Varta brings you the ‘Queer Kolkata Oral History Project’, an initiative to document five decades of queer lives in Kolkata (1960-2000). Our aim in this project is to go back in time and bring forward diverse queer voices through a series of interviews, which will provide a landmark to Kolkata city’s queer history.
Typically, the focus will be on the queer scenario in Kolkata during the growing up years of each interviewee – how it was to be queer in Kolkata in different decades since the 1960s till more recent times. The effort will be to bring forward a mix of the well known and the lesser known voices.
Apart from the excerpts published here, the project also aims to publish a collection of the interviews in different formats. All interviews are based on informed consent and where requested, all markers of identity have been removed for reasons of confidentiality.
In this issue we bring you the first part of an interview with Suresh, 68, a teacher of marketing management who used to live in Kolkata till the late 1990s and is now based in a coastal town in southern India. Suresh talks about his early sexual discoveries and negotiations around relationships, never mind if terms like ‘gay’ didn’t exist back then.
The interview was conducted by Pawan Dhall over Skype on June 4, 2016, and later transcribed by the interviewer.
Pawan: Okay, so to begin with Suresh can you tell me a little bit about yourself, how old are you, what do you do, where do you stay?
Suresh: Yeah, I used to stay in Tollygunge . . . near Bangur Hospital . . . and right from the age of say, six years old, when I was six years old, I’d come to that locality called HP.
Suresh: So we’d been staying there first in a smaller house, then we shifted to a bigger house, when our family started to grow, that means first we were two brothers, then the sisters came one by one, so later family became two brothers and two sisters.
Pawan: You were telling me about where you were staying in Calcutta. So which years were those?
Suresh: 1954 onwards we were staying there. So when I was about six years old, I started going to school . . . I was this – ABC School in Dhakuria . . . from the primary actually, and actually I finished my higher secondary from there itself, from ABC School.
Pawan: So you said that you were there with your sisters, where were your parents?
Suresh: They were also there, parents, brothers, sisters . . . There were about four rooms – so in one room my brother and I used to sleep. One was dining-cum-kitchen and hall and all that . . . hall was a huge one.
Suresh: So, I started going to school at the age of about six, six and a half . . . I was a bright student, so I got a double promotion actually in class two.
Pawan: Accha, okay!
Suresh: So, what happened is, I was a bit young for my class there (laughs) . . .
Suresh: So, here in my locality, I had a lot of friends, lot of friends. And then when I grew up a little, when I was say 10, 11, then I started going for swimming . . . with locality boys, we used to go in a group of 10-12 for swimming in the Dhakuria Lakes . . . morning five o’ clock we used to get up and go, and that is how I learnt swimming, little bit of swimming . . . there were drums fixed across, so from one drum to another drum to another, like that, we used to go . . . It was fun actually.
Pawan: Okay, and before coming to Calcutta – you said you were six years old – before Calcutta where were you?
Suresh: In southern India.
Pawan: So when you started going to school and learning swimming and all, anything interesting happened at this stage that you would like to share?
Suresh: No, nothing interesting as such, but you see . . . my keen interest was . . . male sex organ as you can say, because . . . if I’d seen somebody naked on the road, I’d be staring at the organ and get excited, all that . . .
Suresh: So, at that time I didn’t understand what it was, because I was too young to follow any sexual this thing (laughs) . . . But I could feel something; that is the thing. So that was my initial experience, as far as this is concerned.
Pawan: And when did you start realizing that you were any different, did you feel any different from the other guys?
Suresh: Not exactly, you know, I didn’t feel anything different as such, but you see the attitude towards sex there was, you know boys also used to horse around, and we also used to you know touch one another and this thing, all that thing used to go on. And talking about girls, we used to think it was funny, and . . . it’s quite long ago you see, 60 years ago (laughs) . . .
Pawan: I know, I know, yeah, so whatever you can remember, so essentially when did you first realize very strongly about your attraction for other boys?
