Whistling in the Dark: Twenty-One Queer Interviews

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Edited by: R. Raj Rao & Dibyajyoti Sarma

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    Dedication

    To Ashok Row Kavi

    Introduction

    RajR.Rao
    I

    In 1999, a few former students and I got together to form the Queer Studies Circle (QSC), a support group that was concerned with the intellectual, cultural, social and political aspects of being gay in India, rather than with issues like AIDS.1 We felt that most support groups in the country had come to acquire a one-point agenda: HIV and AIDS. It was a funding matter—there was big money in AIDS coming from wealthy NGOs abroad, so everyone wanted to milk the AIDS cow. This, of course, was not to undermine the excellent work that some of these support groups were doing. Yet, to our way of thinking, it made the issue of gayness rather grim. A stage had come, thanks to worldwide propaganda, when homosexuality came to be seen as synonymous with AIDS. Was there none left who wanted to celebrate gayness? we asked ourselves.

    At meetings, which were held in my office in the Department of English, University of Pune, we encouraged people to talk. We wanted them to acquaint us with their personal histories, perhaps even jot them down in writing. In order to do so, we provided them with pointers. There are multiple queer sex identities in India: gay, bi, MSM (men who have sex with men), hijra (eunuch), koti (effeminate men, usually passive in the sex act), etc. How did they view themselves? Since several members were married to women, who, according to them, did not have an inkling of their interest in other men, did that not, in a way, endorse patriarchy and male chauvinism from a feminist point of view? In short, were they not cheating on their wives?

    The idea for this book took shape during those meetings. Most—though by no means all—interviewees here are those who have come to QSC at some stage in its nine-year existence. These include people not just from India, but also from countries like Canada, Spain, Sri Lanka, Mauritius and even Iran. However, one of the highlights of the book is that it also features interviews with several MSMs from plebeian society, such as auto-rickshaw drivers and masseurs. Two of our respondents have been imprisoned for sex-based crimes, and speak to us of their experiences in jails, notorious for the kinds of things that go on there. Such interviews were surreptitiously conducted in the manner of a Tehelka-type sting operation. We realised that if we revealed to our respondents that we were interviewing them for a book of this kind, and switched on a tape-recorder or took notes as they spoke, they would never open up to the fullest and speak from the depth of their hearts. So we employed different strategies to get them to talk, which included partying with them and taking them on overnight jaunts to nearby hill stations like Matheran and Lonavla.2 Some interviews were conducted not in one sitting but over a period of time. As such, the majority of interviews in the book appear under assumed names, which makes it impossible for readers to identify the people about whom we write. If this seems controversial or politically incorrect to some, we accept the blame for it in all humility. Our aim was to present the life stories, nay testimonies of queer men and women, as they actually exist, without vetting or editing them in the interest of propriety. To us, the experiences and personal histories were as important as the issues arising out of queerness, since to artificially separate the two in the manner of most academic books smacked of prudishness. In any case, we were not aiming at a hard-core academic book, but wanted to produce a work of non-fiction that, like fiction, was able to sustain the interest of the general reader, even as it educated him about an aspect of life about which he knew very little or virtually nothing. What we ended up securing, then, is a range of thought, with the ideas of Michel Foucault at one end of the spectrum, and voyeuristic street sex at the gthe; other ‘respectable’ interview, needless to say, would preclude the latter. Also, we, the editors, were not putting ourselves on a pedestal and adopting a holier-than-thou attitude. Most respondents spoke to us with a frankness that is unusual precisely because they knew us well as out gay men, icons even, and took us to be one of them. If they had experiences and encounters, so did we. It is this that enabled us to win their confidence. Undoubtedly, we did not come across to them as cats among the pigeons.

    My university went autonomous around the turn of the century. Soon after the formation of QSC, I formulated a course on gay and lesbian literature to be taught to fourth semester M.A. students. The Board of Studies in English (BSE), an academic body made up of politically rather than academically minded individuals, promptly singled it out and rejected it, remarking that Indian students did not need such a course! Matters really got ugly when the local English language press reported this on the front page, quoting both the statements of the chairman of the BSE as well as my statements made in defence of the course, as a sort of rejoinder. The newspaper, a leading English daily, seemed to be entirely on our side, for ours, after all, was the progressive side, but this did not cut ice with the BSE. In questioning the need for such a course to be taught in an Indian university, the BSE was really reinforcing the familiar stereotype of gayness and lesbianism as corrupt Western imports, alien to the sanitised culture of India. Nothing could be further from the truth. India is not just the land of Khajuraho and the Kamasutra and the ghazal as a lyric form that celebrated homosexual love, but there are a whole host of myths pertaining to same-sex love that surround our very gods and goddesses (Pattanaik 2008, Vanita and Kidwai 2000). Thus, the attitude and the approach of the BSE were parochial. But the BSE was not unique in its hostility towards the course. As Ruth Vanita and Saleem Kidwai point out, there is a

    …studied silence maintained by the Indian academy on the subject of homosexuality. While avidly picking up other kinds of critical theory generated in the Western academy, such as Marxism, feminism, deconstruction and post-colonial theory, the Indian academy has by and large avoided lesbian and gay studies. (Vanita and Kidwai 2000: 205)

    When I conceived the idea of such a course, which was already being taught by my friend Dr Hoshang Merchant at the University of Hyderabad, my idea was to bring QSC members and students who opted for the course together on a common platform to brainstorm issues. Unfortunately, the resistance displayed by the BSE towards initiating change, abruptly put an end to that dream. For a number of years, the course continued to be listed in the prospectus of my department, but ironically, students could not opt for it, even if they wanted to. The QSC was in possession of its own resource centre, but the course simply couldn't be taught because of BSE's embargo.

