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 third 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 and second parts of the interview, Rudra and Kumar recounted their childhood stories of queerness and talked about the early years of queer community mobilization in Hyderabad and Kolkata. In this part of the interview, they share more about the new connections they made and the challenges they faced as they engaged deeper with queer activism in Hyderabad and Kolkata. Kumar also “gives his piece of mind” on the current scenario!
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: Tell us more about the ‘YaariaN99’ conference in Hyderabad.
Rudra: This is when I met Ranjan [queer activist associated with Kolkata queer support forums Counsel Club and Integration Society] for the first time . . . and then I come to know, oh my god, Kolkata also has a group!
Kumar: Everybody contributed – it was a shoestring conference, and it [was] held in a place, our dear friend American Scott Kugle [among the first research scholars to publish widely on homosexuality and Islam] used to stay [in], and he let his place for this conference. Ashok Row Kavi and Owais [both among the earliest queer activists in India] were present, and they’ve given a beautiful interview on TV Doordarshan. And there was this English professor, Hoshang Merchant, and he used to write a lot of books on gay related stuff.
Rudra: He’s the one who called PG [Public Gardens] the Gandu Garden.
Rudra: He was the first person whom I’ve heard addressing everybody in female gender – he used to called everybody ‘she’, everybody was ‘she’ for him.
Kumar: Hoshang Merchant – I know he wrote several books . . . I don’t know if [it was] he [who] gave the title Gandu Garden or something like that, but he used to call it Gandu Garden because it was a major cruising area . . .
Rudra: Action used to happen there, like there was a lot of sex going on in the garden itself. Plus there was a lot of like also socializing, it was not merely a place where people used to go to pick up people, but there was a lot of socializing, we used to have a tea stall, and there was like attendance, everybody has to go there and have a tea, whoever comes cruising.
Kumar: And it was something like we started growing up together, liking each other, and it was completely close [knit] family life . . . and if anybody’s in trouble, everybody stands by.
Rudra: I still remember we used to pass on the hat kind of a thing and people used to actually donate money because he [Kumar] was helping out people who’d actually complained that I have this problem, I have to go to the doctor but I don’t have enough money or I can’t ask my parents for money because they’ll ask where did you get the disease from. So he used to get the money and hand it over to them. And then also there was a lot of interaction happening and people were talking about their problems, they were talking about things they’ve done, [their] hobbies, they were singing, antaksharis we used to organize.
Pawan: This so reminds me of Counsel Club (laughs).
Rudra: Yeah, we used to sit around and just sing . . .
Kumar: Nobody had funds to start any office or something. And it was in the open. Later on Ashok came with a proposal after ‘YaariaN99’ and we started a small centre called Sampark Centre and people used to come and we had a helpline, telephone number was published and then we used to get lot of calls.
Rudra: We were also sent to Bangalore for [psychiatrist] Shekhar Seshadri’s three-day counselling workshops for [running] the helpline, and yeah, the helpline was very helpful actually.
Kumar: And you know we used to have a lot of women actually practically crying, finding out their husbands are gay and their lives have been ruined. What could an Indian woman do when she’s forced to get married to a man seeing the family background and things like that? Nobody looks deep into the sexual orientation of the would-be groom. That was a very pathetic nature of our Indian matrimonial system.
Pawan: For that matter nobody thinks about the sexual orientation of the woman as well.
Kumar: Yeah, indeed of course – nobody sees that.
Rudra: At that time we were not even trained to handle these questions.
Kumar: And you know I used to get weird calls from a strange man: “Why can’t you introduce the gay men’s wives who’re already married and we could help them.” I said “What kind of help?” “We can give them what they require!” I bluntly used to screw them we’re not some bloody Casanova or not a male stud. We don’t want any studs to save somebody else here. We’re helping psychologically, and we’re not, uh, a debauchery club or something like that who’d like to just give out the names of somebody to have your slam bam service ma’am or something . . . and then there were also calls like “I’ve inserted a cucumber in my anus and it’s not coming out, what should I do?” I said you can shit it out baby . . .” (laughter).
Rudra: Those days were nice . . . very innocent . . .
Pawan: Okay, so Rudra you mentioned that in ‘99 in the ‘YaariaN’ conference you came to know about things happening back in Calcutta. So how did that happen?
Rudra: Well, that was because I met Ranjan out there who formed the Counsel Club, Integration was not formed by then, it was I think Counsel Club only, and yeah so he came and he talked a lot about work that Counsel Club is doing, he had got a few of those . . .
Rudra: No, the books . . .
Pawan: Pravartak? [Counsel Club’s house journal]
Rudra: Pravartak was brought and for display and I had asked them, oh god, my god, why didn’t you get more, we could have bought some more . . . and so there was that, and also Scott used to know a lot of people out here [in Kolkata]. So after that when I came back to Calcutta from Hyderabad for a vacation, Scott was also here and that was the first time I remember I went to the Counsel Club meeting.
