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An urban triumvirate

If you think the internet can track down anything you’re looking for, just try using it to find a gay event in Mumbai. Though I ‘d heard there are a half-dozen regular parties in this megalopolis of 13 million, I am only able to Google my way toward one of them—and just barely.

The banquet hall hosting the Gay Bombay party, one of the most long-running and, if you can imagine, accessible events, is on the fifth floor of an unnumbered building somewhere along Tardeo Road, a good neighbourhood not far from business tycoon Mukesh Ambani’s infamous 27-storey, $1-billion home. So I wander rather suspiciously up and down a likely stretch of the commercial strip until I spot a group of possible party-goers making their way down a laneway. In a country where straight male friends casually hold hands and sometimes sit on one another’s laps on park benches, spotting the right kind of party-goers is no easy task. But as I catch up to this gang, I smell the cologne and hear their luxury-brand-dappled English. I follow them into an elevator, one of them pushes the fifth floor button and I know we are all headed to the same place. I take a breath. It’s a real comfort to be confidently among birds of a feather.

Much has been made of the horrible Indian Supreme Court decision upholding Section 377, a colonial-era law, which defines homosexuality as an “unnatural offence” punishable by a 10-year jail term. It’s truly an appalling ruling on an awful law. But India throws many, many obstacles at gay and lesbian people and most of them will take longer to change than Section 377.

To start, there’s a social order that makes marriage virtually mandatory. A visiting Westerner might be shocked how many otherwise strong-willed Indian men and women succumb to arranged marriages. Then there’s the national enthusiasm for red tape. Mumbai party hosts need about 24 permissions, give or take a few depending on the bribes demanded, including permits for alcohol, music and performances. Plus Mumbai rents ain’t cheap. Although some unofficial gay haunts have been around for years, rainbowed Mumbai remains a moving target partly out of economic necessity.

Yet Mumbai somehow remains persistently queer. Gays are everywhere, you just have to know where to find them. Along with Kolkata and Bangalore (I’m not going to call it Bengaluru because so few people do), the city is one point of India’s queer urban triumvirate. Others might want to add New Delhi, I suppose, making it a gay rectangle. But the unhuggable capital lacks the zing of the other three. Both Mumbai and Kolkata are port towns and entertainment hubs, places where traders, sailors, smugglers, filmmakers, artists, actors and other rogues have shaped the culture. Bangalore earned its queer credentials much more recently, but has done so with gusto.

Each of these three cities has its own distinctive queer geography. Each requires a different entry point. So I offer very three different ways in.

Within view of the Gay Bombay rooftop party are the country’s tallest buildings, the luxurious Imperial twin towers, built on the site of a former shanty town. No city in the world mashes together extreme poverty and extreme wealth quite like Mumbai. The C$11 cover charge seems relatively steep—you can have a great meal here for much less than that—but when I eavesdrop on the conversations about travel and parties, I realize, for this crowd, it’s nominal. Everybody seems to know everybody. In a country with few public faces or venues of gayness, people find out about events by word-of-mouth or through direct messaging on gay websites; intimate communication weave tighter bonds.

The music is—surprise, surprise—glitteringly Bollywood. The galloping techno beats soon lure most attendees off the patio and onto the dance floor. Before the lights go on at 1am, I’ve been given a few suggestions of where to visit. I’m told that Bandra West will give me a clearer picture of Cool Mumbai.

The next day, I head north by train, which is less crowded than the College streetcar during rush hour. Bandra is relatively green and much more relaxed than downtown. Mumbai hipsters do indeed prowl the side streets and the malls, which are shiny new symbols of the economic growth India has experienced over the last decade. Although Mumbai’s historic downtown has a New York vibe, with its imposing colonial buildings and noisy traffic jams, Bandra’s much more L.A.

I travel further north to Juhu Beach, a six-kilometre stretch of sand looking out over the Arabian Sea. Teens are playing soccer and affluent business types are jogging up a sweat. It dawns on me that there’s nobody selling anything—impossible to contemplate in this town. And as refreshing as a night out among peers.

If Mumbai is polarized between rich and poor, Kolkata is a place where the divisions seem much softer. Educated men play chess in the street next to working-class men bathing at the water pumps distributed all over the city. Sidewalks here can feel like communal living rooms, not pedestrian thoroughfares. In this laidback, left-leaning city, you’re more likely to meet a poet than a banker.