    Then, sometime in 2006, I was invited by my university's Canadian Studies Programme to organise a three-day international conference on queer-related issues the following year. This reflected openness on the university's part, a willingness to break taboos, which was heartening. I immediately accepted the offer and got to work, enlisting the support of my very close friend Thomas Waugh, Film Studies professor at the Mel Hoppenheim School of Cinema, Concordia University, Montreal. Together, we zeroed in on a theme for the conference and drew up a tentative list of participants from both Canada and India. For a whole year, we sent out invitations, received both acceptances and rejections, and discussed conference budgets.

    The conference finally took place in February 2007. We called it ‘Queer Literature and Cinema: The Canadian and Indian Experience’. A galaxy of luminaries attended it, comprising both writers and filmmakers. These included Shani Mootoo, Saleem Kidwai, John Palmer, James Miller, Ruth Vanita, Ashok Row Kavi, Etienne Desrosiers, Hoshang Merchant, Sridhar Rangayan, Parmesh Shahani, Sarah Stanley, Richard Fung, Onir, the director of the critically acclaimed film My Brother Nikhil, which was screened at the conference, and of course Thomas Waugh and myself. For the first time in India had so many distinguished queer men and women gathered under a single roof and that too in an academic institution. The sessions went off superbly, despite Pune's ludicrous power cuts, each presentation being something to write home about. However, I had two regrets. The first was that student presence at the conference was minimal, and the reason for this, according to me, was that many students had mistakenly assumed that anyone and everyone who attended the conference had to be gay and lesbian themselves! In other words, being seen at the conference amounted to being ‘outed’, to declaring one's sexuality, and this none of them wished to risk, regardless of their own sexual orientation. If this betrayed a sort of homophobia on their part, my other observation was much worse. I discovered to my consternation that several members of the general public, though educated and English-speaking, had found their way to the conference, widely publicised in the press, only to network for the explicit purpose of sexual activity! This was unfortunate. Yet, one of biggest surprises in store was the mammoth audience that turned up on the last day of the conference for a theatrical presentation of ‘Off Beat’ in Marathi and English by Zameer Kamble and his friends. The sheer numbers in the auditorium compelled me to reconsider my earlier view that students shied away from the conference fearing the queer label. Perhaps it was something else not known to me.

    In the next academic year, June 2007, the ban on the gay and lesbian literature course was finally revoked. A change in the nomenclature was all it took to convince the powers that be that a course of this kind was in order. Earlier, we simply called the course Lesbian and Gay Literature in India, or some such thing, whereas we now prefixed that with ‘Alternative Literature II’, so that the full title of the course was Alternative Literature II: Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) Writing in India. But the change in the nomenclature was not just cosmetic. We offer a course called Alternative Literature I: Dalit Writing in India, and by calling our course Alternative Literature II, we were emphasising the underlying connection between both these forms of marginal literature or literature of protest: we were suggesting that coalitions of oppressed groups was the need of the hour.

    I nervously introduced the course to fourth semester M.A. (English) students, who would be opting for it, at a meeting of students and faculty. I found myself ending my introduction with a disclaimer: opting for the course did not mean that those who took it were lesbian or gay.

    There were titters among the students. When the polling was over and the votes were counted, I discovered that there were well over the mandatory five students—the minimum number required to start a course—who had signed up for it. The number was actually closer to fifteen or twenty, though this included some students who chose to audit but not take up the course. My joy knew no bounds. Of course, it is not easy to please everyone, and a couple of students from conservative countries like Iran had to quit the course merely because the university authorities insisted on printing both parts of the course title (Alternative Literature II: Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Literature in India) on the certificates. These students argued that the explicit use of the words lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender would land them in trouble with the government of their country, once they received their degrees and went back.

    II

    The mainstreaming of queer identity entails treating lesbians, gays, bisexuals, transgender persons, and so on, on par with heterosexuals. Urvashi Vaid speaks of the goals of such mainstreaming as ‘civil rights for lesbian and gay people and our integration into the mainstream of politics, law and society’ (Vaid 1995). Thus, gay marriages, which are currently legalised only in a handful of countries like Canada, Spain, the Netherlands, South Africa and a couple of states in the USA, must gain worldwide recognition and support. In India, archaic 19th century laws such as Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), authored by T.B. Macaulay, the very man who introduced English education in this country in 1835, must be abolished. Queer activists lobby for the same personal rights and privileges as enjoyed by heterosexuals, ideally wanting nothing to be different except the gender of one of the partners. Needless to say, global capitalism gives a fillip to such a viewpoint. It is well known that queer men and women have higher disposable incomes than heterosexuals, and now the market forces want that money, which can only be had by brainwashing queer people into spending on consumer durables and the like. One of the dubious ways in which this is achieved is by co-opting queers into heteronormativity, so that they live under the perpetual illusion that they are a family, and even start spending like a heteropatriarchal family. Advancements in science such as sex reassignment surgeries and test-tube babies, and changes in adoption laws that permit queer people to adopt children, all lend their tacit support. The seduction is also engineered by the media, advertising, fashion designing and even mainstream literature—witness, for example, J.K. Rowling making Dumbledore, one of the characters in her Harry Potter series of novels, gay. Similarly, in February 2008, Bombay's prestigious Kala Ghoda Arts Festival, a Times of India event, included for the first time a panel discussion on lesbian and gay literature, entitled ‘Queering the Pitch’, moderated by Vikram Doctor, the founder of Gay Bombay, in which I was one of the panellists.

