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Good Indian Boys Do Not Cut Hair for a Living

Posting an old interview that was published by South Asian Generation Next on 7th July 2010.

Gay, Proud and Successful: Sunil Prakash on his Life as a South Asian Hairdresser

What happens when your first-born son comes up to you and says, “I want to become a hairdresser”? Do you blink rapidly like a goldfish and wonder to yourself that maybe he is joking? Or, do you balk and then give in to your urge to scream?

Then...

Suave, sexy and a true gentleman, Sunil Prakash, the co-owner of ‘The Lid Lounge’, a high end salon in downtown Toronto, and a hairdresser himself, had the following reaction from his Indo-Canadian father: “Any idiot can cut hair!” Not one to take things lying down, he answered, “Well, if any idiot can cut hair, then you go cut mum’s hair, and we’ll see who’s an idiot!”

... and now

With a far-away look in his eyes and a tiny smirk, he says, “I got cut off financially… I didn’t know what [my father] was trying to do at that point… I got student loans, did my own thing… and (with some pride creeping into his voice) [have] been quite successful ever since.” And, indeed he has, since his salon boasts of famous clientele like Shyam Selvadurai (author of Funny Boy).

Of course, becoming a hairdresser and admitting his desire for an alternative career (as a South Asian) was not the only concern for his parents. When asked if he had a difficult time ‘coming out’ to them, he glibly responds, “Yeah, absolutely… and, as a first-born son too!” He admits that his relatives back in India were more “okay” with it than his parents. He further goes onto explain why most South Asian parents may be reluctant to open up to the idea of homosexuality as a reality within the South Asian community, “Most South Asians here [in Canada] are immigrants or have come with an immigrant mentality, meaning, their socialization has sort of stopped… They are not socially current as Indians [in India] are. You go to India today and Indians of the same age as my parents are far more liberal. My dad left India in the 1950’s and his Indian values are of that someone from the 50s. But (he adds hurriedly) [he is] all cool enough… now.”

However, he admits that it wasn’t easy for his two younger very-straight brothers either, “When they started to go out with their [girlfriends,] my parents started with ‘These Canadian girls’. They had a problem with that too… I don’t know why! (Laughs)” Thinking for a second, he offers an explanation, “Think about it. My father’s Indian. Mother is from England. My brothers and I are all biracial. [We] are both of our parents and neither of our parents. They could relate to us on many different ways but in some ways they couldn’t relate to us because we were slightly culturally different from them.”

Talking about his partner, with whom he co-owns his salon, he says, “My partner and I have been together for twenty years… My parents really respect us for being together for so long. We owe the longevity of our relationship to the example which my parents set for us. And, my partner’s parents have been together for… forever [as well]. We have pretty strongly rooted families… Time is a great leveler, so it all worked out in the end”.

And, are you guys married? He shakes his head and replies, “By the time they changed the same-sex legislation, we had already been together for such a long time that [it didn’t matter]… The commitment is to each other. [Marriage] would be an afterthought at this point”.

Sunil ends with his words of wisdom that maintains its hold on me as I walk alone to the subway to catch my train back to Mississauga, “Never be afraid to be yourself. I haven’t and it’s worked out for me”.

For more informaton on Sunil Prakash’s salon, visit www.lidlounge.com

Photographs: Copyright Sunil Prakash

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Marriage Aaj Kal*: An Ultra-Feminist Take on Arranged Marriages

From the Kamasutra

*Today and Yesterday 

An edited version was published by Helter Skelter Magazine on 3rd March 2011.

