Ashok Row Kavi, the most famous gay activist and theorist in India today, has long been known for coming out openly both as a gay man and an activist in the Indian AIDS struggle.
He has been called the “Larry Kramer of India,” though in person and in print he is more humane, understanding, and endearing than Kramer. But like Kramer, he has lots of opinions, and many of them land squarely on the issues involvedÃƒÂ¢??much more so, I would say, than most people trying to figure out India itself, an almost impossible situation.
He is the editor of Bombay Dost (“Bombay Friend”), the only gay magazine published in India, which is now published on an irregular, quarterly schedule. Despite its irregularity, Bombay Dost is influential. With a print run of 3 to 4,000 copies, each copy is passed around by gay men constantly, so that 20 to 25 people see each one. Therefore, it reaches a readership of roughly 100,000 people. This would make the paper compare easily to The Advocate in the US, but in India, with its huge population, something easily lost.
Ashok believes the Indian gay movementÃƒÂ¢??and Indian gay consciousness on a wholeÃƒÂ¢??can be compared to America in the 50s and early 60s. There is no “official” construction of gay identity. Most people simply deny that gay men and lesbians exist. Homosexuality is illegal, a holdover from the British raj days; it is forbidden by Section 377 of the Indian penal code which condemns “sex against the Order of Nature.”
However, this section, as a Brit holdover is generally laughed at, and the usual fine for homosexual behavior, such as in a public park, is 15 rupees, roughly 50 cents. Ashok says that generally, India keeps a “convenient blind eye towards sexuality of any sort.”
The reason for this is that marriage, child-bearing, and continuing caste and family lines are still held onto strictly. The gay Anglo-American sexual fantasy/ideal of two men going off together to make a life for themselves (right out of E.M. Forster or Walt Whitman), does not exist in India, or for that matter in any Eastern country with an orthodox culture. This idea, which became the cornerstone of much Western “gay” thought and produced the possibility of an independent gay life, is counter to Indian culture.
But, on the other hand, the integration of sexuality itself into life is very much a Hindu concept.
Ashok describes gay sex itself, in the Indian term, as “musti,” or mischief. Our term for elephants in heat is “must,” and young Indian boys who engage in gay sex are often joked about as being “elephants,” that is, playful. Musti is considered something that take place along with marriage, but never in the place of it. Musti then is something to be joked about. It is never seriousÃƒÂ¢??and the deeper, romantic feelings that Western gay men often have about their relationships are alien to Indian culture.
In India, a vast country of close to a billion people of thousands of ethnic, racial, cultural, and language groups; family, situation (such as class and caste), and location are all important.
Previous Interviews from the GayToday Archive:
An Interview with the Father of Gay Activist Militancy
David Tuller Exposes Russian Gay Life
SANGAT: Gays and Lesbians of India
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In this interview with Ashok, we tried to make this need for stability within this vast landscape understandable. Since India, as French filmmaker Louis Malle, noted is always a “phantom,” there is literally no bottom, or bottom line, in Indian issues, and, so, many of our own Western “absolutes” seem to fall apart there.
But one concept that does not change is that India itself is changing. The emergence of a gay presence, no matter how it is defined, is definitely a part of this change. Part of this change, unfortunately has been due to the emergence of AIDS as a real threat.
The World Health Organization has predicted that very early within the next century, India will be at the very center of the HIV/AIDS pandemic. with numbers like 20 to 25 million people infected. The city of Bombay, at present, spends 25% of its budget on healthcare, mostly for HIV-related problemsÃƒÂ¢??and this still only scratches the surface of what is necessary.
At present, Ashok has established a drop-in center for gay men in Bombay. He very much needs Western aid to support this. To learn how you can be a part of supporting this center and other concerns of Indian gays, he can be emailed at Ashok Row Kavi firstname.lastname@example.org.
Perry Brass: Can you tell us something about yourself? How did you end up being virtually the only openly gay man in India to speak out on the HIV issue there?
Ashok Row Kavi: I was born in Bombay on June 1st, 1947, a premature baby not expected to live. Amma and Anna (Mom and Dad) were Brahmin refugees fleeing poverty in South India. Anna finally became a leading light in Bollywood (India’s Hollywood) and a founding member of the Indian Motion Pictures’ Producers’ Association.
I was educated in Mumbai’s elite Bombay Scottish High School from whose Secondary School I graduated. I got an Honours in Chemistry from Bombay University after two years doing textile engineering at the prestigious Victoria Jubilee Technical Institute (VJTI) in Bombay.
I did my diploma in religion and comparative theology from the Ramakrishna Math where I trained to be a monk. I also discovered my gay nature there and was given sensible counseling for it by the monks. “Accept it as natural. Whatever occurs in nature is natural though it may not be common,” advised my counselor, Swami Harshananda.
I returned from the monastery to do a post graduate in Journalism while working as a trainee in the Free Press Journal, and finally joined the “Indian Express” chain of newspapers in Bombay. I started India’s first Playboy clone, Debonair, with my English friend Anthony Van Braband in 1971.
I left the Express to start India’s first morning tabloid, The Daily in 1981, left that to become city editor of my homeground newspaper, Free Press Journal. I then became bureau chief of India’s newsweekly, The Week. There I came out, creating a ruckus in the conservative Christian management.