    The AIDS endemic has played a major role in the appropriation of queerness by heteronormativity. In the absence, as yet, of a foolproof cure for HIV/AIDS, the least complicated way of tackling the disease is to implore gay men to forfeit their supposedly promiscuous lifestyles and embrace monogamy. This perpetuates the myth that a gay couple is no different form a straight couple, for the former, like the latter, remain faithful and committed to each other till death does them apart.

    What such a myopic point of view overlooks is the intrinsic quality of resistance built into queerness that is now being traded for political correctness. Thus, Barbara Ryan's notion of political lesbianism is a form of resistance to heteropatriarchy. Similarly, in an interactive session in my department in December 2007, Professor Gayatri Spivak said, in response to a question on the subject put to her by the audience that ‘gay marriage is writing back into heteronormativity’.

    Indeed, the metaphoric implications of queerness are lost when one begins to see things from a purely pragmatic perspective. One such implication is that queer culture is counter culture, and must challenge mainstream assumptions exactly as, say, the Beat generation in the 1950s or the hippies in the 1960s did, opposing the values of the majority, should the need arise, even for their own sake. The Beats

    …dressed in sweatshirts or sweaters or boat-neck fisherman shirts, sandals, dungarees, dark glasses and berets, lived in garage apartments, North Beach walk-ups, little cottages, and storefronts, listened to jazz records, drank wine and smoked marijuana and ingested Benzedrine to stay up all night and be startled at their revelations, rejoiced in sex, painted and admired paintings, wrote poetry and admired poetry, and—most of all—they were young, even if sometimes in a morose, bored but intense and intellectual way. (Dalzell 1996)

    Based on Jonathan Dollimore's readings of Oscar Wilde's life and work (Dollimore 1991), one speculates that queer sexuality, when genuinely subversive or transgressive, among other things, inverts the notions of sameness and difference. What is same/similar in non-transgressive sexuality is different here, for example, age and class. On the other hand, what is different in non-transgressive sexuality is same here, for example, gender. Naturally, it does not, a priori, follow that all gay sex is transgressive, while all straight sex is non-transgressive. In truth, there is a spectrum of possibilities. Two midway positions would be (i) a gay couple of the same age and social status, and (ii) a straight couple from different social strata and/or with a significant age difference between them. One of the implications of subversive or transgressive sexuality is that one is not looking for sexual compatibility and intellectual compatibility in the same partner.

    Hence, subversive or transgressive sexuality rejects the twin myths of monogamy and fidelity. It endorses the idea of multiple partners and celebrates promiscuity, which it does not view as infidelity. Perhaps it even recognises that ‘adultery’ incorporates the word ‘adult’, so that faithfulness is puerile. It defers judgement on paid sex and sex tourism, and questions the validity of received terminology like ‘prostitution’ (for what is heteronormative marriage if not a form of prostitution?). The mantra of subversive, transgressive sexuality may be said to be ‘more the merrier at whatever cost’, while its methods might include hooking, seduction, the roving eye and sexual favours. Subversive, transgressive sexuality also pits lust against love, only to abjure the latter. Accordingly, it approves of flings, affairs and one-night stands, but not of relationships that are anathema to it. Similarly, it recommends all forms of sexual activity other than vaginal intercourse, which is capable of leading to pregnancy and childbirth. These would include anal sex, oral sex and masturbation. In queer theory, the anus is not just an orifice in the body for the discharge of excrement. Like the vagina in feminism, it is a political site, with all its implications of entry, exit, surrender and feminisation of the male body.

    Given its radicalism, the onus of a transgressive aesthetic rests on the arts—literature, theatre, cinema and painting. The real world is too self-righteous to experiment with true alterity and frequently, what passes off for transgression is only an eyewash. But contemporary literature, theatre, cinema and painting, through a paradigm shift in their very idiom and ideology, become invested with a power to dismantle structures. This, I would say, is the pioneering contribution, in India, of painters like the late Bhupen Khakhar, filmmakers like the late Riyad Wadia, and of writers like Suniti Namjoshi, Hoshang Merchant, Mahesh Dattani and I. In any case, metaphor as a device, strategy and figure of speech bears a connection to the imagined rather than to reality, though a few like the bearded poet Hoshang Merchant (a latter day Walt Whitman or Allen Ginsberg) may have attempted to make it a part of their highly idiosyncratic lifestyle.

    A gay writer is not one who merely writes on gay themes: it is imperative for him to have ‘come out’ as well. The mere presence of a gay character in Makarand Paranjape's The Narrator (1996) does not make Paranjape a gay writer. Again, Vikram Chandra's short story ‘Artha’ (1997) does not in itself suffice to define Chandra as a gay writer. For one thing, Chandra writes about his gay lovers exactly as if he were writing about a straight couple.3 More significantly, however, Chandra, like Paranjape, does not identify himself as gay. The issue here, without intending to be essentialist or reductive, is whether one writes as an insider or as an outsider. For this reason, gay literature, like any alternative literature, must formulate its own critical tools and critical vocabulary by which it must be evaluated, in the absence of which it may emerge as aesthetically inferior. This is because gay writing is writing against the grain, often unabashedly autobiographical and confessional, cashing in on personal histories and underscoring the ‘personal as political’ principle. However, to the extent that gay writing is propaganda, what needs to be reiterated is that agendas are not necessarily at the expense of craft, and might be manifested at best in the fictional point of view, whereas aspects pertaining to craft, such as language, diction, imagery, plot, characterisation and narration, would, as in the case of mainstream literature, depend on the author's talent. In short, there can be both good and bad gay writing.

