Varta brings you the next series of articles under the ‘Queer Kolkata Oral History Project’
This is 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 second part of a joint interview with Rudra Kishore Mandal, 41, a Kolkata-based painter and graphic designer, and his friend B. Kumar, 69, who has been engaged in queer activism in Hyderabad since the early 1990s. Rudra has also been involved in queer community mobilization since the 1990s, and at one time was based in Hyderabad where he counted Kumar as his queer peer and mentor, and, in fact, still does.
In the first part of the interview, Rudra and Kumar recounted their childhood stories of queerness. In this part, they talk about the early years of queer community mobilization in Hyderabad and Kolkata. Rudra also narrates his first love affair with a man, which was instrumental in him making a move to Hyderabad and much else that followed.
The interview was conducted by Pawan Dhall (with inputs from Prosenjit Pal) on March 23, 2017. It was transcribed by women’s and child rights activist Soma Roy Karmakar. Long read alert!
Pawan: Kumar and Rudra, please tell us more about your Public Gardens experience in Hyderabad. Why was it so important?
Kumar: I used to regularly visit on Sundays and gradually make friends, and I used to make a big group, and people use to sit around me, and then we used to discuss things – sex never used to play much role, but we used to think about our problems, how we’re facing the family, everybody used to pour their sorrows with me. And then there was my good friend, SM, he used to call me: “Here comes the agony aunt, everybody’s shoulder, lends his shoulder to everybody!” (Laughter)
Rudra: Universal Mama!
Kumar: And I was called Mummy or Mama and everything like that. Then in my nature of work, because I worked for a charitable trust, my head office [was] in Bangalore, and I came to know about Samraksha. Then this HIV/AIDS thing started [preparations for one of India’s earliest sexual health and human rights conferences for gay men and other men who have sex with men (MSM) in Mumbai in December 1994]. People were looking for [representatives] from each area . . . and then SM and some others have pointed out that he’s a good character, he mixes with all classes, so I was being called for the first conference in Bombay . . .
Kumar: Yes, Humsafar Trust and the Naz Foundation put together, and then I was frightened shit – what the hell I’m . . . my life is going to be exposed (laughs)!
Pawan: That conference was so thrilling in so many ways!
Kumar: And okay, that’s how we met Panduranga Rao, who used to run a small organization called Sneha Sangam [in Bangalore], its emblem [was] two male peacocks facing one another – and that was a great idea, he used to organize big parties, huge big parties, and I was representing, taking all the people to that parties. And then I became . . . then HIV/AIDS prevention programme things have started – no, [before that] we used to have a small post box 1662.
Pawan: Oh wow, you remember the number!
Rudra: Still, I do too!
Kumar: We published our group [post box address] for like-minded people to contact so and so, write to so and so post box and people used to write to us.
Pawan: What was the group called?
Kumar: That was Saathi . . . It had a big elaboration on it . . . Serious Thinking All Homosexuals of India, something like that (laughter) . . .
Rudra: Sexually Active and Thinking Homosexuals of India [more accurately Society for All Active and Thinking Homosexuals in India as can be seen here in the Counsel Club Archives maintained by Varta Trust].
Saathi group’s contact information published in the January to July 1997 issue of Naya Pravartak, a queer themed journal that used to be published by Counsel Club, one of India’s earliest queer support groups. Saathi’s contact information seen here was in addition to what has been mentioned by the interviewees. All groups / journals mentioned here no longer exist and the addresses are defunct. Photo courtesy Counsel Club Archives maintained by Varta Trust
Pawan: Wow! So, you just repeat that one more time.
Rudra: Sexually Active and Thinking Homosexuals of India – S A A T H I.
Kumar: And this was titled by our pioneer Mr. Owais Khan [one of India’s long time queer activists who facilitated the formation of queer support groups in several cities].
Pawan: I was about to ask . . .
Kumar: And during this course of a time we used to have a small lawn behind the horticulture pavilion, and people used to come on every Saturday to meet up . . . Saturday was the meeting and Sunday was the go out and have fun or something. And Rudra came and he introduced himself and then several people came on that day . . .
Rudra: That has a history as well because what happened is . . . I don’t know when I realized that I was gay as such, because I don’t think I ever realized that I was gay in those times because that was much later that you identify with that. But I had read about that in the books, because we used to – I used to read a lot of Sidney Sheldon during that time, like when I was growing up . . .
Pawan: Yes, that would’ve had a mention of [homosexuality] . . .
Rudra: Yes, a lot of that was mentioned in that, so I used to find out in dictionaries what the meaning is, but I always thought that I was attracted to certain men – because our class had 40 students, we were in a co-ed, and I think there were around 15 or 19 females, the rest were all male. So yeah, so out of all of them there were only one or two people I was attracted to – I never knew that I was attracted to men only but I used to find them nice to talk [to], sit beside them, talk to them, and you know, there was some, some thrill in it! And the best part for me, means I still remember is that when it used to rain and they used to play football . . . that something that was my . . . yeah, because they’d be like completely kaadaa, maane . . .
