A friend’s request for information about hotels in Midnapur town leads Pawan Dhall to look into rarely used visiting card diaries, and the cards trigger memories of the queer scenario in Kolkata and India in the 1990s and early 2000s.
These series of articles intend to create an archive of the queer movement in Bengal and India – not a chronological narrative of the movement, rather anecdotal histories capturing the little voices that are often lost in general historical accounts – voices from thousands of letters received by Counsel Club, one of India’s earliest queer support groups (1993 to 2002), the group’s house journal Naya Pravartak, and its assorted files and folders.
About three and a half years ago a friend from Pune came over to Kolkata, interested in travelling to archaeological spots all over Bengal. He was planning a visit to Midnapur town and had no idea where to stay. This reminded me of the days I would travel to Midnapur from Kolkata for Counsel Club’s work – in the years 2000-01 to be precise.
Flipping through my visiting card diaries I wasn’t sure I would find it, but there it was – a card of Reshma Lodge, Station Road, Midnapur from nearly 13 years ago (that is, 13 years counted from 2013). The phone number given on the card was still functional and my friend could make a reservation, and eventually had a good stay there.
It was thanks to this incident that I thought about the archival potential of my visiting card diaries (Varta’sarchival article series had then just begun). This collection of visiting cards, ranging from very old to rather recent ones, has evolved several times over since the earliest days of my work around queer community mobilization in the early 1990s.
Not all the cards relate to queer activism, and in a future date it may be a good idea to do some sorting and separating. And how might one do the sorting? I think the visiting cards can broadly be classified as those of queer individuals, social workers, media persons, organizations (mostly non-profits), and places to stay in or eat at.
Looking back again, I stayed at several small and medium sized hotels in Midnapur. Reshma Lodge was among the first that we used for organizing Counsel Club’s community events in 2000. But this changed when some of the local Counsel Club members said the hotel was elitist and community members from semi-urban and rural areas of Midnapur felt inhibited in attending the group’s events hosted there. Not that a change of hotels made much of a difference to community participation – the idea of a queer support group itself was yet to catch on, in and around Midnapur. It should also be mentioned that the few individuals who did participate in Counsel Club’s activities in Midnapur were all assigned gender male at birth.
Moving on from Reshma Lodge, my eyes stop at the card of a Chinese restaurant in Visakhapatnam. The card belonged to Sam (name changed), whose family owned the restaurant. Sam first got in touch with Counsel Club in 1996 during one of his frequent visits to Kolkata for work and to meet his relatives. Ever the livewire in our meetings and get-togethers, there are many happy reasons to remember Sam. But I also remember him torn between his need to travel to Hong Kong to ensure the survival of his family-owned restaurant and the man who was the love of his life back in Visakhapatnam. The last time I met him was long after Counsel Club had closed down. He didn’t seem happy about either the family business or the relationship, though I could have been wrong and I hope I was.
The next stop: People Tree, Delhi. I wonder how many times I have looked at this card printed on handmade paper and made a mental note about spending quality time at People Tree. This cute store sells books, clothes, organic food, toys and much more. At one time (in the 1990s) it was only one of the two bookstores that stocked copies of Naya Pravartak (the other being Classic Books in Kolkata) – thanks to links built by a founder member of Counsel Club who shifted base from Kolkata to the capital.
Visiting People Tree still remains on the bucket list, and so does having beer and kebabs one more time at Starlit Wonder (now renamed Starlit Garden Bar) on Park Street in Kolkata. Owned by the adjacent Moulin Rouge, this was the most frequented place for Counsel Club’s earliest planning meetings in 1993-94. If memory serves me right, the place was open only to men in those days, or at least was frequented mostly by men (including queer ones). Cruising would not be so much on our minds when we met there, and we didn’t care much for the dancing girls painted on the walls (possibly an attraction for World War II soldiers). But the food, drinks and location (en route or close to work for some of us) were definite pluses. So was the thrill of discussing queer activism in a semi-public place.
Ironically, when I went to Starlit Wonder about a decade ago, I was refused entry because I was alone and the restaurant had then become restricted to ‘families’ (which meant I needed to have at least one woman accompanying me). A year later I did manage to enter the place with a friend and niece, but just so I could show them what the place where Counsel Club met was like, before the group moved on to less restrictive places for its meetings. I don’t know what norms are followed now in the renamed restaurant.
Among individuals who figure in the visiting card diaries, is one Henry (name changed), who contacted Counsel Club in the early 2000s. Henry left India for Canada in the 1970s, when he was in his 20s. One reason he left was being able to live without needing to hide his sexual orientation. During a walk down Theatre Road, he said he was quite agog with all the changes that had taken place, especially about the existence of several queer support groups in Kolkata. Perhaps, just perhaps, he would not have left if he had had a similar support system during his younger years.
Another visiting card in my collection belonged to the late anthropologist Dr. Moni Nag. My memory about meeting him is foggy, but I remember him as an ardent advocate of the health concerns of sex workers and respecting diversity in human sexuality.
Finally, not all the visiting cards relate to people I have lost touch with. The card (one side of it) shown in the photograph above belongs to a Kolkata-based journalist I have known since the late 1990s or early 2000s. The card itself is about 15 years old. I include it here as one of the most striking examples in the collection. How many of us have the time or inclination to think about such self-representation on a visiting card?
Until another time, with more on visiting cards and other archival stories!
All photo credits: Pawan Dhall