December Issue 2008

By | Arts & Culture | Books | Published 16 years ago

Despite what some claim, homosexuality is not new in India. But globalisation has put it in a new light.

In Gay Bombay, Parmesh Shahani argues that cultural globalisation has been a major factor in re-shaping Indians imaginations of gayness in their country. Of course, globalisation did not occur in a vacuum. The landscape in India was changing on many levels in the 1990s. In 1991, economic liberalisation “changed the fabric of the middle classes” while revolutionary changes in technology and media followed.

Shahani analyses the evolution of gay culture in Bombay among these shifting landscapes by looking at the growth and workings of one group, suitably called “Gay Bombay.” In the process, he uncovers many perspectives on what it means to be a gay man in India.

So the book’s title, Gay Bombay, is not just a pithy label for homosexual life in India’s biggest city. It is the name of a community that was created on the Internet but now has both online and offline elements. It is a “queer haven.”

But this haven is not for all queers. Gay Bombay is a community for gay men — not lesbians or hijras — and not for any gay man either. The medium through which it was created (the Internet) and the language in which in communicates (English) dictates its members: educated, upper-middle class, English-speaking gay men. The queer community in India has its walls, like the rest of society.

Which is why it makes sense that Shahani picked this group: He fits in. And as an insider — not a distant observer — his research gains enhanced insight and credibility. Many of the 32 members of Gay Bombay who he formally interviewed admitted to being more open with Shahani about their views and feelings than if Shahani was not gay. He sees, hears and feels more than an outsider could. Interestingly though, some interviewees question Shahani’s motives: is he exploiting them for his own personal gain?

No matter, Shahani soldiers on to discover that being a gay Indian is a unique identity. Queer labels don’t mean the same as they do in the West (some gays prefer the label MSM: men who have sex with men). Single gay men talk about the hostilities (or surprising enlightenment) they faced when coming out to family. Married gay men talk about their double lives and one man reveals his wife was actually relieved when she discovered he was a homosexual: she finally understood that there was nothing wrong with her. Others discuss the need to keep their sexual preferences silent. “Be quiet” is society’s advice to homosexuals, says one gay Bombayite. “If you are gay, remain gay. Just don’t walk on the road waving a flag . . . The moment I say I want acknowledgement that I am gay and at par with anyone else in society is when the problem comes up.” Shahani quotes a mythologist when explaining the unique pressure on gay men in India to marry: “Non-heterosexuality is ignored or tolerated as long as it does not upset the heterosexual world order.” Meaning: get married, have children, keep the cycle of life going and keep your homosexual tendencies as a private hobby.

Despite the difficulties that remain, gays in India have made incredible progress: parties, marches, advocacy groups, health-related programmes and websites operate in public. The media’s role in changing perceptions and growing acceptance is undeniable. It has given some men the confidence to come out. “Acceptance by yourself doesn’t come first,” says one interviewee. “You always look to society . . . and react to yourself based on other people’s point of view.” Yet all the progress is happening in the face of Section 377 (the Indian law criminalising homosexual behaviour) and a few journalists who spread homophobic hate. Groups like Gay Bombay provide many gay men with kinship and a sense of belonging. [Editor’s note: Since this review was originally published, Section 377 was amended on July 2, 2009 to decriminalise homosexual activity between consenting adults].

Gay Bombay is an academic work. This makes its structure rigid. Worse, though, at times the content is repetitive and the language heavy with gobbledygook, especially the theory-laden introduction. So it is not a book that needs to be read cover to cover.

Still, this is an unconventional formal study with some engaging and revealing sections. Not only does Shahani tackle three contemporary topics (gay studies, the Internet and globalisation) he weaves personal snapshots into the exploration. They are vivid and emotional. The text becomes part-memoir. His own sexual discoveries and close relationships are laid bare, bringing to life an evolving reality that would otherwise remain mostly in the realm of theory.