Saturday, Jun 25, 2022

Across Seven Seas | Love Story Of An American Expat And A Differently-Abled Indian Artist

We saw each other, again, at Delhi’s Pride parade and then at my Nizamuddin home. Love bloomed and took root. When the US allowed same-sex marriage, we made a home in the rural Upstate New York and filled it with love

Across Seven Seas | Love Story Of An American Expat And A Differently-Abled Indian Artist
Michael Giangrasso and Balbir Krishan on their wedding day. Michael Giangrasso

I am an American expatriate in Delhi. On the last day of the art fair, I took one step into the cavernous space and spotted him in the distance. Yes, it was him. Balbir Krishan. Center aisle, left. He was young, still, but he gripped a cane to stand erect as he engaged with a visitor. Balbir doesn’t remember, but I recall a white button-down shirt, clear against the colours of the paintings installed above and around him. I’d seen some of them on his social media page. They were beautiful and unusual. I’d told him so in a message, months before, and I was grateful for the few words of thanking that followed. 

His story was as compelling as the artwork — at least what I could gather from the writings about him posted to his page. Balbir showed interest and skills in the art as a child, but he was a son of Jaat farmers and grew up in a village of unyielding traditions and expectations, which he knew he would not meet. There was a difficult childhood and a tragic train accident in 1996 when he was a student in Agra. He had lost his legs and crossed forever into the world of disability.

From bed, Balbir taught himself how to draw, and then to paint. Within two years, after surgeries and amputation, he was up, getting around by walking on his hands. A foundation donated him a hand tricycle. In 2000, Jaipur Foot fitted him for prosthetics. Balbir lumbered and struggled on the heavy, rigid, plastic legs, but he was grateful. As painful as they were, they gave him dignity. With them, he was able to get into Delhi to explore the art world and try to become part of it. 

Michael Giangrasso and Balbir Krishnan.Michael Giangrasso and Balbir Krishan.

Ten months before the art fair, in December of 2011, Balbir had staged a solo exhibition at one of the national galleries, a show of daring erotic works, which he called ‘Out Here and Now’. Alongside the artwork, a new personal narrative emerged. Balbir came out to the world as a gay man. A queer community that was new for him, rallied to embrace and protect him, when news broke that a masked intruder had stolen into the gallery outside of visiting hours, while an interview was in progress, to thrash him and destroy his artwork. The setback was short-lived. 'Out Here and Now' announced the end of a life in hiding, and Balbir stood tall with newfound confidence and pride.
I loved his story. Maybe I loved him, already, even before meeting him personally. It hardly mattered. He was in a long-term relationship with a young man from his village, which meant that he was unavailable to suitors. That, I would not trespass. I wasn’t going to the art fair to see him, I told myself. It was his art that attracted me. That’s the tale I’ve always stuck to and told, until now.

It was with one step inside the hall, and that first sighting of Balbir in the distance, that I was suddenly aware of my breathing. And my feet. Aditya, the friend who was with me, said we should move. Balbir was attending to a visitor. They stood at the centre of a large circle of what looked like inviolable, sacrosanct space. I scanned its perimeter, only to realise that many others were waiting for a chance to have a personal word with the artist. Clearly, Balbir was holding court. I understood sacred space in India, but I wasn’t accustomed to seeing that kind of deference and patience in Delhi. As one well-wisher left, another quickly moved in. Watching him, I was spellbound, but I lost my nerve. I nudged Aditya away to tour the fair. I’d muster up some courage and try again later.

I didn’t really take in a whole lot of artwork. I was thinking about him.

Balbir's artwork. Balbir's artwork.

We often get asked if it was love at first sight on that day of our first meeting at the fair in September of 2012. If our accepted and often-told narrative is that it wasn’t, at least that is true for him. Balbir liked me enough, as he would any art enthusiast or fan of his work, and I was just one of the many. I couldn’t hope for more than that if he was partnered. But I knew, as soon as I’d heard of him, that Balbir was one in a million, and I understood that I needed to step carefully, and not blow an initial impression, even one that was just a wish for friendship. When we met, late that day, he either couldn’t or wouldn’t speak English to me. Aditya translated between us. Balbir was strained from the many hours of standing for his guests on his prosthetic legs, but he was gracious and generous with shy smiles. He thought he remembered me from social media. We took our leave within minutes. I tried not to swoon. 

