This item is an audio file.

Oral History Interview with Mani Soma

Mani Soma performs as the drag artist KaMANI Sutra. In the oral history, Mani describes growing up in India, navigating a queer relationship as a teenager, helping to organize a flash mob at Osmania University, finding south asian LGBTQ community after immigrating to the DC area, and their experiences performing as a drag artist.

Content warning: Suicide

Gender & Sexuality

Duration: 01:07:16

Date: March 9, 2020
Subject(s): Mani Soma
Type: Oral History
Source: Archival Creators Fellowship Program
Creator: Mustafa Saif, Abdullah Syed
Location: Washington, DC

Interviewee: Mani Soma

Interviewer: Mustafa Saif, Abdullah Syed

Transcriber: Alisha Cunzio

Mani Soma: (0:00)
My name is Mani Soma, also known as KaMANI Sutra - my drag name. While growing up, I was always a mama's boy, like my mom's child. I was growing up very attached to her. I was grown up paying the respect and love, and do whatever they ask, respect to what do you want. And I was a very innocent and very exploring kind of a guy. There's always a golden child and non-golden child in the family. I was given more freedom and opportunities to go out and explore, learn new things. But on the other side, my sister was not. My sister was restricted to go. So I had an access to do it, but also on the other side, only limited options.

Mustafa Saif: (1:01)
When and where were you born?

Mani Soma: (1:02)
I am from a Southern part of India - Hyderabad. Born and brought up in Hyderabad. Was there till 2015, and moved to States in 2015. My mom and dad is always very connected to their family, and we always had a huge, large number of people in my home. While growing up, it's not just my mom. My mom, when she got married, she brought her younger sister with her, who was in a fourth standard. She got married and she brought herself-- she bought her sister with herself. I had two elder sisters, and after my mom had me and my other two sisters, at certain point, she also brought her brothers to her life. And she used to let them live with us, and we all were like seven/eight people around all the time. My dad was also very down to it. He was not like restricted my mom for not-- for being always connected to her biological family, not with my dad's family. On the meanwhile, also my dad is connected to his wide family. He has his brother's - like, nine siblings - and my mom has eight siblings. It’s a huge family whenever it's a gathering. When my elder sister - oh, she passed away when she was 13 years old. It's, again, content warning, in the context of this mentioning. She burned herself when she was 13 years old. I was seven years old, I guess. I don't even remember how the incident happened, and I barely remember anything. After that incident happened my mom went into depression a lot for, like, two three years, and my dad went into depression. He started drinking and... whatever the whole family structure - like having sisters and brothers together - everything collapsed after that point. And my mom went into depression for two years, and we all had to move back to my grandma's place for two years. And my mom-- my dad has to reconstruct the whole house in order to make my mom feel comfortable. Like, you know, she's haunted by the memories of my older sister. And after that my mom became very particular and sensitive about where we go, what we do as a child, and she has that anxiety of losing a kid. Whatever we tried to do new things she would be like “Oh, maybe this is not good for you.” I see from what point she's coming, but also on the other point we lacked freedom, and growing up there's no freedom, and if you do-- if you have a freedom you do mistakes and you learn from the mistakes.

Mustafa Saif: (3:47)
What were some of the things that you remember wanting to do that you felt like you couldn't do?

Mani Soma: (3:55)
Definitely dress up in a-- like, you know, drag and perform. But it's interesting question again. So, when I was growing up I have seen my grandfather doing-- I mean, now that I'm in United States and I have access to the Western culture I could see it as a drag. But back in days, I used to see my grandfather doing stage acts to-- from like, one city to another city. While I growing up I saw his wigs, his jewelries, his saris - everything kept in huge... we call it as a [inaudible]. It's like iron box - like, you know, iron suitcase - with like a small lock in it. I literally remember the old stuff. So I've seen him doing the whole stuff, and then he come back home and be this natural men and nobody says anything, and everybody appreciates him. So I was like, “Oh, this is cool. I think it is fine to do it.” And then I tried to do dance-- Like, I used to dance a lot at my family functions, or any weddings, or any gatherings. Everybody will be like, “Oh Mani, you should dance. You should dance!” And then I started dancing, and if I tried to do a very feminine-- a little feminine things also they all would be like, “Oh, you should not dance very like--” You know, in a masculine way. And I tried to put myself-- I wish I could have been-- Although I am saying I have an access to the queer family - I guess. I don't know I should say the queer family or not. I have a representation which is queer for me, but I cannot implement on me, because I was not married to a woman. If you're married to a woman and had kids then you can do whatever you want. So growing up, I would feel like if there was a more acceptance in whatever I was doing.

Mustafa Saif: (5:41)
At that time, or since then, have you ever talked to your family about understanding your grandfather and having some connection with him?

Mani Soma: (5:52)
Honestly, over-- We never really talked about it. It's like don't ask, don't tell situations. But recently - a year and a half ago - I came out to my sister, and it's been challenging with her. I came out... I had to come out, like, three times. I came out as, you know, that I'm gay, and then I came out as genderqueer person, and then I came out about my drag. And over a time, I was trying to make my sister understand in the meanwhile, but she was being very impatient, and also distance. I live in United States, and they're in India. They think whatever I say they try to listen to me. And my sister outed me recently - about two months back - and my mom was taking it so hard. And I tried to have the conversations with my mom recently - it's like two months back. I told “Oh whatever I've seen grandfather doing this.” I felt like that was very queer enough for me. A man can dress up and dance and still get the appreciation. So, I felt really connected. And my mom trying to back up her own dad saying like, “Oh, how dare you. You can’t talk about your grandfather like that who passed away.” Like, you cannot keep those blames on a dead-- like passed away person. It’s like sin. I am very much interested to have this conversations in person, and also very nervous to have this conversations. So what I had, she was trying to back up and not trying to claim that that was a queer representation.

