Close to two decades ago, when I was a closeted seventeen-year-old, the Lambda Literary Awards meant the world to me! I would take thirty rupees from my mother to pay for the cyber cafe’s hourly rental, sneak into a corner cubicle, and scour through the list of nominations featuring LGBTQ books from all over the globe. I read stories about gay cowboys from the Wild West, drag queens sashaying across St. Tropez and even non-binary superheroes from a parallel universe! At a time when there were no queer influencers on Instagram or gay characters on Netflix to inspire me, the ‘Lammy’s’ – as the book awards ceremony is affectionately referred to – was my forbidden pleasure!
Except that there were no books from India! Now in its 34th edition, even that has changed as journalist Farhad J. Dadyburjor’s gay romance, ‘The Other Man’, makes history as the first India-based author’s book to make it to the final list from over 2,300 international books submitted, for what is the biggest celebration of LGBTQ literature in the world. “I hope this gives an impetus to a lot more queer-themed novels from India being recognised internationally and making a mark on the pink globe—in whatever way possible,” he says.
The gay romcom, published by Westland Books, in India centres around Ved Mehra, scion to a mega business empire in Mumbai, who seems to have it all—looks, money, fame. Like the perfect GQ man, so to speak. But he’s secretly miserable from a recent heartbreak and still being closeted. In a moment of despair and pressure from his mother, like so many Indian gay men, he agrees to an arranged marriage with a wonderful girl, Disha Kapoor. As if fate were laughing at him, he encounters Carlos Silva at around the same time, an American on business in India, and falls madly in love. Just as he’s ready to take some bold steps and come out to his family and call off the engagement, a gay scandal blows up in his face – putting to risk everything Ved’s ever cherished, including the new love of his life.
“I felt it was important to give readers all over the world a ringside view of what it is like to be gay in India,” Dadyburjor reveals. “While we in India might be aware that same-sex relationships were criminalized in India until three years ago when the archaic Section 377 was repealed by the Supreme Court, not many know about that internationally. I wanted this book to be a celebration of that freedom, it is set in the year that leads up to the momentous judgment,” Dadyburjor says.
The desi love story connected with people from all over the world, especially gay men, so much that it was published internationally by Lake Union Publishing, and has been Number 1 on US Kindle.
The author also wanted to highlight the aspect of arranged marriages that is so peculiar to India, and the toll it can have on gay men. “We all know so many men like Ved who have been trapped in that quicksand situation, wanting to be the ideal son to their parents even at a grave personal cost. But, in the end, no one is ever happy – the wife is miserable because she knows something’s not right in her marriage, the son is unhappy because he can never be with someone who he truly loves and the parents are miserable because they see the children unhappy. So it’s a no-win situation for everyone,” he says.
I flip through the pages of the gripping novel until I stumble upon a passage I really like:
Ved arrived early, mainly because he wanted to take a quick look at the mall’s loo. The loo here was legendary in gay folklore. Before the luxury designer stores came in, the mall was a train station, making it prime cruising ground for gay men. There was no one in the loo besides the bathroom attendant—not that Ved was really interested in hooking up with some stranger in a bathroom. He couldn’t even imagine how gay men in the city during the eighties and nineties had put up with looking for sex in foul-smelling train station loos, seedy massage parlors “for gents,” or the promenade at the Gateway of India in the wee hours of Saturdays.
Meeting another man like yourself was a pure stroke of luck, proving that fate had dealt you a good hand. Most of the time, players lost it all in the game of chance that was gay dating in India. The guy you met could end up being a petty blackmailer, a truck driver, or an incomprehensibly horny Arab looking for a quick jolly. No long-term love. No way to find your life partner.
All of that seemed to change with the invention of online dating apps. Suddenly, the possibilities seemed endless, and the game of chance seemed much less perilous. After having been in the world of online gay dating for years, Ved wasn’t so sure that he was more likely to find a future with another gay man in the era of technology. On Grindr, guys sporting pictures of a hairy, ripped body turned out to be hairless, horny eighteen-year-olds. When a man claimed he had an eight-inch monster, Ved never expected anything more than a weasel. Gigolos posed as students; students posed as experienced lovers. Flabby old men described themselves as “muscular and gym fit.” The app made it easy to deceive. What was worse, it was Ved’s only option. At the very least, Ved was able to find short-term companionship. Before the apps, even that was tricky.
(Book Excerpt Courtesy: Westland Books)
“This passage from the book adequately reflects what dating on the apps is really like for gay men in India—a game of chance. You could end up with the man of your dreams, or worst nightmare,” Dadyburjor says. “ While the apps have made it much easier to meet up with other gay men compared to earlier times when guys had to cruise at all sorts of seedy places, it is also a place of deceit, with some guys hiding behind images of famous Bollywood stars! I mean. C’mon!” he laughs.
The 34th edition of the Lambda Literary Awards on 11th June 2022 will be hosted by famed drag queen and performance artist Sasha Velour. www.lambdaliterary.org