Chanakya of the Mauryan dynasty, and a prime minister of his time, is said to have remarked, “A good wife is one who serves her husband in the morning like a mother, loves him in the day like a sister and pleases him like a prostitute in the night.” It’s impossible to confirm whether he actually said this, but it isn’t too difficult to imagine based on the time period he hailed from. What I find strange is that after all these centuries Indian men still harbor a similar attitude. This attitude can be traced to the Kamasutra as well that he allegedly wrote (many historians assert that Vatsyayana, author of the book, and Chanakya are the one and the same). As mistakenly understood by many, the book is not just about the art of making love, but also about the male art of making love to women without committing sin. According to the ancient text, it is perfectly ok to sleep with another woman if there is an ulterior motive involved. For example, in an English translation by Deepak Chopra, a rule states that: “I love another woman, who is this woman’s best friend. If I sleep with this woman, I can get to the one I really want.” Another example, “By winning this woman over, I can kill her husband, whose riches I covet”. Note that these rules apply only to men, and deem it tolerable to objectify women in order to satisfy personal again.

But I don’t want to refer to ancient texts (or their translations) to give you the picture of unrealistic expectations of Indian men. Gayatri Gopinath, a queer theorist of diaspora, in her article “Nostalgia, Desire, Diaspora: South Asian Sexualities in Motion”, points out that patriarchal attitudes of men towards women not only exist in the homeland (India), but also in the diaspora. The female gender is viewed as “the symbolic center … [for] … “home” and “family””, and heteronormative female sexuality can only exist “within the familial and domestic space”. Thus, it is acceptable to be sexual if you are married and only with your husband, while homosexuality is either criminalized or ignored. Gopinath cites a real-life example, where the South Asian Lesbian and Gay Association (SALGA) was denied the right to march in the Federation of Indian Associations (FIA) sponsored annual India Day Parade, in New York City, both in 1995 and 1996. Consequently, the FIA is run by a group of Indian immigrant businessmen.

All this only leads up to the question of ‘why’. Why would these men be so hind sighted to ignore that women nowadays are free, independent agencies, who are not confined to traditional gender roles whether in India, or outside of India? The only answer, in my opinion, is their false sense of entitlement. They appear to believe that they have this ancient right to have these equally ancient expectations. As the SALGA example would suggest, men outside the “homeland,” have been unable to evolve beyond their view of traditional gender roles, as applied to women back in the homeland. Maybe, it can also be attributed to parental and societal pressure that plants the seeds of such inane ideas into their heads at tender ages, so that they grow up having expectations that only become more traditional with time. For example, this summer, when I was in Calcutta, a neighbor subjected me to a volley of questions. She is currently on the prowl for a bride for her younger son (who never wants to leave India). Some of her questions were:

Do you know how to cook?
Don’t you want to settle in India?
Do you know how to wear a sari?

All her questions were addressed with a smile. It was as if she hoped I wouldn’t see through her façade of “innocent” questioning. Instead of being mortified, I was faintly amused. Really? Do I represent the ideal future daughter-in-law for your “modern” son, who also expects to have a very traditional wife at home (ironically, chosen by his mother. Really, you can’t get more traditional than this!)? I had some questions for her too: Does he know how to cook? Doesn’t he want to settle abroad? And, why on earth does he talk with that put on accent? It sounds neither British, nor American. Just an Indian trying very hard to sound “foreign”!

Source: Meera Sapra's blog at http://lifesacomicstrip.blogspot.com/

However, don’t castigate me yet. I don’t have a problem with arranged marriage. On the whole, I find the concept very gratifying. It’s really very similar to set up dating. You say ‘yes’, only if you feel you are compatible. Yet, with the unrealistic expectations of Indian males (and in this case, their mothers) all around, it’s difficult for us women to find someone to “live” with.

To assuage the attitude of men here in Canada, I had a discussion with some of my male friends on the topic of marriage and what kind of qualities do they want in their future wives.

“She must know how to cook!”
“She should keep the house nice and tidy.”
“She should be a virgin!”

I was faintly aghast at such pronouncements. These were Indo-Canadian men living here in Toronto for the past ten-twelve years. Were they actually hoping to find the “wife” described by Chanakya? The irony was that not all of them were virgins, and none of them had any experience with cooking or cleaning.

