issue 201 - November 1989
On the terrace
Bombay's flamboyant gays find elaborate ways of surviving
a hostile world. But what goes on inside their hearts and minds?
And what hope is there of liberation? A short, mainly
autobiographical, story by Dinyar Godrej.
Ramesh's building towered over all others in that area. His family had access to the terrace and that is where Jamshed had his birthday party. It was an area of such nondescript middle-class high-rise housing that it dispelled every one of the several fantastic notions I had crafted in anticipation.
This was to be my first gay party. As Jamshed and I climbed the tortuous staircase up to the terrace, carrying food we'd brought in a cab, we met Ramesh's mother. Severe in her starched white sari, she stood at the entrance of their flat, surveying all arrivals. She did not approve, but would not state her disapproval. Her presence wa s confirmation that there was no secret, magic realm awaiting me on the terrace. That enjoyment would have to be wrung out of fantasy. On the terrace it seemed that even night had been pulled down tight over us.
We tried desperately to transform the space into what it was not. A gay world had to be created and it had to be an area not of discourse - time was too short for that and the situation, perhaps, too difficult - but of a curiously predictable kind of freedom, the freedom of imitation and travesty, a freedom familiar to all who have no personal leeway within the stifling social systems. In the next few hours almost every aspect of heterosexual social intercourse had been enacted either with sincerity or mockery.
Here I met Rohinton and later that night we went to his flat. He was a sturdy, hirsute man with a bewitching cleft in his chin. Although I found him physically attractive, he exuded something worse than body odour - machismo. However, as he danced he wiggled his hips in the screen-siren fashion you see in Hindi films and moved his hands like aquarium fish. This he told me was to express 'the feminine side of my personality, which is usually supressed'. Such exaggerated 'femininity' could only, I felt, have been conceived by a Male Chauvinist Pig. This Rohinton was. On his dressing-table, stuck to the right side of the triple mirror, was a picture of his girlfriend. It kept his mum from asking questions and represented the all-too-familiar dream - wife, two kids, apartment, car. He brushed aside my queries about fairness to the woman with 'she will have to accept my other side'. We shared some sincere lust and his parting words were 'keep in touch'.
A few months later he was married, and when I ran into him and his wife one evening at the theatre she had already acquired the ability to recognise a gay man and to react with disgust.
The next time I saw the couple she was very obviously pregnant. Rohinton looked fulfilled, she tired. To me he had not married the woman but a concept of morality.
As it was his party, Jamshed skipped from guest to guest with ballerina steps. His large frame was swathed in a long garment of shimmering brown stuff. It was a pathan suit, the dress of the ruggedly handsome men of the north-west frontier. The Bombay queens loved its voluminous drapes, the way it emphasized every gesture with rustling sounds if one got the material right.
On Jamshed's chest a gold angel glittered - a birthday gift from his sailor lover. It was perhaps an appropriate symbol of the nature of their relationship, for Jamshed was garrulous to the point of boredom about his sex life (mainly exploits of the so-many-men-so-little-time-variety) which made one suspect that he had none. He affectionately referred to the other queens as 'eunuchs' (bijdas) and himself as 'the eunuchs' mother'.
This terminology derived not from an intuitive sympathy with Ms Greer's conceptualization of swaddled female sexuality. In India eunuchs are all too visible. They dress in women's clothing and assail passers-by with ribald remarks. They beg in groups threatening to expose their mutilated genitals should someone be recalcitrant about parting with small change. Despised by most, they are also feared.
Such a position of strength gay men do not have. Their 'defences' against social hostility are either camp ebullience or self-negating invisibility. Jamshed and the 'girls' excelled in the former. Never shopping without the benefit of an audience, Jamshed cast himself in the role of The Irresistable Tease and addressed salesmen with an air of haughtiness and sexual invitation. As they could not dismiss a potential customer, they either humoured him or teased back. But being unable to match his acid-and-steel verbal style, they slapped him and pinched him.
On the terrace among his friends he was Mother Hen, provider of courage and food. He leaned out over a parapet and called to a domestic washing up in a kitchen of the next building to come up and join the fun. Behind such boldness lay the traditional assumption of a master-servant relationship, an imbalance of power which is sometimes sexually exploited. Poor gay men often extend services beyond the call of duty to their employers. It is a complex relationship. On one side there is the fact of having sex with a person who has a social and economic advantage but who will not share its benefits. On the other there is the advantage of being in the employ of someone who understands the pressures of being gay and who may thus be more sympathetic than others.
Friendship, however, lies among social equals. In Bombay a gay domestic would in all probability know every other gay domestic on the block. Knowledge of a shared sexuality brings togetherness and working-class gay men often move in groups. Sex is. at the best of times, difficult. Parks (few and far between), public toilets (usually brightly-lit and filthy) and alleyways are the usual settings. Police harassment is not unusual. Few arrests are made - however, money or sexual favours or sometimes both may be extorted. Physical assault by gangs of gay-bashers is another hazard.
