Commentary, May '17
In Kolkata’s Queer Movement: A Recollection of Media Outings – Mid-1984 to Mid-2013 Pawan Dhall remembers his personal queer-story over the years.
This four-part series of extracts is being published in the run up to the fourth birthday of Varta webzine on August 1, 2017. The full article will be published this year in an e-book form by Queer Ink, Mumbai, and the extracts are published here with their permission.
Dedication: To my parents, who gave me life, nurtured me, and made their own coming out statement to the media through Swikriti Patrika in 2006 – Significant Others in Our Life... published in the 2007 Kolkata Book Fair edition.
An Adventure Begins
Mid 1984: A journalist in Delhi and a mental health professional in Mumbai team up to write a small yet serious article on homosexuality in Sunday Midday. The article talks about homophobia in Indian society and the consequent invisibility and isolation faced by queer people in India. Quite possibly the first article of its kind in the Indian media, it carries a Delhi contact address for queer people in distress to write to. I am in the final year of school. Even as I experience my first mature sexual encounter, the article proves to be a lifeline to understand my sexuality – a process which had already started a few years earlier, with my first same-sex crush in school.
February 1986: Savvy magazine publishes queer activist and journalist Ashok Row Kavi’s coming-out interview – a first for the Indian media. Though I come to know him much later, I discover one of my first queer role models and the germ of an idea of taking up journalism and queer activism as a vocation in life is planted. This development somewhat uplifts a miserable year in higher secondary school (for the first time in life I am headed towards flunking a final exam). It comes a few months after my first attempt to come out to my parents as a gay person, confuses all parties involved and concludes with the decision that I must focus on my studies.
November 1987: I win a For and Against contest in Career & Competition Times arguing against the relevance of Nehruvian economic thinking. I am forty rupees richer. Life has changed in many ways – I am in a new higher secondary school, I have become Chacha to the first of my brother’s daughters, life is fun!
November 22, 1991: Release of path-breaking report Less Than Gay – A Citizen’s Report on the Status of Homosexuality in India by civil rights group AIDS Bhedbhav Virodhi Andolan in Delhi. Key author Siddhartha Gautam is a friend and personal inspiration. The morning The Telegraph carries news of the release (date uncertain) remains etched in my mind as one of the happiest in life. The dream of working as a journalist and activist becomes stronger even as I finish an academically unremarkable three years in college and make a half-hearted attempt to take up higher studies. Siddhartha’s untimely demise in early 1992 only strengthens this resolve.
The Plot Thickens
Sad to Be Gay ran the heading of possibly the first in-depth feature article on queer issues published in Kolkata’s newspapers. The story, written by senior journalist Soumitra Das, was published as the cover story in the Miscellany section of the then still venerated The Statesman on April 18, 1993. The heading may have been clichéd by today’s standards, but it had the strength to make my heart skip several beats. The word ‘gay’ in print used to have a seminal thrill associated with it, not just because it had to do with something sexual and prohibited, but also because it was so intensely personal and closely linked to much-cherished but suppressed desires around one’s life and love.
Painstakingly collecting newspaper and magazine clippings on anything to do with gender, sex, sexuality and HIV, especially in the Indian context, since my school days in the early 1980s had become a way of life. By the time the article appeared, I was already three years down a nascent queer activism road and had also entered the field of journalism as a sub-editor in Business Standard. Yet the article had a profound impact on me. Not the least because I had been quoted for the first time in a media story and that too on homosexuality, albeit anonymously, and also because it was the first ‘gay’ clipping in my collection that was also about me!
The article appeared at a time when Kolkata (then Calcutta) still had a certain gentility left to its appearance. With fewer cars on narrower but tree-lined roads, wide pavements, and the post-economic liberalization construction boom yet to take off, the city was a cooler and breezier place to live in. Stepping out of home to meet a queer friend, organize a ‘secret’ meeting of a budding support group (Counsel Club, formed August 15, 1993), or to ‘clandestinely’ print copies of a queer journal (Pravartak, started in December 1991, shut down a few months later, and then revived by Counsel Club) had almost a magical quality to it. The wind blew differently in one’s face, with a hint of adventure and a sweet smell of aspiration and freedom.
The introduction to the article read “For many Calcuttans, gays are someone the U.S. President is fighting to make his military accept. This ignorance, coupled with the State’s intolerance, forces gays of the city to hide their identity behind heterosexual cover”. While commenting on the lack of understanding about homosexuality in India as a whole, the mainstay of the article was that the Kolkata milieu was rather inhospitable for queer people compared to other more cosmopolitan cities like Delhi and Mumbai (then Bombay). The article mentioned budding queer initiatives like Bombay Dost and Delhi-based queer support groups Arambh and Sakhi to back its key argument. It also talked about Kolkata’s Fun Club and without naming it, Pravartak, but lamented how these initiatives had been short-lived. While unable to dispute the article’s premise, I could not accept it in entirety either.
The writer had overlooked or did not know that Kolkata had been home to India’s first queer newsletter Gay Scene in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Besides, I already had a Kolkata advocate, the late Siddhartha Gautam (1964-1992), as one of my key role models. Based both in Kolkata and Delhi, Siddhartha was one of India’s pioneering human rights activists who brought HIV and sexuality into the mainstream of the rights discourse. What’s more, having attended Delhi’s Red Rose group meetings in the then Connaught Place and surprised by how Kolkata queer activism’s baby steps were looked up to and admired, I had no time to be ‘sad to be gay in Kolkata’. There was work to be done!
Even as I busied myself in mobilizing other queer people along with friends, word got around in the Kolkata media circles about Counsel Club and Pravartak, and this kept us on our toes. One evening a few of us found ourselves trooping into the under-construction office of the now defunct Amrita Bazar Patrika for an interview. The newspaper was on a revival path of sorts against all odds and I felt a vague sense of solidarity with them.
It was eerie answering journalist Purnima Dutta’s questions sitting under a yellow bulb, in a room with incomplete walls and random furniture. But the resulting feature article, Out of the Closet, published January 18, 1994 in the Plus Four supplement of the newspaper was more than satisfying: “Homosexuality has for long been associated with shady closets of self doubt and secrecy. But . . . all that is set to change. Because of a growing awareness among gays who no longer see why they should hide their sexuality. And for that to happen, coming out of the closet will not exclude the otherwise ‘straight’ person. For the gays, it’s the closet of secrecy, while for others, it will mean coming out of the closet of mindsets conditioned by values of another age, another culture.”
To be continued.
About the main photo: Snapshot of the article Out of the Closet by Purnima Dutta with graphic by unknown artist. All photo credits: Pawan Dhall (photographs are not part of the original article and are courtesy Counsel Club Archives maintained by Varta Trust).