I first read The Boatman: A Memoir of Same-Sex Love by John Burbidge (Yoda Press, 2014) a couple of years ago. I picked it up from May Day Bookstore, a one-of-its-kind Leftist bookstore, in Delhi. Charmed by its impeccable compactness and a sensual cover, I was happy to find something ‘gay’ in the bookstore.
But the book, by all means, is much more than that. It’s an account of queerness in India in the 80s and 90s, without a hint of gaze but of immersion into the forbidden.
Burbidge’s personal, sexual-exploration accounts were published in an Australian magazine in 1987 without his knowledge. But, later, he took upon himself and told his story of coming to India and embracing himself as is.
It’s a blatant generalization, but it can be said that most metropolitan cities are queer cities thriving with several labyrinths, ‘safe-spaces’ to conduct, explore and pay heed to our sexual desires. In one such prominent and desirable city enters a gora from Australia, on an assignment, working with a nongovernmental organization.
“Bombay was chock-full of hidden surprises that never failed to delight me when I stumbled upon them. From postage-stamp public gardens to funky restaurants tucked away down back alleys, it was a city of a thousand faces,” writes Burbidge. Having read so much about the city, I can’t tell if anyone wrote with the intimacy and charm of a queer person like Burbidge.
“India defies preparation; it demands submission,” recounts Burbidge, who discovered later that “[India] ensured enough visual but no aural privacy.” It was an alien concept and “luxury only the rich could afford.” It still holds true.
Browsing through magazines at a bookstall, his eyes fell upon an essay’s summary: “The story of one heterosexual man’s daring decision to become involved in the gay world in an attempt to resolve his sexual conflicts.” It “stirred something deep” in him, and he “had a strong sense that [he] had been meant to find it.”
Living in Bombay, he saw how same-sex friendships were conducted in India. Full of affection but no implication of sexual interest. For Burbidge, this closeted was enticing and desirable as he didn’t want to open a lot about himself. But within, he writes, he “want[ed] to scream out, ‘Don’t you know how lucky you are, to be able to do this?’”
The ‘love’ conundrum
He may have witnessed several unlucky sexual encounters. But that’s the bearable part compared with conflicts, constant interrogations and confrontations.
Connecting with people remained a challenge to Burbidge for some wanted to hookup with a foreigner and others, with whom he wanted to take things forward, were bounded by the societal norms and ended up being married. One of them happened to be Naresh, who Burbidge writes “was the rule, not the exception.”
However, he made a point to go on. Endangering himself, taking a plunge, realizing he knew he was addicted to it: “An international flight attendant was reputedly the first Indian to contract it [AIDS]. Within a few years, this four-letter word would become the bane of my life. But just then, innocent of the threat it represented, I carried on with my rapacious ways, stepping up the pace and increasing the danger level all the time. What had begun as an adventure was now an addiction.”
But Burbidge couldn’t shield his sexual adventures from others. Henry, his colleague, once asked him, “Don’t think I don’t know what you’ve been up to every night. You know, John, Sean and I have been puzzled by you, especially your comings and goings at night. We’ve talked about it a lot and decided you either work for the CIA or you’re gay. So, which is it?”
This, of course, according to me, is encroaching someone’s privacy. What is it got to do with any of your office folks where you are going about the town when you’re done with work? But we’re talking about the 90s India and the world. People aren’t ‘cool’ with gay things even now, what hope do I have from the historical accounts.
Learning to boat
Burbidge shares in his memoir the excitement of calling his mother to India, but was stumped when she asked him casually: “Are there many homosexuals in India, John?”
He wondered: “Was this an innocent question prompted by what she had just witnessed or was there more to it? Did she suspect I was gay but didn’t know how to raise the issue? Either way, should or shouldn’t I take this opportunity to broach the subject of my newfound sexual identity? How would she react?” He was able to get away with this confrontation with his mother at that instant. She went back to Australia, and he was sent to an assignment to Bangladesh.
It was in Bangladesh that he found the title for this book and for himself. Here’s the dialogue with Burbidge and his friend Sean:
S: “So Burbs, what’s this I hear about your after-hours activities in Bangladesh? What do they call it, boating?”
B: “Well, close Sean. I think the word you are looking for is ‘cruising’.”
S: “Ah yes, cruising. But somehow, I think ‘boating’ suits you better. Not quite so elegant. A little wider range of vessels, wouldn’t you say?”