I still have the letter. I can recognise Siddhartha’s untidy loopy scrawl in a heartbeat. “This is a scribble as someone is leaving for America tonight and I wanted you to have a copy of the Gay report. I have never worked so hard in life — 18 hrs a day on the computer continuously for 2 weeks — nor felt so isolated as I did while writing the report. The fact that a non-gay citizens’ group has brought it out gives it a certain force… Please do read the report and give you[r] honest critical comments… When are you visiting next? I have also just got your New Year’s card. Will dig out a photo for you soon.”
I got the “Gay” report. A little pink book called Less than Gay — A Citizens’ Report on the Status of Homosexuality in India brought out by the AIDS Bhedbhav Virodhi Andolan and dedicated to the “numerous gaymen and lesbians who shared their intimate experiences, fears and longings with us”.
But Siddhartha never got to send the photograph. Attached to the package was a yellow Post-it note in an unfamiliar handwriting: Regret to inform you that Siddhartha passed away on January 13. Please give me a call at XXX if you want further details.
I remember putting the package down and walking out of the apartment. I remember walking past the highway with its whooshing cars, the neon-lit stores, the occasional passer-by walking a dog. But most of all, I remember thinking that there was nobody I could share my grief with, nobody I could call, nobody who had really known both of us. I didn’t even have a photo of him. I had never felt so utterly alone, not even on my first night in a small Midwestern town in America.
Siddhartha Gautam was the first gay Indian I ever met. I was a naïve, nervous, geeky boy. He was just back from the US and England and full of wild stories about barsati parties in Delhi. We had met in our old school field in Kolkata, still redolent with memories of our adolescence of bruised knees, hair-checks and Belgian priests. I listened slack-jawed to him. Later, as we walked out of the school, we ran into our old Prefect of Discipline. I remember turning red as if my gayness was showing.
Siddhartha had found me because of an ad. In 1986, Arvind Kumar, a gay IIT alumnus working in Silicon Valley, got tired of never seeing a desi face in gay bars in the so-called Gay Mecca and decided to start an LGBT South Asian newsletter called Trikone, named after the pink triangle that marked homosexuals during World War II and also the rough shape of the subcontinent.
I read about it when I picked up a copy of Savvy magazine to read on the train. It had Aditya Pancholi on the cover. In a towel. I don’t remember a single thing about what Pancholi said. But I distinctly recall chancing upon a story about Trikone and a photograph of gay Indians marching in a Pride Parade in San Francisco. I hid the magazine away. When I got off the train, I wrote to Trikone.
Trikone was just a few pages stapled together. Put together by volunteers juggling full-time jobs, it was often late. Arvind would photocopy the first issues after work at his office. To this day, Hewlett Packard has no idea about its cameo role in the fight for LGBT rights in India.
Once, it carried a map of India listing how many subscribers it had in different cities. I looked at Kolkata. It said 2. I knew I was one. But who was the other? In a moment of reckless abandon, I put out an ad in Trikone hoping the other would write to me. Post boxes were hard to get in India, so I threw caution to the winds and put in my home address.
I thought I might hear from a few people in Kolkata or those visiting it. But it was like a pent-up dam bursting. Inland letters and envelopes started arriving from all over the country — Manipal, Punjab, Delhi, Mumbai. My parents were mystified at my spurt of pen pals. Soon I was rushing down every day to get the mail before anyone else got to it. Siddhartha was one of the people who wrote. And one of the few I actually got to meet.
Years later, while I was studying in the US, those letters still kept coming from desperate strangers seeking to find someone gay. One day my sister opened one of them to see if it was worth sending to me. And she realised the truth about me.
I was one of those annoying boys in school, teacher’s pet and mother’s pride, the quintessential Good Bengali Boy or GBB. I even won the Good Conduct medal. I never left a button open on my shirt. I had a side parting in my hair and a handkerchief in my pocket. My friends happily used me as a talisman whenever they wanted to do anything slightly risqué. “Sandip is coming,” they would say to reassure suspicious parents. But the good conduct medal was the cover behind which I tucked my gayness away, terrified that even the barest hint of it would shatter my world. My parents were loving to a fault. I did not fear their rejection but I dreaded their disappointment.
Like many other GBBs, I went to America to study computer science. But I also went to be free. I rented a tiny studio apartment which I could barely afford because I didn’t want a nosy roommate. I remember the first gay bar I went to in my little university town. In my naiveté I thought all American towns came with gay bars, that it was part of the package. Luckily, in a town filled with Baptist churches, I had unwittingly chosen one with a gay bar.
Now I realise I was one of the lucky ones. I came from privilege, I was upper caste, upper middle class, English-educated. I was not bullied mercilessly in school. When I came out, my family stood by me. Many others were not so lucky. As I leaf through Less Than Gay, I read snippets of their stories.
A woman writes about how she applied sindoor on her partner’s mang. But then the relationship soured. “I felt cheated. I even attempted suicide leaving a note written in my own blood. I was unconscious for three days following the suicide attempt… My parents had to bribe the police to get the medico-legal case ‘withdrawn’.”
