curtains: in conversation with jo

neeharika nene

“Anthropology is not the study of spiders,” reads the Instagram bio of our fascinating interviewee, Jo.

They are the digital editor of Gaysi Family, an online forum that has created a safe space for the desi queer community of Mumbai and beyond. Gaysi has been a consistent platform for countless LGBTQIA+ individuals to share their personal stories, writing, artwork, and more. Additionally, Gaysi hosts events like open mics and film screenings across the city.

Jo is also the founder and curator of ‘Almaarii’, a digital storytelling project that aims at collecting narratives of what closets mean for queer people in South Asia. It has become a most captivating archive of art and stories from diverse individuals. An anthropologist, Jo is currently pursuing their PhD in London.

In our conversation, we explore what death means for Indian families, how that idea evolves with time, and where privilege and marginalisation play into it.

Push up Daisies: What has your relationship with death always been like and how do you view it now?

Jo: The first time I came in direct contact with death would be when my great grandmum passed away in my house in Bombay. I was extremely young, about 10 years old.

In most Indian families, a lot of people come home, talk to each other, and at that point, I didn’t get it. I understood a lot more than my brother, who was 3 years younger than me. But I had no concept of it, so I did not want to use the word.

There were a few times when, while playing games, I used to run around a person and my mum used to yell at me, saying that you shouldn’t run around a person unless they died. But there was no actual talk about death.

And at that point of time, to explain it to my brother, I put my tongue out and closed my eyes and just made a sound. To me, that’s what death meant. Because I had seen these cartoons and that’s what a dead person looked like. I don’t think I could understand ideals of permanency at 10.

My idea of death started becoming a little more profound from around the age of 18, because I started having suicidal ideations, and I started understanding that I might have depression. Then I started going into spirals and self harming.

But I self harmed because it made sense to me, never with the intention of killing myself.

And I did think of death as a solution. I’m sure a lot of people think like that whether they’re depressed, “what if I just disappeared?” And they think of death as disappearance.

There’s this poem by William Shakespeare, and the first line is – I have it tattooed on my arm – “all the world’s a stage”. I always understood the world as a game, you enter and you exit as though it’s literally the game of life, and you play your roles. You might play small roles or big roles in a persons life, and once you’re done with that role, you exit the stage.

Push up Daisies: What are some books or films that revolve around death that have left their mark on you?

Jo: A lot of people apparently know when they’re going to die. My great grandma did too. And because she knew, she could call all her kids to Kerala. I was one of the only grandchildren who could make it in time. It’s weird because just a week before that, when I did not know that she was going to die, I went to the library and I found this book called The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. I found it extremely calming to read that. I had never picked up a book on dying ever before that. With my great grandma, I saw life passing in front of me and leaving somebody’s body for the first time. This book really got me through that.

There’s also this book by Mitch Albom called The First Phone Call To Heaven which has really had an impact on the way I think about death. Because the one question he asks is: would we be so afraid of death if we knew where we were going after that? The reason we are so scared of death is because we think about the people we leave behind. In that book, Mitch Albom explores the concept of a place existing after death. People call their relatives back, and tell them, “hey I’m okay, I’m doing fine.” And there’s the peace that comes after that.

Push up Daisies: As a creator, does the thought or fear of death inspire you? Does it drive you to create more?

Jo: Yeah, I think so. Like in the case of most people, I feel scared that I don’t have enough time and that I need to keep creating and doing things. It has driven me to do a PhD at 25. A lot of people wait. I just felt like I was ready because there is no time if not now. The one thing I figured was that if not anything, I would like to die happy with myself. Being a gay person, it’s a big deal for me to be speaking my truth, and when I die that’s the one thing I want.

There are 2-3 things in which death has really featured in my life. I wanted to donate all of my organs because it does not make sense to me that I take all of it with me. You do not take your wealth with you, I don’t think I should be taking whichever nice body parts must be there inside my body either. So I went and got a card made, and my mom and my dad had a huge talk with me because they were like, “I don’t want to see your body all cut up, and I want to be able to cremate a proper body.”

Obviously, they didn’t know that I’m not going to look like a cut up carcass, they will stitch me back up.

I also have a lot of body ink. I’m still playing with the idea of whether I should take my body ink with me, or whether I should, I don’t know, skin myself and keep it in some place. I even try to do some anthropological research on what tattoo artists think about their art being killed with the person who takes it. There are so many possibilities that they will never see their art again in their lives.