In reading Friends Under the Summer Sun, envisioning queerness as an experience of unabashed joy

The plot of Friends Under the Summer Sun revolves around a heartwarming encounter between a child named Nimmi and her neighbour Shri who likes to be addressed as Akka.

Chintan Girish Modi June 28, 2020 17:36:29 IST
In reading Friends Under the Summer Sun, envisioning queerness as an experience of unabashed joy

The Queer Bookshelf is your fortnightly date with books about queer lives and loves from India and elsewhere

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Am I allowed to be happy? This question occurred to me while reading Vulnerability Amplified: The Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic on LGBTIQ People. It is a report published by OutRight Action International, a non-profit organisation focused on eradicating inequality, violence and persecution.

Amie Bishop, the author, reveals that a majority of the LGBTIQ respondents interviewed for this report felt cut off from their chosen families and support networks. They faced an increased risk of violence due to forced cohabitation with unsupportive families. Reading this made me sad and uncomfortable.

My experience has been different. I want to acknowledge that but not apologise for it. What might seem like privilege now is something I have experienced as a struggle of a lifetime; when the fruit of my labour has finally arrived, I will not let it rot with self-imposed guilt.

This could be a state of repose or defeat. I have laid down my arms, and the heart feels no regret. Something will emerge, most certainly, from this stillness I am beginning to cherish. May it teach me how to be humble and serve the queer and trans communities I owe much to.

The biggest gift of this pandemic-induced lockdown has been a renewed closeness with my family. I sit with this realisation late into the night, watching a lizard move across the glass window. It shows up at this hour every time I am awake, marinating in my own thoughts.

My parents have fallen asleep. I can hear them breathe after another day of hard labour; this brings me a kind of peace that seemed tough to imagine just a few months ago. I had grown so tired of resisting, fighting, demanding. Happiness seemed like a distant dream.

The external circumstances at home have not changed much. However, I have learnt something about myself. It is easy for me to stay out of emotional drama when I pause at the right moment, examine my own habit patterns, and focus on equanimity rather than fixing others.

I was exposed to this idea 13 years ago when I went for a 10-day meditation retreat. Imbibing it has been slow work, largely because of my own wavering commitment to the practice. The lockdown reminded me that acceptance would be the key to unlock freedom.

I was so attuned to welcoming pleasure and rejecting pain that I believed there was no other way to live. It was less of a challenge to say that my life was a mess because of others than admitting how I had chosen to wallow in my victimhood. I decided to transform my narrative.

This meant releasing myself from the hold of a binary that depicts parents as either gods to be worshipped or demons to be vilified. My heart grew calmer. I began to embrace the fact that they are human beings without a script for raising a wildly creative and outspoken queer kid.

Until then, I had focused almost entirely on my own pain. I hadn’t carved out the time to understand theirs. I refused to see their fragility; I felt safer explaining everything through the lens of patriarchy, heteronormativity, misogyny and queerphobia.

In reading Friends Under the Summer Sun envisioning queerness as an experience of unabashed joy

Friends Under the Summer Sun has been written by Ashutosh Pathak and illustrated by Kanak Shashi. Image via Twitter/@prathambooks

The language to deconstruct structural violence appeared so empowering that I failed to see how the structures of my new vocabulary were creating more enemies to slay, further restlessness, and a solid armour that made me sink further into self-righteousness.

I held on to the bits of knowledge I had stitched together but grew distant from my own ability to forgive. I failed to acknowledge that families are reservoirs of intergenerational trauma as well as resilience. When I engage with one aspect, and not the other, I block my own path.

I threw myself into books about queer lives and loves. A neat resolution seemed more attainable in fiction than in reality. Unfortunately, I discovered that authors too love to torture their queer characters with childhood trauma, hate crimes, physical abuse and suicidal ideation.

Friends Under the Summer Sun (2019) is an exception, and that is exactly why I want to share it with you. Written by Ashutosh Pathak and illustrated by Kanak Shashi, this book depicts queerness as an experience of unabashed joy. It has been published by Pratham Books.

The plot revolves around a heartwarming encounter between a child called Nimmi and her neighbour Shri who likes to be addressed as Akka. They meet when Nimmi’s mother sends her over to Akka’s Cakes and Bakes with a big bowl of 12 shiny white eggs. Who is the cake for?