Mustafa Saif: (7:38)
You moved during your childhood, right? Can you talk about what that transition was like for you?

Mani Soma: (7:42)
I don't really remember the transition of moving back to my grandparents and then coming back to the place where we stayed, because I was seven and eight years old, and I barely remember anything. But I definitely feel like I don't have the-- I don't have a childhood friends whom I could relate with. I can share my childhood experiences. I was always told not to go around and have friends - like go socially gathering - because family is only-- like cousins or families are only the friends and the family. Like, you cannot have social friends outside the family. Even if you're having it should be only certain time or like certain limit. You can’t really have memories. So, that is something I feel like I missed in the transitions, because childhood I was in that place, and then I moved to my actual-- my mom and dad place again when I was like 12. Also growing up in my own city where I was it was very-- Again, it's a caste system. I used to live in a very lower - how you say, community? It’s a... the whole county or like, you know, the neighborhood I live in with all the lower class people. And in that my family was the upper gap. So when you can divided it in a different levels, so we were the upper caste people, and the other people are lower caste people. And I grow up with those caste level system. “Oh, you cannot have these friends, and you can have these friends.” I used to-- My teens I used to have-- play with my friends in childhood in my neighborhood. We used to play hide and seek. We say in Telugu ‘eyes bias’ I guess, I don't know. ‘Eyes bias’ something - there's a different lingual thing to it. But we used to play hide and seek with all these guys. So, while I was growing up there is this guy whom we-- I used to have like a little connection, I don't know. We used to smile at each other and, you know, blush at each other, and whenever we were hide-- playing hide and seek, so we used to go and hide in a closet and hug each other tightly. It was like, that is very interesting concept. I was like, “Oh this feels so good.”

Mani Soma: (10:18)
But I'm always surrounded with guys when I'm trying to explore this kind of stuff, but also I was having girls as the very close friends, which I feel like I am very comfortable here. They feel like my femininity is so validated around this all of AFAB folks. And that was totally different when I am out of school and hanging out at the neighborhood. But when I went to school, I was totally differentiated. Because it's a co-education: All this row guys should be sit, and this row only girl should be sitting. So whenever there is a physical training class - like PE classes - all girls would go and play indoor games, and all guys should go and play cricket, football. That's where I felt very differentiated, and I was like, “I can't really play cricket, but I can cheer up.” But I tried a lot myself. I pushed myself a lot to be in there, but I couldn't-- that piles up, and all the guys used to make fun of me, and talk like, “The way you talk, the way you move.” And I should-- I am always very interested in doing-- making greeting cards. Like how, in those leisure periods, girls used to go and sit in the-- make greeting cards and, you know, doing some craft on mainly arts. I’m so much interested in that, but I couldn't put myself there.

Mustafa Saif: (11:51)
Can you tell me more about the greeting cards? Who would you make these for, what do they look like?

Mani Soma: (11:58)
When I was growing up in school we used to have this annual days - like ‘Teacher’s Day’, ‘Children's Day’ - so we used to make a greeting cards to invitation for all the teachers, and also dipo-- invitation to, like, floor in charge. An invitation to the… um, every class teacher, and invitations to your principal - or vice principal - and the clerk. Like, you know, you make different greeting cards. It's like-- it's a form of-- what do you do, like, hospitality I guess? Like, you invite-- Even though you know that this on particular date it's going to happen, it’s just to encourage the creativity of the kids. They tell like, “Oh, you can create the greeting cards and you can go invite your friend, and your teachers, or your principal, vice principal.” So that is something I used to do. And I used to make my own greeting cards to my friends who used to be in my classing. And they also have summer camps. They used to make us learn all crafting, or indoor games - and also outdoor games. But I was always associated with the odds.

Mustafa Saif: (13:10)
What ages are we talking about here? Is this your early teens?

Mani Soma: (13:15)
12 to 15? I was in one school all the time, and that's when I felt like I could [audio distortion]. Like a childhood friends whom I can - at this point, I could feel like - I can look back and say like, “Oh, these are my school friends I used to hang out with.” But I don't have them also in my life right now, because of my own identity, of my-- like, I was trying to figure out what it is. After 15 you do this intermediate. So when I was in intermediate, I met this guy. See? Again, it’s the same thing. I know when I was growing up - in like 12 and 13, when I used to play these all hide and seek games - I had this connection with this guy. I feel like, “Whatever this feeling is, I'm enjoying it.” But, in meanwhile, when this all situations were happening out, my own family also having a lot of struggle financially. My dad lost his job, and he was jobless for three years, and my mom started doing our own business, and I had to help her. And then I had to help my mom stitching these embroideries on the lehengas or, you know, Punjabi dresses. She used to go to certain vendors - they used to give her a black print on it, and then you make a threading on top of the exact design of the [inaudible]. I was so much interested in this art, and I was also helping my mom, so which made me feel like, “Oh, my mom is so accepting in this point.” But she was thinking in the livelihood form, but I was happy in my like, you know, ‘I can do whatever I want’. Around this time I was struggling a lot with the family issues, and also I couldn't really talk about what I'm going through. I was like, “Okay, I think it's fine. I don't want to talk because there's so many issues happening.” [audio distortion] exactly what is going on with me, to be honest. Because I don't know this all terms called gay, or bisexual, or lesbian, trans, or anything - I don't know. The only word I would know is - while I was growing up - was hijra, chhakka, because I was called by all this name. Hijra, chhakka, marda, and, you know, all these words. These are the only words I know, but I was never wanted to identify with those words, because those are very.. I see people growing up-- while I was growing up - all these hijras, trans people - were hit by many guys on this street because I-- we used to have a small stall on the main-- on the highway. My mom did have small business where I used to help, but it's like a telephone booth. Also we sell cigarettes and everything. So I used to sit there after my school - started coming back from school at 5 - I used to sit there from, like, 6 to 10 and close the store and then go back. So when-- while I was there, I used to see all these hijra people begging money, and these all cis men who used to beat them, or take them on the ride and do whatever stuff. So I was like... I only see that as a representation, and I was so panicked to be identified like that. So after 15 I met this guy, and I think that was very teenage. I think I hit my puberty exactly around 14 and 15, and I was actually having feelings towards a guy, and also having a physical attraction towards him. And it really went well.