In the case of my parents, I believe they got lucky when they found each other. Their’s was a love marriage. And, even though, my father is not exactly the most liberal man alive, he definitely didn’t hope for the ideal Chanakyan wife. And, since my mom works hard at home, and at the office (she is my dad’s business partner and they work together), I can only imagine her staring scornfully at Chanakya, if he had made the mistake of making that comment in her presence.

In my case, I too have the image of an ideal man in my head. He may not be THE ideal man, but ideal enough for me. He would be someone: who looks decent (this might appear a little vain on my part, but if I had to choose between the frog and the prince, the frog would probably end up dead face down in a pond somewhere); can clean, if not cook; and has a tolerant nature, since I tend to get impatient and lazy at times. He need not be a virgin. Most people I know of my age, are not. He need not be super intelligent. However, I wouldn’t tolerate a super idiot. And definitely, he must not have too many unrealistic expectations of my abilities. I cannot speak for other women, but my girlfriends also harbor similar “attainable” attributes within their future spouses. Yes, I do believe that we are the more rational gender, but that’s my personal bias.

So, I ask you, where do we women expect to find our men? And, where and when exactly do these men of today expect to find their women? With distorted realities clashing into each other, the answers may be “in our imaginations” and “never”.

I think I have come to terms with that reality. The question is: have you?

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Clearing the Air on World AIDS Day

Posting an article I wrote last year on HIV/AIDS for World Aids Day. It was published by South Asian Generation Next on 2nd December 2009.

HIV/AIDS: Myths and Misconceptions

“How do you get AIDS?”

“What do you think?”

“Kissing?”

“No.”

“Hugging?”

“Wrong again!”

“Touching then?!”

“Not really…”

First of all, let’s get the facts right. AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome) is a disease, and HIV (Human Immuno-deficiency Virus) causes it.

So, what you “get” is the HIV virus. Think about it this way. H1N1 is the virus, while swine flu is the disease. Similarly, HIV is the virus, and AIDS is the disease.

Now for the misconceptions. HIV can be transmitted from an infected person to another through the following bodily fluids- blood, semen, breast milk and vaginal secretions. It cannot be transmitted through saliva, sweat, tears and urine. You don’t get the virus by breathing the same air. It’s not a cold! You don’t get it through hugging, kissing and touching. These are simple misconceptions that alienate those who need help the most.

A former York student (name withheld) revealed an incident that threatened to shake his existence about five years ago. He had to take the medical tests during his Canadian immigration process and he had been tested positive. He had been scared and nervous. He had wanted to kill himself. However, he confided in his family who persuaded him to take a retest. The result? He was negative.

This is not common, but not unlikely either. In June 2004, a young man in Faridkot, Punjab, India, was mistakenly tested positive for HIV. The result nearly destroyed his life. His engagement was broken off and he became an outcast from his social circle. Just like the former York student, he thought of committing suicide. However, before he could do anything rash, he was persuaded by his family to seek a second opinion. To his relief, he was tested negative. Just to be completely sure, he sought a third opinion. Same result.

Yet, what compelled these young men to take a second test? They had their family to give them mental support.

But what about those who are HIV positive or living with AIDS? How can they survive if they don’t receive the mental strength that only their loved ones can provide?

Of course, don’t just blame the family. There just isn’t enough awareness among people out there about the disease or the virus itself that can allow for understanding. For example, a South Asian woman who is viewed as the sacred center of her household; who does not indulge in promiscuous sex; how can she be susceptible to HIV?

Well, she could have contracted it through her husband. It’s a definite possibility. But she is the one who is questioned; not the husband. And, then, there is this huge misconception that HIV is contracted through promiscuous sex only, and those who have AIDS are being punished for their lack of morals.

Well, breaking news folks.

Sex is NOT the only way you can get HIV. It can be acquired through sharing un-sterilized needles (syringes, body piercing, tattoo instruments), blood transfusion (Since November 1985, ALL blood products have been tested for HIV in Canada. Therefore, the risk is low) and vertical transmission (an HIV positive mother can infect her child during pregnancy, birth or through breast milk).

