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Who would we be if we weren’t trying to survive? A Conversation on the Survival Myth

A photograph of a bench on a rocky-slightly bushy terrain. The bench is facing the other direction, which stretches out into wilderness. The sky in tinged with purple, blue, yellow, and pink.

In the context of this suffocatingly long year, self-care has meant ways of survival for a lot of us – more for some, less for others. It has meant a sense of urgency dissipating, and it has meant crisis averted until the next morning. When I am asked to imagine self-care, I think about the binder that has been too expensive to buy for a while now. I think about the carelessness with which I tell myself that there is no time to grieve the loss of anything, and that to reconcile with the world’s maddening movement is mere procedure. The truth about sexuality and self-care is that it can get very lonely sometimes.

For me, it is hard to talk about self-care with the saccharine enthusiasm that the self-help industrial complex will have you believe is the only way to do it. When Audre Lorde calls it an act of political warfare, says that self-care is self-preservation, she is pointing us to the radical potential of the act of survival and beyond. To claim and assert autonomy over our own bodies; to imagine our queerness an act of political resistance to the structures that seek to control us and break our spirit is an affront to the violence of Brahmanical patriarchy, of capitalism and the state.

For me, self-care has often meant an obnoxious amount of time to reimagine living as’. This is a complicated rendering of the self as a liminal entity – who have I been thus far and who is it that I want to be? In this liminal space I have been directing questions at myself and reflecting on them instead of rushing to find an answer to everything, I have for the first time entered into a correspondence with myself. Having to accept that I am made of finite resources has been a rude awakening. Recognising (self) pleasure as a necessary part of my wellbeing, communicating my needs and letting go when they are not met, being generous and not reckless with investing emotional labour – all of these have been essential to my self-preservation.

We tend to ourselves and to one another not because we locate the source of the despair within us, but because the structures we are at odds with do not intend for us to flourish. The harms of the individualist model are not simply that it doesn’t work, but that it will have us convinced that our problems are entirely our own, mere anomalies, only for us to fix. It is this pathologisation of our lives – which are very much shaped by our marginalisation – that bothers me. It is like slapping a band-aid on a third degree burn while sitting in a room that is still on fire. Not to mention that this is an incredibly alienating experience.

Queerness, for one, leads us into all kinds of loneliness. Not just the fear and pain of rejection, but also the isolation of being left unseen, of being invisibilised, of having to keep yourself hidden away or minimized to hold on to all the love in your life, is a life of daily heartbreak. Tending to this heartbreak has meant opening myself up to friends that understand and share in my pain and my joy – seeking out the safety of community spaces that have room for my queerness. This is not a community that makes itself known to us by design, we must seek out this love for ourselves.

The particularly lonely world of bisexuals is, in fact, full of imposters. Or so we think of ourselves. The straddling of many selves, many attractions, and many kinds of loneliness is what being bisexual has meant to me. To be seen as less than queer, or less than heterosexual, neither here nor quite there. To embody confusion. To embody my sureness of this multiplicity. The kindest thing I have done for myself, as others have done for me, is to allow myself to sit with this uncertainty and confusion and to articulate it instead of running away from it. In doing so, I saw that this confusion is, in fact, a quintessentially queer experience: to feel not enough, as though my queerness takes up space that belongs to someone else. To be bisexual is to resist binaries and evade classification.

By witnessing and participating in their subversion, my queerness has allowed me to detangle this web of desire and the body, sex and sexuality, gender, and all that they come with. In the ways that my queerness has been a counterweight to my struggle with cisheterosexist and normative aesthetics of desire, it has set my body free. To be able to express myself in masc ways without instantly feeling uncomfortable, and to be able to queer my femininity and decouple it from its associations with thinness has been a source of what I can only call the brightest euphoria. I can now exist in my body without wanting to claw my way out of it every minute.

There was one evening somewhere in Central Delhi when Soumya and I were walking towards the Metro station after a remarkably long day. Halfway through our tired stroll, a kinnar sister came up to us, and as per routine, we started chatting. We asked her if there were any essential items that we could help her with, to which she enquired if we could bring her red lipstick. We took her number and told her we’d be back soon. This is one of many conversations I have had in my life that will always be “quintessentially queer” to me. As queer folks, our lives depend on other queer folks who understand the urgency with which one might need red lipstick someday.

When I first moved out of my hometown, I was introduced to what I now have as the vocabulary with which to identify queer platonic intimacy. I was one of six young queers seeking to be loved into wholeness, with a penchant for drinking recklessly on balconies. Through a slow and often painful knowing of each other, we grew into a sureness of the multiplicities our bodies, minds, and hearts held. The loneliness of self-care is borne better when you are not entirely alone.

Over the course of this pandemic, of two long years of being ripped apart from my chosen family and being left alone with a self that has learnt to navigate living through tiresome deflection, I have broken myself down to remnants of a past I cannot fully remember. I have often wondered: Is forgetting a part of the self’s queering? I remember being sixteen, freshly out of a “straight” relationship where I was sexually abused for two extremely long years. A close friend had, at the time, asked me if I called myself queer because of that. I thought I did, especially because I often flinched even when my [then] girlfriend held my hand. For two long years, I convinced myself that my genuine love for a woman was a trauma response. That my entire self, really, was a trauma response. At 20, I remember one night when the person I was in love with recited a poem I had written for them after having committed it to memory. That night was when I finally accepted the full depth of my queerness. No one ever tells you that coming out to yourself can be the hardest thing you [keep] do[ing]. That sexuality and self-care is unceremonious, long, and haphazard.

To come out to the self is to grant yourself the respite of knowing

In tandem with the stranglehold that restlessness has on us, especially perhaps on me, I have rarely ever allowed for a moment to linger for a second beyond its lifespan. It is a strange anxiousness with which I regard ephemerality. My therapist once told me I have never been unabashedly vulnerable with myself, let alone with someone else. This has instilled in me a profound doubt about the self-assurance with which I have advised people to tend to their wounds. I am no longer contesting the legitimacy of anyone’s advice to let wounds breathe. When I was seven and fell on fresh gravel, I remember an injured corner of my face that imprinted the memory of the fall in me. All I was told was “Haath dish na” [don’t touch it], until my father was able to clean it. This turned out to be a month-long process of sitting with boiled cotton and rubbing it on the gash for fifteen minutes every evening. I confronted the pain as routine, until its familiarity meant an intimate knowledge of its character, and of its healing. Years later, I took my father’s advice in a different context [only now he was the wound I decided to leave alone, and have been tending to the hurt instead of letting it settle into careless familiarity].

 Fifteen minutes of grieving every day is a lesson for the self that is absurdly efficient. Sometimes when people try to explain to me that fifteen minutes is but a blink of an eye, I want to ask them if they have ever been unabashedly vulnerable with themselves.

What does it mean to hold space and extend compassion to ourselves and our  communities? Rachel Cargle reminds us to ask ourselves: who
 would we be if we weren’t trying to survive? Similarly, what would care and vulnerability look like if we weren’t trying to survive? The anarchy of queerness constantly and necessarily resists the capitalist engineering of the Survival Myth: one that wants us to endure an isolated life instead of embracing it with the radically transformative joy of togetherness. Caring for yourself precedes, succeeds, and exists alongside caring for the collective.



* Authors’ note: This piece came together by itself, almost as a transcript of many late night conversations put together, many moments of reminiscing a past that we have traversed together. The italicized portions were written by Rukmini, the bold bits are our individual thoughts completed by the other (the way we know those close to you often finish your sentences), and the rest are Soumya’s thoughts.

Cover Image: Unsplash

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