Togetherness means an increased degree of protection - not only does news travel swiftly down the gay grapevine but it also means that in a situation of conflict it does not have to be every man for himself. Supported by such a network 'cruising' becomes more blatant. At night groups of gay men travel up and down on the suburban trains camping it up, alighting from carriages to be greeted by friends hanging out at the station. Their banter is often a modified version of the dialogue from the commercial Hindi or Marathi cinema - witty, self-conscious and not a little grandiose. Their flamboyance and self-dramatization come easily after a day's work is done and the demands of a largely heterosexual environment are at some distance. It is positive and shot through with comic asides. It also helps emotional recovery in stressful situations.
Feroze, however, had been injured too much. 'Discovered' at 14, his parents had marched him to a psychiatrist who electrified his brain. The 'treatment' continued until he was 18, by which time he had been rendered an obsessive fantasist. His parents suffered him, his brother hated him. I taught him at college. In an exam his composition piece read like a Mills and Boon romance, a dream of bliss and security in the arms of a blond man with blue eyes. Feroze, like many others, idealized the West. For him the possibility of his love's survival was 'out there'; he could only be rescued by a White God.
A few other men I knew had a similar admiration for white men, mostly a mixture of curiosity and mild xenophobia. Everyone knew gay tourists would be travelling light and that love if it happened would be a hopeless mess - immigration laws do not recognize gay relationships. But then even within our own people we were convinced that love could not withstand demands from the family, from the social environment which expected coyness and discretion even from the heterosexual relationships it sanctioned. As long as we did not love each other and we married women in the end, we could mate like rabbits. When, despite the odds, gay people set up house together they quickly became media fodder. Activism was almost non-existent. Instead we partied, lived for the moment and trapped ourselves in the stereotypes straight society had created for us. Gay friends in journalistic circles advised me not to put my neck on the chopping block by writing about ourselves, and martyrdom had no place in my plans for the future.
Ramesh, however, had written and survived. I sought him out in order to discuss the possible ways in which gay people could press for rights. Whereas men were getting it on in the parks, toilets, crowded suburban trains, they were achieving little. The majority took it as a given that it was too troublesome to attempt to change social restrictions.
Ramesh advocated separatism - gay people should interact economically only with other gay people. But apart from being impractical this would do little to alter traditional male notions of the female which both gay and straight men share. Nor would it help us to escape the heterosexual stereotypes that we both imitate and revile. And it would mean acknowledging that we belonged to a ghetto.
Ultimately if there is a movement for the decriminalization and social acceptance of homosexuality in India, it will have to uphold the flexibility with which gay men have been interacting, despite belonging to mutually exclusive communities. This the traditionally-minded will view as betrayal. There will also have to be the recognition that the man one has sex with is one's social equal despite his economic status. This the middle-class will resent. In a land of a myriad of orthodox cultures, a movement would split up before it even began.
Perhaps knowing this the Bombay gays partied all the time. This capacity for enjoyment and comic deflation of very real problems was about all the self-determination we felt we could achieve. So what if things hardly changed on the outside - there was camaraderie and lust. At Jamesh's party, my first, I wanted almost everything to be different. That was five years ago. It's still the same
Dinyar Godrej is a freelance writer from Bombay currently studying in the UK.
WRITER - Suniti Namjoshi
THERE were several reasons - including my sexuality - for deciding, at the age of 26, to leave India. My best friend and I had fallen in love with each other and I don't think we could have lived together if we had stayed. Also, I had a job in the Indian Administrative Service and any sort of scandal in that job would have been disastrous.
I was not aware of coming into contact with other homosexual people. But as a child I read a lot and was allowed to read whatever I liked. When I was about 13 or 14 years old I remember writing down on a piece of paper: 'I think I am more likely to fall in love with a girl than with a boy. I think I like most of the women I know more than the men I know. Therefore I must be like Oscar Wilde'. This was the only notion available to me at that time.
There was not any family pressure on me to get married. This is unusual in India. I did, however, have a tremendous row with my family about my homosexuality - with my mother in particular. She felt - to put it mildly - very uncomfortable about it, which was odd because she is liberal about other things. But in this particular matter you really can't tell how any given individual will react.
I've never been quite sure to what extent my need to express myself in writing was connected with being a lesbian, or whether it is being an artist that makes you think in more original ways. The lesbian themes were certainly always there.
For me lesbianism and feminism have always gone hand in hand. As a child it had occurred to me, in a muddle-headed way, that the roles assigned to women prevented one from doing many of the things one might want to do, including having a measure of independence and autonomy. But I did not get into political activism - either feminism or gay liberation - until 1978 when I got to know an extremely intelligent and persuasive woman who used to wear Gay Liberation badges. These caused her to have some very nasty arguments with people on the street. When I saw her getting abused and hurt for fighting my battle, so to speak, I felt ashamed of myself. I realized that politics was not something to do with being a politician but really to do with personal ethics. After that I set up a Women's Studies programme at my college and began to write Feminist Fables.
Suniti Namjoshi now lives in England. Apart from Feminist Fables (Sheba Feminist Publishers, reprint 1989) her books include:The ConversatIons of Cow, (The Womens's Press, 1985); The Mothers of Maya Diip, (TheWomen's Press, 1989) and Because of India: Selected Poems, (Onlywomen Press, 1989).