Parmesh Sahni Talk transcription Part I

Parmesh Shahani’s career spans the fields of academia, media and the corporate world. His first book Gay Bombay: Globalization, Love and (Be)Longing in Contemporary India presents a fascinating archive of queer living in the city in the early 2000s. His second book Queeristan: LGBTQ Inclusion in the Indian Workplace, published in 2020, received the CK Prahalad Award for Best Business Book of 2021. Among his many ventures, Parmesh founded and ran the India Culture Lab, an experimental ideas space, from 2011 to 2021. In his words, the lab was a “unique public space that cross-pollinated people and ideas from across academia, business and the creative industries to explore the textured nature of Indian modernity”. This experience of running the lab, along with his other projects and engagements, produced a set of interesting conceptual frames to think about the question of inclusion of queer persons in Indian corporate spaces, that ultimately became his second book Queeristan: LGBTQ Inclusion in the Indian Workplace. Published in 2020, the book received the CK Prahalad Award for Best Business Book of 2021. Alternatively panoramic and intimate, Parmesh distils nearly two decades of work into a powerful portrait of being queer at work in India in the 21st century that doubles as an agenda for the future. In his conversation with the students of Maharashtra National Law University Mumbai, Parmesh spoke about the major themes in Queeristan, A lightly edited transcript of the talk follows.


In this part, Parmesh talks about how he understands his work as a “corporate activist”, about his theory of change and about the parental burden of the Indian workplace. 


Nilanjan (ND): Parmesh at some point this book describes himself as a corporate activist. I’m going to read  a paragraph from this book. “… in this ideal world, the human rights paradigm would be enough to bring about change. However, we aren’t there yet. So, hybrid people like me, corporate-activists who are pushing for change, have to use other strategies—profitability, innovation and so on—to make a business case for inclusion. How do we translate the language of human rights into these different and largely heterosexual corporate spaces? How do we help mostly straight business people see the range of queer experiences, and help the general public re-imagine what it means to be LGBTQ?” I want to understand a little bit about how you came to this, what were your motivations, what led you to kind of define this role for yourself and how do you see your work come out?

Parmesh Shahani (PS): So, while  I don’t like being in this position let me just say that, because it’s really very frustrating (having to make a business case).  Just the fact that we exist, and mind you, we don’t even have to say that Queer people (exist as) 10% of any population, even if we were like 0.001%, we exist, we’re valid, we matter and we have the same rights as everyone else. So, from an Indian constitutional perspective, from a human rights paradigm,  someone’s inherent worth  should be a given. Everyone is equal and deserves to be treated in the same way, deserves to benefit in the same prosperity as everyone else and that means jobs, access to institutions, flawed institutions like marriage, but still, access to them, if you so choose to desire them, and  happiness, a better life and so on. 

I’m very frustrated in all my corporate experiences that I have to in a sense put aside that very basic “don’t you care?” and actually use this language that I do, saying stuff like because you are a $5 trillion dollar global economy or a $200 billion dollar Indian economy, you should care. Include us because Mackenzie says that if you hire queer people your profitability will go up by 35%. This is all real data okay, I’m not making it up. It’s all cited in the book. Include us because Deloitte says that when you are more diverse and inclusive your innovation outcome goes up 8 times , include us because everyone, any survey right now of Millennials, Gen Z, people like you essentially, says that, they will not work for organisations which don’t care about the environment, which are not inclusive and so on and so forth. 

So, do I like making these elaborate  pleas, include us because there are so many reasons, include us because of this, that…no! Do I do it? Yes! Because we do not live in a utopian world. Take gender for example. Despite work for so many decades on gender, women, and I use the term  very broadly and generally, still die of foeticide,  infanticide and other  extensive ways  we seem to have designed   to kill our women. Also, women are still about 50% of our population but they are not 50% of educational institutions, workplaces and so on and as we go up the hierarchy, the asymmetry in representation is ridiculous. 

