The Queer Bookshelf is your fortnightly date with books about queer lives and loves from India and elsewhere
I spent most of my Diwali break indoors, reading a book that I fell in love with soon as I began to turn the pages. It gave me a comforting vibe of the kind that I usually feel only in spaces that allow me to shine without dimming my light, and to embrace the dark unloved parts of myself without apology. I wanted to hold the author’s hand, and cry for as long as I needed to.
If this adulation seems excessive for a celebrity memoir like singer-actor Ricky Martin’s Me, I must confess that I did not grow up listening to his music. I approached this book not as a fan keen on getting to know their pop idol, but as an avid reader of queer autobiographies. The common ground I discovered with every subsequent chapter left me feeling surprised and affirmed because it is written by someone who is spiritually inclined, passionate about his work, and moved by the immense suffering in the world we cohabit. His words inspired a recognition that we are one despite the histories, identities and circumstances that separate us.
Martin writes, “To make decisions that represent significant change in one’s life, we must go through many processes of destabilisation, and very often we opt to stay where we are most comfortable. And that’s how life goes on. But if we dare to embark on the most difficult option, we come to realise that what exists on the other side is a world of freedom, peace, and endless tranquility.”
I may not believe in a creator god but I think the universe has a great sense of timing. The book came into my life at the most opportune moment — a phase of intense reflection about loneliness, love and legacy. It spoke to me in such a personal, intimate way that I felt like it was written for me by someone who understood me, and had my back. It awakened questions that I had buried deep in my heart, gave them a place to feel at home, and offered a glimmer of the solace I have been looking for.
Martin says, “It can take you an entire lifetime until you can start from zero all over again, without preconceptions, without prejudices, and without fear. But when you get there, and accept who you are, you can start each day by seeing it as it is: a divine paradise where everyone can imagine what they want and turn it into reality. Every day begins like a blank chalkboard, on which each one of us can write the poem of our present and our dreams for the future.”
This might sound like some new-agey claptrap if you are the sort of person who stays away from the self-help section at bookstores but, trust me, Martin is no advocate of spiritual bypassing. I appreciate his insistence on treating emotional wounds with the care they deserve, and working through unresolved issues, because everyone has their own journey and pace and sense of what they need to feel ready to walk into the unknown. Soaking in the poetry of Rumi, aligning your chakras, or chanting a mantra, can be pretty useless if you are not willing to look within and muster the courage to accept what you find.
Martin writes of knowing "deep down... that I was gay" but still spending many years trying to hide it, even from himself. He ultimately came to accept that it was only with another man that he could find the love and passion he sought in a relationship. "But I spent a lot of time resisting what I felt," Martin admits.
Going to an ashram in India was part of his struggle to make peace with himself but this book stays away from painting India as an exotic land of snake charmers and levitating sadhus. The author remains sincere in narrating his visceral response to the custom of touching the unwashed feet of a guru, and to the practice of untouchability. He is reluctant to judge a culture that he knows little about but does not feel the need to veil his disgust at the manner in which human beings are treated when they are poor. Martin’s account of his time in Kolkata is particularly moving because it shows the connection he feels with children, not just his own. His visits to India strengthened his intention to rescue and rehabilitate children who are victims of human trafficking, and also to lead a life that did not involve shouldering any secrets about his own identity.
A substantial portion of this book is about Martin’s experience of fatherhood. It is dedicated to his twin sons Matteo and Valentino who were born through surrogacy. He was single at that time but fully determined to start a new family with the support of his parents and close friends. He may have had the financial means to make this decision, and stick with it, but he did not have a partner. He was also worried that nosy, insensitive media persons might violate his privacy, and that of the surrogate mother, in their eagerness to get a scoop. Back then, he did not feel ready to come out publicly as a gay man. However, he had no second thoughts about his readiness to have children.
He writes, “Like a good first-time father, while I waited for the boys to be born, I read every book there was to read: child development books, books about twins, books about the first weeks of life. In fact, there are remarkably few books available about being a single father (and those that are available primarily focus on what to do after divorce), and I wanted to be fully informed on the subject by the time they were born. So I spent all of my time reading, learning, preparing... At the same time, I was fully aware that most of what it’s really like to be a father can’t be learned in any book, nor passed on from person to person.”
When this book was published in 2010, Martin had only two children. He is now a father of four. He has a daughter named Lucia, and a son named Renn. He is married to Jwan Yosef, a Swedish painter of Syrian heritage. Martin’s life might seem perfect but he has gone through many challenges in his life. His parents separated when he was a child, and he was raised mainly by his grandparents. He went to a church that described homosexuality as sinful. He joined a famous boy band when he was a teenager, and it was a time of great hardship though it seemed glamorous to everyone else. He got a chance to work in Hollywood but was snubbed for his Puerto Rican heritage that came with an accent that marked him as an outsider. He had people eating out of his hands at concerts but he took on more work than he could handle as he was afraid of losing the limelight. He did not prioritise his mental health because saying no was a skill that took him a long time to learn. He wondered if people would stop buying his albums if he came out.
Things began to change when fatherhood, philanthropy and spiritual practice began to define Martin’s life instead of record sales, and when he decided to completely give up the guilt and shame that he had internalised from cultural and religious messages about homosexuality. He writes, “The truth is that I don’t wish the pain I endured on anyone, which is why I think it is so important to fight against prejudice. Do you know how many teenagers kill themselves every day because they cannot face their sexuality? They lead miserable lives, never allowing themselves to be who they really are...maybe I had to go through the experience of being a father, to have my two beautiful angels, to be able to take a step back and understand that this is no longer just about me.”
Chintan Girish Modi is a writer-researcher working at the intersection of peace education, gender equality and queer rights
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Updated Date: Oct 31, 2019 09:50:56 IST