It’s a sleepy Sunday morning, and 28-year old Ajay* walks into the café I am in. I don’t know Ajay and he doesn’t know me. We’re both here for a meeting of Polymorphously Perverse—supposedly the first polyamorous Facebook group in Chennai.
“What’s polyamory?” he asks. “I just came here to find out.” 25-year-old Sakshi* joins us with her friend Amir. She pulls The Ethical Slut out of her satchel.
“Polyamory means being sexually involved, and it may or may not be in love with each other, but most importantly, respectful of each other,” she says, then adds, “this book is a highly Americanised idea of polyamory and has no context or relevance in how Indian society works.” But Sakshi admits that helped her a lot in terms of navigating the complexities of polyamory as a choice. Polyamory isn’t exactly new, but it has often been confused with swinging. I ask what it means to be polyamorous in India—particularly in Chennai.
Amiri chimes in. “It’s a relationship with trust and communication, just as a monogamous one is,” he says. He's been in a relationship with two people—one his primary and the other his secondary. “I fall back on my primary if I’m ever in an emergency. But why can’t one person have two primaries?” he wonders.
So far, he's avoided the conventional pressures of society. “My parents are cool with me being polyamorous and not marrying," he says. “Just don’t get anyone pregnant," his father told him. In general, he says he runs away from relationships. “It’s mostly one night, two night stands for me."
Sakshi doesn’t share Amir’s background or privilege. “I definitely have marriage pressure but I manage to handle it well,” she says. When she tried to tell her parents about her polyamorous lifestyle, “They couldn’t understand. My family has a history of infidelity and they were appalled at the idea of having multiple partners.” Yet Sakshi believes a person can have more than one primary. “Two people that you love so much equally, and if they’re both comfortable with the idea, who’s to say you can’t do it? It doesn’t have to be hierarchical.”
Opinions are mixed about whether polyamory was an orientation or a choice. “I think it’s both,” Sakshi says. Amir feels it’s an orientation, Ajay thinks it’s a choice.
A man in shorts joins us. Manish*, a 30-year-old, has a more complicated relationship with his ex-girlfriend. They have a three-year-old. Though they mutually agreed on being polyamorous, she was unhappy about his multiple partners. “It felt like I was cheating myself. I forced myself not to look at or flirt with other people I was interested in. I wanted to be myself, but I couldn’t,” he says, adding, “Now with the baby, I definitely have to be monogamous because my ex-girlfriend is worried about what she’ll grow up seeing.”
Despite being fairly progressive, Manish’s parents weren’t happy about his polyamorous lifestyle either. “When I told them my girlfriend was pregnant, they were livid,” but now that they have a granddaughter they’re happy. “That’s as Indian as it can get,” he concludes.
I wonder what impact this group has had, especially in a city like Chennai. “It’s more of an education plus support group thing in a safe space," Amir says. "If people here want to hook up, so be it. But it's more of a solidarity group.”
“Polyamory can be lonely. And given how conservative Chennai is, it can make it lonelier. We need that support to normalise it,” he adds.
The group struggles to get its members to show up fortnightly, but Sakshi isn’t giving up. “I think it’s about saying it’s okay if you’re not doing polyamory perfectly," she says. "We all can’t be sorted all the time. In fact, sorted is all about accepting that you’re not sorted” Sakshi says.
Someone asks what makes for "a happy polyamorous relationship?" Ajay wonders how anyone has "the money and time to go on so many dates?” We chuckle, mulling over his very valid question. Sakshi feels that, “It’s about how you organise your days, logistics, and give a sense of importance to all partners.”
“When I’m jealous, I want to sit with it," she says. "Examine and explore that jealousy. Can you love many people, can you love some people more than the other, what do you do when you feel ignored?”
Manish on the other hand, doesn’t feel examining emotions is an option for him. “I had no chance. And I still don’t, except there’s a baby in the mix this time,” he says. “An open relationship is what I have—polyamory is the dream. Polyamory for me is that sweet idealistic utopia like socialism."
*Names changes upon request.