Take caste. Suraj Yengde,  has written an incredible book “Caste Matters” that I invite all of you to read. It’s incredible, I mean there are 500 companies in India and guess how many of them have Dalit leaders or Dalit seniors? Zero. But, in my own company like Godrej, when I tried to bring up caste in boardrooms, it was like, “We don’t talk about all this, all that is over. Aren’t we living in a post-caste India? And I was like, just read the paper!  There’s  data that says that you know there is regional disparity in corporate spaces you know there are regions which are considered more mainstream whereas there are parts of India like the north-east etc. which are often not considered mainstream and then that has repercussions in terms of educational institutions, in terms of representation in media,  and certainly jobs . There is religious disparity too Again, an  amazing report by Parcham documents what it means being Muslim in Indian workplaces,   Recently, the Led By Foundation ran a wonderful experiment on Linkedin, where I think they applied to about a 1000 jobs   posing as woman, but in one set of applications with  a Hindu name and in another set of applications with a Muslim name.

And the results in terms of who were shortlisted and who weren’t were astounding in their difference. 

Given that we don’t live in an equal and fair and just world, I resort to these arguments, knowing fully well that I am a part of neo-liberal capitalism, which is patently unfair and in which, people like me who are very marginal have to make our voices heard.  We are marginal in terms of our visibility in these corporate spaces and our role is very precarious because at any point organisations may say we don’t want to be more inclusive for the sake of it . I therefore make my arguments knowing fully well my precarious and marginal position, appealing  to the range of possibilities in the majorities that I see through because majorities have power, and from that position, I kind of squeeze in various possibilities for my people. So, it’s time-consuming, it’s laborious, it’s frustrating. Why do I do it? For various reasons.   But let me share an interesting one. I was hanging with Sir Ian McKellen.  Most of you  are young and will know him as Gandalf or Magneto. People of my generation  remember him as a legendary Shakespearean actor. The reason I know Ian McKellen is actually from school, he flirted with me one day and then I was like wait I can’t come back with you to London sorry but you be here in the Bollywood movies. Of course, he didn’t. Anyway, so, I was with him and he said something about the U.K. struggle: “Parmesh, it’s people like you and me to some extent who are their translation, who we need to be in all places to act as their translation.Because  people in power will always be afraid of an activist on the street. And  other than that, who else will engage.” So,  any movement needs people to be, in a sense, sleeper cells who are staged everywhere.  You need people to deal with the government, to push files and make it happen. You need people in educational institutions to say why can we not have an event like this? It’s not like the sky will  fall and tomorrow everyone will find their company  logos leap into  giant rainbow hues and everything else.  It will be fine with these people in corporate worlds and so on who can ask these questions, who can push for change from within. So, what Ian meant was, we need a very strong set of activists on the ground and in our courts and in healthcare and other kinds of work because if we have to create a better world it has to be in collusion with everyone who’s trying to do their bit out there. So I do my bit because I understand that change is going to be comprehensive, complicated and long term. I use the corporate world as an interesting vantage point to push  change through. 

But I’m very clear, that I’m in the corporate world but I’m out – not of the jungle, not of the city. Kind of a border-crossing citizen, who’s everywhere and nowhere. And I think that now we need to create these positions of translations between these various things to bring about the change that we want from the ground up. Again, because of my background education and immense amount of privilege, I chose to sit here because I think I can make a bigger difference here.

So, my question to all of you is, you’re going to graduate, some of you, maybe many of you will get fat salaries, a private house, car, spouse,  and at some point, in life, at age 50 you’ll say who am I, what is the meaning of my life and all of that. Don’t wait for that midlife crisis.

My plea to all of you is, you all are incredibly young, incredibly smart, incredibly privileged and a part of the education system. Guys once you begin to flourish, please try to use your location, your position at any stage in your life to bring about change, by doing whatever you can. I call that method jugaad resistance but like I really don’t want all of you who are sitting here to wait for some future when you will be able to bring about change. Every moment is a chance to actually shift the narrative.


ND: I’m really glad you bought up jugaad resistance. I think you should talk a little bit about the method of this border-crossing citizen. But also, Jugaad resistance is a term you use in the book to describe your work . And I will obviously urge you to read the book where he goes into detail, but he gives a definition (at page 67 in Chapter 1 of Queeristan):  “Jugaad resistance to me is a resourceful, solution-oriented opposition to establish ways of thinking in people. Jugaad resistance takes place when the revolutionaries locate themselves within the establishment, they wish for change, so that they can bring about innovative changes in the system from the inside.” And I wanted to ask you a little bit about  how you came to this kind of method and what  it looks like in practice, and a little reflection on your experiences with this.


