Meet Raga Olga D’Silva - entrepreneur, author, and LGBTQ+ advocate who came out on her own terms at 50
Author, entrepreneur, and LGBTQ+ advocate Raga Olga D’Silva’s latest project, Coming Out Stories from India, is a YouTube channel started during the pandemic to amplify the stories of queer people.
In India, conversations around LGBTQ+ has seen an evolution over the years, thanks to many activists and advocates like Raga, 51, who have been relentless in their pursuit of a more accepting society. By sharing her own story and creating platforms, Raga has tried to empower others to share in their own time and comfort.
An unsent letter
Raga grew up in India in the seventies, at a time when homophobia was the order of the day. “Most of the time, effeminate boys would be targeted and hurled slurs like chakka and sissy and so on. Naturally, I thought only men could get attracted to each other, and women didn’t feel any attraction to each other,” she says, recalling her initial understanding of queerness.
In 1995, she tied the knot with her male best friend, and three years later, became a mother to twin babies. The family moved to New Zealand in 2001.
When the marriage was faltering, Raga drafted a letter to a friend, which she did not post, and instead, kept in her cupboard. “I wrote that I was separating, and it was a very difficult time for me. I had also written that perhaps I should consider dating women because it's something that I had always felt inside me,” she recalls.
However, as it turned out, during a visit to New Zealand, her mother found the letter and Raga was outed in front of her husband and family when she was 32.
“That night, my mother held a knife over me, and said that I bring shame to the family, and that she would rather kill me. I was traumatised and went through challenges I cannot even put into words, because if there’s one person who loves you unconditionally in this world, it is your mother. You should be able to go to your mother and tell her everything, but I felt that my mother didn't love me unconditionally. She didn't make me feel safe,” Raga shares.
With 5-year old twins and financial challenges as a first-generation immigrant, she could not afford to move out and live independently. She decided to stay on, and managed to lead a life as normally as she could so that her children did not face any challenges.
According to Raga, the whole incident also impacted her successful career in New Zealand’s advertising industry - the awards, promotions, and invitations to dinner parties became less frequent.
“I felt very lonely and alone as there was no one I could speak to. I carried on with life, pretending that everything was normal, but I started having very dark thoughts at that time and my mental health was in shambles,” she adds.
Over the years, she had come to be known as an expert on India in New Zealand, and so when the workplace did not seem promising, she took an entrepreneurial plunge and started Global Village — a New Zealand-based marketing consultancy — that helped companies to navigate the Indian market in 2007. The venture also earned her an award from the then Prime Minister, John Key.
The following year, she set up Red Hot Mirchi Consulting, headquartered in India, and expanded to the UK in 2012. She also launched an international speaker marketing agency, Speaking Minds Knowledge, in 2016.
While on a starting-up spree, she moved to India in 2009, but later moved to London in 2012.
Two years ago, at the age of 50, she published her first book, Untold Lies, a collection of nine stories and poems on her journey. The book was a way for Raga to come out on her own terms to the world, and its endnote quietly sums it all - “I will forever be judged for loving a woman.”
Now based in London with Nicola Fenton, her partner for the last 15 years, Raga divides her time between managing her India-based businesses, writing, and advocacy work.
Her life story will be further captured in a second book she is working on, and a movie that will be helmed by filmmaker Onir.
Avenues of change
Raga recalls that growing up with very little awareness about homosexuality and identities had made most Indians, including herself, homophobic. “We see everybody around such a person being abused and ridiculed, and don’t want that for ourselves and our dear ones,” she remarks.
According to her, four key groups can enable change in bringing about more inclusivity in the society, and that includes the government, learning institutions like schools and colleges, workplaces, and friends and family.
She emphasises on the need for sex education, accurate information on the difference between gender and sex, and sensitisation programmes in the early years. She believes this is the time awareness and curiosity builds up.
She concludes, “I took so long to accept my own sexuality. So, give your families time, hold their hands, and educate them. As somebody once said in one of my shows, sometimes, you must be the parent to your parents, and that’s okay.”