Pawan: Covered in mud . . .
Rudra: Completely, top to toe, they’ll be covered, their hair sticking to them but the other things that stuck to them . . .
Pawan: They were more like covered in chocolate . . . (laughter) . . .
Rudra: Yes, yes, and it was also that we didn’t start wearing underwear during that time – because nowadays I see that younger generation are more into, like they’re wearing underwear and at a much earlier age. During that time, when I was in class eight or class nine, we didn’t even know about underwear, and we used to have to wear shorts because that was the school uniform. And, of course, like you can understand the entire, yeah, the entire story – so that’s the time when I started realizing that yes, and women for me were always good friends, I was like really pally with them, but yeah, like other guys, means like they’ll [the girls] get on the swing, and the other guys would be sitting, crouching down . . . I was like “What the hell? Why!”
So, yeah, my first so to say sexual awakening also happened with a classmate. I was very, very close to this person, and we used to be like siblings. I used to stay over at his place, he used to come over and stay. Our parents knew each other. My dad had already passed away by then – my dad passed away when I was 10 years old, when I was in class four. So, yeah, and I was brought up by my mom and my two sisters . . . a lot of people have always said that most probably that’s what turned you gay. I said I don’t think so, that turned me into a feminist but that didn’t turn me into gay, it didn’t make me gay!
And so, this guy was the first thing and I had a very volatile relationship with him. We will fight, we will make love, we will like scream at each other, he will go after girls, I will get jealous, I will kick him in the balls. And then, yeah of course, I can soothe it also later. That’s how our relationship was and it lasted for around six years. We started off when we were in class eight and continued, but two years after his mom also died and after that, two years it was like really bad.
There was always a lot of aggression between us, and no, I think he was also growing out of the entire thing because he was also getting more into girls by then, maybe also consciously, because I have also slept with him . . . after a period of time, much later when I came back from Hyderabad and I had to meet him because his dad was not doing well, so I had to go to his house, he asked me to stay over and we started off again. And we had sex. So it was not that he was not into sex with men after me, but he, I think he consciously made a decision to see more women, more girls and romantically. So, yeah, we fell out and it was messy completely and that was also one of the reasons why I made up my mind to go away from Calcutta I guess. And I never used to know anybody else, means I never knew that there were organizations which were already active in the city at that point.
Pawan: So which year would that be?
Rudra: That will be like ’93, ’94.
Pawan: Okay, things had just started . . .
Rudra: Hain, and then ’95, ’96 was my 11 and 12 – during that time I was like completely, I was trying to get over this guy, but those were the two years when we were like really bad.
Prosenjit: So you went to Hyderabad . . .
Rudra: After I finished 12, and then . . .
Prosenjit: At that age, alone!
Rudra: No, after I finished 12, I did one year in South City College, Commerce. And at that time in my head it was like I was forming an idea that I don’t want to stay in Kolkata because it had become very oppressive. There were also problems at home, there were changes happening out here. And so, yeah, I wanted to get away from Kolkata, that was one of the prior reasons, uh, and the second thing was also during that time, like just after my 11, there was a short span when I was seeing another person who was from Alliance Française, I used to study French there. He was at that time one of the staff members [there], and he was openly gay . . . that was another thing which was, which was nice because he was much more mature than me, he knew what he was doing.
He was French. And he knew how to put those distances between . . . you know, even if you’re physically intimate with somebody, it doesn’t mean that you can take them for granted when you’re at work. So those were things that he started putting into my head and which helped a lot in my development later. And I really, means like, we separated in the sense that he had to go away to another country, because they only have a five-year period that they work for. After five years they get transferred, so he was moving away. But he came to Hyderabad for a conference and we met up and it was like oh my god!
Pawan: Alliance Française, was it the same building as it is now?
Rudra: Yes, and I love that building! That was something and he was very romantic for me – that time was very romantic. But it was [a] very short period of time, but it was nice. He actually did, uh, contribute a lot to my development as a person. And then I moved to Hyderabad, I just applied for this art college because one of my friends who was also my neighbour, he’s still my friend – a straight guy who’s like, I’ve made him into a fag hag I guess, but yeah, like . . .
Pawan: A male fag hag!
Rudra: Male hag, male fag hag – [his name was] ANB, he was moving. He was always very sure that he wants to be an artist. I was not. I was always – but I saw this opportunity and I said that I have to take it, and so he said just apply. I applied and got through thankfully and then I broke the news to them. And my sisters said “Yes, go ahead, because I think that’s what you’re good at, go ahead.” So I moved and for one year in Hyderabad – I moved there in ’98 – one year I was like this goody two shoes, like I don’t know anything, I’m the virgin (laughter). Just drop the disguise and then the, uh, newspaper debate. There was an article on how the twin cities Secunderabad and Hyderabad are opening their doors to LGB – at that point gay was the thing . . .