PS: In my life everything is retroactive. I do it and then I’m like oh let’s give this a go or whatever. I don’t think one day I’m going to do this. I’m going  here or I’m going   there, so whatever. I look like  I do. I mean,   it seems that way but when you write books you have phrases like this so one or two phrases last you for 5-6 years. So, let’s say for Homi Bhabha it’s hybridity.He’s been talking about hybridity for twenty years now . If you come from a media or cultural studies background you just need one or two such phrases.  I came about it  through practice, however. I realised that when I look at all the different things that I’ve done in life, they’re micro revolutions of change. And I think that when you add the micro-revolutions of change that’s when you get a big shift in society. I’m very fearful of macro-revolutions, and if you look at history, macro-revolutions don’t always play out the way you intend and they have unexpected consequences that need to be suffered by the ones who are the most vulnerable in each case.  I’ve felt the same thing  about those protesting against Assad and those who exited Syria, about eleven years ago, you know there was the resistance in Egypt, the Arab Spring, there was so much hope among young people in the Middle east and now  years later their families have been killed and the countries are in a much difficult state, With micro revolutions  however, the change, in a sense, doesn’t threaten the centre so much because if you do enough of these, you kind of change the nature of what the centre, the authority is because   the narrative shifts slowly, yet ever so decisively.

Greater engagement with LGBTQ+ issues is  one such micro-revolution we managed to bring about in corporate India. Someone is doing it, TATA is doing it, if Tata is doing it then other factories will be like main bhi karta hoon. Before you know it,  if you’re not talking about LGBTQ+ inclusion, you’re uncool. We didn’t say one day, that down with straight people and do this but moved bit by bit. I came upon this through practice, through my work in fashion, whether it was queer fashion magazines or through my work at Mahindra whether I was trying to reimagine what a Global Indian Corporation would look like, and certainly through my work at Godrej where I understood how much can you push without getting fired. For example, you know if everyone is trying to do just enough the texture changes overall. Say, you are in charge of your college festival, and need to plan  souvenirs for the speakers. You can say, we will give a plant which is very nice, or you can say we will work with the Chamar project, with the artisans from the Chamar community, which is a historically disadvantaged caste-based community which has traditionally worked with leather but which because of the beef ban  are threatened and  now collectivised to create something called the Chamar Project, which works with recycled used tyres. So, it’s upcycling, it’s sustainability, its rubber, its eco-friendly, and its artisanal labour of a disadvantaged community. You can choose and say okay we’re going to spend this much on something, and we would rather spend it on this, because this will provide livelihoods to the disadvantaged. Your budget might be 500 rupees, but you can act. And then you’ve done Jugaad resistance because you’ve made a livelihood out of it. 

I’ve understood through my practice that if enough people do all this, if say we have conferences where  we have 20 speakers, let all 20 of them be women one year and see what happens. By the time people will notice, it’ll be too late and then someone will say, all women? Just say yeah, it’s been all men so many times, no one said anything then. And then suddenly you do it and it changes the texture of the conference, and then people say OMG. So,  how I came about it is through practice, by saying that this really works, and I try and do it everywhere I can, whether it’s in conferencing, whether it’s in this thing, or whether it’s in other kinds of engagements, I also do this for accessibility.  Everyone says we must be accessible, but no one has sign-language interpreters in general, so in the last couple of years at culture lab, we didn’t wait until someone told us so, or we didn’t wait till someone said I’m coming on a wheelchair, is there a ramp? We just built a ramp for everyone. And because we built a ramp for everyone in the PWD community, people started whatsapping that arre yeh building mein ramp hai so more people started coming. Because we started doing sign language interpretation for everyone on stage, suddenly people from the deaf community started joining us because they said, you know these people are doing sign interpretation. So, through little bits of resistance, you realise that it changes the texture of the game for everyone totally. So, I write about it because it worked.


ND: No, I agree!


PS: Does anyone want to share one good example of Jugaad resistance—  that they have done while they were in this college, or that they are thinking of doing. Should we talk for a little bit? You have an example? Something that you want to do? Think of an idea


Abhijit Rohi: So, there is this ADR society that we have, it organises a national competition Mediation Bombay, and this year for all the judges we actually gave them laptop bags made by Chamar foundation, so that is one thing that we did, plus as a part of getting students engaged with certain things, we also had a beach clean-up drive done as part of that entire event.