I quit journalism in 1990, after attending the Fifth International AIDS Conference in 1989 at Montreal, where I was aghast to see American gay men fighting for their very lives to get funding to fight AIDS.
I had come out openly as a gay man in 1986 (while at The Week), when I did an interview in Savvy, one of India’s most controversial feminist magazines, explaining what “gay” really meant. It was not only a first but started a furor because of the plain speaking I did about the numbers [of Indian men] involved…
Before that I used to review books on homosexuality, and thus gave a good inkling that I was queer from the insights I had into the homosexual world in India. Coming out was a natural defense mechanism, but I now wonder. So many people have forgotten my long innings in journalism, human rights and my reportage in such famous cases like the Bhopal Gas Tragedy, where I was one of the first journalists to get in while thousands were dying.
I’ve become just a “gay activist,” which is a very uni-dimensional look at my life. I have interests in religion, social biology, sexuality, science and even astronomy. I have reported developments in India’s atomic energy establishment, the speeches of Indira Gandhi and her downfall, done court reporting, reported death and disaster on a huge scale. I am not just a gay activist: I am India spanning 50 years of her 5,000 year old civilization. A sliver of it, but a good representative one, no doubt!
Perry Brass: India is a huge country. The difference between city India and very conservative village India is only one of the contradictions in its vast puzzle. Can you tell us something about being a gay man in India today, both a city gay man as well as a village one? There is beginning to be a gay subculture in urban India, but does the word “gay” mean anything to most Indians, city or village? Do they still consider this idea or grouping simply “un-Indian”?
Ashok Row Kavi: A few years ago, market research did a survey about the image of jeans in India. Surprisingly, “jeans” were connected to decadent American culture, HIV/AIDS, and Western consumerism. “Gay” is very much like “jeans.” They think it is a construct coming in from the West, but everybody is familiar with it because it is the best definition there is of same-sex relations. In Indian cities – there are now over 200 cities and towns in India with populations of a million of more – most men wear jeans. They are cheap, enduring and don’t need too much upkeep.
I and my in-house counselor at the Humsafar Centre, Mr. Rajiv Dua, have endless fights over the term “gay.” A new term is being dandied about – Kothi – but it defines only “penetrated males.” However, “gayness,” “queerness,” is not just about being penetrated or penetrating another male.
There are strange organizations now penetrating India trying to set one construct against the other. They are “exoticising,” in the Edward Said definition, Indian homosexuality.
You cannot say “kothi” is a new gender. At most, it defines a “bottom homosexual.” But there is a new effort at divide-and-rule by the political class which is an heir of the British-Raj. They know that if 50 million men really grew politically conscious of their sexual identity, there would be a social revolution.
Hence there is a big effort to pit this rural gay identity against the urban one. It kills two birds with one stone – it prevents serious discussion on homosexuality, and it helps in disempowering the emerging gay community.
Perry Brass: What do you mean by “strange organizations”?
Ashok Row Kavi: Let me start with an example. The great explorer, Sir Richard Burton, orientologist and translator of the Kama Sutra, wrote a series of books about the Orient. His wife burnt all his diaries because they were “too scandalous” (read: “too full of gay stuff”).
Burton wrote an amazing book called “The Girdle of Eros”, which is like a gay travelogue. However, the most amazing discovery is his construction of what is called the “sodatic crescent.” This is an imaginary area of the world where “sodomy” (read: homosexuality) is more prevalent than “heterosexuality.”
Now what makes interesting reading is that this imaginary “crescent” starts just across the English Channel, at Brittany in France, and runs through Morocco, Algeria, through Taureg territory, into Libya, Egypt, into Arabia and right up to the Afghan territory to Lahore.
Heterosexual territory starts only in India where Burton discovered a copy of the Kama Sutra in a boy bordello in Karachi! He even manufactured a bogus imprint titled “Cosmopoli:1885 for the Kama Shastra Society of London and Benaras.”
Our friend had never been to Benaras but he had to exoticise India. The Kama Sutra is the manufacture of “The Other,” as Edward Said has expounded so well. The interesting thing is that Burton sees all the people between Britain and India as sodomites (homosexuals).
Burton has “eroticised” the Arabs, the Pathans, the Afghans so much that he had to manufacture the opposite: “heterosexual”, in India to balance out the whole sexual issue. The word homo and hetero were manufactured, anyway, two years later in Austria. So the Western homosexual was trying to see his sexuality in “different terms.”
A similar phenomenon is happening in reverse. We have approximately around 30 million people of Indian origin living outside India. Some of the oldest settlements outside “Jambudwipa” (India in Sanskrit Geography) are in England, Fiji, South Africa and the West Indies. These people now long for India. And now a new appropriation of India is in order to fill the vacuum in their souls.
Actually the most pathetic are the energetic Anglo-Indians; a cross breed of English fathers and Indian mothers. They were used by the British as a buffer between them and the native Indian masses. The British, however, hated them; they called them “chee-chees.”
The “Anglos” could never adjust to India, even though they were wholly an Indian people. They were too westernized. Many refused Indian citizenship and went off to Britain and Australia. But wherever they went, they could never forget India and they even gave their new neighborhoods Indian names. I love them because I grew up with them. My school was full of great Anglo-Indian guys who spoke better Hindi than some of the emerging Indian nouveaux riche arseholes.
