How to be Gay and Indian
While launching my new novel at the Kolkata Book Festival this year, I was warned that Calcutta was a very conservative city. ‘Whatever you do, don’t read out any of the gay scenes. Especially not the gay sex scenes.’
Naturally, that’s exactly what I did. The results were disappointing. Nobody shouted, nobody swooned, the city seemed to pull through just fine. Surely such provocation deserved more of a reaction? This was supposed to be my great in-your-face coming-out campaign, which I’d fretted over for months beforehand. Had India suddenly lost its conservativeness, turned enlightened, even hip?
The Bombay I grew up in during the 60s and 70s was quite incontestably unenlightened. Homosexuality was not mentioned, it didn’t exist. I never once met anyone I knew to be gay. The only media input I remember was a single article in a women’s magazine during my college years talking vaguely about far-away beaches where men supposedly found each other. There were, of course, occasional bursts of lusty gay sex steaming up the pages of widely read novels like ‘Dreams Die First’ by Harold Robbins. Although immensely titillating, these novels only deepened my sense of isolation, since the characters and situations were so clearly foreign.
Since the idea of exploring my sexuality in India seemed so impossible, in 1979, at age twenty, I came to the US. (Though this was not the reason I gave in my visa interview.) By the time I returned to Bombay for a vacation two years later, I was in a same-sex relationship. I decided to come out to my mother about it.
In this, I was luckier than most: my mother had an MA in psychology. At twelve, she’d told me I might soon be attracted to boys – a normal part of growing up, and just a phase, according to Freud. So the morning I started noticing some of my classmates in the ninth standard in a decidedly different way, I didn’t feel any guilt – if anything, I’d been impatiently awaiting this. It didn’t take me too long though to figure out this wasn’t a phase.
Perhaps it was the fact that I’d only come to Bombay on a short vacation, but my mother seemed to take my revelation rather well, only asking that I not to tell anyone else in the family about it. Especially not my father, who didn’t have the benefit of her psychology education, she pointed The Bombay I grew up in during the 60s and 70s was quite incontestably unenlightened. out, and also came from a less privileged, deeply conservative background. Once I returned to the US, though, her self-recriminations began. She wrote me letters blaming herself, blaming my father, even blaming the fact I hadn’t been breast-fed. When she visited me in Maryland in 1984, I bullied her into attending a meeting of PFLAG, a support group for parents of gays. She wowed them with her strong affirmations of acceptance – even their president congratulated me on what a progressive mother I had. But she hadn’t quite embraced the idea internally as yet. ‘Why don’t you print it across your T-shirt and run down the street?’ she wrote back, when I broached the idea of coming out to a cousin on my next Bombay visit. Despite her steadfast stonewalling of marriage proposals delivered through well-meaning relatives, she still harboured the hope I’d find a girl someday.
Meanwhile, in India, the first bricks of an underground gay movement were being laid. Through an introduction from a California South Asian gay group called Trikone, I was able to attend a dance with over a hundred gay men at a rooftop hotel in suburban Bombay in the late 80s (one had to be ‘on the list’ to be invited). There, I ran into ‘Sunit’ – years ago, we’d been classmates at Jai Hind College. At first, he looked visibly shaken, but after assurances I wouldn’t ‘out’ him, he began to relax. He told me about encounters in the park at Cooperage, just across the road (imagine!) from the high school I’d attended. Of late, he’d been going to a series of parties held at private residences, which offered more welcoming space to hook up and have sex. ‘The biggest tragedy of meeting someone in Bombay is that you never have a place to go to,’ he said.
Indeed, many of the gay men at the dance lived with their parents – both due to the joint family system, and also sky-high rents. (I myself grew up in one room, part of a crumbling flat shared with three other families.) Several of the men were married, others told me they planned to do so, even looked forward to it. Nobody I met had confided in any relatives. As the night progressed, the dancing became more frenetic, the kissing more passionate, but the presence of hotel staff precluded anything more intense. Lanterns painted the terrace and its revelers in shades of red and blue and green, a tiny throb of rainbow against the darkness of a city of several million.
