How do you introduce someone who has been a trailblazer and captured public attention throughout their life? How do you encapsulate the fullness of a rich and nuanced personality? How do you measure an accomplished life? These are the questions inspired by Parmesh Shahani.
Parmesh Shahani is an alumnus of the renowned Massachusetts Institute of Technology. A seasoned corporate leader, he currently leads Godrej Culture Labs and is based out of Mumbai. His acumen and commitment to public service have earned him countless accolades - World Economic Forum Young Global Leader, Yale World Fellow, TED Senior Fellow, Utrecht University Impakt Fellow, and more. Parmesh has also authored two books - Gay Bombay (2008) and Queeristan (2020) - and contributed to numerous publications and magazines.
In our interview with Parmesh, he had the air of someone who has seen and done it all. So, he has handed over the reins to the next generation. In his own words, Parmesh has become the complete "gharelu" boy who has committed himself to enjoy a quiet, peaceful, domestic life with his partner of more than five years. Calling his partner - the man of the house, Parmesh says he now feels grounded and loves it! As for the LGBTQ movement, he feels "quite old and tired" and believes it is now up to the new leaders to decide what course or shape the movement will take. This does not mean that he will entirely refrain from participating - his new book, his lined up talks, his interviews, and his spirit are all testimonies to this. But what Parmesh is excited to do, is resign as a leader and emerge as a mentor. And as an adviser, he has nothing but awe for this younger generation of community members.
I had no idea when I wrote Gay Mumbai first in 2008 that our country would be so different and so diverse and talking about so many fundamental issues in just a decade. I have been quite blown away.
He draws his energy now from seeing the fierce energy every young queer person in India has. Their commitment to queerness, their passion and bravery, their courage to display flamboyance, and their determination to build links between the queer movement and the social justice movement are uniquely inspiring. Parmesh tipped his hat for all the great work being down by young leaders in making the movement more intersectional. Grace Banu's Trans Rights Now Collective, Dalit Queer Project, The Chinky Homo Project, the Muslim Queer project, and several other such initiatives have mushroomed in India since he first wrote his book 'Gay Bombay: Globalization, love and (Be)longing in Contemporary India,' a decade ago in 2008. He finds their energy inspiring and an essential ingredient for the next leg of the queer revolution.
After studying at MIT, Parmesh felt compelled to highlight the culture of queerness in his own country. For him, after a fateful TED talk in 2009, the kind of "mental massaging" he received inspired him to create a physical space in which the "cross-pollination of ideas can happen." And hence the Godrej Culture Labs was born. The idea was to develop linkages between academics and actual practitioners and host their interactions in contemporary society with a live audience. The word 'Labs' was used to denote the experiments he wanted to conduct in this emerging social space. Parmesh, over these past two decades, has completely immersed his life into building anti-fragile communities and ecosystems.
I am conscious that so many queer voices are male and upper class.
Parmesh does not shy away from accepting his privilege, albeit it took several years. His attempts at organizing interventions at the Godrej Culture Lab and his latest book "Queeristan: LGBTQ Inclusion in Corporate India," are just two specific manifestations of spaces he has created for queer voices to be expanded and amplified. Parmesh further demonstrated his solidarity and commitment to his 'transgender brothers and sisters' through a whitepaper - A Manifesto for Trans Inclusion in the Indian Workplace - he co-authored with his colleague, Nayana Nambiar. Through several interviews with the transgender community, they were able to highlight that 92% of willing and non-disabled transgender people were not given employment opportunities. Furthermore, they stressed and quantified the economic costs of excluding the LGBTQ community from the corporate sector.
Commenting on the corporate landscape in India, Parmesh is aware that although some companies like his own (Godrej) have been working towards inclusion for a decade, every organization can do more. He feels that with Section 377 having been repealed, the "guilt" or fear that companies might have had towards inclusion has also been lifted. Parmesh believes the intentions of corporate India must now translate into actual actions on the ground. Equal treatment policies, gender-neutral restrooms, sensitization training for staff, becoming a spokesperson for the LGBTQ community at corporate events, changing employment policies... The to-do list for supporting this community is a long one.
Ending on a positive note, Parmesh did tell us that, after growing up on a diet of Karan Johar and Yash Chopra movies, he wants to get married, which is still a massive gap in the legal framework of India. Keeping aside his mental binder of wedding outfits he would like to wear, as someone who is in a loving relationship, Parmesh wants him and his partner to be able to make vital decisions when it comes to their health or property. As a dutiful tax paying citizen of the country, Parmesh believes there is no reason why he shouldn't be allowed the same rights that every other citizen has and marry the man he loves down the lane unless "... he doesn't get fed up with me, that is."