Nimmi is confused because Ma has not told her much. She has sent the girl on yet another errand because Nimmi’s brother Momo is just a month old. Nimmi likes to help but she also wants to go out and play with friends; the summer is about to end, and she wants to have fun.

“A cake! Nimmi’s heart leapfrogged with joy as she rang the bell. But who for? All birthdays were past or too far away, and it wasn’t Ma and Pa’s anniversary either. Maybe she would ask Akka herself,” writes Pathak. Nimmi is surprised that Akka is not the white-haired grandma she had imagined.

Pathak says, “Instead, there stood a slender tall boy, about as old as her mom. His rich black hair fell down to his shoulders, framing a friendly face.” Shri invites Nimmi into the house and runs into the kitchen. A cake needs to be rescued before it gets burnt.

Nimmi is fascinated by everything around her. She gently places the bowl on a table, and looks for a place to keep her slippers. There is a shoe rack in the house. “Some shoes were mens’, made of fine leather, while others were colourful sandals with heels on them,” informs Pathak.

The author portrays the child’s curiosity with great affection. He invites the reader to come along on this journey of discovering who Shri is, and who Akka is. There is a simplicity in this exploration; it focuses on feeling, and is uncluttered with dense explanation.

The kitchen is littered with breadcrumbs, pieces of cake and gooey batter. The air smells of burnt cake. The baker is having a terrible day and could use some help but Nimmi doesn’t know how to bake. Shri says, “Oh it’s easy. You take something you love, and give it a shape.”

Aww! Yes, reading this book is like being in a sweet shop. It is soft and mushy like marshmallows. It is delicious and syrupy like a deep fried gulab jamun. It is rich and flavourful like mishti doi. You get the drift; this book is comfort food for the heart.

Nimmi loves summer but she doesn't know how to turn it into a cake. Shri tells her, “The things you love, never go away...Just close your eyes and remember the smell, the touch, the colours and the taste. That way, summer will forever stay!” It seems like Ma does have a plan for her.

Nimmi recounts all that she loves about summer, and they create a heart-shaped cake. It is covered with golden green icing. “Little blades of green grass were lined evenly along the sides. On top, a bunch of bright lilies and petunias nestled amongst golden brown leaves,” writes Pathak.

Summer doesn’t seem all that dull anymore. Nimmi is being rewarded for helping Ma take care of Momo, and assisting with household chores. She cannot take her eyes off the cake, and Shri’s carefully shaped fingernails "painted in playful shades of sky blue and lemon green".

Before she goes home with the cake, Nimmi wants to ask a question. It has been at the back of her mind all along. “Shri, who is Akka, the name on your door?” When Shri says, “Me!” she is a bit confused. “So are you a girl or a boy?” she asks. The answer is simple: “Does it matter?”

It does not. Yes, there is a whole book to spell this out. I hope many educators, librarians, parents, grandparents and other adults pick it up for the children in their lives and give them the opportunity to learn that everyone is worthy of respect regardless of how they dress, what their genitals look like, or the pronouns they use.

This character of Shri, also known as Akka, is modelled on actor-director Pradipta Ray whose personal story appears at the end of the book. Ray writes, “As a child, I always felt like a girl, even though I had the body of a boy. My feminine behaviour attracted unwanted attention and I realised very early, that the world was not an easy place for me.”

Fortunately, home was not a place of abuse for Ray. “I felt safe at home because my parents never really harassed me for my feminineness – be it wearing makeup or women’s clothes. At school too, my teachers were loving and this is where I found other amazing friends who also identified themselves as girls.”

Being raised in such an affirming atmosphere, free of discrimination and bullying, gave Ray an amazing amount of confidence. “As an artist and filmmaker, I have always tried to bring the world of queer folks into the mainstream, through my work. And I'm thrilled to find that this book tries to do the same,” writes Ray.

I would urge you to read Friends Under the Summer Sun because it envisions a world where queer and trans people can live without fear. They can pursue their dreams, wear the clothes they like, and do what they love. They never have to ask, “Am I allowed to be happy?”

Chintan Girish Modi is a writer-researcher working at the intersection of peace education, gender equality and queer rights

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