My first kiss happened at age 22, and it taught me two important lessons: First, the silence around sexuality in South Asian communities around the world is exceptionally problematic, and second, karma can be a real bitch.
On January 10th, 2019 at 5:59pm, I received a text from home: “Where are you?”
“Just got on the bus.”
The moment I hit send, I felt karma lurking around the corner. I always believed that lying was an unforgivable sin. But, had my mother known I was with a boy in an empty parking lot, she would denounce me.
Adjusting the driver’s seat for the fifth time, Kevin asked, “So, were you serious about the whole kiss thing?”
Three nights ago, I’d texted Kevin that I wanted to kiss him—a meaningless kiss. We were close friends who had previously discussed our lack of feelings for each other, his failed relationships, and my childlike innocence. He responded with “lol,” unable to fathom that I, having never seen or done anything remotely sexual in my life, would’ve wanted a meaningless first kiss.Had my mother known I was with a boy in an empty parking lot, she would denounce me. Click To Tweet
The trigger of my courageous inquiry was when talk about sex entered my Hindu-Canadian household for the first time, several months previously. In September 2018, India lifted the ban on homosexual acts, liberating many to legally explore their sexuality. Rainbow flags danced across our TV screen and Indians celebrated in the streets with loud music and faces full of happy tears. My mom came out of the kitchen at the sound of excitement.
“What do you think?” I asked.
“Other people can do what they want. It doesn’t affect us,” she replied, concluding the conversation.
I couldn’t argue with that. My family was convinced that somehow, someday I would confidently marry some Indian man and create a happy little Indian-Canadian family of my own. But this idea began to scare me. How would I know what satisfied me if I’d never experienced anything at all?
Needing to know the full story, I sat alone in my room, going through the news on the gay-sex legislation in India.
“What happens after decriminalization? What happens after marriage? How do we shift to culture, to acceptance as opposed to tolerance?” said Helen Kennedy, the executive director of Egale Canada in a CTV interview.
Acceptance isn’t possible if we’re constantly worrying about saving face—the concept of upholding a clean reputation by avoiding humiliation. To keep their children away from “unacceptable” sexual exploration, Indian parents change the channel on onscreen romance, take control of their children’s dating life regardless of age, and establish strict rules on going out with friends.
A phone conversation with a friend led to the topic of family and relationships.
“There is so much mistrust even when I wanted to go out to dinner with my girl friends. Didn’t hear the end of it for days,” said Hruti, whispering through the phone. “Sometimes it’s hard to leave the room, you know?”How would I know what satisfied me if I’d never experienced anything at all? Click To Tweet
I recalled a few times where my mother suspected I had a boyfriend. She’d nearly cry, take my hand upon her head, and make me swear that I wasn’t seeing anyone. Hindus believe that lying under oath is deadly. When I’d confidently sworn to her that I was single, she’d sit in silence, waiting for some impending doom.
“So, how do you manage your friends-with-benefit situation?” I asked her.
“Well, during university I lived on campus, so it wasn’t a problem. Now I just make time after work. Luckily, I have my own car.”
She said lying was easy for her and recalled someone who’d said, “those with strict parents become the best liars.”
“But how do you deal with the guilt and the anxiety that comes with lying?” I asked, wondering if I was the only one who felt it.
“As long as I don’t get caught, I don’t care. It’s the only way to experience life.”
This was hard for me to digest. As a Hindu, we create our own set of beliefs, abiding to a core framework called “dharma” which in the simplest terms means to do the right thing. Personally, doing the “right thing” meant abiding by the values I learned growing up: respect, honesty, and having a positive mindset. This meant focusing on school and saving face, which in my case included not being seen with the opposite sex in public unless you were planning to marry them. “Don’t engage with boys and focus on school” was a famous motto in most Indian households—and my mom’s favorite saying.
After conversing with Hruti, I began to wonder how much a rule was able to stretch before it was considered broken. If I remained a virgin and didn’t date until I was permitted to, I believed that kissing in private couldn’t ruin my family’s reputation.
When I was with Kevin in the car that evening, I felt that was my one and only chance. With an untainted internet search history, a body less explored than the Mariana Trench, and a mind full of dramatic Bollywood dance sequences, I knew I had to start somewhere.
“Yes, I was serious about the kiss,” I said.
“So, do you want to?” he asked, shifting his eyes nervously.
“Sure.” I shrugged. After a few awkward seconds of listening to a Tim Horton’s ad play on the radio, I continued, “You’re going to have to start. I don’t know what to do.”
“Argh, I know. Don’t look away.”
We leaned in toward each other until our lips met. Then we made out for 40 minutes. Contrary to the romanticized descriptions of kisses in novels—of soft lips, gentle tongue, and an all around feel of magic and fireworks—his lips, tongue, and teeth only felt like lips, tongue, and teeth.I began to wonder how much a rule was able to stretch before it was considered broken. Click To Tweet
My focus shifted from one sense to another. The glowing orange streetlight above. The cars passing by in the distance. The stick-shift forming a bruise on my left knee. Ed Sheeran’s voice ringing clear through the radio, “When your legs don’t work like they used to before...” The roughness of Kevin’s beard under my fingers. I kept imagining what would happen if the police caught us. Were we even allowed to be in the empty parking lot?
Eventually, we stopped. As I rolled back onto the passenger’s seat, I heard a crunching sound under my waist. I’d completely forgot that I’d taken off my glasses during the kiss. Though my frame broke in a way that my glasses still functioned, karma still managed to take $300 for the experience.
We didn’t talk about the kiss as he dropped me off a block away from my house. I wished him a good night and exited the car. The air was cold, and my lips were dry. I rubbed my face to even out my ruined makeup. I didn’t feel excitement, or regret, or disgust, or guilt, or contentment. My body and soul felt empty. I was on autopilot until I got into bed and dropped into sleep.
I kept quiet about my glasses for the night, planning to tell my parents I fell asleep with them on in the morning. I remembered Hruti saying it was easy for children of strict parents to lie, like a survival instinct. It would hurt even more if I found out I was lying to myself—that I knew exactly what I was and what I wanted.
What if it was because we didn’t love each other? But I found him exceptionally attractive. That should’ve been enough. Should I try kissing a girl? There were countless boys I pined over since I was four. Maybe I’ve been mistaking my feelings for good-looking girls as a form of appreciation rather than attraction. A group of guys in sixth grade called me a lesbian while snickering. But what if they had figured out something that I didn’t even know about myself?I didn’t feel excitement, or regret, or disgust, or guilt, or contentment. Click To Tweet
I imagined all those Indians dancing on the streets, rainbows painted on their faces, knowing exactly who they were and what they fought for. Their fear of being disowned, of receiving death threats, and lying had a purpose. I wanted to know what it meant to feel contentment, disgust—anything besides empty. We Hindus are so caught up in the suppression of sexual discourse that finding where I belong would mean more lies, more sins.
Maybe this whole evening was karma’s well-written joke and nothingness was the ultimate punchline.