In the years that followed, I saw the rainbow grow more visible on the visits I made. The underground parties gradually evolved into regular, open (and respectable) dance events at rotating nightclub venues around the city (with some hiccups, like the time male dancers were interrupted in the middle of a striptease by a police raid). I went to a bar called Gokul near the Taj Hotel whose upper level had been colonized by gays – from here, they could plot their seduction of the sturdy labourers drinking downstairs. A few blocks away, the dark and airless Voodoo Lounge turned queer every Saturday – it was thick with hustlers the night I ventured in. I attended a coffeehouse organized by the group Gay Bombay, and an AIDS seminar by the Humsafar Trust. (These organizations catered to different constituencies of the gay community, in keeping with the language and class lines that characterized the rest of Mumbai.) I got to know a scientist who had just come out in his forties, suppressing every urge until then. This could have been me, had I stayed.
But I had broken free, and in the US, my life had changed. By now a gay Indian friend in Washington, DC had introduced me to Larry (an arranged marriage, how clichéd). The summer after Larry and I moved into a house together, my mother arrived for a two-and-a-half month holiday. I was heartened by how well she got along with my partner – she was warm and open, even with his family in Rhode Island, with whom we all stayed on a week-long trip. In 1997, seven years after meeting Larry, I announced I’d bring him along on my next Indian visit.
‘You’ll bring him here?’ my mother responded. ‘Aren’t there enough other places left in the world to see?’ She was particularly unsettled by my plan to stay with my cousin Sheena in Delhi. Why not instead use the flat there she’d inherited from my grandmother? True, it had lain shuttered for many years, and contained neither furniture nor appliances, but all that could be fixed. In fact, she’d come up there herself, even pay the bribes to get the water and electricity reconnected, so that Sheena was not ‘inconvenienced’. Fortunately, my mother’s fear of the cold winter weather in Delhi proved compelling enough to keep her in Bombay.
On our first morning together in India, Larry and I were awakened by a loud rattling at our door. Before we could react, Sheena burst in, followed by a servant bearing two mugs of tea on a tray. Oblivious to our scrambling to appear more presentable, my cousin went about drawing back the curtains in our room, scooping up our discarded shirts and underwear to be laundered, asking which of us was going to shower first. Clearly, the fact that I had never officially come out to Sheena was not going to be an issue. Also, in a country where the concept of privacy has always been hazy, the rules didn’t change if one were gay.
We found this in hotels as well, whether five-star or Mumbai’s YWCA International. The staff barged in on us, grinned at us without any hint of innuendo, guilelessly made our bed and fluffed our side-by-side pillows. Touts and urchins treated me as Larry’s guardian – approaching me whenever they wanted to sell him something, just like they might a man accompanying his wife. Whether subconsciously or not, we were tagged as a couple wherever we went.
In Bombay, my mother welcomed Larry with genuine affection. Perhaps it was seeing us together in the Indian milieu, or just the relief at family honour being still intact, but this was a turning point: one after which she began to voice approval rather than mere acceptance. Still, it took her several more years to speak about it with anyone else in the family.
Which meant it was left to me to engage my father in ‘The Conversation’ – something I finally found myself doing one evening in 2002. By now he had met Larry (whom he often described as ‘a jolly fellow’) on two separate visits to India, and the letters I wrote jointly to my parents couldn’t possibly have left any doubt (I thought) about my relationship. Vandanam, a good friend of my father, had invited my father and me for tea at his house that evening – while there, we also met his wife and twenty-year-old daughter. Back home, I was remarking on Vandanam’s life-sized statue of the saint Sai Baba (complete with tacky colored lights and fountains spraying tinted water into a pool) when my father suddenly asked what I thought of the daughter. Noticing my confusion, he elaborated. ‘Would you like to marry her?’
He couldn’t be serious, I told him, once I regained my voice. For starters, she was less than half my age. He brushed this off. ‘I’ll ask Vandanam, just say the word.’
So I spelled it out. That Larry and I had been in a relationship for twelve years now, and how could he not know? ‘I had no idea,’ he said. Hadn’t he read my letters? Didn’t he think it strange that two grown men would be living together for so long? ‘I didn’t know.’ He looked puzzled, but also expectant, as if still waiting to hear whether I was interested in pursuing the marriage proposition or not.
