Mala Kumar, the author of “The Paths of Marriage,” struggled for many years with her sexual orientation and eventual decision to come out to her family.
Now, she has written a story that speaks volumes for anyone in the LGBTQ South Asian community, giving hope for them to be courageous as well.
Growing up in a family that believed in arranged marriages Kumar said she knew from a very young age that she was attracted to women.
“I have been attracted to women since before I understood what that attraction meant,” Kumar said. “I certainly manifested this in some stereotypical ways, including dressing like a tomboy and playing sports.”
Though she came to the revelation of her own truth and identity, Kumar said it wasn’t easy for her to share this with her loved ones. She said the anxiety built up but there was one theme constant throughout: confidence to share her story.
“There were certainly a lot of levels of anxiety [in] withholding my sexual orientation from my family, especially my parents,” Kumar said.
Even as Kumar built up courage over time, she was aware of the major risks involved, mainly for her future.
“Any kind of minority, racial included, simply does not have the same level of resources, networks and support as the majority.” Kumar continued, “Knowing that if I were disowned or on strained relations with my family I could easily not get an education, or have a place to live, or be safe.”
Elaborating on her Indian heritage, Kumar said she knew addressing her sexual orientation meant having to structure her thoughts.
“I knew I needed to collect and order my thoughts, though no matter how I tried to phrase the discussion, everything sounded trite or overly simplified,” Kumar said.
She added: “The older I was, the more confident in life I was, and the easier it was for me to come out.”
When the moment came to deliver her news to her family, Kumar said she received acceptance all around.
“I am incredibly lucky in this regard [family’s support], and am not taking the opportunity to talk openly and publicly about these issues lightly,” she said.
Though it took her some time to tell her father, coming up with the concept of her debut novel “The Paths of Marriage,” served as a therapeutic method to help Kumar tell him.
“When the main lesson and story of ‘The Paths of Marriage’ popped into my head, I knew I had both found a narrative of gold and a way to finally explain to much of my family what it means for me to be gay,” she said.
“The Paths of Marriage” is about a young woman, Lakshmi, who migrates from Chennai, India to New York City and forces her American daughter, Pooja, into an arranged marriage that leads to resentment. Pooja’s daughter, Deepa is a lesbian but does not share her sexual identity with her family. Deepa’s significant other gives her the ultimatum to be honest with her family or break up and so Deepa is forced to face her biggest fear.
Coming up with the concept was a piece of cake in comparison to writing each character’s important role and distinctive voice, Kumar said.
“The three women being in the same family and having such an intimate impact on each other meant there needed to be some kind of continuity in the voices if I wanted to write in first person, which was a must in my head,” she said.
“The three generations of women lead incredibly different lives, and in different cities and cultural contexts, so the voices also needed to be distinct,” she continued.
Not only is the voice important, Kumar feels that her novel is one of the few books published on the topic of South Asian homosexuality.
“My book, ‘The Paths of Marriage,’ one of the few books about South Asia that has a character who is confident in her identity as a lesbian,” she said. “Her storyline follows her cultural struggles in coming out.”
While this topic is not nearly mentioned enough in the South Asian community, Kumar said she believes in time there will be change as long as there is support.
She added: “It’s my hope that with increased media coverage, more education and more voices speaking positively about the idea, South Asia will coherently and unambiguously embrace LGBTQ rights within the next few decades.”
Kumar said people can now get a head start on social change with simple conversations, and even advises for the LGBTQ community and allies to be cautious in the approach they use.
“My first step in bringing up the conversation is to reference something that speaks about the subject, whether it’s a book, movie, article or public figure. After assessing this initial reaction, I [would choose] to either step away or ask a leading question to the bigger picture,” she said.
“I find easing in always helps, and doing one’s best to make the conversation a judgment free zone – whatever the reaction from the other(s) – is the best way to get through to someone,” Kumar added.
While mentioning ways to increase the conversation in the South Asian community, Kumar also touches on the reality of discrimination that exists today.
“Racism, xenophobia, and homophobia are all major forms of discrimination in the novel, and I took great care to construct the story such that the reader sees how each relates to the other,” Kumar said.