Farhad J. Dadyburjor Widens the Scope of Queer Literature With His New Rom-Com
Acclaimed author Farhad J. Dadyburjor has set a new standard with his boundary-pushing listen The Other Man, an urban romance set in Mumbai.
October 27, 2021
Note: Text has been edited and does not match audio exactly.
Michael Collina: Hi, I'm Audible Editor Michael Collina, and today I'm thrilled to be speaking with the author of The Other Man, Farhad J. Dadyburjor. Welcome, Farhad.
Farhad J. Dadyburjor: Hi, Michael, I'm so happy to be here.
MC: We're so happy to have you here.
FD: Thanks, Michael.
MC: So let's jump right in. The Other Man is a gay rom-com set in modern-day Mumbai, and it's also your sophomore novel. Can you tell us a bit about the story in your own words?
FD: It's a really fun, happy gay rom-com set in Mumbai. It centers around Ved Mehra, who's this mega-industrialist, good looking, successful, rich—you know, the ideal GQ man, so to speak, who seems to have it all on the outside, but on the inside, he’s really miserable, unhappy being a closeted gay man. He's had his heart ripped out from a previous relationship, so he's pretty much in despair. And in that moment of just being unhappy and full of despair, he gives into his mother's wishes of an arranged marriage, which is something that's very common in India.
"In India it's a lot more difficult to come out simply because a lot of people live with their parents."
While this huge, big engagement is going on, where the who's who of the business world are being called, and they're all setting the date in the calendars for it, he meets Carlos Silva, who's a much younger, happy-go-lucky American visiting India on work, and they fall madly in love. That relationship really changes him, it empowers him, it wants him to come out. He knows that found true love, but at the same time, he's got this engagement looming over his head and that's a tough call, because should he follow his heart? Should he follow his mother's wishes?
Especially because in India it's a lot more difficult to come out simply because a lot of people live with their parents in the first place, so that makes it harder. Also, we've grown up being told to revere our parents' wishes, so that becomes that much harder for him to go against. Plus, the business community is tight-knit and very conservative.
So that's the series of events, with the engagement taking place on one hand and this lovely love story happening on the other. And he really wants to come out and he really wants to do stuff, but will he be able to? Does he have the gumption to do it, to go against his parents? I mean, it's a big deal. It's really about that.
MC: Thank you for the explanation. I just want to say it's a fantastic story. I was on the edge of my seat as I was listening. I was like, what's going to happen next? What decision is Ved gonna make? What's going to happen? I honestly did not know, and I was like, I need to finish this immediately.
You actually have years of writing experience under your belt as an entertainment and lifestyle writer. You are a journalist, and you also have your first book, How I Got Lucky, which was more a satirical look at India's celebrity culture, which feels a little bit more aligned with your day job. So I wanted to ask, what was your writing process like for The Other Man?
FD: Once I finished the first book and it came out and everything, it was well received and I was really happy with it. I got back into my day job, which was with a magazine that was pretty demanding, and that just took up all my time. In that process a year or two down the line, I met my agent, who's U.S.-based, Priya Doraswamy. She'd come down to Mumbai after the Jaipur Lit Fest, and we spoke about this book, the skeleton of it, that it's a love story between an Indian closeted man and this foreigner who comes down who's much younger, and the dynamics of that. That was really what we discussed, and she was like, "That sounds super special, it's lovely, great."
Cut to three years down the line, I still hadn't started work on it because I was in a really, really demanding job. Although I wanted to work on it and I had all the good intentions, I probably wrote a few lines or wrote maybe a chapter or two, but I really had not put my mind to it.
I would keep saying, yes, I'm working on it, I'm working on it, but the truth was, I just did not have the bandwidth to do it, and when I left that job and then I had time and space, I started work on it, which took another three years. So in all effect, it was six years, but that was six years from when I just discussed the initial idea, then for two years I didn't do anything. It was just a matter of thinking I want to work on it and actually wanting to do it all with intentions, but it just didn't happen. And very strangely, Michael, when I think about it now in hindsight, I realized that it all just worked out to perfect timing. It worked out on all fronts exactly the way I want it to be, and it really came about at exactly the right time it should have come about, so I'm very happy.
MC: It's pretty rare to find male authors who write romance. Was there anything that first drew you to that genre and made you want to write a love story specifically?