    To a gay writer, art and activism are (or should be) two sides of the same coin. One cannot write from the point of view of a gay protagonist, and then shy away from, or feel squeamish about, responding to helpline calls from homosexuals in distress. This would amount to hypocrisy. On the other hand, to reject the ‘gay writer’ label is to be status quoist, for labels, however undesirable, are necessary in the short run. The long-term goal is, of course, revolutionary change, but in order to accomplish this, some ghettoisation is inevitable in the short run. A ghetto, thus, is not a place that smacks of claustrophobia, in-breeding and parochialism. Instead, a ghetto is like a trade union where the like-minded bond.

    The French philosopher Michel Foucault says: ‘One day the question, “Are you homosexual?” will be as natural as the question, “Are you a bachelor?”’ (Lotringer 1996).

    This is a utopian statement, the signfier ‘one day’ pointing to the idealised future. Also, ‘bachelor’, unlike homosexual, is a neutral construct that implies a deferring of judgement, as well as an expression of choice—the choice to stay single.

    I said earlier that neither Makarand Paranjape nor Vikram Chandra identifies himself as gay. But what does gay identity mean? It means, for one, that though we possess multiple identities and are fragmented subjects, identity based on sexual orientation is not subsumed by previous categories of race, class and gender. If these identities intrude, so that a white gay man foregrounds skin colour in his dealings with a gay Asian or African, or a gay prince like Prince Manvendra, a contemporary Rajput prince from Rajpipla, Gujarat,4 foregrounds class in his dealings with, say, a gay servant in his father's palace, then perhaps it is time for queerness to secede from the union of identity markers, and establish itself as an autonomous category (Raj Rao 2001).

    III

    Heterosexism is the fallacious belief that the prerequisite for sexual attraction is that the partners invariably be of opposite sexes, that is, male and female. However, heterosexism serves the interests of homoerotically inclined men in most Eastern cultures, including India, by allowing them to establish an alibi: it guarantees that a homosexual liaison arouses no suspicion in the minds of one's immediate kith and kin, and indeed, society at large, by making the association seem like friendship, or, to use a more resonant word, yaari. Two people of the same gender can never be lovers—they can only be friends. Conversely, two people of the opposite sex, when seen together, must inevitably be in a sexual relationship.

    In India, heterosexism reinforces social and cultural taboos that insist on a segregation of the sexes until marriage. Boys and girls are not allowed to mingle before marriage, which is strictly arranged by parents and other family members, and this is manifested in the way, say, there are specially demarcated seats for women in trains and buses, or even separate queues for them in cinema halls and places of religious worship. Similarly, dorms and hostels in educational institutions are classified on lines of gender—there are men's hostels and women's hostels, but never any type of student accommodation in which men and women might live together! Several surveys and opinion polls conducted from time to time by newspapers and private television channels have revealed that a majority of Indians, including urban, educated, English-speaking Indians, prefer arranged marriages to love marriages. Needless to say, the conservatism fostered by global capitalism is responsible for this to a large extent, as an analysis of mainstream Indian cinema demonstrates.

    The socialism of the 1970s and 1980s yielded a movie like Ek Duje Ke Liye, where the heroine, Rati Agnihotri, in order to defy her mother who sets fire to a photograph of her lover Kamal Hasan in her presence, drops the charred remains of the photo into a glass of milk and drinks it up. The global capitalism of the mid-1990s, by contrast, gave us a film like Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge, where the hero Shah Rukh Khan prefers being beaten up by the heroine Kajol's father, Amrish Puri, to eloping with her without his blessings. This movie, alarmingly, also betrays the conspiracy that exists between capitalism and its close ally, patriarchy, for the hero rejects a well-intentioned suggestion by the heroine's mother, Farida Jalal, that her husband being stubborn and unreasonable, he should run away with her daughter, and leave the consequences to her. We have every reason to conclude, on the basis of this scene, that Shah Rukh Khan, when he becomes a father himself, will be no different from the dictatorial Amrish Puri.

    The fallout of all this is that homosexuality flourishes, albeit by default. It does not take institutions like the military or jails, where men are denied the company of women for extended periods, for them to turn to one another. All of India is like the army, or a prison, where men and women are sexually quarantined. Female sex workers, of course, who inhabit the red light district of most towns and cities, may provide an option, but many men prefer causal sex with other men to visits to female sex workers, because the former is free of cost and the chances of contracting VD or HIV are, in their view, less. This, in fact, is how an MSM community comes into being.

    MSMs are those for whom sexual activity with persons of their own gender neither constitutes an identity nor a preference. At best, they see it as a tendency, something they have got addicted to like tobacco or alcohol, and find it hard to relinquish. Obviously, there is an implicit sense of denial in their stance, in their perception of themselves, that needs to be dealt with through counselling, and this is where support groups come into the picture. Yet, the large number of non-heteronormative male single-sex spaces that dot the socio-cultural landscape of India, nourishes the existence of MSMs. These homo-social spaces include the nukkad or street corner, the public urinal, the beer and country liquor bar, the paan-beedi (betel nut and cigarette) and gutkha (tobacco) stall, the hair-cutting saloon, the auto-rickshaw stand, the chai tapri, the second-class local-train compartment, and so on, where mischief rules, where the watchword is masti and the idiom macho. Ashok Row Kavi's over-generalised, unpublished view that a non-heteronormative male single-sex space like a beer bar cannot nevertheless become a cruising site without jeopardising the safety of a man who makes a pass at another man, is, in my experience, sometimes disproved by what goes on in actual practice.