Mustafa Saif: (16:52)
How did you meet him?

Mani Soma: (16:54)
Through my intermediate. So he was my classmate, actually. When you hit the puberty - 15 years old - and you come to the intermediate, that's where the division happens. India school system is like, “Oh now only boys, and only girls. Because you hit the puberty you cannot be together.” So in the school - you know, all 6th, 7th, 8th, 9th, 10th standard - we are all together like in a co-education. When it comes to intermediate, and like you have this division. And I felt very happy because it's all boys. And I was attracted to this guy, and we-- I used to hang out with him, we used to talk, and it really made me feel so happy. And I was with this guy for almost six years.

Mustafa Saif: (17:41)
Why did you feel so connected to him in particular?

Mani Soma: (17:44)
There was no exact conversations happened between him and me until we broke up. It is again ‘don't ask, don't tell’ situation. He's like a guy next door who you could get along easily, and he got along with my family, with my sister, and he became part of my day to day life. We were messing around at nights, and also - after we met, like after a couple of months - and the next day morning we don't talk about it. It's again near the next level of not talking about sex. Whenever he has any plans hanging out he would check in with me, “Oh, do you want to hang out?” and we used to hang out together. All his friends became my friends, and we used to surprise each other. We used to surprise to like, you know, each other birthdays, and gives gifts for occasion. For Diwali gifts [inaudible]. At the same point, also, when I was hanging out with this guy I used to do this-- helped my mom at the telephone booth. I used to send him all these recharge cards. In India, we have DSM, Reliance, [unclear], Airtel - I think these are all recharge cards. He used to ask me. I was like, “Oh, he's asking. Let me just give him.” And I just used to give him without even any second thought. I feel like ‘oh I have to do it because I like him’.

Mustafa Saif: (19:05)
Did you ever give him a greeting card?

Mani Soma: (19:08)
A lot! Oh my God, I am so excited to go see the-- So I used to save all these greeting cards and the little notes. And also I wrote how we met and what had happened till the end - I wrote it on like additionals sheets. I wrote all the story - like what happened, how we met, and everything happened between us, and like, you know, my sister got married. I feel so ridiculous right now. But I wrote everything about it, and I have all the-- I think I do have the recharge cards coupon which I gave him. I'm not sure, it's almost been seven years. I should go back and check with my-- in my home if it is still there. I used to give him greeting cards, he used to give me greeting cards... and I wonder if we have yellow rose flowers also. I’m definitely sure I remember giving him one, and he gave back to me, and when we broke up it's whole-- like dramatic breakup happened between us. So...

Mustafa Saif: (20:15)
Were you worried when you were writing everything down? Were you worried about other people's perceptions of what was going on, or of being found out by other people?

Mani Soma: (20:25)
I wasn't, honestly. Now that I'm thinking I never really thought about anybody finding it out or seeing it. I never really thought about anybody would find out and I would be caught by writing this. I think that really helped me to process my feelings - how I was feeling about him. And again, I wrote that to him to impress again. I was feeling happy and I was like, “Oh, he might think this is cute that I wrote everything to him.” And we used to talk on text every single day - like, every second - ‘what are you doing? hi’. I could type the thing in the class - he is on the other side of the class, and I used to text him in the class - and he used to respond to all those texts. He used to flirt. He used to say ‘jaanu’ and this all stuff, and I was like, “Awww.” And he said my name is jaanu, and I said his name is jaanu - like jaan, jaanu. I was with him almost six years, and then around that time my sister was 20/21 - it's time for her to get married. She did engineering, she did computer science, and then she was about to get a job. She got a job actually at Dell, but my parents did not let her work because they found a better match. Around that time we were trying to break up. I actually forgot to mention the fact that, after intermediate, you get to choose. I wrote my EnSET - which is an entrance exam for your engineering - and he wrote his EnSET also for his engineering. Then he decided to do undergrad degree. Engineering is a four years education, and undergrad degree is three years. He decided to go to undergrad. I was up in the air - and this is very foolish of my-- foolishness of me - and I decided to go to undergrad also, just because he is doing the undergrad at the same. And I got the same admission. My parents-- like, they're not educated and they couldn't guide me what I need to be doing in my life. Just me whatever I decided I could do it. I'm talking too much about him. I'm just trying to navigate my queerness - how it happened.

Mustafa Saif: (22:45)
Obviously I also want to know about all this so...

Mani Soma: (22:50)
So I got into degree college, and I was doing my undergrad, and he was also doing undergrad at this point. And I would catch the same bus exactly what he was going to catch the bus. We used to message each other - so little, little things which made my stomach fly with butterflies, I guess. It’s like seeing in the movies - it's happening in real life, and it's also the same gender. I was like, “Wow!” All this happening, and my sister is about to get married, and in meanwhile I would say he was also seeing other women, which I know already. I honestly legit think he’s bi, but again, it's a lot of biphobia in whole world and everywhere, so... I do know that he was-- he has a girlfriend when after I met after two years. So he also had a girlfriend. It is easy to-- easy for him to get along in the society for having a girlfriend. After that, I think my sister got married.