FD: I'll tell you what, something that did always cross my mind, I mean, of course it was the fact that this was a really lovely love story to write, and I just thought it was something that needed to be told, and the beauty of love that transcends all boundaries. But more than that, the things that I've read, a lot of gay novels through the years by some splendid authors, really literary heavyweights who've written it beautifully and great books, but they all had something sad or unhappy at the center of their books. Somebody dies or somebody is just less bereft when the other person goes and gets married or just, you know, really awful things.
"A lot of people have great relationships, so why isn't anybody talking about that?"
I always felt that, like, isn't there a book that can give you hope? I mean, shouldn't we have something that makes us feel better? Because the underlying theme that I always got was that if you're gay, sad things are gonna happen to you. Those books are beautiful and those stories need to be told, and a lot of them are very relevant and true. But I always felt there needs to be just more happiness in a gay novel. There just needs to be more celebration.
And I saw that in my own personal life. I saw that with other people I knew. I was like, a lot of people have great relationships, so why isn't anybody talking about that? Why is it always the unhappiness, the illness, something going wrong? Even the movies that we saw out here in India that were sort of considered the gay movie, so to speak, say, Brokeback Mountain or Call Me by Your Name, again, you know what? Always at the end of it, left you without hope.
And I wanted a book that was just the opposite of that. I wanted something that filled you with hope, that was positive, that just gave you a nice, warm, loving hug, it just made you feel really good, because I felt it was about time. Honestly, even on the international front, I think it's only been maybe three years since we've seen positive, happy, gay rom-coms coming about.
Even earlier, I don't remember seeing anything online, in the bookstores. It's just too late that people realize, yes, these stories need to be told too, because they're true, and why not celebrate love? Why not, in all its colors, so to speak? But I always found that I used to find that quite upsetting actually, because I was like, there has to be something that makes you feel really good about being gay. You know, it empowers you. And that was also part of writing this book. That was a focus: that it needs to be something that's happy, that talks about a lot of issues, that confronts a lot of issues that people face in India, gay men face in India, but at the same time, it makes you happy, feel good, full of love.
I always love to say that it's a gay rom-com with a big heart. That's my favorite line, because I really feel that's what it's about. It's just a really feel-good book.
MC: It definitely is. I think you hit that perfect balance of addressing those sometimes harder, real issues that LGBTQIA+ people face, but also getting a really lovely, happy, proud story in there. So it's the perfect balance.
FD: Great. I'm so happy to hear that.
MC: The Other Man is possibly also one of the first gay rom-coms set in modern-day Mumbai. As we mentioned, it focuses a lot on what life for gay Indians is like, and it also focuses pretty heavily on the repeal of section 377 of the Indian Penal Code. For those who don't know, section 377 was an archaic colonial law dating back to 1861, and in which same-sex relationships were considered an unnatural offense and deemed illegal. And also, Farhad, earlier this year, you wrote about the appeal in a piece for the Advocate where you talk about your own experience growing up as a gay man in India and living with the law. So I wanted to ask, what was living with section 377 like?
FD: To be honest, it was not something that was in my purview growing up in college. Growing up in college was just this whole phase of being confused, of not being sure, because it was the '90s—there was no internet, there was no social media, there was very little information available. Whatever you saw, you either saw on MTV or you saw it on Donahue and Oprah. They'd have a couple of shows where, you know, wives would come together and say, "My husband left me for another man," or something like that. And that's the only time you really heard about gay stories.
377 was not something that came to the discussion. In fact, I don't think we even had any discussions about sexuality at all. We hadn't developed the language to discuss that as a subject. It was still looked at as something that was either a piece of gossip—if you read about it in the newspaper, you either read about some star that had rumoredly had an affair with another man or something controversial like that—or you read about it in some sordid story where somebody was beaten up for asking sexual favors of another man.
So we never really discussed it even amongst friends, and I always found it so strange because I'd see all my friends dating people of the opposite sex, and I was still coming to terms with who I was, what did I really want, trying to understand that without any really sort of accessories or any sort of information to hold on to. It was like a symphony of loneliness, frankly.
I remember a really close friend of mine, when she wanted to broach this with me, and she basically asked me one night when we were standing together, she said, "Are you a little bit like George Michael?" And I was like, "I'm completely like George Michael. Yeah, there's no question."
That was really an icebreaker in some sense. That was how we broached it, because nobody really had these discussions like you have today. I mean, there was no question of gay rights or even LGBT as a term coming into existence.
