Commentary, Jun '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. This is the second part (read the first part here). 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.
Emerging from the Shadows by Parvez Sharma and Soul Sisters by Mitra Phukan, July 3, 1994, feature articles published in the Miscellany section of The Statesman, proved to be the first big media story for the Kolkata queer movement (photograph below). These articles were accompanied by a listing of queer support groups in India and the USA. Pravartak was listed as well with a post bag address (an email address was still some years away), and within three weeks of the articles being published, the post bag was flooded with 60 odd letters from Kolkata and other places . . . There were letters not just in sealed yellow envelopes and light blue inland forms issued by the Indian postal services, but also on open 15 paise post cards. Most were hand written and in English, but a fair number were in Bengali and Hindi as well.
Sketches seen in the photograph above were courtesy Bombay Dost; photograph to the left of the central sketch shows a sandstone sculpture from the Konark temple in Odisha (photographer unknown).
It is difficult till date to explain how it felt to have letters raining in, right in the middle of the monsoon. From youth in their early 20s to the middle aged; from students and teachers to doctors and the odd housewife; from brief, hesitating, incoherent enquiries about Pravartak, salacious queries about access to sexual partners and space for having sex, to personal outpourings of loneliness, grief, oppression, unhappy marriages, sexual experiences and love stories – these letters were a microcosm of an India that was sexually active, liberal, inquisitive, orthodox and repressed, all at the same time. A treasure trove for social researchers, a huge boost for the Counsel Club and Pravartak teams, who lost no time in strategizing responses and organizing letter writing teams. Counsel Club, about to complete a slow first year, was suddenly catapulted onto the fast track, and Ballygunge Post Office, where the post bag was located, was declared a ‘heritage site’ by the group. Never mind that the group itself was a nomad dependent on the generosity of its members for functioning space for some years to come.
Counsel Club’s letter writing meetings served another purpose – of strengthening friendships. Debates and discussion on how the letters should be answered, sharing romantic stories and sexual escapades, meals together at group members’ places or in restaurants, Scrabble games and outings created a team spirit and bonds that were sometimes as strong as family ties. Perhaps the best part was that Counsel Club’s was not the only queer family in the making. Several other Indian cities and towns were seeing similar developments.
There was considerable networking between the support groups, and across the breadth of the country was Mumbai’s Humsafar Trust team that organized India’s first conference for gay men and men who have sex with men (MSM) in collaboration with Naz Project, London in December 1994. The conference brought together just 60-65 delegates from India, South and South-East Asia and the South Asian Diaspora to the expansive SNDT Women’s University campus. But for someone experiencing such an event for the first time, it seemed like a friendly sea of queer humanity.
The sense of solidarity and support generated even before the conference was strong enough for me to take a completely unplanned step of coming out in the media. A quick interview given to the BBC television channel in the run-up to the conference along with friend, mentor and one of India’s pioneering queer activists Ashok Row Kavi proved decisive in determining my future course of action. Before travelling to Mumbai for the conference, as crazy as it seemed, I had resigned from a relatively secure newspaper job, in fact, my debut full-time job, a personal milestone, and a great learning ground. And I had done so without informing my family!
Somehow coming out to my family years ago about being gay and later as a queer activist had seemed easier. Informing them about the purpose of my trip to Mumbai had been no trouble at all (though for relatives based in Mumbai, it was a friend’s wedding). But somehow my courage had deserted me in sharing my plans for full-time queer activism and freelance journalism with my parents. After the [sound] bite given to BBC, then a hot favourite television news channel with the Indian middle classes, there was just no looking back. For one thing, the interview was picked up also by Zee News and was seen by what seemed like the whole extended family and even neighbours back in Kolkata. So when I returned to a wintry Kolkata with a seeping post-conference tiredness, and a sense of exuberance quickly replaced by my parents’ shock at my professional hara-kiri, what was least expected was a happy distraction in the form of relatives and neighbours calling up my parents admiringly that they had “seen me on BBC”.
Indeed, the appreciation was unexpected. Some of it stemmed from real understanding, but the rest of it was surely a cover for prejudice – a few months later one relative wondered why I hadn’t been thrown out of home for being gay, and even years later a set of neighbours cried off from inviting me to their daughter’s wedding (she had been a childhood friend). But even if false, it helped me achieve grudging acceptance from my family for my career trajectory. By the time the next media outing happened on Newswatch programme on Doordarshan’s Metro channel in August 1995, my family was assured I was not drowning, and I had crossed all mental hurdles in speaking to the media. The credit for convincing me to speak to Doordarshan without camouflage goes to good friends Dr. Sujit Ghosh (a psychiatrist) and Veena Lakhumalani (a social activist), who had been mentors to Kolkata’s queer movement right from the early days. Veena Lakhumalani in particular motivated not just me but other Counsel Club members and friends as well and joined us happily to face the camera.
The interview took place at Classic Books and adjoining eatery Drive Inn, located on Middleton Street in central Kolkata. A bookshop known for its social activist bent of mind and a healthy disregard for best-sellers in those years, Classic Books had started displaying copies of Pravartak, Bombay Dost and other queer journals since early 1995. This was the focus of Doordarshan’s story, and very soon proved to be the peg for potentially the first major queer-focused news story in a Bengali newspaper.