But the Anglo-Indians got caught in a cleft stick. They became what are called in India, “The Dhobhi’s Dog.” This poor canine belongs neither to the home nor to the washing ghat. The Anglos similarly belong neither to India nor to Britain. They are caught in a no-man’s land. I have Anglo friends in Indonesia, Borneo, China; in fact everywhere. But they have no place called “home,” even though they long for India (not Britain, which they chose by free choice). India is the lost home to which they can never return.
Some of them are now the shock troops of infiltrating and “deconstructing India” for a Western audience. I think Deepa Mehta who directed Fire is one such person of a “colonized Indian mind.” Her film is so stupid that you need to read that fine feminist, Madhu Kishwar’s review of it. We all defended the film against Hindu fundamentalists, but the film is typical of how this new breed of Indians sees India.
Perry Brass: It sounds then that people are saying that Anglo-Indians really step between the lines, and there will be no tolerance for that, either.
Ashok Row Kavi: Well, one such fellow decided he needed to construct his own India. He first set up an NGO in London to cater to “Arabs, Iranians, Muslims etc”. Strangely, none of these countries welcomes him in their midst. In fact they are smart not to give him a visa to visit them. But he has managed to infiltrate India somehow. We are too hospitable a people, as I have always maintained….
Perry Brass: Do you see the “new India” in his predicament?
Ashok Row Kavi: The new Indian elite has a massive inferiority complex. It will lick arse if you come from the West. It is exactly what Lord Macauley (the bastard who first enacted the anti-gay law in India) wanted: a class of westernized servile Indians bootlicking the Brits. Nehru was a classic case. The poor bum always maintained he was the last Englishman ruling India. Afterall, he got his own back by screwing Edwina Mountbatten.
This Anglo from London is using this weakness to full advantage. I got quite a shock recently when Roy Chan, one of the finest HIV/AIDS specialists in South East Asia, asked me to contribute to a paper on HIV and MSM [Men having Sex with Men, a newer distinction of men who engage in homosexual contact, but who take on no "gay" identity whatsoever] in Asian countries. We make no bones that our work is concentrated in the Mumbai region. India is too vast a civilization for generalizations.
But there was this mumbo-jumbo by this London “expert” about “frameworks of male-male sex in South Asia reflecting indigenous identities and patterns, different from that assumed to exist in the West. Local patterns of male-male sex are not an exclusive practice of a few homosexual men, but part of the general sexual practices of a significant number of males in south Asia….”
This is the exact quote. You’ll observe it is similar to Burton’s imaginary “sodatic crescent!”
This fellow recently held a hush-hush conference where “only Kothi identified (passive homosexuals) men” were invited to Calcutta. The disgusting thing was when my friend, Joe Thomas, a reputed social activist in Hong Kong, put it on the international website of Sea-Aids, he was warned not to. A Westerner “penetrating India” is a very good example of a metaphorical meaning here.
The lack of transparency was so blatant that the whole show was wrongly held under “Male Reproductive Sexual Health.” Among the participants was a person who outed harmless school teachers in a small town; a shop lifter who beats up and mugs poor queens and assorted characters and assorted characters. This was sponsored by international organizations like UNAIDS, who got conned into this with various slick ways.
Now we all know about the problem between gay men and men-who-have-sex-with-men (MSM). But MSM are in the same category as female sex workers; their negotiating power to use condoms is as bad as that of female CSWs. You need to educate the fuckers, not the fuckees.
So obviously, the name of the game is to always “use” the helpless. This way you retain the power without empowering the target group. This game is becoming so obvious that most gay men in India are now very wary of these western-style activists seeing India as the “exotic other.” This fellow is always mentioning something called “South Asia,” which is another construct of the West.
Damn it! A “South Asian construct” is about as real as a “European construct.” I mean, an Italian doesn’t think of sex the same way that a Swede or a German does. A Pathan tribesmen from Pakistan would be scandalized to think he is equated to a Tamil or a Bengali. Yet this fool from London puts them all into one huge tureen; as if it’s a convenient little term paper he is doing. I mean Sir Richard did the same anyway with his shabby translation of the Kama Sutra. . . .
They need to do this because of the safety in numbers there. The South Asian Lesbian and Gay Association (SALGA) for example, sees it as a method of political mobilization against being swallowed up by the American WASP whale. But when it comes to their national day parades, they want Independent floats, you know.
The Indians and Pakistanis are always bickering except when they meet at the Lesbian and Gay Community Centre in NYC. It’s okay when they are outside Asia. In India, they go off into their Bengali, Punjabi, Tamil or Goan identities.
There is NO SUCH THING CALLED A SOUTH ASIAN CONSTRUCT. It’s an imaginary little trick played out by external forces. We are far too pluralistic to be pigeon-holed that way.
Perry Brass: So these constructions are all situational? This seems much more natural and reasonable to me than to you. In America, Southerners don’t want to be lumped with Yankees, yet when we’re abroad, we’re all simply AmericansÃƒÂ¢??and often hated as one group, no matter what. I might say that people prefer (and often cannot see) their own individual foolishness at home. Or, as the old Jewish saying goes, “A man who can spot a splinter in someone else’s eye, cannot see a whole log in his own!”
