By Shamini Kothari
The phenomenon of lesbian suicides? Nothing new about it, and yet, I write about this one in particular with shaking hands. Perhaps because it occurred only 10 minutes from where I live, in my city and in a city in which my partner and I run the only safe space for the queer community of Ahmedabad. The burden of being the only space is being the only site of possibility. How does one take news like this knowing that there was an alternative, that you were an alternative. I lay awake till 3 in the morning the day of the incident and turned to my equally wakeful partner saying, “I just want to be able to save them. Tell them we are here.” But it is always a little too late and a little more complicated than just that.
The two women came from a small town and what seem like lower to middle class backgrounds. They committed suicide with a child that belonged to one of them on 11 June at the Sabarmati Riverfront in Ahmedabad. The reason I chose to write about them is primarily to respond with dignity to their lives after the completely insensitive and sensationalized coverage of their deaths in the mainstream media, that cruelly vilified these two women and ignored the uniquely painful socio-legal circumstances in which their suicide took place.
The second reason I am writing this piece is because I am worried that this is going to be another unspoken death, and moreover, that all the conditions that caused it will be left unspoken too. I have often believed that the right to take one’s own life should be granted as a fundamental right, but as I know this, I am also equally aware that the most vulnerable in society are often vulnerable to suicide. Large scale structural inequity does not offer a real ‘choice’ between life and death. When you are living a life at the margins, it is easier to be pushed to the edge.
To put this incident in context, I need to provide some context of the city and its history. Ahmedabad is a city with little to no archive of queer lives. It does not have a long history of queer organizing or movement building and almost no history centered around queer women and trans* men (LBT lives as it is often termed).
The most common question we are asked as Queerabad, is “Do you not think this gay, lesbian and alternate sexualities is only amongst the upper class?” This ludicrous question assumes two things—firstly that the poor cannot desire or love, and secondly, that queerness is alternate. What this thinking in turn produces is a lack of imagination of queerness that is marked and complicated by class/caste divisions, the negotiation of which is part of the lives of several people.
In the “roti, kapda, makaan” framework, somebody left out desire. Access to desire is determined by the other three. Sometimes, the only way to survive the lack of material resources is through desire. Lesbian suicides turn the elitist narrative of queer lives on its head because most often, the women taking their own lives come from disadvantaged backgrounds.
These women make their life explicit via death. Their queerness is disclosed through their absence. Ruth Vanita, who has worked extensively on queer lives in India talks about lesbian suicides in her 2005 book Love’s Rite: Same-sex marriage in India and the West, where she states how lesbian suicides can “function as a type of marriage – a public statement of intent to unite forever. This ‘forever’ may be conceived of as a real site— the next world, the afterlife or future lives. It may also be the “forever” of memory and history— death may make visible and public on this earth a love that society would not permit to be consummated in marriage.”
This powerful promise and trust for a future that is “not yet there” (to paraphrase Jose Munoz) radically changes how we see their suicides. That being said, I would like to steer clear of the only other imagination of their life together on Earth being one of marriage, and hope to build futures where the infrastructures of desire are made far more accessible and possible.
The suicide of the two Ahmedabad women also brings to surface the class/caste politics within the queer movement. In this rainbow filtered, instagram-worthy and Kitty Su filled Pride Month, what are the lives that are still struggling to find the words to say I love you, or to eat, to live or survive. In the time spent on trying to figure out whether you are truly demisexual or greysexual, why is it that we continue to be comfortable entering a room where we all share similar surnames, similar references and grieve about how we can’t watch Love, Simon.
These two women deserved better, they deserved attention. The kind of attention that is going to require queer organizing to dismantle comfortable politics, be incredibly self-reflexive and keep asking the question of who is not present in the room and why. We come together as a collective fraught and marked with difference or we do not come together at all.
Lastly, I want to name one of the unnamed culprits of their death. This is the Sabarmati Riverfront and everything it stands for. A new Gujarat, a ‘developed’ Ahmedabad that is built upon the loss of several lives and modes of sustainability. The riverfront marks the border between lives livable and unlivable, it delineates those who have access to a future and those that don’t and its imagination is clean, straight as it gets rids of the bodies that once lined the river’s border and built economies and cultures around it. These bodies are now displaced, lost, erased. This is the kind of future that these two women (and several other women) did not want to be a part of. A world that cannot imagine them, a world that made their lives unlivable is a world better left alone. May we create better worlds and may the river always remember them.
Shamini Kothari works at Conflictorium: Museum of Conflict in Ahmedabad. She is the co-founder of Queerabad, Ahmedabad’s only safe space for the queer community and allies and is interested in issues of gender and sexuality.