A postscript to Correspondence
I have been overwhelmed as a writer, by the response, to my piece about my father and “what he taught me about love”. Thousands and thousands of people have read the piece; and many have sent personal messages to me about what a remarkable man my father was. As a daughter, I felt as if, for a few days, my father was actually given a special dispensation to visit me from heaven; that he has been with me, in all his vitality and spirit. As if his presence, was conjured up by the words on the written page and the responses to it.
The piece I wrote was about my father’s personal journey, from thinking of homosexuality as an “aberration”, some 20 or so years ago, to finally encouraging me to engage in family life with my (same-sex) partner, my beloved girlfriend. Of all the things, I think he loved about my girlfriend, it was the fact that she cares for my sons as if they are her own.
And so, there has been a strange, poignant, personal irony for me, to read of the views of Lord Carey and Cardinal O’Brien, regarding the subject of same-sex marriage. So odd, to hear the word “aberration” again.
It would be wrong of me to feel personally affronted by their views. The issues at stake are much wider than my own personal life. It is, however, hard not to engage emotionally with what appears to be a narrow and unenlightened way of looking at human relationships. Hard because their views do appear to be an indictment, not so much of my personal or sexual lifestyle, but of the way that I bring up my sons. Sons who have really only ever known of having two mothers.
Both the arguments of Lord Carey and Cardinal O’Brien rest on the premise that marriage can only be between a man and woman and that, therefore, “the ideal is for children to be raised by a mother and father who are married”. Cardinal O’Brien suggests indeed that marriage has always existed “so children borne of those unions will have a mother and a father.”
Neither eminent church leader expands on why it is necessary, for parents to be, a mother and a father, male and female. Their arguments appear to rest on mantras rather than premises. I can, therefore, only surmise on their behalf, that the necessity for hetero-sex parents is because a man and woman bring different qualities and skills to the family table. In essence, it appears that for Lord Carey and Cardinal O’Brien marriage works for children when parents have distinct gender roles.
I grew up in one of Lord Carey’s “ideal” families, but knew very little of gender roles. My father was, in many ways, my primary carer. He taught me to cook and sew. We used to make shalwar, kameez and chooridar pyjamas together on our manual Singer sewing machine. He would clean my cuts and wounds from all the fights I got into, on the way home from school, despite his own irrational fear of blood. As well as being “maternal” in his nature my father was also an extremely generous man who was always giving his money away. It would be my mother who would work over holiday periods to earn overtime to restore some buoyancy to the family funds.
And yes, my father would sometimes come out with the odd comment like “Yes, marriage is like a donkey. One person must ride, in front, the other behind. And generally, it is the man who rides in front.” And then look at me, shaking his head, “But maybe, Beta, marriage is not quite for you.” When I would complain about my various domestic duties he would laugh and say “What you need in later life is a wife. But for now go and clean your room, ” etc.etc.etc.
It would be, perhaps, fair to say that he prepared me for both roles, wife and husband, father and mother. The thing I loved to do most of all with my father was wrestle, Indian wrestling, Pehlwani. My great, great-grandfather ran a wrestling school in the North of India. My family are famous for their fearless natures. Fighting is a family tradition. My father would say at the beginning of the lesson, “now when it gets too painful call out the word Uncle and I will release my hold.” And when I would inevitably call for mercy, using the designated word, he would laugh “No, I am Papa, not Uncle“. I fell for it every time.
And I, as mother, father, husband, wife, have in turn taught my sons to wrestle. We once had a very embarrassing visit to pediatric A&E. My older son had to explain that his suspected green –stick- fracture, had been inflicted by his very own mother, in the course of some Pehlwani move.
My sons are teenagers currently, so constantly in flux. However, they do both appear to be fulfilling certain well established male stereotypes, despite the apparent lack of male role models. Ask my older son the question “Arsenal or Mummy?” and it will be Arsenal every time. His own transient lack of interest in girls, is not because of some latent homosexuality he has learnt from me, but because “girls are boring; they can’t talk about football”. My younger son walks as if he has a sack of potatoes in his trousers, whilst cradling his manhood protectively. Given the choice between Mummy and pretty girls and hip hop, the “shorties” and the rap will win out every time.
I don’t really care whether they appear male acculturated or not. I am grateful that they have friends and fit in. I am grateful that they have not suffered on the street, or in the playground, too much because of their mothers’ sexuality. I repeat the plural “mothers”. But I am much more grateful for the fact that they have values. Family values.
We moved almost 500 hundred miles from our family and friends, in London, in order, to look after my elderly and disabled mother. My sons live in a three generation family unit. They find time between Arsenal and hip-hop and girls to help with their grandmother’s care. They know how to talk to people of an older generation. And though, like I did at their age, they get into all sorts of fights, they are always polite to “elders”.
And if you ask either of them what their values are. And yes, they can talk in these terms; these teenage boys brought up by gay women. They will tell you that the most important things in life, are to be happy and to be kind to others. One of them did, less than well, in a school test recently and argued in his defence that at least he was happy and kind. I couldn’t help but laugh, and then agree.
Why have I taught them that happiness, above all else, is important? Because happiness, for me, is the very essence of faith. It is gratitude for all the kindness you have been shown, for all the good things you have in each day, for all the love you feel at any one time. And “laughter in the face of adversity”, to use a trite phrase, is for me as much an act of worship as any of my namaz might once have been.
And yes, I learnt this also from my Muslim father. He was an extremely handsome man. He told me that in college some of his well-connected friends suggested that he should try his luck in Bollywood. I would often catch him in the mornings, as he shaved, reciting love poetry to himself and chuckling, “Array Khan Sahib, how lucky is the world, and how lucky are you, that the Almighty has given you this face. So much joy we are going to have today.”
So for me, the ideal is that my sons should have the same joy, the same laughter. Show the same faultless kindness that my father showed to others. Have the same courage and determination that my mother had in dealing with my father’s eccentricities and sometimes misplaced philanthropy. The ideal, for me, is that my sons should be loved and thus learn to love. I have no idea, as an educated, rational human being, who happens to be Muslim and gay, why any of these values: the laughter, the gratitude, the kindness, the love –should have anything to do with gender roles or sex or sexuality. The ideal, surely, is that children should be loved. The sexuality of their parents is of monumental irrelevance.