The Vicious Vattam (The Vicious Circle)
July 3,2023
By Bala Sugavanam
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Amma (Mom in Tamil) always said ‘Vazhkai oru vattam’ (meaning ‘Life is a circle’) which I never truly understood until I decided to reinstall Grindr and Tinder a few weeks ago.

I have rebranded myself:

  • I have left Parramatta and moved to Newtown: I have quashed the cliché that all Indians in Sydney live in Parramatta.
  • I am starting my new job in Financial Services: I have broken the stereotype that all Indians are software professionals.
  • I do not speak to Amma on the phone every day: I have cracked the old chestnut that Indian men are mama’s boys(I call her every other day now).

It has been almost a year since my boyfriend of 3 years decided to dump me to marry a woman to have a biological child. The same man who was on board with me when I said I did not believe in surrogacy and wanted to adopt instead. After months of wallowing, bucket loads of tears and solid hours of listening to breakup songs, I finally decided to move on. I told myself that I will never date another closeted man.

As I was in a monogamous relationship with my ex-partner, I had not used any dating apps for well over 3 years. In my last lot of app experiences, people then were more interested in my nationality and ethnicity – the answer that I am Australian never seemed to satisfy them. They quizzed me until they got a country name that matched my skin colour. It often led to no response from them or my profile getting blocked. I was hoping this time around there would be no profiles with ‘No Asians/Indians’ written on their bio and I would find my ‘Bachelor’ holding a glass of Madras filter coffee for us to drink at the end of the swiping game.

So here I was – back visiting my favourite South Indian restaurant in Western Sydney to have Dosai. I had my first crispy bite when I got a notification from Grindr. It was from my ex-boyfriend.

“Insert surprised look here”, I said to myself as I rolled my eyes.

I was going to ignore his texts, but then he broke the news to me that his wife was pregnant. I wasn’t going to allow him to ruin my breezy Saturday afternoon. I blocked him and moved on to the next notification.

Grindr Troll: Hey currymuncher, curries are disgusting

Me: Firstly, I do not munch my curry, I chew it. Secondly, the last time I checked; curry tasted better than Vegemite

Grindr Troll: How did you get washed up here anyway?

Me: Well, I was sent here for the ‘crime’ I committed back home. #FagFleet

Something has not changed in 3 years, I thought. The racist trolls are still here. As I finished my Dosai, I realised I was running late to meet my friends in the city, and we were going to an Indian themed party later that night which was organised by an Indian community organisation in Sydney. I only ever hear about them during major North Indian festivals after which they go back into hibernation.

I got an Uber from the restaurant and when I got in the car, the Uber driver introduced himself as an Indo-Fijian and started speaking to me in Hindi.

‘Sorry, I don’t speak Hindi’.

He murmured something to himself and looked disappointed. He must have figured out that I am South Indian. I chose not to engage and instead show my response through the Uber rating

It was 10:30 PM when we got to the venue, and the first show was about to start. As we were all gathering closer to the stage to get a clear view of the performers, I saw someone familiar. Before I could say anything, my friend came close to my ear and whispered, “Look to your right. Isn’t he the one you met at ACON?”

It took me back to the day when I was at ACON for a workshop. For those of you unfamiliar, ACON stands for the AIDS Council of NSW. The workshop facilitator had an icebreaker for us and asked us to chat to the person sitting next to us and find out their name, favourite food, and next travel destination. As we were exchanging information, Vikas Gupta asked me to share what my favourite food was.

“String Hoppers. It is a South Indian delicacy”.

“It’s too hard to remember. You are South Indian, and I am sure you like Dosai or Idli. I will just say Dosai?!”.

“Yep”, I replied to my friend as the first show began with a Bollywood song as I had predicted. They call it ‘The Indian Show’, but all they dance to is Hindi songs.

“The DJ plays South Indian songs in between the shows. Wait for it”, promised my friend as I was wondering if they will be performing to South Indian songs

The first show was fabulous and colourful. Although the songs were unfamiliar, I enjoyed the stellar performance. As the first show was wrapped up and people were cheering for the performers, the DJ played a Tamil song. It was one of my favourite songs from the 90s. I remember Amma telling me that she had to play this song to get me to eat.

“You dance better than Ramya Krishnan”, Amma told me as she broke into a laughing fit.

