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.
The third and concluding part of an interview with Suresh, 68, a teacher of marketing management who used to live in Kolkata till the late 1990s and now based in a coastal town in southern India. In the first two parts of the interview (published in the August and September 2016 issues of Varta) Suresh talked about his sexual discoveries, affairs of the heart, marriage and divorce – a story spanning Kolkata, Mumbai, Guwahati and several other places. Here he takes us through his involvement in the early years of queer activism in Kolkata on to the current state of ‘personal equilibrium’ he finds himself in.
The interview was conducted by Pawan Dhall over Skype on June 4, 2016, and later transcribed by the interviewer.
Pawan: Since your divorce has your wife or daughter known anything about you, about your sexual orientation?
Suresh: They don’t know about it . . . then I carried on my life, I had partners and I used to enjoy sex very often. I got one or two partners. But nothing fixed as such.
Pawan: So was it easy to find partners in Guwahati?
Pawan: Again, through friend circles or specific places?
Suresh: No, friends only. Through friends, but friends were not helping in that. We used to recognize each other that we are gay, and then get together somehow.
Pawan: But how would the recognition happen?
Suresh: Looks. There is this thing where you look at that person in a way and smile, then touch and all that is different. Then one day you try to kiss him or he tries to kiss you, then you realize yes, so then it goes further after that.
Suresh: That time society was very, you know, stringent, not as open as now.
Pawan: So when do you think that – I mean, first of all, do you think that society is really open now?
Suresh: Much more open than it was when we were young. That time they never understood gay people, now at least they understand. Many of them understand – so okay, he’s like that, or he’s like that . . .
Pawan: When did you come back from Guwahati to Calcutta?
Suresh: Say, ‘89-‘90.
Pawan: Achha, okay, and then were there any important developments after you came back to Calcutta?
Suresh: Counsel Club! [Counsel Club, based in Kolkata, was one of India’s earliest queer support groups from 1993-2002 – the interviewee and interviewer were fellow members in the group for several years].
Pawan: Indeed . . . that would have been which year?
Suresh: That, this NLP area chap was there na, what was his name, he put his name in this thing . . . he’s Deep I thing he put, but he’s not Deep, he’s some other . . .
Pawan: Haan, was his name SCY?
Suresh: SCY, haan, correct. He put his name as Deep in that magazine, Bombay Dost, I used to subscribe to Bombay Dost after coming to Calcutta.
Pawan: So how did you come to know about Bombay Dost?
Suresh: In Bombay itself, one or two people have said you know, there’s a magazine called Bombay Dost, and then I searched for it. Somebody gave me the address, and I wrote to them. They sent me some old copies as well as this subscription – and then I subscribed and I bought, but I was very careful because at that time the mail if it goes to somebody else’s hand (laughs) – it would be difficult.
Pawan: It would be disastrous!
Suresh: Anyway, through that magazine I came to know this SCY and he took me to your place, remember, we had . . .
Pawan: A gathering?
Suresh: Gathering, we had that gathering . . . I had written one poem or something like that . . .
Pawan: Yeah, so that must have been around ’94, 1994-95.
Suresh: Yeah, yeah, maybe yes, that’s right . . . and then you know after that . . .
Pawan: After that, of course, you had a central role – I mean you hosted the Counsel Club meetings for a long time, the Sunday monthly meetings . . .
Suresh: That’s right . . . and then SSN came into my life.
Suresh: We used to live together for quite a long time, till he decided that he will not come to southern India because he had to look after his . . .
Pawan: Parents, basically.
Suresh: Yes, I wanted him to come.
Pawan: Which year did you leave for southern India?
Suresh: It was ’98.
Pawan: Okay. I really have to thank you for hosting those meetings, beginning with, I remember, September 1994 till almost the middle of ’97.
Suresh: Yes (smiles).
Pawan: Two years, until your living room was exploding with people (laughs).
Suresh: Yes, yes and the landlord started objecting.
Pawan: Yes, and then you had, you stored all the copies of the magazines also. So . . . when you look at your journey over the years, beginning with your first realization and interest in another boy or another man, till this date, looking at all of that, what do you think – how would you sum up your life?
Suresh: I would say I really enjoyed and – but there were opportunities which I missed. There were one or two instances where I could have said yes to somebody and then gone along, but I didn’t. That I regret.
Pawan: Okay . . .
Suresh: Otherwise, I don’t have any regrets.
Pawan: Hmm, okay. And what has life been like in southern India, in comparison to Calcutta?
Suresh: Here it is very dull, you get one or two people who are interested, but they are interested only in the sexual part, and not like in Kolkata we used to have companionship and so many other things. Here it’s just pure sex, so that I’m not interested in at this stage (laughs).
Suresh: There are people, approaching, but completely for sex, that’s all.
Pawan: Okay, so you were part of LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender] activism in the ‘90s and played quite a crucial role in Counsel Club. Is there anything in specific you would like to talk about, say, about the coming days, or for people who are involved in LGBT activism now?
Suresh: No, now . . . they’ve got it easy, there’s no problem as such, then very shortly I think Section 377 will be abolished.
Pawan: Haan, you’re hopeful?
Suresh: At least if it is decriminalized, so after that it will be easy for people who are gay to go ahead and you may even find relationships and all that coming forward, and even the films which are coming, there you can see the trend which is taking place nowadays, so I think that is a good sign. So people can live like in foreign countries, at least I wish so . . . you will not be there to see that, but new people will be there who can see some of it . . .
Pawan: Right, the next generation will probably benefit . . . what about, say, people in your age group now, for LGBT people who are in their 60s and 70s or even older, do you think there is anything specific that should be done for them?
Suresh: I think they have found their equilibrium, as you say (laughs), and they may not want to be disturbed further because – you see I know of people who have settled down, in Chennai there is a foreigner and an Indian staying together, they’ve got a beach house there, I’ve been there. That man is about 80 years, nearing 80 now, and the other guy is about 40, and they are happy together. So like this you may find quite a few relationships, later, when everything goes alright. That will be nice actually.
Pawan: So you’re saying that people are finding their way about.
Suresh: Yes, yes! In our age group, there’s no problem. They’re finding their way, what they like, and now even in the, this thing, PR, they advertise some of them, we want some companion, but you won’t find many because most of them have already found their companions . . . about me personally, now I’m 68, and now I don’t actually fancy any such relationship, but sometimes if I find somebody who wants to have a casual sex somewhere, I may go in for that.
Pawan: Okay, but otherwise you don’t feel the need for a relationship?
Suresh: No, no, no.
Pawan: And work wise, occupation wise?
Suresh: Occupation wise I teach twice a week MBA – marketing management.
Pawan: Achha! Okay, and then any last comments, any last thoughts?
Suresh: I think because I was in Kolkata I could enjoy so much of the life. Maybe in Mumbai also it would have – but other places, like if I was where I am now, then I don’t think I would have enjoyed my life as I did. So I’m very happy and I’m also very happy for the group of people, our Counsel Club, and I miss some of them very much.
Pawan: Thanks a lot Suresh.
Suresh: Thank you, keep in touch!
Pawan: Yes, definitely I will. Goodbye!
About the main photo: Snapshots of Suresh’s writings in Naya Pravartak, a journal published in the 1990s by Counsel Club, one of India’s earliest queer support groups. Photo collage credit: Pawan Dhall