I later learned from Balbir that those were hard days at the art fair. He had been grieving over the recent breakup with his partner, who decided that he would not follow him in living openly when he came out of the closet. On the plus side, the breakup put an end to frustrating, fruitless years spent trying to build a relationship with a man who was hesitant, and one who ultimately wanted to follow village rules. Balbir was free, or freer than he had been at any other time in his adult life. Meeting people who identified as gay, out and proud had been a revelation, and he found in Delhi a rich queer cultural landscape, where he met progressive artists and activists, and other people like him. 

The fair ended that day, and everyone retreated to the corners of their worlds — I to my home in Nizamuddin, and Balbir to his village. We got back to our work and responsibilities, and weeks passed. I realized that my wish for getting to know Balbir further would not lead anywhere. There hadn’t been enough time, or language, to make a stronger impression on him at the fair. I let it go.


Delhi Pride season had begun. Gallery Engendered Space, known for its social activist and alternative contemporary art platforms, hosted on its rooftop a makeshift market of second-hand goods in mid-November. It was billed as Queer Bazaar, and its purpose was to gather the tribe and raise funds for the Pride parade, which would take place at the end of the month. I had donated a load of stuff and planned to attend. I’d never before been to Shahpur Jat, one of Delhi’s village enclaves, but having lived in Delhi five years already, I had a good sense of the city’s streets. Once there, however, I was having a miserable time finding the gallery within tiny lanes meant more for children, animals and rickshaws, not big motorbikes. After twenty minutes of wrong turns, getting stuck, and finding myself back where I’d started, I was on a road to exasperation. I decided to quit and began looking for a way out, which proved as unreachable as the gallery itself.
I felt my phone buzz in my pocket and pulled over. Balbir Krishan was texting me, out of the blue. How was it that he had my number? He’d never before used it, and it was our first communication since the art fair six weeks prior. He messaged that he was at Queer Bazaar and wanted to know if I was going. My heart leapt. Suddenly, I wasn’t going home. I texted that I was on my way. I took a different turn. Within minutes, I’d found the gallery, and found him.  

Michael Giangrasso and Balbir Krishnan.Michael Giangrasso and Balbir Krishnan.

We are not believers in destiny, but we’ve been told by people of faith who’ve heard our story that we had reason to question our beliefs. Over those several weeks between November and December, Balbir and I found ourselves in remarkable meetings of chance, coincidence, and fortune that placed us on a common path. To what degree, if any, hope and subconscious wish played, we can now only surmise. But getting that text from him, at that time, in that place, at that chapter of the life of such ache and longing, was to become one of those wondrous, defining moments in your existence when you ponder, time and again, and forever after, where you would be now, had that moment never happened. Never mind that Balbir later confessed to having texted other friends and acquaintances to join the bazaar. That moment did happen for us, and it was soon followed by another. 

At the bazaar, I found Balbir sitting in a chair at the end of the rooftop, by himself, in front of a table where folks donned disguises to get their silly photos taken, for 50 rupees a snap. He had a huge curly-haired wig on his head. I gave him my hand. He still wasn’t speaking English, so after exchanging greetings, taking photos together, and asking questions that had short answers, there wasn’t much to say. I told him I’d wander the bazaar a bit and see him shortly. Several times I shot him a smile. Sometimes others were with him. Sometimes he was alone, and that bothered me.

I ran into several people I knew and spent some time small-talking, all the while aware of Balbir’s presence. I met Manak, the volunteer coordinator. I’d offered to help out at the bazaar if it was needed, but he told me all was under control, so I was off the hook. Manak himself was working the cupid table, hawking roses. He was dressed like a deranged genie. “Send him a rose! Twenty rupees only! Take a chance on love!”

A delivery came my way — a red rose with a note from Balbir. “Dear Michael,” it read, “Thank you for being in my life and adding so much by just being you. Love, Balbir.” 

I was stunned. I had no idea he felt that way. I raced to Manak to buy the most roses he had left of a single colour. Alarmed that he wasn’t in the same spot, I found Balbir standing with a group, getting ready to leave. I thanked him for the rose and the note, and he smiled when I handed him the yellow bouquet. He caught a ride to the train station for the long trip back to his village. I hugged him before he left and told him I’d be in touch. 

