sex­u­ally abused by an un­cle. He was forced to per­form oral sex and was raped un­til he bled, some­times by mul­ti­ple men, un­til he was 18.

He has since told the story in count­less in­ter­views and speeches, although it still shocks. Sex is hardly dis­cussed pub­licly in In­dia, let alone graphic ac­counts of abuse. In a TED talk recorded last year, Iyer chas­tised an au­di­ence for cring­ing as he dis­cussed his or­deal.

“I know it’s un­com­fort­able,” he said, an edge in his voice. “I can see peo­ple mak­ing th­ese faces. But you guys are re­spon­si­ble for what has hap­pened to me. Be­cause of your taboo, be­cause you don’t speak about sex.”

Iyer likes to say that liv­ing “truly and un­abashedly” is his best form of ac­tivism — and he is a fear­less voice on many causes, in­clud­ing an­i­mal rights and gen­der equal­ity. So it was a bit of a de­par­ture for him when the ra­dio sta­tion chose to not pub­li­cize the show un­til af­ter it de­buted, hop­ing to avoid op­po­si­tion from me­dia reg­u­la­tors or con­ser­va­tive re­li­gious groups.

“Our view was, you have to be in the sys­tem to sub­vert the sys­tem,” said Shradha Singh, the sta­tion’s pro­gram­ming chief. “We wanted to get it on the air first. And the re­ac­tion so far has been mostly pos­i­tive.”

The de­ci­sion to air the show on Sun­days at noon was also de­lib­er­ate, Singh said.

“That’s fam­ily time, you’re lis­ten­ing by chance or driv­ing in the car with your fam­ily and have the ra­dio turned on,” she said. “We want the show to reach out to ev­ery­body.”

Shashank Ben­gali Los An­ge­les Times

IN THEIR ap­pear­ance on “Gay­dio,” Mad­huri Sar­ode Sharma, left, who is trans­gen­der, and hus­band Jay Sharma, who is straight, dis­cuss their courtship.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.