Maybe six, seven years ago was when 377 was being challenged in court by a lot of activists, and that's when the conversation around it really picked up and the newspapers started writing about it, and people started talking about it, and there would be these awful rabble-rousing debates on TV, there would be these homophobic people saying it's immoral, you're abnormal, it's a disease from the West. These were all things that they’d talk about. The reasoning was that at the end of the day, there's section 377, and it's criminal, so how can you even discuss the fact about being gay?
That's when the conversation around it came about, which was several years ago. Today we talk about inclusivity and there's such a large spotlight on gay rights and all of that, and things have changed a hell of a lot, but at that time, in the '90s, it was very different. But I'm just glad it's no longer there, you know, that's the best part.
MC: Yeah, absolutely. That deserves a lot of celebration. So as you mentioned, Article 377 was only just repealed in 2018. Has life changed for LGBTQIA+ Indians much since then?
FD: I think it's changed quite a bit, frankly. Everyone was sort of cautiously optimistic about this thing coming through. And so weeks in advance everyone was waiting, what is it gonna be, you know? Are they gonna finally knock it down? Because there were very strong arguments in favor of knocking it down, and it was about time and seemed like a progressive step, but it was something that the British had left behind, so I wasn't even there. In those weeks leading up, there was that feeling that yes, it's gonna happen.
I remember the day when it finally did happen and I saw it on Twitter, the news broke on Twitter, and it broke around, I think the time was 12:12 a.m. was when the verdict came out and there was just this bursting of a dam, messages, and everybody was just happy. There was a lot of joy and happiness and all of that percolated for weeks and months, frankly, in newspapers, in articles, the conversations opened up. There was a lot of joyousness that this had finally come through, which was a really great sign. And since then, the newspapers carry a lot more positive, incisive articles on sexuality, whether it's trans or whether it's gay or whether it's asexuality, of being on the spectrum, or whatever it is, that's far more being written about it.
Magazines have a lot of trans fashion happening, which wasn't there before. Vogue India put a lesbian couple on their cover, which was quite a great step. We hadn't seen something like that before in magazines. We had the first Bollywood gay rom-com come out a year ago, which was, again, a big thing. More recently, a week or two ago, one of the banks out here started the system of allowing same-sex couples to open an account together, which was not the case earlier. So things are percolating, things are moving, there's far better representation in OTT stories, you know, Bollywood, in what you see on Netflix or Amazon.
There's a lot more happening that we did not see before, realistic portrayals of gay men and the struggles that they face. Also companies, even a lot of corporate houses, are starting to develop LGBT-friendly policies. So that's coming about. It is all moving and there's, I think, a very strong spotlight on inclusivity today, the world over. You can't ignore that anymore.
And I think that is a really, really good step because that forces everybody to go ahead and be progressive in what they're doing. I see a lot more coming out of this, frankly. I mean, there's just this constant movement that we see a lot more things coming out day-by-day.
MC: I agree. Representation is a big part of all of these conversations and understanding. So as we keep getting more stories, I think it's only gonna keep getting better.
FD: Yeah, for sure. Definitely.
MC: On that note, do you actually think a story like The Other Man would have been possible before 377's repeal?
FD: It wasn't that there wasn't gay fiction being written before or queer fiction, for that matter. There were stories, but they were largely either nonfiction serious books that were written or they would be few and far between. Just one or two authors would write it. It's also a thing that publishers need to look at in terms of, do they have the audience? I think that was always a question: do they have the audience for it? Today they definitely do.
But earlier, I think they would be a little worried about, can we get that right audience for it? Even with my first book, the character was gay. It was a coming-of-age story, and he was coming to terms in the world of journalism, so to speak. But I got a lot of different reactions from it. There were some people who were shocked in some sense by it. And then there were others who would come to me very privately and say, "This is great. When's your next book coming out?" I think at that time it was still sort of testing the waters. I think today, like I said, it's all fallen into place really well, because now really is the time.
Honestly, I think the book could have come out, say, seven or eight years ago, but I don't know what the reception would have been, whether people would openly want to talk about it or read it, or cover it with brown paper and then read it. You know what I mean? Like sort of not be seen.
MC: Yeah, totally. And thank you for telling this story and being one of those voices who's coming out and telling these stories, because I think it's a really powerful and great thing to tell.