G.H. writes from Mizoram: “I can’t come out. So I am going to ignore my love, sex areas and I will put all my energies into my work. If I could have lived for 20 years without a lover or boyfriend, I know I can live for another 20.”
P writes about a brother bursting in on her with another woman. “My mother tried to stop him, as did the servant woman, but they only got shoved out of the way. He picked me up by the hair and beat me on the stomach, by the crotch, and the breasts. I fainted.”
A 22-year-old NGO worker from Delhi says he confessed his love for men to a girlish boy who was being teased as a chakka while visiting his home village in Chhapra in Bihar. “He was surprised I was one. ‘You are from Delhi, there is no dearth of girls there, how come you are a homosexual?’”
I remember the effeminate boy in school being constantly teased. I never stood up for him, afraid that it would bust my cover. I don’t know what happened to him. But I’ve thought of him with shame.
When people ask me about the LGBT movement, I feel awkward. There were activists who risked so much fighting for change right here in India. Sitting in California, editing Trikone and having mailing potluck parties felt like a safe hobby. We did not get together to change the world. We just got together because we were tired of choosing between being gay and desi. We wanted to be both at the same time. We just wanted to meet other people who looked like us. Mostly we wanted to stop holding our breath.
I remember once travelling to Mumbai for a college festival. By that time I’d heard about one out gay man in India, a journalist named Ashok Row Kavi. Every now and then Indian newspapers and magazines would do the Gay 101 story. It would always have a few quotes from a psychiatrist, a couple of gay men and lesbians with their names changed, a silhouetted picture of one of them and an interview with Ashok. When I got to Mumbai, I slipped into a phone booth and looked up the number for the magazine where he worked. Then I called but at the last moment I lost my courage and hung up. I have no idea what I would have said if I had managed to talk to him.
Years later, I met Ashok in San Francisco. He had gone on to found India’s first gay magazine Bombay Dost and the NGO Humsafar Trust. He would dish out gossipy stories about stars and cricketers with as much relish as he cooked Konkani prawns in my kitchen. I wrote down the prawn recipe though I should have written down those stories. Watching people like him, I was learning how to be comfortable in my own skin.
Arvind and his partner Ashok Jethanandani not only published Trikone but also India Currents, an arts and culture magazine for the Indian community filled with ads for desi dentists, travel agents and realtors. To my astonishment, they were completely out as a couple in the community. When Arvind introduced Ashok as his partner, he would always stress “life partner” just in case people thought Ashok was only his India Currents business partner. Hanging out in their sprawling home, while purring cats strolled around, eating a simple home-cooked sabzi, I finally felt that I could relax, that I was home. In a way, it helped me come back to India. I didn’t worry about Section 377 because gay life had never obeyed laws anyway. I could return because I no longer felt alone.
When the Supreme Court verdict came through I thought of all these people, activists in their own way. But I also suddenly remembered a man I had met while reporting on the 2014 election in the badlands of Uttar Pradesh. He was my assigned driver, a hardcore conservative Muslim man who constantly chewed paan masala. But he would not allow me to have a beer. He would not eat meat anywhere that was non-halal. He would not even eat vegetarian food in such a place.
It was a stressful few days covering BJP rallies with him in tow, bristling with conspiracy theories. But we finally relaxed around each other. I would tease him for being a teetotaller and listening to Honey Singh’s Char Botal Vodka every morning. He promised me that next time I came to Lucknow he’d take me out for tunde kebabs. On the last day, as he was driving me to Varanasi, where Narendra Modi himself was on the ticket, he suddenly asked, “Sir, do you have a girlfriend?”
No, I said shortly. Just to be polite, I asked if he did. The floodgates opened and he told me a Bollywood-worthy star-crossed story about loving a woman he had met in Koran class. They had done it all, he said to my amazement, from “oral” to “full everything”. But he didn’t dare ask for her hand in marriage. He was afraid it would lead to a Romeo-Juliet bloodbath. She came from a much richer family. Her brothers, he said, had done a “few murders”. Instead, he gave her a silver anklet, chucked up his MBA and became a driver to get away from it all. He had tears in his eyes as he vowed that if she ever came back, he would not let her go, even if she came back with children.
Feeling I had to match up to his raw honesty somehow, I looked straight ahead and slowly said, “It’s true I don’t have a girlfriend. I have a boyfriend.”
For a moment there was silence. I was trying to calculate how far we were from Varanasi in case he deposited me on the highway. Then he shook his head and said “I would have never guessed. Chalo, koi to hai. At least you have someone in your life. That’s what matters.”
As we said goodbye in Varanasi, on the banks of the Ganga, where water buffalos dozed in the muddy water, he hugged me and blurted out “You don’t hurt anyone by loving someone, no? Why don’t they just let us alone?”
Four years later five judges of the Indian Supreme Court pretty much said the same thing and I am thankful I was around to hear it.