Mustafa Saif: (23:54)
Were you close to your sister, and what was the wedding like, and how did you feel about her getting married?

Mani Soma: (24:00)
Honestly, me and my sister are-- it's usual thing, you know? Fighting all the time when we were childhood. I really like her and love her now,it’s just now we grow up. I used to always fight with my sister the point when she was getting married, and also my sister was told not to go out, and not to talk with other people. And my mom used to always compare my sister with other people - for being very extrovert and my sister is very introvert - but also my mom never really let her go outside because she's a girl. My relationship with my sister was-- it's very interesting. I now feel like I'm very close to her. Back in this I think, ‘my god you always fight with me. I don't want to talk to you’. And now it's like we feel like missing each other, and now that she has kids-- Now we talk like adult talking. Just because this guy is getting along with my family and everything, I used to see my relationship with my sister through him. If he's getting close to my sister, oh, I'm also close to my sister. And once my sister got married then who used to-- she used to tie rakhis to him and to meet together. Anyway, in last semester, and my sister was getting married - and this is-- this breakup is like, very hilarious and college breakup. My sister's wedding happen, and I did not invite his girlfriend - he invited. There's a rituals in weddings - South Asian weddings. Broom-- I mean [laugh] nevermind-- groom, not broom. Oh, forget I did that.

Mustafa Saif: (25:38)
I love it though. I’m gonna keep it.

Mani Soma: (25:41)
Yeah, you can you can keep it. The groom and bride sit together, and the groom's family and bride's family sit-- all of them sit together and eat. I wanted him to wait and eat with us. He asked me like, “Oh, she's not eating because she want me to eat with her. Can I go and eat with her?” I was like, “No, you can't because we are all family. You have to eat with.” And I told her, “He will eat with the family, you can go ahead and eat.” And he didn't like the way I said the thing to her. He said this one thing, which really, really bothered me. He said, like, “”Oh, you don't know how to treat the guest?” Like, “Is that the way you should talk to her?” I was like, “You are my friend, and I treat her really good. You're part of my family right now.” And then he was like, “Oh, you're saying that you do include me in your family, as if I am orphan like I don't have a family. I already have a family. You don't need to.” A legit Bollywood drama. The next thing comes, we know each other's Facebook passwords. So we know each other's Facebook password, and then the whole thing. He talked about me to this person and was very disrespectful - talking about me really in a homophobic way - while on the other side you're fine doing whatever we are doing it together. I tried a lot get back. He didn't want to talk to me or see me at all. And till today at this point I haven't seen him again. After that I graduated, and he got graduated, and he got job, and I got job, and I started working at Wells Fargo, and then I didn't have any friends. So at this point, I was close to my sister - who used to live with me - and she left. She got married and she went to her in-laws. And my mom-- my mom used to still work at the telephone shop, and I used to also work at the telephone shop after that school. We adopted a dog at that time-- during that time for three months. I took it from my friend, because he just gave me. He said like, “Oh, if you want you can take it.” And he didn't say me that the dog has rabies disease. It passed away after three months.

Mani Soma: (27:28)
So after that, at that time, I got my job and then I started going to office. And then I started Googling on the Facebook and like ‘what is this all terms’? Like, you know - gay, homos, and all these words. At that time I got to know. And then I created a Facebook fake profile, and then I started adding all these random Facebook names called like, ‘Raj Bottom’, ‘Pure Top’ - all these kind of weird names. And then I started hooking up randomly with some guy,s and I used to go to their place, and they used to come to my place whenever nobody is there. On Facebook I got to know about PlanetRomeo - which is also gay dating, which is more of an hookup culture. And this is when I was like 19 and 20- 20 years old. I got to know about Queer Campus Hyderabad, which is like a LGBTQ organization in Hyderabad. I have seen-- I've known it - Queer Campus Hyderabad - long time and I was stalking them on my fake account. And that's when I started my job early, and I didn't want it to do anything out and out. I was still hooking up with guys, and after six months I was like, “What am I even doing? Why am I hooking up?” After six months continuously hooking up with the guys, and then I got to know about Queer Campus Hyderabad. And then I was following their pages, and then I saw some Dehli Queer Flashmob. I saw the video of the flashmob they did. That gave me-- I can still remember the whoever is in the video. I can still remember the people in that video - whatever the outfits those people wore. That hit me so hard in my brain and in my heart. And then I just posted on Queer Campus Hyderabad Facebook group - from my actual Facebook account - saying like, “Oh, I saw this queer flashmob happen in Delhi. It gave me so much of goosebumps and hope. Why can't we do this in Hyderabad?” So one of the organizers messaged me saying like, “Oh, you know, I can get the point from what they're telling to me, because all these new gaybies are so excited to do a lot of things, but in practically it's a lot of challenging to do. You know, there are a lot of challenges to do it.” I just said, like, “Oh, let's do it.” But to do it, there's a lot of planning, or lot of stakes and challenging, which goes through. So they said like - they messaged me - “We really appreciate your enthusiasm. If you really want it to do, come up with a plan, or reach out people whoever want it.” And I just said like, “People whoever want it comment here.” There were a couple of people who commented.

Mustafa Saif: (31:14)
Can you actually go back to just telling us about the flashmob video from Delhi that you saw? Who is in it and what were they dancing to?

