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 fourth and concluding 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, second and third 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. They shared about the new connections they made and the challenges they faced as they engaged deeper with queer activism in Hyderabad and Kolkata. In this concluding part, they talk about what has been gained and lost as the queer movements have grown.
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: Rudra, you’ve seen things happening in Hyderabad, the very start of the organized [queer] movement in Hyderabad and then you’ve also seen things happening in Calcutta. What comes to your mind in terms of the growth of the movement?
Rudra: Well, for me I think I had a lot of comparison to do and I was actually growing up in this movement as a gay man. Now my identities might also differ from what my identities used to be like 10 years back. But the fact is that like things haven’t changed as such for me personally, because during that time also I was very vocal about my likings and dislikes. I was also, as Kumar said, like I was very out in the open out there and I used to take up, hmm, like I used to fight with people, I used to go ahead and actually abuse people in PG [Public Gardens] whoever used to come and you know try to bully us and all that stuff. So I always used to do that and a lot of people who were actually afraid of this gang, they used to think that we were one gang which is like not to be messed with, because we didn’t even care at that point. But for me I think the main thing was – there was a lot of – like in Hyderabad there was less of intellectual debates happening regarding sexuality or regarding the movement. It was more of a survival at that point of time, so everybody was trying to figure out how to make the best of their lives being the way it is; most of them didn’t want to come out of the closet because they were very comfortable in their closets. It was not that they were not comfortable in their closet.
Lot of people didn’t even feel the responsibility to come out because they would think that how’s it going to help, even if I’m going to come out and tell my family, how’s it going to really help . . . What was more important at that time was how do I earn my living if I’m effeminate and I go to find a job, how do I present myself, so that I can get that job, I get through the interview, or how do – what kind of job will suit me, what kind of training can I get. Sex work was another thing that was always on their mind – because there was a lot of sex work happening, but it was like, it was under the guise of you know like gifts and favours.
Kumar: Sex work did happen a lot, and I think that sex work was main [priority] because I asked all my colleagues to apply for a job or try something else somewhere, and they said that are you mad? I have to work eight hours a day and get f*** 3000 or 4000 – I very well go sleep around and get 3000 rupees a day!
Rudra: Yeah, that was one of the hurdles that a lot of people didn’t want to use condoms also because of that – because they said their clients would pay them more if they were not using them. The overall thing was that yeah that sex work was happening, but it wasn’t happening as ‘sex work’, that’s what I registered – it wasn’t that there was any transaction directly happening in cash – there might be favours, there might be things that you are . . .
Kumar: Actually, it was like gifts or something . . .
Rudra: So it was never called quote unquote sex work, and then there was also in Hyderabad, I had also noticed though there was a class and caste difference, in PG there was not a division that much. When people used to meet in PG, they used to meet as equals. So there was not this class, caste difference, but there was a difference in English speaking and non-English speaking people. That was a very practical thing as a lot of the non-English speaking people who used to speak Telugu . . .
Kumar: Or Urdu . . .
Rudra: Not Hindi, but mostly Telugu, not even Urdu, Telegu mostly, those were only Telugu speakers, they used to feel that a little bit that they’ve been you know kept away – or because they didn’t want to come and approach anybody who was fluent in English or who had that supposedly class difference according to them, that was ‘English speaking queens’ they used to say – because they somehow had this inferiority complex in them, say feeling that well we aren’t good enough, which wasn’t the case specifically, because we, later on we came to know and we started dealing with it because we started keeping outreach workers some of whom were fluent in English, some were not; some were from that only-Telugu-speaking crowd. So they used to go and do better outreach at that point, and then they started trusting us, then they started trusting that okay these people don’t mean to harm, or they don’t disrespect us just because we don’t speak English.
Kumar: We used to organize picnics, we used to take them, you know so and so day is a picnic, everybody brings their own food.
Rudra: And we used to share . . . and a lot of people were hesitant in the first to offer you food, because they didn’t know that how will you react to what kind of food they had got, but when they saw that everybody is pooling in and putting it there . . .
Kumar: Everybody’s eating . . .
Rudra: I think that’s something that I miss these days. These days I think the class, caste, identity based differences are much stronger, and I think that is also in certain ways it might be helping certain people but it’s harming the overall morale of the community as such.