So what do your “bogus activists” get out of this?
Ashok Row Kavi: For displaced people in their settled lands, marginalised by white tribes, attacked by the black tribes, this is the only way to empowerment. The power they get out of ordering Indians about, manipulating them, using them, studying them like animalsÃƒÂ¢??the British way, makes them feel very important. It’s a power ride, and we need to know their game here. To me they are the most dangerous persons since Gingez Khan!!
India is a huge palimpsest of pluralism; that is Hinduism’s innate nature. If you have a million gods, you will need a million devotees to have at least one devotee per god. Some of the taxes in central India were imposed during the time of the Buddha and are STILL enforced and collected. There is a continuity that does not exist in cultures like Egypt and China, for example. Modern Iran and Iraq are nothing like the time of Darius, but there are still water tanks in use which were made by the Buddhist Emperor Asoka in 300 BC.
But India today is also the top-most exporter of software and sophisticated engineering goods. 60 per cent of our gross national product comes from manufactures and services. I think we produce the best movies and our pop songs have kept Western music at bay. Our writers today sell more than anything you guys could market and Arundati Roy and Salman Rushdie are products of this incredible civilization. We’re already in your midst. We are the multitudes, as the Bible said.
All this is a product of “urban” India, even as “rural” India keeps apace to triple food production using a mix of ancient and modern agro-wizardry. Rural India is too busy with her soul and spirit; it is the urban India with her cacophony and confusion which will produce the vigorous gay voice.
Though rural America also had gays, it is the urban gay who made the gay sub-culture. We are not a different species of human beings. The same historical determinism will make for a “gay” India. But cultural differences will shape a qualitatively different “gay India.” Our family structures are still not crumbling, though they will. Our religion is “Semitising” into a homophobic, horrible mutant of the cannibalistic sect of Judaic thought – Christianity. And our cities are becoming so gargantuan that the word “megalopolis” will sound like a village when you see Bombay.
Our culture is already exhibiting a clear “gay” and “queer” slant. The film magazines are full of the homosexual adventures of the male stars; an openly lesbian film star flaunts her dykish secretary at parties; another openly lesbian editor runs a vicious newspaper supplement more poisonous than a dozen cobras put together. But Indian gays are here to stay!
Perry Brass: What are the major differences you see between attitudes towards homosexuality in Asia and in Europe/America?
Ashok Row Kavi: Thank God you asked me this question! Because I do a short course on it for superintendents of prisons and orphanages in India. The attitude towards sexuality itself in Christianity must be discussed.
Galen, the father of modern medicine, called Christianity the “cult of corpse worshippers.” Pliny the Elder, who first started persecuting Christians in Asia Minor in around 250 AC, observed their “self-righteousness and blind acceptance of superstitions.”
But the most interesting idea is by Augustine, the “father of the modern Church.” An unpleasant man who deserted the mother of his child, he would construct something momentous: “Lust,” he stated, “is suspect. For it is an obstacle in the exercise of the Free Will.”
The “Free Will” is God’s big purported gift to man in Christianity. But it is actually inherent in our consciousness in Hinduism/Buddhism/Sikhism (“Satchita,” or free consciousness in Sanskrit). However, this attitude has summed up Christianity’s approach to sexuality: Lust or sex is a dangerous force, an insurmountable barrier between man and God.
I think there have been major distortions of Jesus’s message. His non-judgmental attitude to Mary Magdalene, his incredible snap answer: “He who is without sin shall cast the first stone.” His constant insistence on Love, all point to an Eastern source. “The Kingdom of God is within you” is completely alien to Judaic eschatology and points to a Buddhist origin.
By 200 BC, the Buddhist Church had spread as far as Syria and Lebanon. There are strange similarities between Hindu/Jain monastic traditions and the mysterious Essenes, a Jewish cult that flourished around Jesus’ time in the deserts. Organized celibacy was never a Jewish construct but there they were, practicing monasticism.
In fact, the teachings of Christ are summarized in one word by Peter, who was specifically asked about them. “Love,” retorts Peter. And it is unconditional love he talks about. Not the love preached by the Pontiff wearing the great phallic miter in Rome.
In Hinduism and other Indic religions, attitudes are different. Moksha (Salvation) is based on a tripod : Dharma (righteous social conduct), Artha (economic activity) and Kama (sensuality of which sexuality is just one aspect). You can transcend it in the normal course as an evolved being like the Gautama Buddha did.
I told the French newspaper, Le Monde, recently that the Hindu fanatics who protested against the lesbian film, Fire, did not know their Hinduism. There is NOT A SINGLE scriptural mention against homosexuality in Hinduism.
The Prasthana-Threya (The Holy Trinity of Scriptures) treat sexuality like any other human essential activity. Neither in the Vedas, the Upanishads, or the Gita is there a SINGLE anti-sexual statement. Sex is one of the vital human energies that must be used like a judo trick: it’s strength must be used to overpower it and climb onto a higher spiritual plane. That is exactly what the Sanyasi/Sadhu/Monk does.
Tantra, a branch of Hinduism, has practices to do exactly that. To see sex as a barrier from God, as Christianity does, is a deviation from the human enterprise.
