As 3 February 2018 marks the Queer Azadi Pride March in Mumbai, we're publishing six compelling coming-out stories: first-person accounts of coming out about your sexuality or gender to friends, loved ones, colleagues or even to yourself. This interview was part of Harish Iyer's 'I’m Coming Out', published by Juggernaut Books, in which the personalities he speaks with explore what it means to be gay in India.
I met Praful Baweja during a particularly turbulent period in my professional life. He is one of the most vibrant, outspoken and expressive people I have ever met, and his energy is infectious. Praful not only gave me great advice but also helped launch my creative career. If not for him, I would perhaps still be struggling with self-esteem issues. But I did not know anything about his personal struggles until I started writing his story.
Praful grew up in a family of doctors, judges and engineers in a distant suburb of Mumbai. His was one of only two families that had a television in the entire neighbourhood. A short, gangly boy, he was the darling of the women in his building and often assisted them in their daily prayers. This helped him stay away from bullies on the playground who would often pick on him due to his tiny frame. But it wasn’t as though Praful didn’t fight back. Once when he was 10-years-old, he bit the forearm of a 15-year-old who hit him for letting a currency note fly away.
As a child, Praful preferred the company of adults and often engaged with them in philosophical discussions. He would frequently go to the rooftop and spend hours looking at stars. He has always been a deeply spiritual person, and perhaps that is one of the reasons why he is able to reach out to people and help them. This was evident in the way he once spoke to young members of the LGBTQ community to get them to come together and form a photography society. I’ve also seen it in him when he designs posters for gay pride parades or works on a brand campaign. Praful is deeply connected with what he does, and the universe.
Growing up, he was inspired by his older sister, who started working right out of school. Praful possesses a natural aptitude for languages and speaks half a dozen fluently. Shortly after school, he followed in his sister’s footsteps, using his skill for languages by taking up content writing assignments. He started travelling extensively and working longer hours once he joined college. This was also when he started discovering his sexuality. As expected, the first person he came out to was his sister, who was cool about it in the most un-Punjabi un-dramatic way.
"That seems very easy-peasy," I said to Praful.
"That was not so easy-peasy," he replied. "I had my own struggles. I was also straight at one point."
"Seriously?" I chuckled.
"Yes. I mean I thought I was straight or bisexual. I even dated a girl…"
To me Praful is so comfortable with his gay identity that I was shocked to learn he had confusions about his sexuality. That he too had gone through some sort of confusion during his growing-up years. When he wasn’t sure about his sexuality, he ended up dating a close female friend. But curiosity got the better of him and he started looking for information and joined online support groups. He got in touch with Gay Bombay – an online group – which broadened his knowledge and understanding of his own sexuality.
"Ditto!" I told him. "I also found a lot of support in online forums. Especially the Gay Bombay Yahoo group." The Gay Bombay Yahoo group is the biggest platform for the gay community in India.
He started reaching out to others like him and began communicating with them. He discussed his apprehensions and made every attempt to gain greater clarity. Knowing there were others like him not only gave Praful more confidence, but also encouraged him to help others deal with the first steps in the coming out process.
He realised that different forms of creative expression like designing, writing and even acting, helped him become calmer and find peace. As he was writing scripts for a TV show, he was cast in the role of a man of ambiguous sexuality with a mean streak. Praful, the self-confessed drama queen, nailed it and made the character memorable. He also dabbled in photography, tarot reading and reiki during this time.
Praful is a healer and a giver. In all his relationships, Praful has strived to be a friend before becoming a boyfriend. His love tales are more dramatic than any Bollywood masala film. Like all our romantic stories, his also have a pattern. His boyfriends have told him that he is lucky for them – when they begin dating him, a few unsettled matters in their lives, like getting a visa which had been pending for months, fell into place.
Praful had his first serious relationship when he was 22 years old. Despite the fact that he had met his boyfriend – a footballer – online without seeing him in person, Praful was in love.
"Where’s he now?" I curiously asked Praful.
"He had a non-malignant tumour. He died," Praful replied calmly.
Praful has not forgotten his first online boyfriend. But he has accepted his death.
After his first love affair, Praful took some time off the Internet. He then got into the event organising space with a leading publishing house. That was when he met his next love, who was roughly 15 years older than him.