PS: That’s great. Anyone else? Organisation people are doing all kinds of things, for instance. Hiring managers increasingly say don’t show me men’s resumes only, because the moment you show men’s resumes, psychologically it goes another way. Wherever you are, on whatever level you are, you can make a change, that’s the point.


ND: I’m going to shift this a little bit to talk about another idea you have written about and I don’t think it’s written in great depth, but it’s interesting. You write that in India the workplace has to act as loco parentis. Unlike in other parts of the world where one negotiates their identity at home, in India it is more often in the workplace. It’s really the care deficit at home and at educational institutions that one needs to be made up for when one comes to work, so could you reflect a little bit on that? I want to attach another question to it which is different but related, Even the UNs standards for conduct was listed and one of them was that corporations have public responsibility to foster care for all, as I was asking about the caregiving function of the workplace, what are the limits of that responsibility, how much do we expect of the corporates?


PS: I think corporations need to act decent, I mean it’s not rocket science, act decent. My friend Anubhati Banerjee when she was transitioning at Tata Steel, in Jamshedpur, years ago, at that time there was no gender affirmation policy or anything. We just came to know that our own person is transitioning and is not telling us because she is afraid. They reached out to Anubhati  share a, and she said about the transitioning, and they offered her full support. Act decent. They asked her about her concern, and when she pointed out we don’t have a washroom policy, they put one in place, and let her use the women’s washroom . And not just that, they also promised to sensitize everyone else. That is it, act decent. Why did they  embrace her gender affirmation?  It’s not an extra effort, every employee gets 5 lakhs medical insurance in a year they take from that only. As a result she flourished and as a result now they have a full policy for people who are transitioning, they have all gender washrooms now. And now they are creating an all trans forklift operating unit, and things like that, so they have gone way ahead, just from acting decent, so I think what organisations should do Ask people what they want.  \, 

To answer your question about the work-home equation,  I fundamentally believe that in India you have different sets of people that come and work., In terms of  own sexual identity, in India we don’t often come out at home, our homes are not places where we say oh mom dad I’m queer and they say oh welcome, this is not the case. I never had that conversation with my parents, they never asked me while growing up, what  my favourite colour is, what matters to me, what is love, what are my values and so on. All conversations were about how I have to get more than 90% in this exam or that. I don’t know how your parents were, but mine were like that. Does anyone resonate with that? 

Children think that parents are these authority figures, they say anything creative and it’s put your head down and study, all you do is study, and study some more, till you go to some final and then you reach a place like this. Now unfortunately even colleges  don’t know what they’re supposed to do in terms of offering you  a space to flourish,  make friends,  learn about yourself, and discover the joys of the world. But  most colleges are only about marks  and then at some point it shifts to jobs  and packages . Maybe law is different from business schools? Achha no?

Business, engineering, whatever is very like jobs  placements, and package-oriented. So, when people reach the workforce, you have people who are very good at mugging, doing excel, answering the questions. Again, my partner is doing M.B.A., so I know. The entrances are amazing. Good morning sir, my name is so and so, my background is so and so. The entrances are the same, the introductions are the same, maybe you can start by not saying good morning. 


PS: In our coaching the format was Good Morning Sir, I think now the interviewers are used to hearing the format as well. If I break the format, they will not give me a chance. It’s very true. So, workplaces, by the time you reach workplaces this is what you’ll have. I’m sorry, is this where you want to end up? Workplaces are places where you tell people to chill, calm down, having run through this rat race and entered this horrible brick tunnel of which they are now at an end. Thet are a part of the few people in our country who after giving 10th, 12th, whatever professional exam, suffering through college,  got a job, and can now chill, find out who they are. So workplaces actually have to signal to the employees, because they don’t know, they need to say you are perfect as you are, if you are Queer it’s fine, we have these Queer policies and support groups, go flourish. If you’re straight I suppose it’s also fine, we have so many straight people,  (jokingly) straight people also flourish in some ways, you know at Godrej, we give insurance for straight people and their partners also. 

So, to answer your question in brief, I believe that until the time that our parents understand that their primary role is to love, to accept, to embrace, to empower, to be the wind beneath our wings, and until our parents reach that realisation that we are not the vehicles for their unfulfilled dreams, I think that  until they reach there, our colleges and workplaces have to step up.


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