Kumar: Yeah, and MSM and Hijras were . . .
Rudra: No lesbian, no bisexual, no transgender, no eeye . . .
Prosenjit: Only gay.
Rudra: Transgender was always Hijra, and so it was gay. Like how it’s opening up its doors to gay men.
Prosenjit: So, in newspaper?
Rudra: Yeah, and that’s where Saathi’s post box was given . . .
Rudra: So you know, like I got my chaand . . . (laughter) . . . so I wrote a three-page letter to dear Mr. Kumar, he read it and he just sent me three lines: “I read your letter. Thank you for writing to us. Please come to a meeting on this date and meet me and let’s talk.” And I said, okay! Great opportunity! Now how do I find out where is Public Gardens – I didn’t know Hyderabad that well at all, I used to stay in Secunderabad at that time. I was also studying French out there, I was continuing . . .
So I asked my teacher, achha I have this thing, I have to meet this friend of mine, which is near Nampally, this Public Gardens, does anybody know about that? And he was like arrey, it’s just across the street! Just cross the street, it’s the Secretariat and just beside that, the Public Gardens. I said oh wow, I didn’t know I was studying so close to it . . . (laughter) . . . and so I went on this Saturday and I was roaming around with the letter in my hand trying to like, you know, figure out. And I’m seeing like families and kids playing and it’s like it’s an open area.
I said how do people meet here! Like how do gay people meet here? So I said, okay, let me take a round, and I started taking a round and then I saw certain people following, and certain people making eyes at me. And so I said okay, maybe I’m in the right place . . . (loud laughter) . . . Kumar didn’t mislead me and then I see this person standing near the horticulture . . .
Kumar: Sitting or standing?
Rudra: No! He was standing. He was with a briefcase and he’s standing. Very seriously he’s looking and nobody was there, it was like . . .
Pawan: So tell me something, because this is something which today, in today’s generation people will be very curious, as to how would we recognize each other in those days, because we didn’t have photographs [on social media]!
Rudra: Exactly, we didn’t, and that’s the whole point – so, I didn’t know who was Kumar, right? So I had carried that letter with me, and now I was like, I was actually carrying it in my hand so that person will see . . . (loud laughter and commotion) . . . yeah, it was like a flag, you know! He had told me to come behind the horticulture garden. Whom do I ask out there where is the horticulture garden. Now, I’m not trusting anybody and I’m seeing people making, you know, eyes at me. And I’m like, I wasn’t used to it, like that was the first time I was entering a cruising area so to say. It was in ’99, ’98 end . . . and so, I go to the horticulture, somehow I see one of the seetiwallahs, all these watchmen out there, and I go and ask them, they show me this horticulture garden. I go there, I see this person standing with a briefcase, Kumar, and I just walk up to him. No, he only came up to me and said, oh, he saw the letter most probably. “Oh, you’ve come because of that letter, no?” I said “Yes, yes, this is Saathi, right?” He said yes, yes – he double said that – there was no one else. Then people started pouring in and I thought where, what the hell is happening!
A short report on the ‘YaariaN99’ conference published in India’s pioneering queer magazine Bombay Dost in 1999. Photo courtesy Counsel Club Archives maintained by Varta Trust
Kumar: We had a very good meeting on that day . . . we hadn’t expected so many people, you know, like minded . . .
Rudra: He was like, this guy is garrulous, he doesn’t stop, I was like burburbur . . . (laughter) . . . my entire life story to everybody, and it was like . . . oh my god, so many like me. God, this is like the best place on earth! Right, and they were so welcoming, I think the first thing [was] that I was so scared in the beginning and then the entire atmosphere – just because of him and the way he started talking to me and said that oh, I’ve read your letter, you’ve written like your life story in it and all that . . .
That was fun and so then he said that okay, we have this place, and we sit here, and we actually – this is our meeting area and we write the letter that I wrote to you, we wrote it here, and they used to actually do that, they used to bring all the letters from the post box, sit around and everybody was given one, and then you reply to it. You will discuss it and reply then and there and send it off, which was good.
Kumar: And we used to contribute for the posting . . .
Rudra: I think there were 20 new people.
Kumar: Twenty new people had come and most of the people were in the group for a longer period and . . .
Rudra: And then I did see some of those people who were making eyes at me – I saw them and I was like, oh my god, these people are here as well!
Pawan: So this was after the Bombay conference.
Kumar: Yes. Then we thought why can’t we have a conference? We had a very huge [national level] conference called ‘YaariaN99’ [possibly Hyderabad’s first major queer activist event held on February 13-14, 1999].
To be continued.
Main photographs courtesy: Rudra Kishore Mandal’s personal collection (scanned from photograph albums) – he can be seen in the right hand side panel.