What does one say about Parmesh Shahani’s ‘Gay Bombay’ that hasn’t been said before? Since its publication in 2008 it has become the holy grail of information for those who wished to understand the nuances of being gay and desi — two identities that are inextricably linked, as Shahani points out through his study. What makes his work seminal is not just the fact that this was the first scholarly attempt to study and chart the growth and changes of the gay community but also in its seamless stitching together of the personal and public through anecdotes and research. It is personal and yet universal in its ability to point out the expectations and realities of the Indian gay community.
When I was tasked with review the anniversary edition of this book, I was intimidated. I had never read the book, but I knew the importance that it held for the community. I had to deliver; so I read the book, cover to cover, and then once again (I hopped, skipped and jumped past my deadline). I took down detailed notes that I found myself feeling like I was back at college pursuing my post grad in Literature. I found myself thinking how wonderful an addition this would have been to our syllabus. I won’t lie, there are moments my eyes glazed over or I thought it wouldn’t hurt if I just skimmed my eyes over a few lines. Rest assured not because the book was not insightful or well-crafted, but because research papers tend to be information-heavy. So, if you are looking for a casual read, skip this one.
What began as a thesis while pursuing his masters in Comparative Media Studies in MIT became the first ethnography of gay life in contemporary India. It to help gay men explore their sexuality and accept their identities. It charts the growth and trajectories these offline-online communities as a result of globalisation and the subsequent changes.
The anniversary edition has a few additions to the original edition — chapters from scholars about the continuing importance of the book, an updated preface from the author and an interview that talks about the future of queer rights in India in the context of the reading down of Section 377.
Shahani makes it a point to explain in detail every single one of his choice be it the use of certain terms over the other such as ‘gay’ instead of ‘MSM’ or focusing on the realities of an English-speaking upper-middle class members of the community. And, he does not shy away from accepting that a blooming romance between him and one of the interviewees led him to decide keeping only the online portions of their discussion.
Shahani drives home one point throughout the book, that coming out is not equivalent of freedom, and that tolerance of queerness exists as long as it doesn’t come in the way of normative heterosexuality. He points out through the examples of men in his life and interviewees who have given into familial expectations to have a traditional family while also continuing to explore their sexuality. He talks about the reportage of gay issues across print, electronic and radio, as well as films, and its effect on the members. A large portion of his thesis also focuses on the role of internet in allowing many to explore their sexuality with a certain sense of freedom and anonymity.
Interspersed between the research are snippets of his life. He shares experiences of violence, love, lust and even heartbreak. Why are these anecdotes important? One, through his life stories, he charts the growth of the community from the pre-Internet era to the early 2000s. He shares about his escapades through the chat rooms of the 90s to his openly gay life in Boston, and his yearning to hold on to that sense of Indianness, which forms the crux of the thesis — the western understanding of homosexuality does not account for or have room for that innate desi-ness of an Indian gay man.
The desi way of being gay is intrinsically tied to family as it is their acceptance that makes it possible for them to be themselves. He points this out through the family of his ex, who were accepting of their relationship. He says, “…to be gay in Gay Bombay signifies being glocal,” in that it is a mix of Western and Indian influences that shape their identity and lifestyle.
Through his interviews, he attempts to give out a comprehensive view of what Gay Bombay means to the community, their understanding of community, impact of globalisation and the internet and their dreams and apprehensions for the future. The diverse opinions smash stereotypes that group together the community as an uniform entity while drawing attention to simple aspirations such as having a joint account with a partner to showcase that reading down Section 377 is only a small part of the fight.
As he winds down the book, he dedicates a space to talk about his thoughts, ideas and suggestions that could be used when planning for the future. He suggests a common minimum programme that would allow diametrically opposed groups like Gay Bombay and Humsafar Trust to come together when working on carving an inclusive India. The book ends on a positive note while he recounts instances of inclusivity and acceptance, leaving the readers with the suggestion that a better society is a possibility.
The book is a great starting place for those who wish to understand the ethos of the gay community. Even though exclusive in its subject group, its role in mapping and locating gay culture in the city, and hence the country, makes it a work that charts the cultural geography of the community. It is very specific in its focus. It is not concerned with the political or legal activism but rather the social scene, which in turn informs this activism. By probing into the queer experience in Bombay, Shahani urges a reimagination of India to include its queer voices, and in turn asks the community to include the marginalised queers.