FD: Sure. I was speaking to my agent when we were doing the book and I was just telling her that, very strangely, I feel this is another version of coming out for me with this novel. But I just feel it constantly happens as you meet new people, as you work with new people, you're constantly coming out in some sense, and this book is another form of coming out in a certain way. But it's a celebration for me. I really want this book to be a celebration. I want it to fill people with hope. That's really the idea of this, and also to open the gates for other novels like this, whether it's a lesbian love story, whether it's a trans love story. Let people really see that, yes, there's an audience. They love it, people are interested, and automatically everybody will jump onto the bandwagon.
MC: Yeah, totally. While you were writing The Other Man, that's actually when section 377 was repealed, correct?
FD: Yeah. So the strange thing was that the book was finished. I packed it off to my agent. She was looking at it and the verdict came in, and I was just like, this has to come into the novel. She was one of the first few people I spoke to that day. I was like, "I don't know how we're gonna do it, I don't know what we need to change, but we definitely have to bring in this new, progressive, free India that's come about, because that's so important." And then through discussions and over the next couple of weeks, we figured out what we could change. But section 377 was always there in the background of the book, because that was part of it, and part of talking about the social structure of being a gay man in India, but we definitely amplified it a lot more.
"I really want this book to be a celebration."
MC: Did you actually have to change the manuscript a lot to make the repeal of 377 a little bit more present, whether that's in Ved's personal journey or just in the manuscript overall?
FD: Well, a little bit. The end had to change, the last couple of chapters had to change, and we did bring it about a lot more in the main story in terms of it coming up more often, because it was set in that year when it's the lead-up to it. Beyond that, I don't think there was anything more that we really did.
MC: And though this isn't your first published book, this is actually your first audiobook, isn't it?
FD: It is.
MC: What was the casting process like for you? Was there any particular sound you had in mind or any specific characteristics that you were looking for in a performer?
FD: The person who's doing the audiobook, Ariyan, I love the fact that he could take on so many different voices. To me that's a real feat. Hats off to his talent. I'm sure it's hard enough to have done all the male voices of different ages and different backgrounds, but then to take on also the female voices, who are again of different ages and different backgrounds, is really something amazing. And honestly, hats off to him for bringing it to life, and also being able to shuttle between an Indian accent and an American accent, because Ved is Indian, Carlos is American, so that also had to come. There were a lot of factors that had to come into it, and I think he's done a brilliant job.
MC: Yeah. Ariyan Kassam, the performer of The Other Man, he nailed it. All the different voices, the different accents, characterizations, it added a great second element to that story. Have you listened to The Other Man yet?
FD: I have. I did listen to it very closely, and frankly it's been the first audiobook that I've listened to, and I found it to be a totally different experience altogether. I think a novel, when you read it, comes to life in a different way, and an audiobook, when you listen to it, comes to life in a totally different way, two very different experiences, frankly, and they’re both beautiful, but of course an audiobook is easier because you can close your eyes in the dark and put it on and listen to it, and that's great.
And also the voices and the characters, you start imagining what they might be like in a different way with an audiobook. You can start thinking about different elements. So it was a wonderful experience, and I think it's turned out fabulous, and I'm most happy with it because it is my first audiobook, so it's great.
MC: And it's a fantastic first audiobook. There's so much to love about it.
So I also wanted to ask, what's next for you? Is there anything specific that you're working on now that we might see sometime soon?
FD: Honestly, I'm just focusing on my day job at the moment. I have a couple of ideas and stuff like that, but I've not worked on anything. I've not given it any serious thought really. I do feel that there is the room for a sequel to a book like this. I think it's a beautiful love story, and it could be carried forward in a new way, in a different arena altogether, but we'll have to wait and see. I'm just focusing on my magazine work and my work as an editor right now, and enjoying this whole process about talking about the book, seeing the love that's coming from bloggers, from people who've read it, all the comments, understanding if somebody didn't like something, what was it that they didn't like about it? And if they liked something, what was it that they really liked?
Because for me, it's great to see people from halfway across the world have an opinion on it and to gauge that opinion. I'm just really taking it all in, and I'm enjoying all the book promotions that are happening, which I didn't really get much of a choice to do with the first book because I had a hectic job, and the first book you're always sort of like on edge and you're worried. So I'm really taking my time and enjoying every little bit of it right now.
MC: Definitely enjoy it, because all of that praise is very well deserved, and I'm gonna keep my fingers crossed for that next story.
Farhad, thank you so much for speaking with me today. For anyone listening in, you can now find The Other Man by Farhad J. Dadyburjor right here on Audible.
FD: Thank you. Thanks so much.