Another misconception running rampant is that it’s a “gay disease”, and is a divine poetic justice for being gay.

Not only is it a stigma for a person of the queer community living with HIV, but it’s a double stigma because he/she is queer. What has led to this misinformation?

Media can be blamed to an extent. There have been movies made in the past that sent the wrong kind of messages to the public, confusing the real with fiction. It created a huge stigma among the South Asian community, especially since there are many individuals within our community who believe that HIV/AIDS does not exist. That it’s a non-South Asian gay disease.

First of all, there ARE South Asian queer people. And, there are South Asian queer people living with HIV/AIDS. And being queer is NOT a choice. Secondly, it can affect ANYONE. Straight or homosexual. ANYONE. And, thirdly, like I explained before, it is not a punishment from God, as would be the likely belief, but a lack of information that led to the lack of prevention in the first place. 

What has been done to create awareness? Well, for one there has been an increase in movies and books that help to promote AIDS awareness.

In 2007, Mira Nair’s Jaago campaign gave rise to four short films, and in 2008, Negar Akhavi compiled a book of essays (Aids Sutra: Untold stories from India) to help bring awareness among the public. But these attempts can only help up to a small extent. For example, the short films were screened at film festivals. Film festivals target critics and avid movie goers who can afford to pay for and watch movies. They are also available online, but if you don’t have any access to the Internet, then how do you get the information? Therefore, the populations belonging to lower social economic status have little or no access to information. And, as a result, suffer the most. They have to rely on outreach programs that help spread awareness.

Fortunately, we live in a country where most of us can afford to get this kind of information. There are plenty of organizations that promote HIV/AIDS awareness among the common people. Specifically for the South Asian community, there is ASAAP (Alliance for South Asian Aids Prevention). They are a “community-based, non-profit, charitable organization committed to providing health promotion, support, education and advocacy in a non-discriminatory manner”. They also have multilingual services in Bengali, Gujarati, Hindi, Punjabi, Tamil and Urdu. They are highly confidential and have been providing counseling and other support to their clients since 1989. In addition, they have had many outreach programs in the past that help promotion HIV/AIDS awareness and education among the South Asian community.

When I was an ignorant happy-go-lucky shallow individual who didn’t care much about the world and only about good grades, latest gossip and latest fashion, I had some misconceptions of my own as well. I thought people with HIV/AIDS die early and that you can tell them apart from other people. But, that’s not true. They look just like you or me. And, with advancements in medical technology, it is possible to live for much longer with HIV nowadays. All my misconceptions were dispelled ever since I decided to volunteer for ASAAP. They have a wonderful knowledgeable staff and an amazing network of approximately thirty active volunteers who do their bit in creating awareness throughout the year. Their most recent event was held on 27th of November at three subway stations- Finch, St. George and Queen’s Park.

I was stationed at Queen’s Park with two other volunteers and we were assigned to sell lucky bamboos as a World Aids Day initiative. It was an enriching experience just interacting with the different kinds of people who passed by our little table. Most of them were supportive. Even if they didn’t want a bamboo, they wanted to donate. It was moving to see this kind of support from complete strangers.

And that makes me think, if complete strangers are willing to change their misconceptions and help support a great cause, then why not you? It is easy to ignore how deadly HIV can be and how easily it can be contracted. We can all act like camels with our faces in a sand hole hoping the storm will pass when it’s really raging all around us. All we need is to open our minds just a little so that we can help individuals come forward and identify themselves in order for us to help them and provide them with the information and support that they need. So that they don’t feel the need to hide behind aliases and find it easy to tell you their credentials and hobbies as simply as being able to say that they are HIV positive without experiencing the feeling of being caste aside or stigmatized. So that we can help prevent this “thing”. This deadly insidious thing that can strike any where, any time and ANY ONE.

It’s World AIDS Day today. I did my bit by writing this article. What are your plans?

Resources: www.asaap.ca, www.actoronto.org, www.hivstigma.com

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