It was a massive giveaway, but Amma said she never saw it coming when I came out to her as gay.

“Sydney has changed you”, Amma said as she threw her hands up in the air. It was her immediate resort when I said anything incomprehensible to her.

“As long as you promise you will not touch my sarees”, territorial Amma told me. Knowing the language of Tamil moms, I knew she did not approve.

As the show was gearing up for the next performance, someone hugged me from behind.

“Of course, you are here, doll”, said Linda sporting a traditional saree with matching bangles. She said her 13-year-old son wanted to go to the show.

“Who is she?”, asked my friends as soon as Linda left the scene.

I explained to them that Linda was from previous work, back when I was in the closet. It was my third week at this new job. Everyone had left for after-work drinks when Linda saw me emptying the dishwasher in the kitchen. She point-blank asked me if I was gay. I confided in her and the next day when I went back to work, everyone at work seemed to have gotten an insight into my sexuality. That’s when Will stopped going with me to grab a coffee in the morning.

As I was telling my friends how Linda outed me, we heard a commotion near the DJ. We found out that people were complaining that the DJ was playing too many South Indian songs.

“Isn’t this called an Indian show?” “Why can’t the DJ mix it up a bit and play some South Indian songs?”

The main performances are for Bollywood songs and the DJ had played 12 Bollywood songs and 5 South Indian songs so far. What am I missing?”, I supported the DJ who was at this point worried.

The Hindi speaking crowd had the majority and the DJ was asked not to play any South Indian songs for the night. I couldn’t take this anymore and I told my friends I was leaving. As I was ready to exit, I saw someone going towards the door. It was Varun who broke up with me a few years ago when we were starting to get serious. He said his Punjabi mother would never accept a South Indian in her family, that his mother had compromised enough by accepting his sexuality and he could not push the envelope further.

I don’t think Varun recognised me. After leaving, I took the train from Central Station and thought about what a disaster the night had been: I bumped into people I’d never wanted to see in my life ever again and I only got to dance to a few Kollywood songs. (No, that’s not a typo).

I was going to have my first date with Chris the next day and crashed out as soon as I got home.

Chris and I had been chatting online for over a month now. Since he’d travelled extensively and lived in India for 8 months, I was confident he would not kill me with stereotypes.

On meeting for a small picnic in the park he shared tales about his Indian adventures and how disappointed he was that he never got to pick up any Indian languages – as everyone he met in India spoke decent English.

“Your English is very good. How was it when you first came here? Were people able to understand you?”

Although I was annoyed he asked me this question, I decided not to read too much into it. The date had been going well – by this point we were now at a bar waiting for our drinks.

“I am sorry about the War. I cannot believe it happened. Horrendous and cruel”.

I knew he was talking about the Sri Lankan War. I told him politely that I am Indian Tamil and not Sri Lankan. As I was rolling my eyes, the drinks arrived. As I was drinking my gin and tonic I counted the number of times I had to roll my eyes in the last 24 hours.

After bidding goodbye to Chris, I was walking back home along the busy King Street in Newtown, where I live. I was reflecting on the past week and decided to take a break from the apps. I had been trying to protect myself from online abuse when I changed my ethnicity on Grindr to ‘Mixed’ a while ago, thinking it will give me the immunity from trolls. It came across though as me lying about my identity and being pretentious to some of my friends. I have nothing to prove to them, but I also felt like I almost needed to conceal my real identity to be accepted in society and found desirable. Some profiles were proudly littered with statements of their ‘Italian blood’, made in Germany’, ‘U.S Expat’, ‘French roots’, while I would cop abuse for disclosing my ethnicity as South Asian.

As I entered my home to the beautiful smell of incense, I understood I may be too brown to be accepted as Australian, too South Indian to be accepted as mainstream Indian. As I immersed myself in the state of statelessness, I cognised that I just wanted to be a decent human.

As I deleted the dating apps, my phone said ‘Amma calling’. I chuckled thinking about the ‘Vattam’. (Circle)

Life is indeed a circle.

About the Author:

Bala Sugavanam (he/him) is a settler of South Indian Tamil heritage now living on the stolen lands of the Gadigal people of Eora Nation. If he’s not out for a run or sorting out your superannuation, he’s busy working on his first book – which he’s writing in Tamil.

Socials: Instagram @bala.sugavanam

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