    It is the existence of male single-sex spaces and the alibi offered by the notion of yaari, that makes Amol Palekar's 2006 film Quest based on a story by his wife Sandhya Gokhale unconvincing. But first, what is yaari? Who is a yaar? Raj Ayar says, ‘There is really no English equivalent of the concept, no word that approaches its breadth and depth. Friend is not enough. Buddy is superficial…’ (Ayyar 1993).

    Ayyar himself attempts a definition of the elusive term when he says, ‘For me a yaar embodies elements of both a friend and a lover and I yearn for just such a connection with a man in my life’ (Ayyar 1993: 167).

    Elsewhere, I have pointed out that while a man may refer to a male friend as a yaar, a woman can also call her male lover her yaar (Raj Rao 2000). The word is thus enriched by its ambivalence, its greyness.

    In Quest, the wife, Sai, unexpectedly returns home one morning to find her husband Aditya in bed with his best friend Uday. All hell breaks loose after that, and we are forced to suffer her hysterics for the rest the film (Gokhale 2006). In an interactive session at Open Space, Pune, after a special screening of the film, both Palekar and Gokhale pleaded ignorance about the existence of the buffer zone provided by male single-sex spaces in India, and by the notion of yaari. Their conception of the film, and of the character of Sai, seemed to me to be westernised in the extreme, borne out by the fact that Gokhale has been, for many years, a resident of New York City.

    Although art house cinema in India has so far failed to treat the subject of alternative sexuality with sensitivity, mainstream cinema, ironically enough, especially the cinema of the 1970s and 1980s, featuring superstar Amitabh Bachchan, who disrupted the running-around-trees romantic flick of the 1960s through his sheer presence, is increasingly beginning to lend itself to queer interpretations. These films cash in on the idea of both male single-sex space and yaari, and were mostly scripted by the male writer duo Salim–Javed. Queer readings are possible not just of the films themselves, but also of the songs.5 The 1975 blockbuster Sholay, set in the wilderness of the imaginary Ramgarh with two tramps and former jailbirds, Jai and Veeru, for protagonists, is one such film that finds an excellent parallel in the overtly gay, 2007 film Brokeback Mountain featuring two Wyoming cowboys, Ennis Del Mar and Jack Twist. Brokeback Mountain is in fact the other side of Sholay, its off-screen side. The Yeh Dosti number sung by Jai and Veeru on a motorbike emerges as a queer song when one scrutinises its lyrics and imagery.6 If audiences are resistant to queer interpretations of the song, as my experience has repeatedly shown, it is merely because heterosexism interferes: there is nothing latent in the song to prove that it is not queer. In the end, however, I win by asking my audience, made up mostly of postgraduate students and college-level teachers, a simple question: if Amitabh Bachchan were to be replaced in the song by Hema Malini, the heroine, so that it became a regular duet between her and Dharmendra, would they still insist that the song was no more than a song of friendship? And the answer is a resounding NO.

    Substituting Hema Malini for Amitabh Bachchan—an extraneous act—is enough to confer on the song the status of a love lyric! There we are! Heterosexim at work!

    IV

    Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code says:

    Whoever voluntarily has carnal intercourse against the order of the nature with any man, woman or animal, shall be punished with imprisonment for life, or with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to 10 years, and shall also be liable to fine.

    Explanation. Penetration is sufficient to constitute the carnal intercourse necessary to the offence described in this section.

    This law, sometimes known as the anti-sodomy law, was introduced by T.B. Macaulay in October 1860, and continues to be in force even today. Macaulay's reasons for introducing it were Victorian, and bear a connection to his previous controversial document, Minute on Education, that, apart from gifting us the English language, had many uncharitable things to say about the indigenous systems of education of a civilisation 5,000 years old. In both cases, the aim was purism. Ronald Hyam speaks of the ‘fanatical purity campaigns’ (Hyam 1990)7 that obsessed British imperialists in the 18th and 19th centuries. The English system of education, Macaulay felt, would put an end to the cultural decadence that had set in at the end of the 18th century. Similarly, a law that validated only ‘natural’ sex, that is, vaginal intercourse between a man and a woman, and made all other innovative forms of sexual activity illegal, would effectively terminate the licentiousness that was the legacy of medieval India. Britain itself scrapped the law in 1967, a little over a hundred years after it was introduced in India, but India continues to hold on to it for reasons best known to our politicians.

    The law, technically, makes all gay men criminals. Lesbians are probably excluded from its purview, because the emphasis seems to be on penetration. Few convictions may have actually happened under Section 377, but that could be because the corrupt police have a vested interest in not letting the matter reach the courts: their bribes. The few convictions that have taken place mostly involve minors, and this lends credence to the official view that the law is needed in order to make child sexual abuse a punishable offence. However, there are other IPC laws that safeguard the interests of children.

    Some years ago, the Naz Foundation, a Delhi-based NGO concerned with AIDS, filed a PIL in the Delhi High Court, asking for a reading down of Section 377 to exclude consensual sex between gay men above the age of 18. But, as Gautam Bhan argues,

    If we read down the law, we decriminalise same-sex sexual activity bet ween consenting adults in private. What we do not do is challenge the idea of ‘unnatural’ sexual activity in the first place. At present, there is a clear and hierarchical division between natural/unnatural, public/private, heterosexual/homosexual sex in our legal code, and an understanding (given the government's response) that this hierarchy is reflective of the way Indian society thinks. Reading down the law would simply ensure that we do not fall under the ‘criminal’ category anymore but it would not, in any way, challenge the very idea that the state, law and society has the right to decide that certain sexual acts are ‘unnatural’. (Bhan 2005)

    Be that as it may, the union government, not willing to take a stand, has been dithering on its decision to abolish or even read down the law. A recent intervention by the National Aids Control Organisation (NACO), also a government body, has put the union government in a spot. For NACO has endorsed the view of the Naz Foundation that Section 377 is in a way responsible for the spread of AIDS, because it encourages homosexual men—many of whom are married—to be in hiding and in denial, and not come forward for testing and for treatment, once they are infected, in fear of being ‘outed’, and then transmit the virus to their wives. However, far from embarrassing the union government, NACO's intervention seems to have made little difference to them, as they continue to vacillate, and the case continues to oscillate between the Delhi High Court and the Supreme Court, the latest being that the Delhi High Court has questioned the locus standi of the Naz Foundation to file the PIL, as it is not, in legal language, an interested party.