I consider Christianity’s central meaning and the communion ritual the most homophobic and cancerous rite to the soul itself. Christ’s message has been bypassed and forgotten. The central ritual of Christianity is “death worship.” Without Jesus dying/dead, a devotee CANNOT be saved.
In Hinduism, the earth and heavens are teaming with life. Just look at the Gopuram (steeple) of the Madurai Meenaksi Temple. There isn’t space for a finger to be inserted in, it’s so full of COLOUR and LIFE of every kind.
But go to the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris or the Dom at Cologne. They are marvelous human achievements, but I’ve never seen such an effort to make a human being feel small. Only gargoyles to frighten you. What a waste of human skills! I was so worried at this effort to bully the spirit when I first visited the two Cathedrals that I was sick and depressed for days on end.
In Hinduism, Buddhism, our spiritual enterprise is to see and study how our gods lived, not died. When the golden deer comes to tempt Rama in the jungle during his exile, his brother Lakshmana remarks: “Not possible, Rama, a Golden Deer is just not possible”. At this Rama snaps back: “So you claim to understand nature? Everything that is possible exists in nature”. What a wonderful possibility for us gay, bisexual and transgendered people!
In Buddhism there is a more wonderful story. As the Buddha lies by the wayside because he is old and tired, he calls in his disciples and asks: “What are you going to tell the world after I die”.
His chief disciple, Ananda, arrogantly says: “We shall go into the world and proclaim your teachings as the only Truth”. The Buddha smiles and urges him to go and get back a handful of dry leaves from the forest floor. Ananda comes back with a fistful of leaves. The Buddha sighs and orders him to open his fist to see what he has brought. “Ananda what have you got?” asks the Buddha.
“Only a handful of leaves,” retorts Ananda.
“You fool, Truth is everywhere in this world. I’ve given you just enough to hold in your consciousness”. What vision! What humility!
Compare this with the Church’s distortion of Jesus’ order to his disciples: “Go ye to the four corners and preach the Gospel: “For he who knows me, knows the truth.” What terrible arrogance! What pride! It is the present attitude of Christianity even today. The grossest form of self-righteousness. And this religion will save you? Will it forgive you your “sins”?
To actually worship a dead body –Easter is a pagan festival appropriated by the Church in its central cannibalistic methodology – is the most frightening thing I’ve heard. Nothing makes me sadder than to go into a Catholic Church. The so-called sacred communion itself is a quaint version of the defunct Hindu Parama-Yagna (the sacrifice of the human male) which was called morally wrong by later-day Brahminism: sacrificing and eating and drinking the blood of the chief totem (deity). Buddhism threw out the confessional because “it crippled the laity and made the monks too powerful” in 300 AD.
Of course, this “corpse-consumption” has a direct relationship to sex. When you worship “death” you detest sex, the creative force. If homosexuals in the Western wilderness, inhabited by the white and black tribes, have to become free they MUST liberate themselves from present-day Christianity. In fact, I know at least two Italian therapists who recommend to their patients that they should convert to Buddhism/Sikhism/Hinduism to break free of Christian-induced guilt around homosexuality.
Wherever you see Western Christianity spreading you will see social systems and the environment breaking down in the biosphere. In Gujarat State, India, recently where anti-Christian violence is growing, the media coup was instigated by the media mogul Rupert Murdoch’s Star TV.
Murdoch, by the way, has been awarded the top prize for “services to the Church” by the Vatican. Something missed by the Indian media but noted by the Chinese who have brought in a special bill to ban Christian missionaries from even entering China. Murdoch has kept silent because China has his media empire by its balls in Hong Kong! Misinformation and media manipulation is only for India!!
In Islam, there is the added grace that if you are a good Muslim you get perpetual virgins and young boys in heaven. The ultimate pleasure is sexual!! I always argue with Mullahs here that if Allah has promised all these wonderful things in heaven, how can they be bad on earth?
Usually, they have the grace to be silent and smile. Also, Mohammed is clear that human beings are sexual in nature and must be forgiven their small transgressions. Thank God, no Augustine existed in Islam.
From Abu Nawas, Madho-Hussein and Sarmad, the Muslim mystics have mostly been same-sex lovers in Asia. And they struck a chord in Hinduism because the homo-eroticism resonated in the Hindu/Buddhist/Jain soul. Christianity is a spiritual misadventure. My biggest counseling failures have been Christians. Their souls and hearts are so corroded by the Church that they need radical therapy.
I pray for Christians. Because their chief characteristic is arrogance (“Ahamkara” in Sanskrit). They exhibit ‘Daan’ (Charity,) never ‘Daya’ (Compassion) which is the chief characteristic of Buddhism and Hinduism. You can only do “Charity” if you think you own more than your neighbor. But if you show ‘Compassion’, you just know you’re in the same boat. It’s easier on the soul; it’s like putting a soothing Band-Aid instead of doing invasive surgery.
Is it any wonder that the Western icon is Mother Theresa whose central theme was “Charity”? She named her order after that in supreme arrogance. She was anti-sexual, homophobic and intolerant of other faiths. When European converts to Hinduism went to greet her in Rome, she screamed at them: “How dare you desert Christ?” So much for her saintliness!
But as my counselor at the Ramakrishna Order said: “If she is doing God’s work, then God will make her understand.”