Mani Soma: (31:24)
It was organized by the Harmless Hugs Facebook group, and I was part of this all Facebook groups called Harmless Hugs, Aniyam, Gay Bombay, Queer Campus Hyderabad, Namma Bengaluru - Namma Pride, I was not sure - but I was part of this all groups through my fake account. Then I saw the Delhi's flashmob - I'm pretty sure they’re all out and self accepted queer people. And they did flashmob at Central-- like a shopping mall, I guess? They did a couple of Bollywood songs, and slogans saying like ‘My Gay [Hindi]- It's Okay’ and ‘My Trans [Hindi] - It's Okay’, ‘[Hindi] - It Doesn't Matter What It Is to You’. So these are all these kind of slogans, and post-march when everything they did it. I think they do it every year. I think that was the first one or the second one, if I could remember. I don't know. It made me really feel happy and I was like... I was not all alone. All this time - whenever with this-- whenever all this time whenever I was with this guy and with all his friends and only my family - that was the only world I had, and I was always thinking like, “Why am I only the person having these feelings?” Everybody is fine with having a girlfriend, and being very masc, and doing house calls - like a guy who used to do it, but I am not able to do that. That video made me feel I'm not-- that video made me feel like I'm not the only person. There are also other people. Then I got added onto the Queer Campus Hyderabad - posted on it - and the organizers reached me out saying that, “If you wanted to do it, if you can gather people, you can do it.” I'm still friends with the people who - Queer Campus Hyderabad admins. They really gave me so much support for who I am right now. The amount of patience they had, the amount of support they gave me whatever I was doing, they were always there and made me to take the decisions, and also-- Honestly, I take that back. They did not made me to take the decision, they take the decisions, but also took my opinions, which made me feel like I am also included here. And I reached out, and it happened after almost eight months of the plan. Then the logistics actually hit me in my mind. It's not that easy. So it took at least two/three months to gather all people - reaching it out on the Grinder, on the PlanetRomeo - putting it like ‘Flashmob Coming Up - Hyderabad!’ And then reach out on Facebook. And I posted on the group, and then people reached out, and created the WhatsApp, and picked out the one place, and we met our first meeting.

Mustafa Saif: (34:40)
When you were recruiting people, what kind of responses would you get on Grindr or on--?

Mani Soma: (34:45)
Everybody was so interested. Everybody was so interested, and some of them came out of allyship. Like, you know, “Oh, we are allies. Here we can come support you and we can do it.” And whomever I reached out, they would talk to other people. It's like a chain. I would have reached out to people, and then tell like, “Oh, you can also reach out to other people, and please let me know if anybody's interested.” So that way, on the first meeting, we had like 11 or 12 people. Getting the permission at the Osmania University was really challenging, and it couldn't happen without the support from the trans people in Hyderabad, because they have been doing a lot of trans activism and LGBTQ advocacy work, or, you know, support system in Hyderabad. So we had to reach out them for the permissions. Even though we got permission at Osmania University to perform, on the day of the performance they did not allow us to perform. So we are scheduled to perform at 4:00, but we actually performed at 6:00 - they did not let us perform for two hours. Because of the challenges, and police people came, they said we can’t do this, and there was this trans person who came and talked about it. Her presence literally made that event happen. All credit to them. All credit to the queer campus organizers who supported me, and also those trans people who's like... had the permission to do it, and the funds given by the folks who are participating. The interesting fact is I could see 40 people coming to the practice to perf--... for the rehearsals. On the day of the performance I could only see 15 people. It's given that they're all.. not out to their family, and don't want it to be out in public. The rehearsals made me feel them-- made them feel like they are belong to the community, and meeting other people, and that has created a module - or like mode of meeting people. But when it is actually on the day of performance - or like on the day of the flashmob - there was only 15 people...15 or 20 people.

Mustafa Saif: (37:27)
Were you nervous to perform? And what like-- why were you one of the 15 people rather than one of the 40 who didn't show up?

Mani Soma: (37:37)
Honestly, I would say I was so nervous. I would-- I did-- I definitely took it as a challenge. I was nervous from the point of... the family if they would have known it. But all this six months whenever I was performing - every Sunday I used to go to practice I had to come up with some lie. “I had to do this. I have this office meeting. I have this office overtime. I had to go to work.” With my family and [audio drop] we got into so many fights during the time. But then, after the performances, I was-- During the performance also I was so nervous. Like, ‘will I be able to pull it off or not?’ Given the situations that we are not allowed to perform. They give us the permission, but we reached out the other locations also. Peoples Plaza - near the Necklace Road - in order to perform there we had to pay like 30,000 rupees, 40,000 rupees to them, but we didn't have funds to it. So, it keep delaying the location-- like, deciding the location, but this Osmania University has given a free opportunity to do it. So, it was definitely a challenging, and I was like, “I am going to do it, because this is what I wanted to do.” Afterwards, the response was really good and all people really liked it, and the amount of gathering - it happened in the university, there were closer to 500 plus people. There was families who-- there were mothers who accepted their kids. They came for show the support. There was trans people, there was all - I wouldn't say gender identity people, but there was trans, and Osmania University Students Club - like all the library people - they all came out. It was a whole big deal.

Mani Soma: (39:42)
And the next day, it comes on the newspaper. That when the actual things happen. So, I was on the Time of Indian newspaper - on the page three with all my friends who were dancing - and like, you know, saying it like, “LGBTQ People All Dancing - Making Awareness of their Existence in the City at the Osmania University.” My mom saw that, and my mom really-- my mom is not educated, and she can’t read English newspaper. She did not read the whole context, she was just happy the fact that I'm on the newspaper. I was happy and I was like, “If they're gonna ask, I'll probably say.” And luckily nobody has seen it - my family or anything. And then I tried to talk with my mom about these people - like trans people, queer people in general, like gay, lesbians. And then my mom used to say some stuff very offensive, like “Don't do those stuff.” You know? “It's not good. Don't hang out with those people.” Then I figured it out. At that point, I accepted myself that I'm gay, and I’m happy for what I am, and I have other friends who are like me - it's not just me. Then I plan to go to US, and I moved here when I was 23. 22/23. It was in 2015. I did the flashmob on November 15, 2015, and I had my visa interview on December 1st, 2015. I got my visa, and then I came to United States on December 21... December 21, 2015. So I was in a plan of like, if anything goes bad in my flashmob - if I'm out and out and talking about this all stuff, if my family feels like disowning me so I wanted to leave - so I had it like a plan. I think it's... luckily happened on the time. So then I moved to United States after that.