Nothing seemed to change between my father and me. We’d always been very physically demonstrative, and hugged as usual. Once I got back to the US, he was his usual amiable self on the phone, still asking after Larry, still asking what I did and ate, and when I’d brighten things up with my next visit. I figured I would give him some time to sort things out before quizzing him: Had he truly been clueless? Was his cheerfulness a veneer to hide his turmoil? Had he even heard much about homosexuality, given how suppressed the subject had always been? But I didn’t get the chance – that May, he passed away.
Had my father been still alive, perhaps that last question might now be moot. Ever since the Delhi High Court’s 2009 ruling struck down a law instituted under British rule to criminalize homosexual activity, media coverage has been sweeping I went to a bar called Gokul near the Taj Hotel whose upper level had been colonized by gays – from here, they could plot their seduction of the sturdy labourers drinking downstairs. away decades of invisibility. Several Indian cities have seen ‘Queer Azadi (Freedom)’ marches spring up since then, like the one held annually in Mumbai since 2008. Not only do participants openly announce their sexuality on the streets, many are comfortable enough to be documented on videos for the web. A recent YouTube posting shows a queer flash mob regale a crowd of onlookers outside Dadar, one of central Mumbai’s busiest train stations. Time Out Mumbai published an entire issue on the queer community in the city this past January – a month that also saw a book launch for Out!, a fiction anthology from ‘The New Queer India’. Other than an assortment of religious groups putting aside their differences to file appeals against the High Court ruling (currently being considered by the Supreme Court), the opposition has been muted.
But all this hardly implies acceptance. It takes a very long time to penetrate public consciousness in India – several odious social attitudes and practices have remained entrenched for centuries. Most Indians, even if exposed to the nascent gay visibility, have simply not thought the issue through. The onlookers gaping at exquisitely dressed drag queens strutting their stuff in parades might have no idea what the spectacle symbolizes. Some might react differently if they actually comprehended the slogans and signs, which are mostly in English. Even my Kolkata reading turned out to provoke a response after all: a friend told me later of witnessing three people stride out with lips ‘pursed in deep disapproval’. Despite my frankness with their correspondent, The Times of India managed to publish an entire nationwide centre-page interview with me without once mentioning the gay angle – either in my life or in my book.
Gays in India still find many reasons – familial approval, job security, internalized shame – to remain closeted. There are no gay icons, no major Bollywood stars who have come out, no influential CEOs who have made their orientation public. The vast majority of gay men still get married (70 per cent in Mumbai, 82 per cent in smaller cities, according to a 2009 survey by the Humsafar Trust). The few (like my scientist friend) who possess the financial independence to live in a gay relationship face the enormous hurdle of finding accommodation. In a seller’s market like Mumbai, landlords are reluctant to rent out flats to two unrelated men. Sneaking in a live-in partner under the radar is not an option, given the national imperative to know everyone’s business. Two unmarried women who wanted to cohabit would invite even more suspicion.
And yet, I feel that compared to other cultures, India’s negotiation with this issue will be less contentious. It helps that there are no explicit proscriptions against homosexuality in Hinduism. In fact, the command ‘Thou shalt not’ has little traction in a philosophy where corporeal satiation is considered an essential stepping stone to reincarnation in a higher form. Hindu mythology abounds with gods who display distinctly androgynous characteristics, even change gender to enter into unconventional liaisons. The country is accustomed to tolerating an enormous amount of diversity: for instance, the ‘third sex’ comprised of hermaphrodites and eunuchs enjoys a well-recognized place in society. A population so characterized by difference (whether in religion, language, caste, class or skin color), and so proudly resistant to any attempt at homogenization, can hardly turn around to earmark queers for special discrimination.
What remains to be seen, though, is which of my parents the country will emulate in its evolution. Will India take after my father, to carry on in outward affability as before, not revealing whether it has truly embraced the new visibility, decided to ignore it, or struggles for reconciliation? Or will there be convulsions along the way, emotional peaks and valleys like the ones displayed by my mother, before the country can ease its way to a place of acceptance? Either way, I suspect the end result will be similar – as it almost invariably does in India, accommodation will win the day. ■
Manil Suri, the author of the novels The Death of Vishnu and The Age of Shiva, is a mathematics professor at the University of Maryland Baltimore County. His new novel is The City of Devi.