Perry Brass: Do gay Indians group themselves around being gay, or do all the different distinctions in India (caste, class, religion, ethnicity) make this too difficult?
Ashok Row Kavi: Indian gays are a product of Indian civilization. We will be reflecting all the contradictions of Indian society. Presently, there is a feeling of deja vu. I mean, gay men in huge numbers are infected. I estimate over 60 per cent HIV prevalence in the 520,000 MSM (Men-Having-Sex-With-Men) sector [in Bombay]. But they are dying futile, unsung deaths.
The specter stares us in the face, but we know not its nature. So the groupings around caste, class, religion, ethnicity are really so much pettiness. The real problem is going to be ÃƒÂ¢?? how many of us will survive?
The “rural” gay identity is nearer to the transgender or “hijra” identity. Hijras are an ancient sexual minority cult of allegedly castrated men akin to the native American “berdaches.” I say “allegedly,” because a majority of them are now NOT castrated. This is a cult of “queer” men who are the nearest to today’s “queer” political movements in America. However, the urban “gay” identity seems to be evolving along urban modern lines. We will have to converge somewhere and cooperate to get the community moving. But it will happen.
In fact, just the other day, a dear gay friend and religious ethnographer, suggested that we bring back a very ancient death ceremony into public as a gay one. It is called “Bhisma-Astami.” The patriarch of the ancient Pandu clan, Bhisma, takes a vow that he would never marry so that his father would re-marry and produce step-sons who would then inherit India. He put himself out of the race, so to say!
However, as in present-day India, the family splits into two bickering clans ÃƒÂ¢?? the Pandavas and the Kauravas ÃƒÂ¢?? and battles it out in the epic “Mahabharata.” Bhisma finds himself on the wrong side (Kauravas) and is fatally wounded. Both clans stop the war for his funeral.
We want to appropriate that ceremony. Gay men and women will not reproduce, which is terrible sacrifice (like Bhisma did) in Asian societies. On Bhisma-Astami, the emotional sacrifice at his funeral, is a religious way of saying we should also be remembered. That is the way we are looking at the more ancient stories and making them “gay.”
Perry Brass: This is wonderful idea, and one that many Western gays and lesbians are taking on themselves, to re-address rituals so that they become our own, whether they are marriage rituals, naming/birth rituals, or death rituals. An example is that gay men in the West virtually re-invented the idea of memorial ceremonies. In the past these were basically for the powerful or the super-wealthy, who had a private funeral for those nearest and dearest, but a later memorial service for the “public.”
Because of AIDS, and wanting to make memorial services more a celebration of a life, rather than merely something marking a death, we turned to the idea of the memorial service itself, making it into a creative, loving event. Lesbians are also doing this with naming/birth rituals, where they acknowledge the father of a child, and we have taken on the marriage ritual to now mean a commitment ritual.
Ashok Row Kavi: We are in a race against time. But as long as there’s life, there is hope. And I’m sure some of us will survive this HIV holocaust!
Perry Brass: Economically how does being gay fit into being Indian ÃƒÂ¢?? in a place where many people cannot afford to live on their own, who are tied economically to their families?
Ashok Row Kavi: Culture shapes life-styles.
Perry Brass: As opposed, you feel, to economics?
Ashok Row Kavi: Economically, you may be able to afford to live separately in India but single men or women have no “social existence” due to their single status. Living single becomes meaningful only if it is a religious vow of celibacy, for which there are plenty of support systems. The census of 1981 says that there are 6 million wandering Hindu, Buddhist, Jain and other monastics in India.
But to live as a single man or woman within society is still strange or unknown. I’m 52 and still live with my mother and she worries half the time what will happen when she dies (she’s 70). She knows I’m gay, plays the most awesome gay politics, advises other mothers about their sons, fights for gay causes through interviews in mainstream papers — and [she] still won’t accept my single status. In Asian societies, gay children are the ones left behind.
In your societies the gay and lesbian children moved out. That is how you “created” tradition; your vibrant gay sub-culture! Here we are the conservative ones. Both the “Tonzhi” movement in China and the “Kothi” cultures in India will not be radical and rebellious like your gay movements, but will be more conservative, subversive and heirs to the older tradition, like the berdaches of America and the witches of Europe!
I’ll give you a particular example. We had a very successful guy come to us with a request. He wanted to have a marriage of convenience with a lesbian or any woman who would sign a pre-nuptial contract to the effect that she would divorce him six months after marriage so he would then follow his gay lifestyle. His parents refused to allow him to set up home on his own with the argument: “You’re all alone, why do you need to set up a different home when we are there for you?” His mom checked through his wardrobe every day, his father opened his mail, and his brothers borrowed his shirts.
Privacy is not related to economic status. It doesn’t exist in India even if you’re rich and can afford a separate home. This guy had been offered a two million rupees soft loan by his company to buy the house and he couldn’t move out till he married!
But we had to give him bad news. The Hindu Marriage Act usually gave the separated wife the house, and pre-nuptial contracts were illegal in India. So he would end up losing the house if he went in for a cover-up marriage. He was stuck. We advised him to come out in a quiet sort of way and he just gave me a horrified look. He is married and cruises the public toilets in the gay underworld. [He is] Very unhappy and very bitter against people like me who are out. What can we do?