I didn’t read the words of Balbir’s note, as much as eat and drink them, and it was because of them that I did contact him the next day. Some months later, after I’d already proposed to him, we were reminiscing about a past that we’d already begun building. I dug out the note that I kept on my night table. How shocked both of us were! Balbir had neither authored, nor written it, and had no idea what it contained. He wasn’t able to write in English at that time and had asked Manak to write something nice for him. When I read Balbir the note, he was thunderstruck. Manak had pressed him into buying a rose that night, but he’d found no suitable recipient for it. He then spotted me. He’d intended the rose as a token of friendship, but it had worked like a charm. Manak was a true cupid that day, and his magic had worked.
Magic continued the week after the bazaar, when I asked Balbir to come home. I was surprised but didn’t mind that he showed up with a chaperone — his cousin, Sagar. They arrived late and looked tired from the long trip from their village. They surely wouldn’t be traveling back that night. No matter; I had plenty of space to host them. Once seated, Balbir asked, in rehearsed English, if he could remove his legs. I asked to excuse myself, but he said there was no need. He undid his belt, pulled off the hard prosthetics, and exhaled. He unwrapped bandages until the stumps of his legs showed their bruises. I felt witness to an extraordinary experience of confidence, and I was moved.

Balbir had a working knowledge of English, but he’d never needed to use it. His vocabulary was small, but he had a lot to say. I helped him along, and we communicated superbly. Sagar had fallen asleep in the guest bedroom on a trip to the washroom, leaving Balbir alone with me. Time passed, and then there was a break in our conversation. I understood that it was time to retire for the night. 
Balbir grew quiet. I saw pain, and I understood. Nothing needed to be said. I rose to meet him at his chair and extended him my arms. He surrendered me his body and his beautiful soul, and I carried him to bed, releasing him from having to ask for help, or endure the shame of having to walk on the floor on his hands in front of someone he didn’t know well. Balbir says that with that gesture of compassion, he fathomed my heart. Our love story began truly, thus. No art fair boy crush. No magic flowers. No wheel of fortune and no coincidence. That evening, we moved with genuine meaning and purpose. 

The next morning, we walked through Lodhi Gardens holding hands, realizing that we were stepping, for the first time, on a common path. That path led us to many adventures, exalted moments, mistakes, and opportunities for growth. Love grew with every step, and it didn’t falter. 

We promised ourselves to one another. Marriage was a dream we’d kept in our hearts, but there were too many reasons against believing in that dream. India disallowed same-sex marriage, and it was legal in only a handful of American states. Even if Balbir could get a visa to visit the US, and we married in my home state of New York, what benefit would it give us? Not the right of immigration, since the Federal government didn’t recognize same-sex unions. Balbir would be able to stay in the US with me for the validity of a visa, 30 or 60 days, perhaps. I myself would need to surrender my Indian employment visa when the time came to stop working, and depart the country. We didn’t know how we’d stay together but vowed that we’d find a solution.

Michael Giangrasso and Balbir Krishnan.Michael Giangrasso and Balbir Krishnan.

All that changed in June of 2013, when the US Supreme Court struck down discriminatory laws against its gay and lesbian citizens, mandating that the US Federal government recognize same-sex marriage. That victory changed our world forever. In that instant, Balbir and I were free to marry, and have the same access to federal benefits as any other married couple, including immigration to the United States. We began planning our marriage for the following summer in New York. 

It may be clichéd to say that we had a fairy-tale wedding, but ours really was. We had a superb, sunny day at a historic inn on the Hudson River with members of my family, and 20 friends. We had best men in tuxedos, a maid of honour, dinner, cake, and champagne toasts that melted hearts and brought tears. Our ceremony took place outside on the lawn, with the river as a backdrop. We wrote our own vows and added elements of Indian ritual to the ceremony. An old friend from high school sang for us, and a teacher of literature, whose student I was 35 years ago, recited poetry from Marlowe. We didn’t have dancing and omitted such shenanigans as limousines and bouquet-throwing, so the afternoon was kept short. When it was over, we just wanted to do it again! What could have been better? Family and friends from India have stood with us. It wasn’t possible.

Michael Giangrasso and Balbir Krishnan.Michael Giangrasso and Balbir Krishnan.

We returned to our beloved Delhi home at the end of the summer and stayed for two more years. And when it was time, we knew it. Time to sail, sat 'samundar paar' (beyond the seven seas), for the next chapter of our lives. We settled in a big old house in rural Upstate New York and filled it with love. The fields of wheat and corn, and the grazing animals that surround us remind Balbir of home. He plans his next series of artworks and paints. I look after the house, and write, on occasion. 

(By Michael Giangrasso)