Pawan: I remember you walking into George Bhavan [Counsel Club’s fortnightly meeting venue from mid 1997 till early 2002] and that you didn’t know anyone, so you were quite lost, and for some initial moments I was busy talking to someone else, I saw with one corner of my eye that somebody has come in, but I didn’t get a chance to go and say hello, that happened after a while. But that was the first time I met you.
Rudra: Yeah, and Scott had also come, but he was late I guess, he came late. So we both were there and that was the first time that I came to know about Counsel Club, I met a few people and then I think every time that I came back from Hyderabad, I kept meeting you at [contemporary dancer] Sudarshan’s place. We met a few times. Then we had this USIS ka Koti Ki Atma [a comic skit on HIV awareness and gender equity developed by Counsel Club and Integration Society as part of a sexual health project in 2000-01].
A performance of Koti Ki Atma under way at the Lincoln Room, American Center, Kolkata on June 12, 2001. On the left is Anupam Hazra and wooing zir is Susanta Pramanik, both queer activists playing key characters in the skit. It was developed by Counsel Club and Integration Society and staged as part of an HIV awareness event organized by the American Center. Photo credit: American Center and courtesy Counsel Club Archives maintained by Varta Trust
Pawan: Haan, haan, right.
Rudra: With Anupam . . .
Pawan: Anupam acted in it with Susanta [both queer activists associated with Counsel Club and Integration Society – see photograph above].
Rudra: Yeah, I used to know Anupam from childhood . . . when I came back from Hyderabad, I met him once and at that time he had this fad of having one long lock turned around his ear.
Pawan: I know this tendril . . .
Rudra: Yeah, tendril, and he used to wind it around his ear and when he used to come from Chaar Number Tank, he’ll open it . . . (laughter) . . . and he’ll do his natak on the road, and that’s when I caught hold of him and I said, “Tumi ki Counsel Club jao?” and all that stuff, and he said, “Hain, hain, jayi, jayi!” And that was the first time that we interacted, and we never asked each other that are you gay and all that stuff, nothing . . .
Pawan: It wasn’t necessary.
Rudra: Yeah, it was not that – that we figured out and he said, “Hain, tomake to anek baar dekhi aami, parke tumi oder sathe khelte jete,” and all that, and I said, “Hain, se to aamio tomake dekhechi.” Okay, and yeah, Arunabha [Anupam’s younger brother] was a complete nut case at that time, maane shaitan ka bachcha . . . (laughter) . . . Anupam was like a nice cute sweet guy.
Pawan: So, Kumar, one last question is that you’ve seen activism, you’ve seen queer people getting together since the ‘90s and even earlier and you know what’s happening today, what kind of work is happening today, and Hyderabad has also had its queer pride walk, the rainbow pride walks since 2013 . . . so how do you compare the two phases, I mean when the work started and now? What is the difference?
Kumar: Work started and most of them [were] so frightened about their coming out, and they were very close and they used to get frightened to talk to me either because I was very open and very bold and very, you know, I was like a complete total bitch, and whenever I used to come out, “Here comes the condom queen, HIV waali aayi hai, abhi bhashan degi” (laughter) . . . that type of a thing you know. I used to take it . . . because at that time in Hyderabad, Andhra Pradesh State AIDS Control Society denied the fact that there are any homosexuals in Hyderabad, in Secunderabad or Andhra Pradesh area . . . denial was total and they used to work among the street children and slums and [with] female sex workers, and no, no there is no, no homosexuals here!
Pawan: And Counsel Club used to receive so many letters from Andhra Pradesh in those days from gay men! So when you look back, you have seen things moving on?
Kumar: Moving on, I know that there’s a lot of difference and then so many organisations have sprouted like mushrooms everywhere and they wanted to do something or other . . . and so much stupid politics was running and I thought for what use and for whose benefit, and whether the community is really benefitting by all these organizations, it’s a big question mark for my knowledge. [Some] people are there with their help, and they’re doing something, hats off to certain people’s hard work, and I’m sorry I lost many of my friends who were good, very dear, but the awareness or whatever it is, it’s I don’t know, we’re very promiscuous people and we’d just like to f*** around everything which is in the pants or something, we can do that. But precautionary measures were not [being] taken indeed in those days – they were already infected most probably I don’t know, but I wasn’t able to help them in those days when they were going away because the advanced study for prevention programme wasn’t done and facilities weren’t available.
Now there are so many things [that] have come up and for which I’ll be called for any new introduction into the prevention programme [launch of new HIV prevention programmes]. I give my piece of mind rather than my word or advice . . . (laughter) . . . and indeed of course there’s a lot of development. In my days I used to see many people [in] hide and seek business, but now they’re open, they’ve come out, they’re fighting for their rights, I’m very glad of that!
To be continued.
Main photographs courtesy: Rudra Kishore Mandal’s personal collection (scanned from photograph albums) – he can be seen (as a child) in the right hand side panel.