Scroll Top

Reframing Family History

Modern art. Charcoal sketch of two faces sticking out from one body and one head. One look peaceful, the other sad. Screen reader support enabled. Modern art. Charcoal sketch of two faces sticking out from one body and one head. One look peaceful, the other sad.

Is it possible to frame an approach to our personal family histories that focuses on sexuality?

Families comprise our earliest experience of relationships, good, bad, ugly. Don’t restrict use of the term. Extended family, adoptive family, foster family, the community as family. Also do not restrict the meaning of sexuality to sex. I say this because too often I hear people use the two words as synonyms when they are not. Just as a swift and simple reminder: sex is generally used to refer to the biological category a person may belong to, male, female or any other biological form, and, it is also used to refer to sexual activities that may or may not include sexual intercourse. Sexuality is a broader concept and refers to the way an individual engages with life, relationships, their own bodies, gender roles and identities. And please, do not restrict the meaning of the word relationship. Let it all fly.

Often when we speak of families and family history, we talk genetics, traditions and inheritance of all kinds. Somehow our relationship by blood or otherwise to a clan is supposed to help us identify our place in the universe. So there’s family medical history, family culture, family traditions of food and career.

But sexuality? A family history that focuses on sexuality? What would that even mean?

To me it would mean putting together a picture that unabashedly uses the lens of sexuality to understand the relationships that are a part of our identity. My grandmother loved me and fed me lots of fried fish during my summer vacations. She also told me she would like to have her own companion crocodile at home to talk to as she watched Chitrahaar, a popular TV show that still airs on India’s national channel, Doordarshan. I, however, am speaking of the 1970s. In those days, as perhaps today, television grandmas and Hindi film grandmas spent a lot of time praying and weeping. That was my impression of them as a child. My own grandma was nothing like that. She prayed, yes, wept, I do not recall. She could be mean and fierce too, though she was always loving and grandmotherly to me. No wonder she loved David Attenborough’s wildlife TV shows. There was more to her than television piety and tears. What was her sense of her sexuality? How did she see herself, as a girl, a young woman, an old woman? What a very great pity I just wasn’t old enough to have this conversation with her. I know I’ve missed out on something.

In so many aspects of our lives, we turn to history and personal stories to root ourselves and understand who we are. Or why we are. We attribute value systems to people in those family photographs, or people we have never seen, because in our relationships with them we have found our own culture and traditions. Or through these relationships we are trying to foist a rule upon another, using culture and tradition as the reason.

I am irritated by the fact that large numbers of my friends have said they do not visit temples or the prayer space in the home when they are menstruating. Some have told me it’s because they grew up this way and the older women in the family going back many generations did the same. So rejection of oneself and one’s right to appear before God to pray, for three to six days every month, comes from a family history of the rejection of such rights. When the Whisper Sanitary Napkins ad called I Touched the Pickle was released, it grabbed a Lion at Cannes. They made the connection between relationships and sexuality, grandmothers and granddaughters. If they made one called ‘I Prayed during My Period’, I wonder what will happen.

Then I read history and stumble upon Begum Sughra Humayun Mirza, b.1884, d.1954, married at 16 to Syed Humayun Mirza. Somewhere in my study of her, I hear it said that in her time the newspapers treated her unkindly in their articles the day after she addressed an all-male gathering without a purdah. Perhaps the first Muslim woman in her time and space to do so. In one of her stories, her central character is a woman called Mohini, a princess who has given up the world in search of truth. Mohini has a dream where many spirits of the dead express their rejection of the purdah system. Sughra started a school for girls at a time when girls would not be allowed to go out of the house to study. This was in the early 1930s. While I can imagine the impact she had on the society of her time, I am curious to know more about her family relationships across the generations that came after her. Her children and grandchildren. She adopted Yousuf Ali Mirza, her brother’s son. I had met him a little over a decade ago while studying her story. He had taken over charge of the school his mother had set up and he worked hard to increase enrolment of girls in this school. Do you know what happened after that? His son Humayun, Sughra’s grandson, an ex-IIT graduate, quit his job in Germany and took over the responsibility. Humayun has been quoted as saying, “The backgrounds these girls are from are very old-fashioned and often repressive. The norm is that once the girls are done with school, they’re supposed to get married. School or no school, once they turn 16, it’s time to be a wife and mother. It’s good to see that this way of life is changing. Thanks to education, they are becoming more and more independent.” Now if we were to use the lens of sexuality to study the history of this family, we would immediately highlight the rebels, the outliers, women and men, from one generation to the next, who made it possible to change things for each other and for thousands of young women for whom purdah symbolises, among other things, the socio-cultural approach of their families to gender and sexuality.

I turn to my friend, the Internet.

I discover the abstract of a cross-generational study in Lithuania. The paper is called Human Sexuality in Lithuania: A Cross Generational Study of Sexual Attitudes and Behaviour. This paper approaches a study of sexuality across generations in a very general way. It is easier to study sexuality in society and culture in an academic sort of way, but difficult to think about whether our families and our relationships show the sort of homogeneity of sexuality that we tend to assume about them. . You see, I am sure the assumption that there is such homogeneity is a false one.

I read about a gay grandma in some other part of the world who has experienced being ostracised by her son and his family. I suppose I could imagine the reverse happening with great ease, but this is a bit of a puzzle. So it’s not about generation at all, it’s about the kind of person you are. The parameters based on which you accept or reject other human beings.

While there is much research activity in the area of sexuality across generations and cultures, not so much focus exists on families.

Our relationships and our sexuality intersect at every point. Both can reflect and evolve as truth. Or lies; we do not know, simply because we have not measured how deep and wide these lies are.

A friend from a time long gone called me in a panic and revealed over coffee that she was gay. Married, middle-aged, a mom. Nothing in her existing relationships, nothing in her roots has prepared her to deal with any of this. Her relationships reflect a sexuality that she rejects today. What is she to do with the relationships? I ran away from the conversation. I have no answers.

Take out an old family photograph. Better still, an album, the kind where you turn pages and you find these old black and white pictures from another period in history. Do this with the older people in the family. Listen to the stories. These people in the pictures are related to each other and perhaps to you, and these relationships are neatly labelled, the stories stacked under grandparents, great-grandmother, second cousin, aunts, uncles, nieces and nephews.

They had lives, they did things good and bad, some the stuff of legend. The grand-uncle who married multiple times. The person who ran away and had a love marriage. The black sheep who never married and who lives alone with fish in an aquarium for company. The great-grandparents who had fourteen children, seven of whom died before the others became adults.

The one thing neither the pictures nor the story teller tell you, is how any of these people lived and expressed, or repressed, their sexuality. It’s an approach we could take, just to see what new truths we find out about ourselves, our relationships and our sexuality.

Illustration by Samita Chatterjee