From the Archives: 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.
“Dear Sir, I was very impressed to find your address in the ‘Lesbian issue’ of the Sunday Miscellany Statesman, but could not discover the reason for such a long delay. Were the Gays & Lesbians sleeping all these years? (I mean the Indian or South Asian counterpart).”
This is a verbatim quote from a letter written on July 15, 1994 by SDA, a young gay man from Kolkata (name initials used to protect the identity of the letter writer). This was one of the very first letters received by Counsel Club after The Statesman carried two prominent articles on the then fledgling queer movements in India – Emerging from the Shadows by Parvez Sharma and Soul Sisters by Mitra Phukan, both published on July 3, 1994 in the Miscellany section. This was also the first time that a media story carried Counsel Club’s post bag address.
Here’s another extract from a post card sent by BMA, a college student from North Kolkata, in early August 1994. BMA described himself as “handsome, black, 5’ 6”, weight 59 kg” and added: “Both practice (active and passive) done”. BMA sounded confident and even plucky as he wrote “I want [a] partner of same age. I want to join with you as a hole (sic) timer member to establish our right in this country”.
Letters like these would provide both encouragement and be the cause of much amusement and debate in the Counsel Club letter writing team where I was a member. For instance, was SDA being humourous or expressing a misplaced sarcasm when he wondered if the Indian or South Asian gays and lesbians had been sleeping for so long?
I remember BMA’s spelling slip in writing ‘whole timer’ with an unintended double meaning led to much laughter. But we also appreciated his courage at having expressed himself quite frankly in an open post card, though he was clever enough to have not explicitly mentioned ‘sex’ even once. His short letter was like a disarming assertion of the right to have sex with a partner of one’s choice, and could even serve as an example of how to put some sex back into all the sexuality talk happening today. ‘Love is love’ but why should sex be shut out?
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As Varta webzine turned eight on August 1, 2021, it coincided with the start of Varta Trust’s long-standing project to catalogue and digitize Counsel Club’s archival material in its safekeeping. Some parts of the archives have been digitized in the past. But this is the first time a systematic cataloguing and digitization of the nearly 3,000 letters, greeting cards, and emails from the Videsh Sanchar Nigam Limited era in the archives has been undertaken.
These missives are part of a one-of-a kind queer archival collection in India. They reflect myriad emotions and aspirations of queer people in the India of the late 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s. This article brings you a small sample of the experiences, dilemmas and desires shared by the people who contacted Counsel Club right after the July 1994 coverage in The Statesman. Varta, which has its roots in Counsel Club’s house journal Naya Pravartak, is deeply indebted to these letter writers, because their efforts to connect have been among the building blocks of what are contemporary India’s out and about queer movements.
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Among the more unusual letters was one from JCH, a student of Jadavpur University in Kolkata. In a post card dated July 26, 1994, he professed interest in a ‘research programme’: “I want to know some members of your club (age group 17-22 years) both male and female. Please send me some addresses. I want to meet them for a research programme. Thanking you in anticipation of your help . . .” The sender’s address carried a room and block number from one of the university’s hostels. What could have been this mysterious research programme? From the archival records, it’s not clear if we replied to this letter.
Many of the letter writers were one-timers; quite a few others wrote in frequently, especially if they were located away from Kolkata and a meeting with Counsel Club was difficult or not likely. BNA from a village in Howrah district of West Bengal was one such letter writer. His first letter written to Counsel Club seems to have been lost, but two other letters written in August and October 1994 show that he was in his late teens or around 20 years old. Writing with a beautiful cursive in Bengali, BNA wrote: “People often remark that I’m pretty.” But he said he was desperately lonely, and wanted Counsel Club to urgently find him a friend – another teenager or someone in their early 20s. He mentioned plans to go on a tour as it might help his troubled mind get some respite.
BNA was also curious about issues around sexuality and had questions like, “Are there really other individuals like me of my age or younger than me?” “Are there people who are of the same age as me or teenagers who are interested in the opposite sex and the same sex?” The queries of BNA and other letter writers from that time seem reflective of a society beginning to ask more and more questions around sex, gender and sexuality.
Unfortunately, the archives don’t have records of replies sent to the letter writers, and I don’t remember if we were able to help BNA fulfill his quest of finding a friend. But the archives show that we did reply to all of his letters. Counsel Club’s story of communications, group formation, community building and providing support was pretty much a story of such hits and misses or trial and error efforts. It was as messy as can be, and we had to dig deep into our reserves of patience and perseverance.
As the queer movements move forward today, they need to take on bigger challenges. But they still need loads of patience and perseverance, and they shouldn’t forget to invest some of these invaluable ‘resources’ in preserving India’s queer histories.
About the main photo: Cataloguing and digitization of the Counsel Club Archives in progress. Photo credits: Pawan Dhall