Perry Brass: Much of India has, I gather a “Don’t ask, don’t tell” attitude towards sex. Have outside influences, including AIDS, changed that?
Ashok Row Kavi: As I told you, India is a complex civilization. We have a terrific gay cruising park in central Bombay. On one side, there are mothers with kids playing, pensioners taking their evening walks, straight couples cooing away in corners. The central pathway is dominated on Sundays by hordes of queens; made up, dragged up, dolled up, smelling of attars and perfumes.
Not a soul lifts his eye-brow. One pensioner actually appreciated a drag queen’s makeup while a straight couple smiled when a painted queen played with their little boy. A few straight men even asked for the condoms we distribute in our outreach programs. My American friends were shocked when they saw that.
I mean, in America there would have been some crazy Christian campaign to drive out the gay men. Here there is no opposition till you exhibit some anti-social behavior. Clapping and screaming loudly [characteristics for which hijras are famous] , for example. Similarly, you can have sex while sleeping in trains or buses. I’ve had that. You just must not talk.
I reviewed a film a few years ago titled Main Anadi, Tu Khiladi which translates as “I’m Ignorant, You’re the Player.” The two main characters are men who seem to touch each other too much. It was clearly gay. But that is how same sex happens in India. While you’re sleeping, the other guy ‘plays’ with you. My sub-text created such a row that the film producers threatened to sue me for insinuating the movie was gay and the male co-star was furious even though he had done a terrific role. So you see, my “voicing” the gay sub-text had made visible the invisible. No wonder they were upset.
Sex between men is not sex at all. It is “masti” (hot mischief).
Perry Brass: This sounds like Bill Clinton saying that what he and Monica did was not “sex” at all. It was just “fooling around.” Ashok Row Kavi: Yes, You’ll find completely straight men complaining good humouredly when horseplay gets out of hand: “gaand-masti mat karo yaar,” which translates as “Pal, stop your bum-hot-play.” This gives a clear picture of where the “hotness” is centered ÃƒÂ¢?? the bum [ass]. It’s become so commonplace that even women use it without realizing the implications. I had a fisher-woman use it on me while I was bargaining a bit too much.
But this is changing rapidly due to AIDS. Most “kothis,” for example, still think it is only “bad women” (female prostitutes) who carry HIV. In our workshops in parks, most gay men scoff that male-male, unprotected, penetrative sex is high risk. There is also the mythology surrounding semen, which is supposed to be the “purest product of the human body.”
For example, we have what are called the “dhurrati-panthis” who are men who love getting fucked because “the semen inside me makes me twice a man.” Such men actually think that after getting fucked by another man they become doubly macho and can “really” satisfy his wife!
Then we have the “komat-panthi” who give you a blow job but will not allow you to touch him. These are usually “gurus” of famous gymnasiums who actually think that by sucking younger men off, they become superhuman. There is a rumor of a famous holy man who claims his powers come from exactly this act, performed on hundreds of his male devotees!
Perry Brass: These ideas were and still are prevalent in some societies. Greek men felt that way; that by fucking young boys, they were making them more “manly.” In Papua New Guinea, among the formerly head-hunting Asmat, ingesting a man’s “seed” makes a warrior stronger. The Asmat openly portray men “sixty-nining” in their tribal art; it’s considered mutually strengthening.
Ashok Row Kavi: Neither the “Dhurrati-Panthi” nor the “Komat-Panthi” will even identify his behavior as homosexual, but I don’t see how else to classify it. Some arsehole in London keeps on talking of “construction of sexualities in India being different,” but again this is Edward Said’s “exotification of Asian cultures”; deconstructing “the other.”
You need to address all these issues before you can talk of just HIV/AIDS [in India]. And boy, is it going to change rapidly!!
Perry Brass: Have you have any personal experiences, of lovers, friends, relationships, your family, that have “hinged” differently in India than they would, say, in the U.S. or Europe?
Ashok Row Kavi: Oh come on! Human beings everywhere are the same. We’re just a warmer people from a warmer climate. When you say you get a “cold welcome” in India that is completely the opposite. Here we offer something “cold” like a sherbet-lemonade when you come out of the sun. We’re being hospitable! You say “every dark cloud has a silver lining.” Here the citing of “dark clouds” herald life when the monsoon comes in.
Lifestyles revolve around cultures, and that’s the big difference.
I still remember when I was in Berlin, the damn Germans would never talk to each other but talk to their pets instead. If the sun peeped out of a cloud, offices emptied as people rushed to sun-bathe. Here we rush in-doors when the sun shines or we might die of sun-stroke. What I’m saying is that the climate and environment make you think, act differently.
Here relationships are very intense, over-powering and violently sexual. The emotional content is in short bursts which can be exhausting. The durable ones are ones where the sex part has been got over with. My past lovers are either great friends or bitter enemies. Also things here are never kept secret. Confidentiality is alien to our culture.
I had the most incredible train journey once from Delhi to Bombay when two old woman started doing a Gestapo on me because I was not married. A complete stranger, this old bag, actually asked me: “Do you get good erections?” When I said curtly: “Never with women”, she murmured a puzzled sigh and said “Oh, I see!!”