Kumar: Sex work those days was for favours. Nowadays it’s strictly cash, and disguised for massage or something like that, it’s online business now, and I see that many people are coming for the sex work, and to have sexual favours; online sex business is going on leaps and bounds, everywhere, throughout India.
Rudra: And I think it was also very clear that there was discrimination very much happening towards people who were Satlawalis – basically people who were cross dressing and then plying their . . . eeye, means when they were into sex work – those people were discriminated against from the crowd that used to basically call themselves gay and come to PG and hang out and all that stuff – they used to basically not entertain people who were in drag . . . in open.
Kumar: They used to get frightened! If you’re with them [Satlawalis] in association, you might be identified as one of them.
Pawan: Right. That is a well-documented fact everywhere . . . that’s a serious division which is still there . . .
Rudra: And the meetings that we used to have, that used to happen in these public cruising spaces – now, for me those spaces never became unsafe, because I always knew that I had support systems, I knew people. So even if I’m alone in that cruising spot, with only a few others whom I just know, somebody comes and tries to bully me or tries to act funny with me I knew that I could ask for help. There was some, some sort of a community feeling, a unity in the cruising areas itself, which I think has been destroyed completely by the online anonymity of cruising. Like even if I used to go and talk to another person, for example I meet you at the cruising spot for the first time and I like you and I go and talk to [you], he’s [Kumar’s] keeping an eye on me that whom I’m talking to, if he knows you very well and he knows that you’re a problem, he’ll come to my ear and say that okay I’m just telling you, be careful . . .
Kumar: Yeah, and the trust was so established, for example, some of my friends have picked up somebody, and after having sex he demanded money or trying to blackmail or something like that and they just mentioned my name – that fellow immediately left the premises.
Rudra: That used to happen in many cases, like another guy got that person to my house directly. I said okay, yeah, I’ll give you money but I have to go and fetch it, this is my house so come, and he knew where I stayed and he knew that Kumar used to stay with me at that time, so he left from downstairs. So, you know, those were things that people could fall back on, which I think is very much missing [now].
Kumar: Still, so called my friends and my associates and my family members in gay community, still keep in contact – they are scattered throughout the world, and they still remember that safe days which they used to have . . .
Rudra: So, for me, for me I think that was something that I still feel the loss – this entire cruising experience first of all, and the other thing that really also bothers me now is that I am wearing too many hats right now . . . I don’t think I’m also distributing my . . . myself equally into all this, because I think we were much more concentrated, we had much more better focus at that point, because I think that, uh, basic issues that we were dealing with was survival, somewhere I feel today that part of the survival has – we have actually made it much more easier for a lot of people now, so there are more . . .
Pawan: Emotional support . . .
Rudra: Yes exactly, emotional support is there; also there’s more, much more understanding on the issues of sexuality and gender right now. And so people are clearer in their head about what they are all about, their identities and all but at our point we were still blindly – we were just finding ourselves and our ways, and I think that taught us a lot. You know we were not cocksure about anything at any point of time and I’m still not, like if people ask me a question, I say let me think about it, you know. So that’s not there now – I find a very aggressive confidence in a lot of these youngsters without the exact knowledge to support it – they’re very confident, but at the end of the day they’re also falling in the same trap that supposedly the entire mainstream society has created for LGBTQ people, so within the community itself there’s so much of discrimination against people’s practice of sex, certain ways, say kink or incest or people wearing different kind of clothes or people behaving in a more different kind of a way – I see a lot of most strong opinions being thrown towards these people from within the community, which was very lacking [earlier] because everybody was actually trying to find their ways, but nowadays I find that “Oh, my god, he’s into . . . this is a sin; this isn’t the right thing to do!” And I don’t know where that comes from!
Pawan: I know, I mean there are many Facebook groups that reflect that.
Rudra: Yes, exactly!
Prosenjit: I’m just wondering, I mean I have a question about security in public places . . . how do you carry forward this thing now . . . You [Pawan] are there, Kumar is there, Rudra is there – so you’re talking about how you support people – if you tell your name or Kumar’s name, they [the bullies] are afraid and they go away – but how do you carry forward this thing if you are not there?
Kumar: The situations are not the same . . .
Rudra: Yes, it has changed a lot first of all because . . .
Kumar: What we are now and what we were then was completely different – a name would trigger some fright in them [the bullies] . . .