"He wanted commitment. I was only in my early 20s and wasn’t exactly up for that."
Though Praful has very fond memories of this grown-up man going down on his knees to propose to him, things didn’t work out. He eventually migrated to the Middle East with a heart full of Praful.
After this affair, Praful’s next love story had an unconventional twist. He fell in love with his boss, who was mentoring Praful to follow in his footsteps. That relationship fizzled away.
When Praful was asked to go to Bangalore on a job induction programme, he took refuge in a fashion designer’s house. They fell in love almost immediately. Praful used to burn CDs for him, with one song for every day. They exchanged love notes and gifts quite regularly. Even though the designer always maintained that he was bisexual, Praful continued seeing him. After a while, the designer migrated to the UK. Praful was heartbroken. But he remained a fighter, so when he received an invitation to attend the wedding of his once-lover, he obliged. They continue to remain friends, though there exists a distance between the two.
Praful took a break from the drama of relationships for a while but soon fell in love yet again, this time with a third-year college student who proposed to Praful in what he describes as ‘one of the funniest yet sweetest proposals' he has received. They were both watching a film at Regal in Colaba, and during the interval, his date left the hall never to return. Later in the evening, Praful found in his bag a card professing love. His date had slipped it in and left. Praful still has it with him. However, this boy, too, left the country to move to Kuwait.
"I am like a visa for my loves," Praful joked. Every time he has dated a person they’ve ended up moving to another country! Even the girl he had had a relationship right at the beginning when he was still confused about his sexuality. Almost all his relationships have been tinged with this tragic-comic aspect.
"Praful, we should have dated," I said, "I could have been in Canada now, close to Justin Trudeau."
Praful is truly a wonderful person, and that’s the reason this story almost reads like a love letter to him. But do not be fooled so easily by his casual demeanour. Praful also has a caustic tongue. He has many friends but is also disliked by some for his super witty and sometimes extremely sarcastic tone. Praful is not scared to call a spade a spade. He has rebuked me countless times when he thought I was not doing things right. On the other hand, he is generous with his compliments and has also encouraged me wholeheartedly. In fact, I made my first television debut with him on a show called Minus 30 on Network18, which was anchored by Paras Tomar.
Praful speaks at several forums for the cause of LGBTIQ rights and plays an important part in the LGBTIQ movement in India. He doesn’t get written about as much as the others, but that shouldn’t take away from his efforts. He is a silent warrior who does what he has to on the sidelines. And he is happy with that.
He is also a great mentor and guide. Today, many young gay men look up to Praful because of his kind and helpful nature. As a voracious reader, he encourages them to look at books and information as a source of support. He is someone who has encouraged several young men to take up artistic forms of expression in order to cope better with discovering and coming to terms with their sexuality. One such photography club he was associated with, QGraphy, became so hugely popular that its members are now regulars at all LGBT events in Mumbai.
Praful’s enterprising nature is what I respect the most about him. But oddly enough, for a man who is always there for others, Praful is yet to come out to his parents, and not for lack of trying. He has tried to broach the subject on multiple occasions, but his parents keep finding new and innovative ways to brush it under the carpet. Praful suspects it is probably because his older sister is unmarried and their parents don’t want to jeopardise her prospects by making Praful’s sexuality public. Also, though his parents have a fair idea of his sexuality, the fact that he has moved out of home to live independently seems to be a bigger reason for concern.
Praful is ‘out and about’ when it comes his sexuality. All LGBTIQ people don’t have it that easy. "What advice would you give those who are trying to understand their sexual orientation, those who are gay and are struggling to come out?" I asked Praful.
"Sexuality is a part of life," he said. "My sexuality is a part of my complete self. I can’t take it out of me and treat it independently. So I would say first try and accept your sexuality. Before you want the world to accept it, tell yourself, 'I am bigger than my problems, and there is nothing more precious than me being happy.' Everyone has internal struggles. Everyone hates some part of themselves. Try to win that fight. Be you. Unapologetically you. And always remember no one has the right to discriminate against you. You are not a brand. You are different, but so is everyone else. You are not going to get gay employed, you get employed. You are not a gay son, you are a son. So live it up. The complete you."
Published Date: Feb 03, 2018 10:32 AM | Updated Date: Feb 05, 2018 14:13 PM