Suresh: Uh, you see, we had one servant man – man servant . . . and he used to sleep in that room where we used to sleep, so sometimes brother was not there, he had gone to someone’s place . . . and he used to tell . . . you know what they’re doing and all that, and then one day he told me that you know men can also enjoy with men. So I was interested, wanted to know and also I wanted to see this organ of sex. So, then one thing led to another and slowly we started having sex. First time it was really painful . . .
And, hmm, he told that you know first time it will be painful, next it will be very – slowly, slowly you will start enjoying it, so after two-three days again we had – it was much better but pain was there. But then I was . . . enjoying it, you know I was coming to the point of what they call it ejaculation.
Suresh: And he was very, you know, that way very good at that, and . . . this went on for about two years . . .
Pawan: This was in the early ‘60s?
Suresh: Yes . . .
Pawan: So you would have been around . . . how many years?
Suresh: Twelve or 13 . . . I was maybe 12 or 13 years.
Pawan: Okay, and then what happened?
Suresh: And then he got a job and he had to go, so I lost one partner, I was feeling bad. Then searching around for anybody and then, I used to play top also.
Suresh: And once I also enjoyed having that role of top, and there was one boy in our locality, one boy he was very interested in sex, and whenever his mother, father was always out on tour, when his mother would go somewhere, he would call all of us, there would be about eight or nine people in the room – there was a room and we used to play dark room.
Suresh: (Laughs) So those were the days, and partners were selected and in a dark room . . . And then somebody will shout . . . and then suddenly the light would come on and all would be in awkward positions.
Pawan: Okay (laughs).
Suresh: Of course, that time we didn’t have any camera or anything to take photos. Otherwise, it would have been fun watching them now, those photos.
Pawan: Yeah, indeed, those were the days of no, no mobile phones and . . . So, you said somebody would put on the light, who would be that?
Suresh: Uh, whoever was near the switch?
Pawan: Achha, that was because your friend’s mother would be returning?
Suresh: No, no, no, just fun . . . to see how the pose, who is in which position?
Pawan: Just being naughty (laughs).
Suresh: Yeah, just being naughty.
Pawan: Alright, so how long did this go on?
Suresh: This was there for about . . . say, three years to two and a half, three years, till the school life was coming to an end . . . and then college . . .
Pawan: Hmm . . . so did you find any friends in, gay friends or, you know, first of all in those days how did you address this issue – were there any terms like gay etc.?
Suresh: No, we never used that term gay or anything. We just, you know, call and then have sex . . . all that.
Pawan: Okay, hmm.
Suresh: But that was just supposed to be normal thing, you know.
Pawan: Nothing special, nothing different . . .
Suresh: Nothing special, nothing different, yeah.
Pawan: So then anything else in college life?
Suresh: College, of course, there were . . . friends, but we never had any sexual relationship as such, but we were attracted, some of us towards each other.
Suresh: I think lack of space, lack of so many other feelings at that time, we could not – this thing, think about having relationship as such. You see this word relationship came later, much later.
Pawan: Right, but in those days you’re saying anyways there were no specific words, but you felt attraction, did you talk about these issues, did you talk about your attraction?
Suresh: Yeah, yeah, we talked about it, in fact, I had petted him also, he had petted me also. And then, that was the end because there was no space after that to go forward.
Pawan: Okay, but were there any other places, where you could go to find people interested in same-sex behaviour?
Suresh: You see, there may have been – for the older people. But we never ventured because we, you know, there was strict discipline among the age groups . . . So we never interfered with what the elder people were doing, because we would get nice thrashing in the locality.
Pawan: But how did you know about these older people?
Suresh: Yeah, you see there were older people going around, say, a . . . couple, two of them always going together, to pictures and then where all they go, they didn’t tell na, and we didn’t ask also. So but some sort of, you know, suspicion was there.
Artwork source: Clip Art from MS Office