    Progressive Indians are all in favour of repealing Section 377, which, fundamentally, is a violation of personal freedom. The English-language press and private television channels have frequently featured stories in support of gay rights, and no less a legal luminary than former Attorney General of India, Soli Sorabjee, seems to concur with their point of view, as his public utterances have often shown. Last year, writer Vikram Seth was one of the panellists on a ‘We the People’ show on NDTV 24° 7, anchored by the redoubtable Barkha Dutt, and he used the opportunity to declare that he is ‘gay or partly gay’, even as he too called for a reading down of Section 377. But the presence of celebrities notwithstanding, India continues to be one of the few countries in the world where a draconian 19th century law rules the roost in the 21st century.

    Law-enforcing agencies such as the police use Section 377 to harass homosexuals, unlike the West, not out of any genuine homophobic conviction, but merely to grease their palms. In truth, it matters not a farthing to them whether a man sleeps with women or with men. In a stage-managed act, I was once caught by cops in Bombay, who, after they had received their bribe, sang a completely different tune, saying homosexuality was fine by them as long as it was practised in private and not in public. ‘You see, our seniors will pull us up if we turn a blind eye to homosexual acts practised in public’, they had the temerity to say, after they had made me poorer by 5,000 bucks! These cops eventually got so friendly with me that they even offered to find me a place to make out, and partners too!

    Not so long ago, the police, on the doubtful complaint of a local maalishwallah (masseur), raided the office of a gay support group in Lucknow and issued non-bailable warrants against several gay-rights activists who ran the NGO, besides destroying valuable literature. The activists had to spend close to a month in jail for no culpable crime. Identical incidents have been reported from cities like Bangalore. The lower echelons of the police in these instances are simply unable to differentiate between a sex club and a support group with seriousness of intent, and they receive little help from their superiors. What does one do in the face of such ignorance?

    If the police hound homosexuals exactly as they hound, say, Maoist Naxalites, there are other parallels as well between these two outlawed, underground communities, that link ideology to violence, literal and figurative. Like Vikram Seth, I was once a panellist on a ‘We the People’ show, soon after the publication of my novel The Boyfriend, and found myself in the company of the late Nishit Saran's mother, who was another panellist. Earlier, I had seen and admired Nishit Saran's film Summer in My Veins, which is about how he invited his mother to the US for his graduation ceremony and came out to her, not disclosing as he did so, that there was a hidden camera in the room! The result? The movie catches the mother's spontaneous reactions to her son's declarations about his homosexuality for which she was completely unprepared. A brilliant piece of reality cinema! However, shortly after he made the movie and returned to India, Nishit Saran tragically died in a car crash in Delhi, as he and his friends were returning from a party one Saturday night. On the Barkha Dutt show, his mother, who, after the death of her son, took the trouble to read up everything she could lay her hands on, on the subject of gayness, was opening the doors of her home to the queer community of India, saying that even if the whole world was against us, she was one person we could count on for succour and for patronage. She was being no different here from the mother in Mahasweta Devi's Bengali novel Mother of 1084 (filmed by Govind Nihalani as Hazar Chaurasi Ki Ma, starring Jaya Bhaduri Bachchan in the role of a lifetime). The story is about a mother who, upon the death of her Naxalite son in a police encounter, assiduously studies the Naxalite movement, and becomes one of its foremost supporters, though until the time of her son's death she knew nothing about Naxalism and certainly had no inkling that her son was a Naxalite!

    V

    A number of issues are triggered off by the interviews in this volume, and one of the foremost of these is masculinity. To auto driver Aslam Shaikh, men cannot be commodities like women, so male prostitution by its very definition is a contradiction in terms. There are no red-light areas where men can be picked up, argues Shaikh, in whose view a man cannot be with another man without one of them thinking of himself as a woman. A passive sexual role, by this formulation, is tantamount to being a hijra, a much-misunderstood and much-maligned queer category. Shaikh sees his same-sex activity as a male privilege that excludes the wife if one, like Shaikh, is married. His view here is affirmed by small-town college lecturer Sushil Patil, who, when asked if he would accept his wife if he discovered that she was a lesbian and had a female lover, said, ‘Absolutely not, I will not accept it.’

    Masculinity raises its head in other working-class interviews. To Satish Ranadive, passivity in the sex act can be damaging to the male psyche. Similarly, for jailbird Avinash Gaitonde, who stalked us as we researched this book, and later went to jail on a rape charge for which he was acquitted, ‘I must be the one who screws. I would never let another man screw me. It would violate my manliness…’ Only Manohar Shitole questions the validity of the top/bottom binary when he asks, ‘What's the harm in being versatile and playing both roles in accordance with one's bodily responses?’

    Like Aslam Shaikh, Ganesh Holay is resistant to the idea of male prostitution though he himself has, on occasion, charged older, wealthy upper-class men who have had sex with him.