Rudra: It’s like now Kumar is not that well known at all.
Kumar: Nobody knows who I am!
Rudra: Because now the cruising areas are dead!
Prosenjit: So what are you thinking about, what will be the suggestion, I mean what you can do . . . to stop this thing or . . .
Rudra: You see, that’s the thing when today I go on PR or Planet Romeo or Grindr, or I go on any of these online forums to actually try and find people of my own kind, I really don’t know whom to trust or not to – first of all, second thing is that even if I’m getting them home, I never feel safe, unless some time has elapsed and we have met quite a few times and we have got to know each other, and being in intimate situation, then there is build-up of trust, right, which takes time . . .
Kumar: See we are staying in our own houses . . . we are not staying in a rented place somewhere far off from the home setting. And bringing somebody to your own locality, if something happens . . . we are not frightened about our reputation being . . . My family members who’re attached, I shouldn’t want, I don’t want it to tarnish them – they’re accepting me as I am, but I shouldn’t be responsible for their . . .
Pawan: But I feel that what has happened is that there are definitely, there have been some good things, but we’ve also lost the support system.
Kumar: Lost the support system, the closeness, the family . . .
Rudra: I’m telling you – for me to build up a support system here all over again – to find Dipu, to find Prithvi, to find you all and build up that entire support system all over again was a big task . . . [There] is something [else] that also I noticed like in Hyderabad it was very different, like when I went to Mumbai, or when I went to Bangalore, I was met with a very, very different crowd which was much more suave, much more elegant, much more elite.
Kumar: They would like to talk to people who’re only branded, dressed or something like that. That’s . . .
Rudra: Yeah like, but at the end of the day you’re drunk, I’m drunk, we sleep together, doesn’t matter, class doesn’t matter.
Kumar: Who you’re sleeping with – any chakkawala, rickshaw-wala, we don’t want to know!
Rudra: But I did notice that difference which was also not there in Kolkata. I think that was also a beauty of Kolkata and its groups, because there was so much of diversity.
Rudra: Was, exactly, I’m using a past tense. That’s why I think today we have to all wear so many hats you know, my main thing is I really don’t want to wear so many hats, but at the end of the day when you’re doing certain things for transgender people, you become very, very – how do you say, hmm, boxed into that, if you’re with a lot of lesbian people, you get boxed, if you’re with a lot of English-speaking gay men, you get boxed, if you’re with the Kothis you get boxed, so everywhere there are these boxes that you have to fill. If you want to walk with the entire community, it’s a headache, complete headache which wasn’t there at that time . . .
Pawan: There are I would say there are circles, and there are pockets, where there is much more understanding and openness, but at the same time, in a very subtle manner, in a very sophisticated manner, people have very strong differences, and I find that because in terms of social media, I find that that’s very . . .
Rudra: Nowadays whenever I open Facebook, I’m actually like (sighs) . . . oh god, I’m going to see some post which is really, really going to irk me. Am I going to reply to those or am I not going to reply to those is some decision that I have to actually make.
Pawan: It becomes so draining.
Rudra: It becomes tiresome to repeat yourself again and again, attention span is so, so less of people, means you might have said certain things on certain post, like five days back, you have to repeat it again today because somebody else has posted something which is very similar to that, discriminatory things, something discriminated somewhere . . .
Pawan: Actually, you know, a lot of people have said this that technology is good as long as you are the master of technology and not the technology is the master of you.
Rudra: And I have seen a lot of people just post because they have to post . . .
Pawan: Well, I think we’ll wind up.
Rudra: Now that you are doing this, this is something that I have been thinking for a long, long time with this one – specifically this man who is sitting there (points at Kumar). He’s phobic about writing! Okay, he just, he’s very good at telling you stories and talking and all that stuff, but somebody has to write it down, this person’s a treasure trove!
Pawan: So you have to record his stories. I’ll get it transcribed, you just take the interview.
Rudra: I will.
Kumar: Oh, I’ve lost beautiful documentation. I used to . . .
Rudra: Shut up! The documentation is talking about your life!
Pawan: You are the document!
Rudra: Yeah . . . (laughter) . . .
Pawan: Thank you so much Rudra and Kumar!
About the main photo collage: All photographs courtesy Rudra Kishore Mandal’s personal collection (scanned from photograph albums).