Mustafa Saif: (41:58)
How did-- What was it like, leaving your family? And what were those conversations like when you told them that you were going to move?

Mani Soma: (42:07)
It was definitely challenging. I deferred my semester to ones in [inaudible]. So, I took like three months to accept them and then figured out the finances to come here and do all stuff. And they were happy, because one of my cousin lives in United States. So after him, I'm the only one here. So it's nobody in my mom family went. In my mom's side family, I'm the first person to come to United States... I mean that's [audio distortion]. It was definitely - from their point - it was definitely privilege. As their son is going to United States for studying, it's like a huge thing. “My son is so brave.” Also, on other side, “Oh, he’s the only one, I don't want to send him. But also, “Yes, let's send him because that's a privilege thing.” But the whole content behind this for me is to that I can get away with this later on.

Mustafa Saif: (43:12)
Can you tell us about your first day in the US - where you landed and what your feelings were after getting here?

Mani Soma: (43:20)
I honestly don't know anybody in United States when I moved here, and I honestly don't know any other student whom I applied for the university. I just found this Facebook group on the-- this so-called university, and I tried to meet this guy and found accommodation before I come there in Facebook-- through the Facebook only, and I got his contact. I told him I'm gonna get down in this so-and-so airport, and he thought other airport, and he went to the other airport to pick me up, and I'm at this airport which I landed. And I came to DCA - I got into New York JFK, and then from JFK to DCA. But never really showed up, I don't have any phone, I don't have anything. I have, like, US SIM. I got it already in India, which I can get down here and use that, and I used it. Luckily, I have cash with me - US currency. And then I have the address, and I just booked the cab and then I left. And I was missing one of my luggage, and I don't know how to honestly claim the baggage claiming, or-- Because honestly I never, ever took a flight in my life till that day, because I never really flew in. I never even went to an airport till that day.

Mani Soma: (44:53)
So that was really a huge, huge change and a big step for me. And the fact that I'm going to miss my family - first day felt really, really terrible. The moment I got in I just started doing Facebook video call, and I talked to my family for like three hours. Everybody was there in my home still, because whole family came to give me the send off, and they're still there in my home to check whether I reached out safely or not. I came into house-- I came into a room with like three bedroom apartment of 13 guys sleeping in a house. It’s like student life - also straight. I need to take a deep breath here, because I felt like coming to US would be very accepting, and I could have freedom, but it's the same. It's the same struggle wherever you go. Just that I don't have my parents here - that's it - to stop me for what I'm doing. But always there’s people in my roommate, always nosey what I'm doing, always interested in what I'm trying to do and what I'm doing. And like, I got onto this apps and try to meet people, but there's this one person who used to message me every day - what I used to do in my room, like with my roommates. Wherever we go, we-- if we go to groceries and we cook certain food, he would message me saying like, “Oh, you all ate this today, right?” And it's a empty Grindr profile. I never used to reply to those messages. I was not in closet thing, I just have my pictures everywhere. If anybody tries to find me there on the Grinder, I'm like, “If you are finding me, why are you even there?” I was-- at that point, self acceptance has been done already. I think he was struggling with those identities still, I guess. He's one of the friend of the 13 roommates who used to live in the other apartment.

Mani Soma: (46:52)
Once he tried to give the profile picture, and I screenshotted it and I asked my roommate, “Do you know any of this guy?” I just casually asked him - never mentioned anything about Grindr or anything - but the fact that I forgot, when I take the screenshot it says the Grindr logo on the pictures I guess, so one of my roommate he said he don't know anything about it, but this guy went and said to that guy, “Oh, my roommate showed this profile picture of you which says Grindr. What is it about?” And that guy got freaked out, and he started calling me randomly. I was like ‘who is this person even?’ because he just took number from other people. He was like, “Let's meet in the lobby. Let's meet in the lobby.” I'm like, “Cool what happened?” And like, “Oh no, your roommate found out. Delete your app. Delete your thing. Don't tell that you know me.” I’m like, “Take a chill pill.” You know, I get it. Like, if you would have been honest and try to meet me up it would have not gone this far. After that I-- he said like ‘oh delete your app’ and everything I was like, no, I'm not doing it. If they're gonna ask me I can tell what it is. I don't need to be afraid. And they never really talked about anything. But they used to definitely tease me behind me. You know, whatever I try to talk, whatever I tried to do. If there is a dance party happening, if we go we dance, they used to make fun of me, they record videos of me. After that I'm still in school and then I graduated, and then I got to know about-- I knew about Trikone Chicago from one of different in Queer Campus Hyderabad, who used to live in United States around that time, and then moved back to Hyderabad. Then he told me, “Oh, Trikone. I used to live in Chicago. There was a Trikone Chicago.” He was on the board with that. Then I started following Trikone Chicago, and then whole chain went on, went on and then I found out about KhushDC. Then I just followed the events, but never really went to any of the event until I got graduated, and then I graduated, then I got involved with Khush.

Mustafa Saif: (48:58)
So what was your first Khush event and how did you feel going to it?