My entry point into the city’s queer culture is a friend, Pawan Dhall, who I met when I visited India back in the mid-1990s. An American lesbian friend I was travelling with back then wrote a letter—yes, a paper letter—to a gay organization she’d been told about and by mail she set up a meeting. I tagged along and exchanged contact information with Pawan, the organization’s leader. When I returned almost 20 years later, he graciously played host and invited me along to a planning meeting for the Kolkata Rainbow Pride Festival.

On the one hand, much had changed since my first visit. Pawan’s gay organization was no more, but other community groups had popped up across the state. A respectable number of NGOs had adopted LGBT-inclusive policies. (Actually, the LGBT label is not quite adequate; hijras, transsexual/transgender people frequently described as “the third sex,” are so deeply rooted in Indian culture that they often figure larger in AIDS prevention campaigns than men who have sex with men.) Gay websites now provided an alternative to park cruising, at least for those with internet access.

Being public remains challenging, though. The Pride Walk attracts mere hundreds, not thousands, in a metropolitan area of 14.1 million. While the group’s parties draw from a broader range of classes and backgrounds than comparable Mumbai parties, it’s the political commitment of the organizers, rather than profit, that keeps things moving.

Still, there’s a real subversive pleasure going out to a traditional Punjabi restaurant with a half-dozen loud and proud activists teasing each other and making ribald jokes in front of the waiters. In a country that’s as over-the-top as India, extreme camp attracts very little attention.

When deluded people in India declare that homosexuality is a Western import, Bangalore might be what they consider the main port of entry. The city’s boom as a high-tech hub in the last 30 years has meant an influx of young, educated people with money and a global mindset. Family obligations are less paramount. Western-style fast food places are everywhere, pubs are packed, women (gasp) wear jeans and you can get a copy of Arena Homme Plus more readily than in Toronto.

When I first visited Bangalore back in the mid-1990s, it was the only place in all of India that had a bar—the Three Aces I think it was called, an enormous dimly lit banquet hall of a place—that a Westerner might recognize as a gay venue. Though the venue has changed, that fact remains true in 2014. One floor of a beer-soaked complex just off the Brigade Road shopping district is probably the most thoroughly gay space in India. It’s even mentioned in the local Time Out magazine—unheard of openness. At first it feels like a generic beer hall, with its dirty walls and table service. But when the right Bollywood hit comes on, guys around the room jump up from their plastic chairs and dance out the movie choreography. Unlike in Mumbai and Kolkata, this can happen most days of the week, creating a culture of regulars who can chat easily and confidently with newbies and the tourists.

“Can you understand any of the lyrics?” a computer programmer sitting at the next table asks me. When I shake my head, he gives me a pitying look. We talk about our families for a while. His are back in Rajasthan, a poor but touristy desert state that seems as far away from Bangalore as Bangalore seems from Toronto. He had recently told his mother he’s never getting married because he doesn’t like girls. The fact he wasn’t getting married was much more traumatizing than the reason.

“What would I want a wife for anyway? I don’t need one,” he shrugs, ordering another beer.

And really. What wife would want a man who canlip-synch pop songs so convincingly?

 

GAY GATEWAYS

KOLKATA
If you want to escape the backpackers’ ghetto of Sudder Street, take a cab out to City Centre Salt Lake, a well-designed indoor-outdoor shopping mall in a planned neighbourhood that feels nothing like the chaos of central Kolkata. And you have to eat some Bengali seafood. Fishfish restaurant in the easygoing Ballygunge neighbourhood is an elegant spot to try.

MUMBAI
Though increased security has make Colaba Causeway much less gay-friendly than it used to be—cruising at the Gateway of India is a rare thing these days—Leopold Café (Leopoldcafe.com) is still a cultural crossroads, the place where casting agents search for Western extras for Bollywood films.  For something a little more au courant, head north to Bandra West and take a stroll along the fashion strip along Linking Road. Nearby Waterfield Road is more independent and a bit cooler.

BANGALORE
It’s a bit of a dive but Chin Lung (FM Cariappa Road at Brigade) is one of the few places in India where you can be confident that most patrons are gay-friendly… or friendly gays. If you’re hankering for Burberry and Louis Vuitton, head to UB City shopping centre, though Garuda Mall has better people-watching and an impressive food court.

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