Published in La.Lit on 4 September 2020

On Being Visible

Drawing the limits means excluding something which is seen as outside the valid order. This space in-between, this empty space that opens up between inside and outside, between the included and the excluded, tells as much about a society itself as it tells about its values. A society establishes and preserves its values through the continuity of history; through processes of inclusion and exclusion, however, a society makes its significant choices. –

I wasn’t sure what to expect from this year’s Gaijatra Pride Festival. I had caught the tail end of last year’s parade. I remember a few metis running down an Asan street and a cacophonous gathering in Basantapur. How big would the turnout be this year? And would the parade really start at 12:30?

There was already a considerable gathering in front of the Sanchaya Kosh building around noon, when I walked past to meet my friend Sammy. By half past noon, I was impressed to see neat rows of decked-up people, well organized into groups, standing behind leaders holding banners.

Drumbeats mixed with the metallic clangs of Newari instruments. I was magnetically drawn towards the crowd. “I must take a photo of this banner,” I said as I skipped over the road barrier in the middle of the street. The banner that caught my eye declared “My Country, My Constitution, My Rights”, and below those words, “My Identity: My Pride”. The words made sense. In light of rumours that draft laws to restrict the rights of the LGBTI community were being prepared by the Ministry of Law, the marchers were highlighting the issue and vocalizing their concerns.

The march started precisely at 12:30, and we followed. I asked a pink sari-clad transgender where she was from. “Nawalparasi,” she said and gently turned to her friend to synchronize her limbs with the rest of the group. Shashaktikaran was the name of her LGBT community. A confident, soft-spoken meti smiled brightly at me and answered that they had come from Lahan, in Siraha. The name of her LGBT organization was “Mero Pahichan”.

As the parade approached Narsingh Chowk, I watched from a stoop, noting the names of other LGBT communities that had travelled to Kathmandu from across the country. There were representatives from Dhangadi to Dhankuta, and “Sahara Samaj” from Itahari walked behind “Naulo Srijana” from Nepalgunj.

“I think the Blue Diamond Society tried to keep it low-key last year because they were involved in some legal issues with the District Office,” said Sammy. He has been living in Kathmandu for a few years and helped me put some of these things in perspective.

“But wouldn’t you say this is still a great turnout?” I asked. “About four hundred. That’s pretty big, people.”

It was amazing. Walking through Chhetrapati towards Asan, through Indrachowk, Sammy and I were curious about the road-side spectators. “Do you think they know what’s going on,” he jokingly asked. Most had neutral expressions, these shopkeepers and pedestrians. But a Newari aunty in Chhetrapati flashed a wide smile; she was enjoying the show. A neighbourhood boy, camera slung around his neck, followed the parade with us. Near Asan, we noticed a group of three men, eyes behind shades, leaning on their motorbikes. They seemed unsure how to respond when a lesbian couple danced past them. They were quiet and uncomfortable. But they didn’t seem hostile.

That’s when I started thinking about visibility. How crucial it is to be who you are. It was as if each one of these participants today was holding a mirror; mirrors that reflected who they were and validated their presence, validated each other’s presences. And some of the onlookers perhaps saw aspects of themselves in these mirrors. A mentor teacher once told me – “When you read stories to your students, make sure each one of your students can see aspects of their lives reflected in the stories. When they don’t see themselves in the narratives, it’s as if they are invisible. As if they don’t exist. The resulting psychic imbalance can be devastating.”

Stories have always been a unifying force bringing cultures and religions together. Stories reflect our identities. They reassure us by validating our existence. But a story can also draw limits by outlining who is a part of it and who is not. Mainstream Nepali stories have a husband and a wife. A husband usually behaves in a certain way; so does the wife. These stories have, historically, left out sexual and gender minorities.

Today, by walking from Thamel to Basantapur, some of the excluded demanded that stories be rewritten, and asked to be a part of the national consciousness. By organizing themselves in groups, they showed the Nepali aunties and uncles and dais and bahinis that they exist. They celebrated. They danced to the drumbeats. Courageous thuds filled the air. Joyful clangs reverberated in the gallis of this ancient neighbourhood.

August 11, 2014