Gay rights, inter-generational chasms and evolving society - A conversation with Indian-American writer Mala Kumar
A novel 'The Paths of Marriage' came out in last October has created both sensation and controversy among the Indian community in America. It deals with the most delicate issue of lesbian relationship among Indian women in the US. People discuss it in hushed tones and refused to accept it in public.
New York: Mala Kumar is an Indian-American writer and international development practitioner. Her debut novel, 'The Paths of Marriage', came out in October 2014, while she was working for UNICEF in the central African nation of Burundi and has made plenty of waves within the United States in general and the Indian-American community in particular.
'The Paths of Marriage' follows three generations of Indian and Indian-American women. Lakshmi, a bright student who grew up in poverty, marries and immigrates to the United States from India to provide a better life for herself and her family. Clinging to her cultural realities, she forces her American daughter, Pooja, into an arranged marriage, creating a rift of resentment. Pooja's daughter, Deepa, is an out lesbian to everyone but her family. The woman Deepa loves presents an ultimatum-come out to Pooja or break up-and Deepa is forced to confront her greatest fear.
Three generations of Indian and Indian-American women navigate the harsh slums of Chennai to the bustle of New York City, struggling through a cathartic generational collision to try to come together as a family.
Largely due to inadequate policies protecting both people who are perceived to be LGBTQ and LGBTQ staff, consultants and interns, she quit her job, garnering national US coverage through an Op/Ed she wrote for 'The Advocate'. She hopes 'The Paths of Marriage' and her global network will help further the causes of LGBTQ rights and gender equality.
Writer and philanthropy expert Venkatesh Raghavendra recently sat down with Mala to discuss her novel and what it means for the LGBT community in India.
Venkatesh Raghavendra: Let me first congratulate you on your debut novel and the ripples you have created. Why is this novel important for the Indian community? For Indian diaspora?
Mala Kumar: Simply put, there is not a lot of media that addresses the intersection of LGBTQ issues and South Asian culture. It's my hope that my novel will add greatly to the small pool of content in favor of tolerance and acceptance from an Indian lens of LGBTQ rights. I hope that what I have written is as relevant for an Indian living in Asia as an Indian living in North America as an Indian living in Africa. The greater Indian community is global in nature, as is the need for upholding human rights, even if the act of inclusion is local.
Venkatesh Raghavendra: How do you think this book will affect perceptions of the LGBTQ community in India?
Mala Kumar: I think in many cases, The Paths of Marriage will reinforce Indian opinions of acceptance towards the LGBTQ community. In others, I think opinions will be swayed in favor of acceptance, as the parallel struggles between the main characters shed light on how the need for equality is universal. Each of the three main characters are fighting to be heard and accepted for who they are, and I think a lot of the Indian community will recognize their own real-life struggles in the story.
Venkatesh Raghavendra: How did your career influence your writing of The Paths of Marriage?
Mala Kumar: Poverty does not discriminate. It is present from the inner cities of America to the favelas in Brazil to the slums in India. However the first time I ever witnessed extreme poverty was as a child on a family holiday to India. I am very fortunate in that I never experienced that struggle first-hand. As in the book, my real-life maternal grandmother grew up in the slums of Chennai before immigrating to the States. Her stories of India were a huge influence on this book. My careerfocuses on reducing global poverty, whichgave me a greater and richer context to my grandmother's stories in relaying struggles of extreme poverty in the narrative.
Venkatesh Raghavendra: What is the significance of the title?
Mala Kumar: Growing up in the States, a lot of Hindu and Indian culture came in the form of the philosophy behind the ritual, as daily life was often not conduciveto the rituals. The philosophy of multiplicity in Hinduism - in manifestations of God, truths, and wisdom - is one that I always hold near. I wanted the title of the book to reflect the idea of arriving at the same conclusion or event through a multitude of paths.
Venkatesh Raghavendra: Why did you release the book when you did? Is there significance in the timing of the release?
Mala Kumar: I started writing 'The Paths of Marriage' nearly four years ago. Once my publisher picked up the manuscript and we got it to final form, we set the date for its release to be as soon as possible. Thankfully, the release came ahead of another significant year for LGBTQ rights in the States and gender equality in India. Ironically, I was in central Africa when the book was released, and could thus not speak openly and freely about the book in my immediate environment as I would have were I home in New York.
Venkatesh Raghavendra: Did you write the novel for Indian audiences? American audiences? Both?
Mala Kumar: Definitely both. I have been and will continue to be outspoken about racism in the LGBTQ community and homophobia in South Asian culture. What it means to be both Indian and queer is a constantly evolving concept, and I hope The Paths of Marriage gives greater insight to both Indian and American audiences on both fronts.
Venkatesh Raghavendra: What has been the most interesting reaction to the book so far?
Mala Kumar: The reaction that will always stay with me was my father's. I came out to him as gay when I was 27, nearly a decade after I started coming out to friends and family. He was born and raised in India, and although I believe he is very progressive and open-minded, he did not have a frame of reference of what it means to be gay. About a year before the book was released, I gave him a draft to read while he was on vacation. He finished a few days later, and wrote to me with a simple but powerful message, "I understand now."
Venkatesh Raghavendra: What lies ahead in your writing career? More books on India?
Mala Kumar: My second novel is tentatively titled This Mourning, and is a big departure from The Paths of Marriage in terms of scope and content. This Mourning will largely be about the shooting that happened at my undergraduate university my last year there, in which I knew five people who were killed. My anticipated third book, however, will return to a largely Indian setting and will be about depression, suicide and reincarnation.
Venkatesh Raghavendra: How has life for LGBTQ people changed since you were growing up?
Mala Kumar: I grew up in the US state of Virginia. Overall in the States, there has been a recent radical shift; in general, social acceptance, the law, politics and the conversation around morality has hugely swung in favor of LGBT equality. Elsewhere in the world - particularly in India and East Africa - this shift has not taken the same favorable arc. I was shocked and dismayed at the recent Supreme Court of India ruling that reinstituted criminalization of homosexual activity.
Venkatesh Raghavendra: What part of Indian society did you write about? Why?
Mala Kumar: In the first part of The Paths of Marriage, I chose to focus on a poor woman of the Shudra caste. Much of the Indian literature I have read have characters that are either the uppermost or the lowermost caste. I thought it would be interesting to focus on a character that is born into a society that would not always automatically relegateher to either extreme. Instead, I wanted her to encounter a mix of opportunity and oppression. I thought in this way the realities of life, chance and luck would shape the story and character.
Venkatesh Raghavendra: What sets your novel apart from other books about India and Indian diaspora?
Mala Kumar: I think it is fair to say that the scope of social issues I take on in The Paths of Marriage sets it far apart from most books about India and Indian diaspora.
Social Media Accounts for Mala and The Paths of Marriage
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