Samakamider Patrika Ekhun Prakashye Bikri Kara Hochhe (A Magazine of Homosexuals Is Now Being Sold in the Open) read the headline of the anchor story of the first page of Ananda Bazar Patrika, India’s largest selling Bengali daily, on August 23, 1995 (see photograph below). Factually quite correct and sensitive in its content, the headline nonetheless had a mischievous tinge to it, which was not a surprise, given Ananda Bazar Patrika’s somewhat opinionated style of writing. The story must have made a considerable impact – the footfall at Classic Books went up, albeit to the consternation of the bookshop, mainly for people looking for queer literature, many of them disappointed at not getting hold of erotic magazines, some even expecting to meet other queer people and almost all of them men. Later in October 1995, Ananda Bazar Patrika twice carried several letters to the editor in response to the story, all but one extremely homophobic. One of them was from Prabartak Sangha, a long-established charitable institution, which expressed shock that their own, registered journal’s name had been appropriated by another as obscene as Counsel Club’s Pravartak and hinted at potential legal action.
The Counsel Club and Pravartak teams were thrilled with the developments and yet also scared and concerned about what action Prabartak Sangha might take. Eventually, on advice from a lawyer who was a member of Counsel Club, it was decided to prefix the word Naya to Pravartak in small print. Nothing untoward happened thereafter, but as one of the most amazing ironies, years later (in 2001) a key person associated with Prabartak Sangha came to terms with his own sexuality, wrote to Counsel Club and ended up becoming a member of the group and gradually one of the foremost queer activists in eastern India – Anis Ray Chaudhuri . . .
Fast forward to January 23, 1999, and how the scene had changed! The very same Ananda Bazar Patrika carried an interview of Kolkata-based mental health professional Dr. Nilanjana Sanyal titled Hostel Theke Samakamita Chharate Pare (Homosexuality Can Spread through Hostels). But this was right after Deepa Mehta’s film Fire, which portrayed a romantic and sexual relationship between two women, had set the country ablaze with debate and discourse on the merits of the film, its portrayal of homosexuality and the larger issue of the existence of same-sex love between women in India. Sample this: On February 6, 1999, the same newspaper carried an interview with another mental health professional Dr. Ranjit Basu who stated in no uncertain terms: Samakamita Rog Noy (Homosexuality Is Not a Disease).
Even better, the February 17, 1999 edition of the newspaper carried four letters to the editors from mental health professionals, social activists and ‘ordinary’ citizens. Three of them tore apart Dr. Nilanjana Sanyal’s contradictory and outdated concepts on links between hormones, sexuality and the sociability of a person. The matter did not peter out with this. By now Counsel Club (along with sister NGO Integration) had started organizing regular media interfaces. In an event titled ‘MediaMix ’99’ (March 5, 1999), they decided to ensure the attendance of journalist Sanjukta Basu, who had interviewed Dr. Nilanjana Sanyal and who it was felt needed to see ‘the other side of the picture’. This proved far from easy, but all credit to fellow queer activist Rafiquel Haque Dowjah who did the rounds of the newspaper, argued with the journalist and her seniors, and convinced her to attend the event.
The result was a path-breaking feature article Chhaichapa Fire (April 3, 1999), quite unsurpassable in its sassy double entendre which only a language like Bengali can deliver. Read literally, it would mean ‘Embers under the Ashes’ but in a deeper sense ‘Fire That Would Be Worthless to Try and Douse’. Arriving nearly after the media interface was over, Sanjukta Basu spent hours talking to Counsel Club members and other invitees one-on-one about their lives and in the end not only admitted to a change of perception, but also poured her heart out in the article and included Counsel Club’s contact information as well. Five years on, after the first time a media story had carried the group’s post bag address, another deluge of letters – we stopped counting after the number crossed the 1,000 mark, or was it 3,000!
An ‘explosion’ in the membership of Counsel Club ensued, and with that, disputes, debates and greater formalization of the functioning of the group. A landmark development also followed on June 20, 1999, when Sappho, eastern India’s first and till date [till the point of time of this article being written] the only exclusive support group for lesbians, bisexual women and female-to-male transgender persons was born. Prior to Sanjukta Basu’s article, the efforts towards the formation of such a support group were already in place. The credit for that should possibly go to Chitralekha Dhamija’s cover story in Sunday Magazine (Loving Women – Indian Lesbians Talk about Their Lives and Loves, May 17-23, 1998). This story played a role in some of the founder members of Sappho coming together. But Sanjukta Basu had also interviewed founder members of Sappho, and her writing for the first time attracted letters from a larger number of women. This possibly provided much greater momentum to the formation of Sappho . . .
Bengali media coverage of queer issues acquired a new dimension when Debalina Majumder interviewed several Counsel Club, Integration and Sappho members for a programme titled Satyer Araley (Veiled Reality) on Tara Bangla television channel. Only two individuals agreed to face the camera without any masking or blurring of image, but more crucially new ground was broken when the mother of one of these individuals (Rafiquel Haque Dowjah) also agreed to be interviewed. Telecast in two episodes on February 4 and 11, 2001, the programme also included interviews with human rights activists, psychiatrists, sociologists and artistes, clippings from films, and excerpts or quotes from books and reports. The contact information of the three support groups was also shown, and the show proved a literal ‘road stopper’, when Rafiquel Haque Dowjah was stopped more than once on the streets and commended for his courage in speaking on camera – “Dada, aapnar buke paataa aachhe!” (Brother, you have some courage).
To be continued.
About the main photo: Snapshot of the article Chhaichapa Fire (Fire That Would Be Worthless to Try and Douse) by Sanjukta Basu with sketch by artist Debasish Deb. All photo credits: Pawan Dhall (photographs are not part of the original article and are courtesy Counsel Club Archives maintained by Varta Trust).