Festivity and Fervor: My Struggle With Religion as an Upper-Caste Queer Person

Trigger warning: This article contains mention of casteism, bullying and sexual harassment.

As I sat with a cup of tea by my window overlooking the narrow lanes of Delhi, I got a call from my mother. She asked me whether I would be coming home to Guwahati for Durga Puja this time, a sentence which made me realise that it was already September.

I soon find myself reminiscing about the joyous days of Puja. I could almost smell the dhunachi-filled air. The shiuli-covered roads used to make for a good evening walk.

For a closeted queer person who has been born and brought up within the binaries of conventional notions, Durga Puja has been more than just a festival. Hyper-feminine idols of Durga Ma made me understand how weakness and strength isn’t dependent upon one’s gender.

I always felt more ‘feminine’ than ‘masculine’ while growing up. I was bullied based on the way I walked and talked because of which I used to dread going to school. They used to wait for me to enter the classroom so that they could announce that a ‘girl’ has come in. I was once harassed by a group of male students who wanted to check my chest to see if I was actually a girl.

I could never complain as I was constantly made to believe this is how boys have fun. One would think that the scenario would cease to exist at home but in vain. My own parents used to partake in calling me a ‘girl’ just because I wasn’t interested in things that are deemed conventionally masculine. I started believing that I wasn’t ‘normal’ just because I didn’t tick some made up boxes created by society.

The only time I used to feel confident in my own body was during Puja. Durga Ma is draped in the brightest of saris, with painted rosy cheeks. All the mythologies surrounding her not only speak about her as a warrior but also about her caring and kind nature. In popular media, female warriors are often masculinised to be respected. The female warrior goddess goes against such notions. I had started to be amused at the irony that my bullies used to call me a woman as they thought I wasn’t “strong enough”, and then went to pray to the goddess for strength.

My thought process was challenged when I started learning more about my sexuality and became conscious of the world around me. I saw pious people – even family members – quoting religious texts in order to emphasise how they believe people from the LGBTQIA+ community are “against nature”.

The concepts of non-binary and homosexual persons has always existed in my religion, but priests and devotees are never seen talking about them. They would claim that we are an abomination, a blot on Hinduism and then go on to worship Durga. Maybe they did not know the scriptures well enough to realise that Durga and Shiva are worshipped as ‘Ardhnaareshwar’ as well, a form which symbolises the amalgamation of the female and male spirits.

This made me take a step away from celebrating festivals and going to temples because of the hard-held beliefs of the crowds there. I felt that maybe I was more spiritual than religious; maybe my belief in the goddess and her strength was enough.

But it wasn’t. The festival was what I used to look forward at times when I didn’t have much going for me. Trying to cut that part of my life out was too tough so I decided to stick with it, in secret.

My beliefs took another hit when I joined college. I was oblivious to my caste-based privileges before that. I had become friends with someone from the Bahujan community who held a visible angst towards religion. I, who had a positive mindset when it came to my faith, wanted to know why.

They said something that would stick with me forever, of how my experiences were very different as I grew up as a man in a Brahmin household where I was constantly given importance at pujas. “When you aren’t given your due space in ceremonies and are constantly discriminated against, you would never feel the same level of comfort, let alone have the fun that the upper-castes have,” they said.

That is how life works, right? We feel connected to something and think that is the end of it and then we grow some more. As we grow, we take in different experiences and realise the world is actually grey. I still do not know exactly where I stand as more than anything else, religion has provided me with a ray of hope that there is an ultimate power which will make everything right.

I hope I reach a conclusion someday. Till that happens, I will keep my head low.

Ayanabha Banerjee is an aspiring journalist and writer, who recently graduated in Life Sciences from Sri Venkateswara College, University of Delhi. He loves to think that his childhood trauma has made his humour better so let’s let him think writing such on a public platform is funny.

Featured image credit: Editing: LiveWire/Tanya Jha