    Both patriarchy and heterosexism inform the statements of Aslam Shaikh, Ganesh Holay, Avinash Gaitonde, Satish Ranadive and Manohar Shitole. Three of them Shitole, Holay and Ranadive, have been victims of gay bashing and recount their testimonies to us. Gay bashing, which is a universal phenomenon all over the world, including the West, is a direct consequence of the homophobia that permeates all layers of society. In India, the prevalence of Section 377 gives gay bashers the upper hand and enables them to go scot-free for crimes that warrant punishment. But the paradox is that in the eyes of the law it is gay men who are criminals, while gay bashers may be seen as those who wish to cleanse society, and are therefore forgiven for abominable acts that cause grievous injury to people who seek sexual fulfilment, which, after all, is a human need. As suggested earlier, however, in a poor country like India, the reasons for gay bashing may not even be ideological. The two broad categories of gay bashers are (i) the police and (ii) hoodlums, and both indulge in gay bashing for money. Their modus operandi is to act as agent provocateurs at typical cruising hotspots such as public parks and public toilets, and lure unsuspecting homosexual men into sexual activity, only to make a complete volte-face afterwards and reveal their true identity and true intent.8 Homosexual men give in to their demands for cash and valuables for fear of blackmail, for the culprits usually threaten to call the homes of their victims and spill the beans. If one is caught by the police, there is the additional worry of being thrown into the lock-up and of not being able to admit to family members what got them there, so that they may bail them out. This, precisely, is the story of Ganesh Holay, who preferred doing time to calling his parents to get him released.

    The English language, the mahabhasha, plays a significant role in the Indian queer culture. Much of the terminology is English, for ideas pertaining to queerness are expressible mainly in that language. The vernacular word samlingi (for a homosexual man) has gained currency only recently, and it is only in the present time that serious books such as Indradhanu: Samleingikteche Vividh Rang(Khire 2008) in Marathi, authored by Bindumadhav Khire, have begun to see the light of day. Gay support groups like the Humsafar Trust in Bombay and Sangama in Bangalore have tried, on occasion, to circumvent the divisive role played by English, spoken chiefly by upper-class college-educated men, by conducting meetings bilingually, whereby a statement made in English is immediately translated into the regional language for the benefit of those who don't know the queen's language. Manish Pawar touches upon the issue in his interview, as he talks about how he felt alienated at Humsafar Trust meetings, because the proceedings were in English. Pawar is the son of a truck driver and a ward-boy by occupation. Two constructs merge here, language and class, and go on to show, among other things, how cross-class sex typifies same-sex activity (possibly because true romance necessitates the presence of the ‘other’ in the self/other binary). If this reasoning seems specious or exploitative from, say, a hardliner Marxist point of view, it is because, as explained earlier, class as a category subsumes sexual orientation. It can be negotiated by letting one kind of empowerment cancel out another, and by asking that if exploitation is mutual, does it still amount to exploitation?

    Ruth Vanita, commenting on The Boyfriend, says:

    Thus, in cross-class relations, it is not always…the subordinate who is exploited. When the social superior is single and the subordinate married, heterosexual privilege may trump class privilege and result in a transaction that is mutually useful but that downgrades the gay person. (Vanita 2005)

    Manish Pawar remains one of the few working-class respondents in the book who refers to his visits to gay support groups in Bombay and Pune. Most others consciously avoid associating with these groups, as they are publicity-shy. Some men approach a support group with the express purpose of finding sexual partners, but are soon disillusioned. Their stance, in a way, is summed up by the lesbian who said, ‘I just want to be gay, I don't want to attend conferences about it.’9

    This is a reactionary statement that forestalls change, for support groups play a yeoman role, both socially and psychologically, in eradicating the misery that characterises the life of an average gay person. Yet those who have devoted their lives to the cause of gay liberation sometimes find themselves lonely, with martyrdom thrust upon them against their will. When Dibyajyoti Sarma asked Bindumadhav Khire, as he interviewed him, if he had a lover, Khire's reply was that no one wanted to have an affair with an activist because that would be suicidal! This obsession with personal safety also drives a wedge between kotis and straight-acting gay men, with the latter wanting to have little to do with the former socially, as they are perceived as a threat. Developing countries like India are more apt to revel in such skin-saving tactics than the developed countries of the West, where most universities, for example, have an LGBT association. Again, in a book like Barbara Summerhawk's Queer Japan (Summerhawk et al. 1998) many of the men and women interviewed, speak in favour of support groups, and admit that they gave them a fresh lease of life.

    In a scenario where homosexuality is criminalised by the law, where heterosexism thrives, and where society insists on marriage and procreation, gay love is but likely to rely on chance and casual encounters that do not blossom into permanent relationships on account of the odds. The heterosexual mainstream accuses homosexuals of not being committed to the idea of love, and of not taking the trouble to nurture relationships, without bothering to go into the reasons for such ‘irresponsible’ behaviour, attributable, naturally, to society's hostility towards gays. Sushil Patil and Manohar Shitole, both married, middle-class Maharashtrian men in white-collar jobs operating within the framework of heteronormativity, imply in their interviews that though they would like to have long-term relationships with their male partners, they see this as an impossibility. They represent here the viewpoint of the majority of gay men in India. This is what makes the joint interview of Christopher Benninger and Ram Naidu, by contrast, unique. Benninger and Naidu are committed lovers who have been living together for over a decade. To all intents and purposes, theirs is a gay marriage, though it is Naidu, the Indian, more than Benninger, the American, who prefers to see it this way. If it is not a marriage in the technical sense, it is because Section 377 makes homosexuality illegal, and even if it were not so, same-sex marriage does not exist in India. Moreover, Benninger who is an accomplished architect was married to an Indian woman before he met Naidu and that marriage is still to be annulled. However, it is to the credit of Benninger and Naidu that in spite of the odds, they have made their relationship work. In this, they are paralleled by another distinguished couple, the fashion designer Wendell Rodricks and his partner Jerome Marrel, who also consider their relationship a marriage, and who have been living happily together for a quarter of a century. Says Wendell Rodricks in a first-person account:

    Even now, in India, it is frustrating that Jerome has to apply for a visa each year. When I see my model friends who marry foreigners and get a PIO card for their spouses, I wish the Indian government would be kind to our love. After all, it is 25 years this year. (Rodricks 2008)

    The contentious issue of paedophilia comes up in the interview with Darius Ankleshwaria. A familiar stereotype in the gay world is that one turns gay because one was sexually abused in childhood, and at least one interviewee, Ganesh Holay, attempts to link his homosexual activity in adult life to an appalling incident that took place when he was a child. In the recent past, two important books on the subject, both by Indian women authors, have been published to critical acclaim. The first is Pinki Virani's Bitter Chocolate: Child Sexual Abuse in India (Penguin Books, 2000), a work of non-fiction, and the second is Meher Pestonji's Sadak Chhaap (Penguin Books, 2005), a novel. Both books castigate the paedophile in no uncertain terms. Then, there is the much-publicised case of Duncan Grant and Alan Waters, two British nationals who ran Anchorage, a shelter for destitute kids at Colaba, Bombay, and allegedly abused them. Grant and Waters were undertrials in Bombay but were recently acquitted by the Bombay High Court.

    While child sexual abuse must be condemned in the harshest possible terms, there is also the other side, which is about the co-dependency of children on adults. Many homosexually inclined adolescents have troubled relationships with their biological fathers, and are subconsciously in search of substitute fathers, as the Sri Lankan writer Shyam Selvadurai's novel Funny Boy (Penguin Books, 1994) demonstrates. This is what leads to the phenomenon of the sugar daddy, a well-established trope in gay life. A US-based organisation, North American Man Boy Love Association (NAMBLA) actually advocates relationships between younger boys and older men, as they have the potential to fulfil a mutual need. In the US again, Michael Jackson, as we know, was acquitted on charges of child molestation at his Neverland ranch. However, in the Grant-Waters case, the Bombay High Court turned down an intervention by the government of the UK, requesting that its legal representatives be allowed to be present during the trial. The learned judges are believed to have sardonically remarked that India was no longer a colony of England.

    Indeed, colonisation is an apt metaphor if we consider how wealthy white foreigners frequent the nations of the Third World as sex tourists looking for prey, be it Colombo, Bangkok or Goa. This is an issue that is highlighted in the interview with Sri Lankan national Raja Chandraratne.

    Other issues that are discussed in the book are AIDS and the use of condoms, religion and sexuality, the use of aliases among gay men and lesbians, and homosexuality in prisons—something that received widespread media attention when Kiran Bedi was superintendent of the Tihar Jail in Delhi.

    My co-editor Dibyajyoti Sarma and I wish to thank my Ph.D. student Vida Rahiminezhad for helping out with the typing of the manuscript (and apologise for shocking her in the process).

    Endnotes

    1. For a full account of the formation of Queer Studies Circle see Raj Rao (2006).

    2. In his book, Shahani (2008) discusses the ethnographic issue of sexual involvement with one's research subjects, and cites the works of James Clifford, Mark J. McLelland and David Bell and Gill Valentine, all of whom appear to endorse such involvement (p. 155).

    3. For a literary-critical analysis of the story ‘Artha’, see Raj Rao (1998).

    4. For an interview with Prince Manvendra, see Kulkarni (2008).

    5. For an English rendering of some of these songs see Raj Rao (2000: 299–306).

    6. A queer reading of this song appears in my novel Engineering College Hostel (forthcoming).

    7. Quoted in Bhaskaran (2002: 16).

    8. See my poem, ‘Underground,’ and Riyad Wadia's filming of it in BomGay (1996).

    9. Quoted in Sukhthankar (1999: Introduction, p. xxix).

    References
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    Bhan, Gautam. 2005. ‘Challenging the Limits of Law: Queer Politics and Legal Reform in India’, in ArvindNarrain and GautamBhan (eds), Because I have a Voice: Queer Politics in India, p. 45. New Delhi: Yoda Press.
    Bhaskaran, Suparna. 2002. ‘The Politics of Penetration: Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code’, in RuthVanita (ed.), Queering India: Same Sex Love and Eroticism in Indian Culture and Society, pp. 15–29. London: Routledge.
    Dalzell, Tom. 1996. Flappers 2 Rappers: American Youth Slang, p. 88. Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster, Inc.
    Dollimore, Jonathan. 1991. Sexual Dissidence: Augustine to Wilde, Freud to Foucault (esp. Chapters 1 and 4). Oxford: Clarendon Press. http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198112259.001.0001
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    Sukhthankar, Ashwini (ed.). 1999. Facing the Mirror: Lesbian Writing from India. New Delhi: Penguin.
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  • About the Editors

    R. Raj Rao is professor in the Department of English at University of Pune, India. He is the author of the cult novel The Boyfriend, translated into French and Italian, the cult film BomGay (based on six of his poems) and a forthcoming novel, Engineering College Hostel. Rao is the public face of Indian gay writing all over the world.

    Dibyajyoti Sarma wrote his M. Phil thesis on Western Queer Theory and how it differs from Indian queer experience. His book of poems Glimpses of a Personal History was published in 2004. He is currently working on his first novel.

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