Not gay - just busy having fun

Love in a Different Climate

February 25, 2000

Last year, cinemas in New Delhi screening Deepa Mehta's Fire , which depicts sexual intimacy between sisters-in-law, were vandalised by women of the Shiv Sena, a nationalist party that holds power in Maharashtra. One of their major objections to the film was that lesbianism is not an Indian practice, which is true inasmuch as sexual-identity politics is a specifically western discourse of modernity, although same-sex sexual practices are found in all cultures. Jeremy Seabrook's subtitle shows that he is aware of this distinction in that "men who have sex with men" (MSM) is not simply another way of saying "gay", and this difference lies at the heart of this engaging study.

Seabrook's earlier book, Notes from Another India , showed a deep empathy for India that developed during his years living in India as a journalist, during which he learnt to interview in Hindi, a necessity few foreigners bother to acquire. Eschewing personal confession, although not hiding his feelings, Seabrook bravely engages with issues that he encountered as a gay man living in a different sexual culture.

Seabrook clearly spent a great deal of time in "The Park", a cruising area of New Delhi, whose bushes provide locations for sexual encounters. Aware of the limitations of his methodology, he has built his study on lengthy discussions with about 75 different men who have narrated their sexual histories,practices and, as he is too astute not to notice, possible fantasies.

The book is rich with detail and description, which is both its strength and its weakness. The long and numerous reports of sexual encounters read like pornography, as Seabrook reports at length on details of erections, penetrative sex, masturbation and fellatio. In the mass of characters, we seem to lose the individuals, a problem exacerbated by Seabrook's elegant recasting of these men's narratives in such a way as to disguise, if not overwhelm, their own voices.

Seabrook presents several viewpoints of contemporary Indian sexual culture. Most of the men he meets do not regard themselves as gay or even bisexual, but just happen to be MSM, who may not see their activities as having sex but simply "having fun" ( masti , mazaa ), "playing" ( khel ) or "relief", "discharge" or "need". Sexual encounters simply "happen" or "someone made me". Most of them had their first same-sex experience with a figure of authority, a relative or a teacher, again exposing the hidden existence of child abuse, another "non-Indian" practice, although many claim to have fallen in love with their abuser. Some of the men say they have sex with men because of the lack of opportunity to have sex with women, while others clearly prefer men, a major criticism of women being that they refuse oral sex.

There is the briefest of discussions of hijras (eunuchs), transsexuals and transvestites, perhaps because few of them engage in "cruising". Because Seabrook did his research in The Park, many of the men in this study are sex workers, and although some have had long-term relationships, there is no possibility in India of any but the super-elite living together, and even they are subject to hostility from neighbours and the police.

Seabrook considers two key arenas for the location of love and sexuality, namely friendship and the family. While most of his interviewees are "hot" and looking for "relief", some of them are clearly seeking companionship. Friendships between men are often homo-social and may involve sexual activity, but are valued more for their loving nature. Some of his informants say they love their wives, but few seem to have companionate marriages and hierarchical relationships prevent intimacy across the generations. Surprisingly few of the men discuss their mothers, given the prominence of the male child's bond with the mother seen in Indian society and in its cultural products. If Seabrook had looked at India's dominant form of public culture, the popular cinema, he would have found ample illustration of homo-social/homo-erotic friendship ( dosti / dostana ), love and eroticism, all of which are thinly covered here and yet are probably important sources of pleasure and desire in these men.

A fully fledged "gay culture" is found only among elite, westernised men, although several in this group (notably Karim, one of the pseudonyms that is a thin disguise) are aware that this is an imported category that does not describe the actuality. However, so many epistemological categories in modern India are western imports, the trap is of seeking an essential, unchanging, ahistorical "Indian sexuality". Why should a sexual politics be a more alien import than a politics of nationalism? The irony is that many of the views expressed about MSM in India are derived from another western homophobic thought, notably Article 377 of the Indian Penal Code, introduced by the British, which seeks to prevent "acts against the order of nature". Seabrook digs himself into something of a ditch here, the escape route surely being that sexual-identity politics are themselves a relatively recent phenomenon in the West. He does not seem to be aware of the important academic work on sexuality begun by Michel Foucault and taken up by many others, and this lack of further engagement with the categories leaves his book without the conclusion to which its well-presented and documented arguments are heading.

His concluding chapter looks at one of the most pressing issues facing anyone engaged in any sexual activity, namely that of HIV and Aids, which threatens to become an epidemic in India. It is heartening to see awareness of safe-sex practices, although I do not know whether to laugh or cry about men "purifying" their anuses with incense after sex. The press in India blames prostitutes and truck drivers for the spread of HIV and Aids, but this seems to be part of the wider denial of the variety of sexual practices and habits that exists in India today. Prostitutes and truck drivers may be sexual carriers, but it is the lack of public instruction and awareness that poses the greatest danger.

Having read all the way through, one cannot avoid the feeling that the title, Love in a Different Climate , is rather unfortunate: this book is not about the presence, but rather the absence, of love. A writer of Seabrook's sensitivity with such an ability to get his interviewees to speak freely and frankly could perhaps produce a companion volume on this neglected topic. I suppose, though, that Sex in a Different Climate would only conjure images of wet saris and worse in my smutty mind.

Rachel Dwyer is lecturer in Gujarati and Indian studies, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.

Love in a Different Climate: Men who Have Sex with Men in India

Author - Jeremy Seabrook
ISBN - 1 85984 837 0
Publisher - Verso
Price - £19.00
Pages - 184

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