Mani Soma: (49:05)
So my first Khush event was a peer support group at the DC Center. So, I used to have Grindr, right? So on the Grindr I tried to hang out with desi people. And there were a couple of my friends who are desi, and also I told them, “There's this Khush event happening. Let's go.” So we all went together. The peer support group was really good. I saw a good amount of people - like 10 to 12 people - and it was really a good gathering. We talked about how we got-- how we came to United States. Do you ever had any queer friends growing up? And then I started talking about how I got to know about Queer Campus Hyderabad. How I watched the Deli flashmob and then got inspired. I did a video and, you know, flashmob organizing. And one of the board member reached me out saying like, “Would you be interested to be on the board?” I was not ready yes. Like, I don't know if I am like-- if I had the capacity to do organizing. Then I thought for a while, and then they told me, “You don't need to take the decisions right away, but you can also attend a couple of events and then do it.” And then I attended a couple of events, I really felt welcoming, and I really felt like this is the space I want to be. And then I said yes - in February 20-something around that time. And since then I was on the board. It's been almost three years now, and then stepping off the board soon. My three year tenure is almost done, and I am trying to give opportunity to the other folks also to be on the board, and organize events, and learn because in last three years I have grown in many, many ways - which I'm very thankful to all my friends In the United States.

Mustafa Saif: (51:02)
When you moved here, what were you looking for? Like, what motivated you to find Khush, and then how has that been different than this first queer South Asian groups that you're a part of when you were in Hyderabad?

Mani Soma: (51:14)
Honestly, I didn't had a lot of time to, you know, mingle or explore and do more events with Queer Campus Hyderabad. After the flashmob I was there only for like one month or two. During the flashmob also I had to meet only a few people. I wish I would have more time, and to interact with more forks, and collaborate or like do more events with them, but whatever I was feeling that I left-- like I was missing in Queer Campus Hyderabad I thought I could find it here in KhushDC. And then I definitely found it.

Mustafa Saif: (51:53)
Can you tell us about your drag performances and how that came about during this time?

Mani Soma: (52:00)
I've been dancing and-- I have been dancing since when I was eight years old or nine years, and I also learned kuchipudi dance when I was like 13 - 12 and 13 - for two and a half years. And I've been dancing for a very long time, and then the whole drag concept is also very-- Calling it as drag is a very new concept for me, and I know seeing my grandfather - and also my mom, who has a guru. My mom is a Daroga devotee, and she has a guru who dress up in woman clothes all the time, and he dances. And I have this representation - and those people are not respected in the spaces a lot, they're often made fun of them - so I was never really identified to do like that, but I always find dancing in jeans and t-shirts all [inaudible]. I made this friend at Khush who runs Swazz events. She is really a good friend of mine now. She asked me if I could model to her quarterly events. It's mainly centered and creating trans, POC folx, and she asked if I could model for their monthly Swazz-- sorry, quarterly Swazz events. It was a disco theme, and I wore this all baggy pants, and I had a huge wig, and I wore all these sparkling dresses. And the concept of me being on the green screen - and there was a director who was directing me to do all these expressions, and, you know, different form of like-- Like they were directing me what to do, and giving instance, and I was acting. I really felt like, “Wow, this is amazing!” And I feel so comfortable and I'm like - after the editing videos, and I all got it and I was like, “Wow. This is something really I'm liking it.” But I was not sure if I'm ready to do it or not. Then it was at Capital Pride in June. I would pause there and I would mention about a friend whom I know from Trikone Chicago - from Hyderabad, I told, right? He is friends with this drag queen called LaWhore Vagistan which is aka Kareem Khubchandani. I got to know Kareem through that friend, and I started following them on Instagram, or like Facebook and everything. I saw Kareem doing it. That inspired me a lot, and then I also reached out to Kareem. We talked a couple of times, then Kareem was like, “You have to do it. Just put on a gargara. Just do it. You'll be fine.” On the other side also my friend who runs Swazz events - she really being patient with me. Whenever I was ready. It was not in a pushy kind of stuff like, “Oh, you had to do it. You have to do it!” All these two people they used to be like, “Yeah you should do it, but do it whenever you're ready, you know?” And I did wear lehenga for the first time in public at Capital Pride - which I was organizing KhushDC API pride float in Capital Pride - and I wore lehenga on that day. I think it was amazing. I felt really good, and the amount of attention and appearance I made, and... I felt really comfortable around that time. And I really have a good friends who really validated whatever I'm doing it, instead of-- All through my life I have friends who would be pushing me for doing the 11th one, instead of appreciating the 10 things I have done. After channeling myself into a whole KhushDC, queer circle, South Asian people, I really made good friends who used to appreciate for whatever I'm doing it, and then they would say like, “Oh, you could also do this.” You know, there's a difference. Like you appreciate it for what you're doing, and then also encourage for doing more.

Mani Soma: (56:20)
That's where it started, and then I went to New York Pride. That was not the WorldPride, but the New York Pride I went with my friends, and then I walked with SalgaNYC, and I know about Salga. And then I went with my friends, and we walked there, and I was featured on the Top 50 New York Pride pictures - with my lengha floating in the air, and I don't have my wig and everything. I'm just wearing my lengha and having it. I was-- that was not drag at all for me at that point. I don't even know what is drag at that point. And then later on, I then came up to DC, and then I started talking to my friends - how should I come up with the name and everything. So I came up with the name, initially, called Mandakini was my drag name at first. Mandakini was an actress from a movie, and it's also-- I liked the concept of having M-A-N, MAN-dakini, like MANdakini. I was trying to play around with the names and I came up with Mandakini name. I felt like it has to have something more masala in it, and then I came up with the Kama Sutra first. Kama Sutra is like very sex novel. Kama Sutra is like a sex novel for South Asian culture, right? And then I was like, “How can I incorporate my name in it, and then also have it as the Kama Sutra?” Because I don't want to lose my name because this is my extension - it's the same thing. So I came up with KaMANI Sutra, and one night I just made instagram and I started following people. It was happening like [snaps fingers] like this, and my friends were like ‘oh yeah you should do it’. And I have friends who donated their saris, and their lenghas, and I started wearing them and performing it-- and I started performing it. In the meanwhile I was still modeling with Swazz, and also performing at their events, and over a period I had DC-- I also reached out the local DC drag performances.