Frankly, I wouldn’t have given a damn what she meant, till she loudly discussed it with her companion crone who had returned from the bathroom. The two then discussed a whole gamut of male relatives who they “suspected.” I was so furious that I fell sick on arrival in Bombay.
Compared to that, my mother is infinitely more brutal. When I was younger she and my terror of an aunt (Dad’s sister) decided to force me into marriage. When I snapped back a bit bravely (I was already earning a salary) that I loved to fuck men, my Amazonian aunt said: “I don’t care if you fuck crocodiles and elephants, why can’t you marry?”
I’m afraid I was speechless. They then pronounced loudly that I was a “genetic dead-end” (“vamsa mrityu” in Sanskrit) and have proceeded to confiscate even the gold rings kept for my imaginary wife, though I have looked after them ever since, compared to my siblings who don’t give a damn.
The single gay child, male or female, has become the repository of his family’s fortunes and traditions.
Perry Brass: In my book, How to Survive Your Own Gay Life, I refer to this as part of doing the “gay work,” that we are often the ones who keep on the family’s stories, its traditions, and do most of the communicating within the family. Even though in some families (but not in all), we may be the “dead end” genetically, we are the ones who keep the family histories for the next generation.
Ashok Row Kavi: But the gay child has no rights at all. Not even to the most private of his thoughts and possessions. I’ve had single gay friends asked to give up their bedrooms and shift into the common balconies because “your married brother needs privacy” (read: place to fuck).
We are the new hate objects because we commit a social sin in refusing marriage. As the family breaks down ÃƒÂ¢?? and it is breaking down at breath-taking speed thanks to industrialization and urbanization ÃƒÂ¢?? we’re the new shock troops who will have learnt how to cope with every kind of grief and problem.
America is already the home of the “non-family.” In Britain, over 30 per cent of the children born last year were to single mothers. In Germany it is cheaper for a single woman to mother children because of the health care facilities and the fact that men are mostly unemployed and therefore an economic burden. In India, it is possibly the gay men and women who will show the way in retaining, sustaining and nurturing family tradition. That’s if we live through the HIV pandemic!
Perry Brass: For many Americans, who have almost no contact with any family, “tribe,” or connection outside of a business (such as a customer, or consumer relationship), some conservative Indian mores might actually seem appealing. The extended, close, protective Indian family seems, as an idea, is amazing to us ÃƒÂ¢?? for whom the family is something you see once a year, like it or not, at Christmas. Do you think Americans pay too much for their freedom? Are Indians willing to pay this much for theirs?
Ashok Row Kavi: Not true! Indian families can also be very violent spaces which suppress, oppress and kill much creativity. Don’t exoticise like that arsehole from London. Societies change under economic, political and cultural pressure. As you have and we will in the future.
American society is post-industrial. In a supermarket in New York city I was just dazzled to see eight varieties of vinegar. I’d never seen anything called “strawberry vinegar” before in my life. You get everything because the whole world sells to you.
My friend Joseph McCormack, is the most incredible family man. He is warm, hospitable, very much concerned about his two beautiful daughters and his home is a family home. I felt immediately at home there. My friend Richard Winger who sits on the board of the New York Gay and Lesbian Community Centre, is a terrific cook. His home is just like mine ÃƒÂ¢?? lived in, very family oriented and full of life. It is the concept of family that has changed. Both Joe and Richard are “family,” even though they are white Americans.
My friend Anil Hingorani, who migrated from Mumbai to America 15 years ago, is closer to me than my siblings. So are my closest friends, Suhail Abbasi, Sridhar Rangaihn. In fact when I was sick in hospital due to TB and pneumonia, it was my gay friends who helped my mother look after me.
I think Americans know where to “keep” family. We Indians always overdo it and get over-powered by this institution that is soon going to be as dead as the dodo. Globalisation and industrialization will change us all. I don’t know whether it is for better or for worse.
In India, there is going to be terrible turbulence because everything is happening at the same time. We just have had no time to progress in a Cartesian linear way. We have too much to catch up on.
Americans are paying for their freedom. But damn it, they have fought and worked very hard for it. So what they do with it is their problem. Don’t admire us or exoticise us. Pity us instead. For as the Hindu holy book, The Gita, says so succinctly: “I have become death. As brilliant as a thousand suns.” Those are Krishna’s words to Arjuna on the battlefield as he shows him His awesome cosmic shape.
Frankly, I was just over-awed by America and still am in awe of it. It is because America is today what every country wants to be tomorrow. It is also so cosmopolitan that it is already a huge microcosm of the world. America makes me think the political boundaries have already been consigned to the dustbin. It’s warmth envelopes me. It lives in the future whereas we live in the past. It’s faults are washed away because of its amazing achievements.
But most important of all, my best friends, my inspiration and my well-wishers and funders come from there. With Joe McCormack and Richard Winger and Paul Knox and Anil Hingorani and Ashok Hiranandani and Sandeep Roy and Beverly Tucker and Susan Crane and David Scondras and Mel White.
And you know what’s common ÃƒÂ¢?? they are ALL Americans. The Indian well wishers are coming in NOW. But I’m 52, old and diabetic, losing my teeth and nerves, feeling bloody insecure about my old age, and becoming an angry decrepit Indian queen. But I’m the real Maha Maharani and I intend to be that way!! And I will never give up without a good fight!!
Interview By Perry Brass