Mani Soma: (58:32)
I tried to get into the local South Asian dance group, and I tried to-- I gave the auditions to them. It is, again, run by like hetero-normative, cis people-- I should say hetero people. I gave my auditions, and I got my audition back saying ‘yes’. I never really got back to-- heard back from them. And this is all happened before Swazz. So I reached out and I got-- I gave my auditions, and I went talked to people - a couple of them - they never really followed up with me. I don't know if it has something to do with my queerness, or me being gay, or I did not fulfill their requirements, but well, then again they emailed me saying like, “Oh, you got into the auditions. You got selected. We will let you know for the future events we are having.” But I never really heard back from them. You know, there's definitely that difference - I could feel it. Which I'm thankful to them, because I could get to create my own persona now. I wasn't like hundred percent extrovert before my drag. I had to go-- I used to go to friends parties, and hang out, and talk a lot, you know, dance a lot. Like my-- after started doing drag, the amount of appreciation, the amount of support and love - it made me a lot introvert in my personal life, because my drag takes up so much of my social energy. And I hear people messaging me saying like, “Thank you for your representation. Whatever you're doing is so validating for me - I feel like I belong in this.” That gives me so much of happiness, rather than just my personal attention. I feel like if I'm doing this aesthetic - like I'm doing this aesthetic today: Wedding garb, dhoti, sari - like a Bengali sari - and with a whole head, and having a big sindhu and performing. There are so many queer, South Asian folks who would wanted to do it - with their beard on, with the hairy chest on, with their hairy hands on - and they want to dance to all these songs with the ghungroo and everything. The concept of-- because I grew up thinking about all those. We don't have those representation. I'm at least happy that I could give that representation to the fellow people now, and that makes me so happy. And also unlearn a lot of things, and also learn most of the things from the folx.

Mustafa Saif: (1:01:14)
Earlier you said you're like ‘I don't even know what drag is anymore’ to talk about sort of this blurring of what is performance and what is your life. Can you return to that and sort of expand on that?

Mani Soma: (1:01:29)
I always have this question for myself by-- like, back in days. Now I'm like whatever I'm doing, that is drag for me. But back in days, when I was starting in the beginning for like one year, I never really did my eyebrows done. I used to have a uni-eyebrows. Whenever I used to do in the beginning with my uni-eyebrows, there are so many people say like, “Oh, you have to do your uni-eyebrows. You have to shave them out.” And when I used to do my-- wear my ghungroos - and just focus my ghungroos and [Hindi] doing it - I have my hairy legs with my feet on-- like literally on my feet, on my toes I have hair. So, I could get comments within South Asian gay men, I would say. South Asian gays who used to come in saying like, “Dibi, you need a pedicure done. You need manicure done before you're performing.” So these are all like, are you setting up a limit for me to be a drag?

Mani Soma: (1:02:38)
On the other side, I also have friends who would always appreciate saying like, “Wow, you did this cute thing. I really liked it.” So, while in this process what am I taking in, and what am I not taking in? - is the whole point. Because there's always people who would criticize you for not doing the 11th one, and also there's always appreciate people-- who would appreciate you for doing the 10 things. So I keep on taking the positive things, and I did what I have to do when I'm ready. I did my eyebrows done like a year ago, and I've been doing drag from two years. And there are people who said you have to take off your beard also, but the whole concept of me doing drag is also very feminine, and I feel the femininity with my beard. I don't consider that as masc. Having beard is also a fem feeling for me. And having a beard, hairy chest, hairy hands, hairy legs - all these are also femininity for me. And also trying to learn a lot of things, and also unlearning a lot of things in this drag performing spaces. I also follow like-- We all know [inaudible] and I follow them, and I can-- That gives me the hope of being for who you are and what you are. At this point, I feel like whatever I'm comfortable in doing it - and I don't do my nails, I don't dance on heels, I don't buzz my eyebrows, I don't take off my beard, I don't - what else? I don't wear shapers or size shapers or anything.

Mani Soma: (1:04:46)
So whatever I'm doing it, it is dragged for me, and it is a performance. And often at times I don't want-- I've been called as a drag queen, and I would not identify as a drag queen, I would identify as a drag artist, which makes me feel very fluid. Oftentimes people think if you're a drag queen, you have to have the standards - of buzzing your eyes, having nails, heels, all this stuff. So I identify more often drag artist, or a drag performer. In last one year, I think the biggest opportunities are like I got-- I got a chance to perform in other cities by traveling and performing. That is something have been an biggest highlight in my drag career from last two years, because I feel like there's so many people who would-- who should see my art. And I'm still trying to travel and perform a lot. My first international performance was in Toronto, and I really got a lot of love from Toronto. And I went to San Francisco, and I really had a huge response, and I have like-- if I go back to San Francisco - if I perform - there’s like-- I could count on like at least 15 to 20 people would come and see my show. The love and support I get it is unanimous. Even though if I posted a picture on my Instagram, they would respond, they would personally messaged me. I wanted to do more of sex positive acts that were like my KaMANI Sutra drag name came from, and on the other side, I also want to perform to kids and the youth so that they could have representation of a queer, a brown South Asian person doing drag. But again, it's definitely not going to be the sex positive acts, but just the representation to the youth would definitely impact in the future for them.

Collection: Mustafa Saifuddin Fellowship Project
Item History: 2020-07-17 (created); 2024-05-26 (modified)

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