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An Australian’s story of homosexuality in India

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Gay rights activists march in New Delhi. Image Source- www.gayly.com

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New Delhi: While many South Asian gay men and women move to the West to embrace their same-sex orientation, for me it was the opposite. Growing up in a conventional, middle-class, suburban family in 1960s Australia, I never knew any gay people, nor did I experiment with my sexuality.

Being gay carried such negative connotations and was so diametrically opposed to my self-image that I never connected the dots. It took India, with its immense diversity, to allow me to break free from my own cultural inhibitions and discover a part of myself I never knew existed. That homosexuality was illegal in India only complicated my journey of self-discovery.

Mr. John Burbidge
Mr. John Burbidge

I came to India in the late 1970s as a volunteer with an international NGO to work in rural development. My first two years were a raw initiation into Indian culture, village life and sheer survival. It was only upon my return a couple of years later, living and working as part of a Mumbai-based fundraising team, that I stumbled upon a path that led me from sexual abstinence to addiction in two short years.

While browsing a secondhand bookstall in Flora Fountain, Mumbai, I came upon a magazine article about one man’s immersion into “the gay world” to resolve his sexual conflicts. The piece triggered something deep inside me. A short while later, I asked one of my colleagues, “Rakesh, where’s all the action in this city?” He proceeded to give me an impressive list of places to find women but ended with, “But be careful if you go down to Chowpatty Beach. That’s the San Francisco of Bombay!”

That was all I needed. I immediately took a bus to Chowpatty and began what became the most transformative few years of my life. After taking the plunge with amateur masseurs, I was catapulted into a roller-coaster ride of sexual self-discovery. In these pre-computer days when phones rarely worked, making contact with other gay men was a challenge. It came down to ferreting out likely pick-up places in parks and gardens, train stations, public toilets, and if lucky, by private referral. I soon became adept at locating such venues, even in new cities, and of discerning who might share my sexual interests. The gay network, while totally subterranean, was vast and ubiquitous. Sometimes all it took was a furtive glance, the pulling of an ear lobe, or a tickle in the palm of one’s hand, to establish contact.

Cover of John Burbidge's memoir "The Boatman: A Memoir of Same-Sex Love" published by Transit Lounge (Australia)
Cover of the memoir “The Boatman: A Memoir of Same-Sex Love” published by Transit Lounge (Australia)

My encounters often involved considerable risk. I experienced the brutality and agent provocateur tactics of the police, as well as those who operate outside the law. Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, which criminalizes male homosexuality, was used by the police and others to threaten, beat and blackmail gay men. In my own experience, I was struck by a lathi-wielding cop on a Bombay maidan (ground) and entrapped late at night in a railway station toilet and threatened with extortion. But these pale in comparison to stories related by other gay men, such as one attacked by police with bicycle chains and another who was forced by his father to undergo electric shock therapy, when thugs made good on their promise to blackmail him after stealing his wallet.

Such encounters not only made me fearful for my personal safety, they also raised the specter of how they might affect my status as an international volunteer, and even the organization itself, should I fall foul of the law. For the most part, my life became a delicate balancing act between my public relations and fundraising work on a major international exposition and my relentless search for sexual release. While the former led me to meet some of India’s rich and famous in business and government, the latter drove me to situations that bordered on life-threatening.

My living in a highly regulated residential community with minimal privacy only added to the mounting tension. When a roommate threatened to expose my secret life and a doctor betrayed my confidence, all seemed lost. It was only when a trusted colleague, puzzled by my nocturnal absences, asked, “Are you working for the CIA, or are you gay?” that my fragile defenses crumbled and I began to rebuild my fractured life.

In the midst of this maelstrom, two things happened that added to the swirl my life had become. In late 1983, my Australian mother visited India, an event that I greatly anticipated and also dreaded. Since I had never come out to her as gay, her presence constantly begged the question of whether and how I should do this during her short visit. The sight of young men showing affection for one another in public and the concern expressed by one of our hosts that I was unmarried ratcheted up the pressure on me.

The other factor was the realization towards the end of my stay in India that I was not alone in my search for sexual identity. When I received a tip about another gay staff member in the United States, I immediately wrote to him, only to learn that he and several others were working on how to present the issues faced by LGBT staff to the whole organization. More surprising, and closer to home, was an unexpected encounter with one of my young Indian co-workers at a popular gay gathering place in Bombay. It hadn’t occurred to me that one of my own colleagues might be gay. For so long, I had tried to keep my two lives separate but now began to see this might not be necessary. Slowly and carefully I began to come out to those I thought I could trust, but not until I’d left India did I dare broach the subject with any of our Indian staff.

Cover of John Burbidge's memoir "The Boatman: A Memoir of Same-Sex Love" published by Yoda Press (India)
Cover of John Burbidge’s memoir “The Boatman: A Memoir of Same-Sex Love” published by Yoda Press (India)

Thirty years after these events I was able to revisit them in the form of a memoir, The Boatman. It has been described as a multi-layered love story — my love of India, my passion for its young men, and my commitment to the work I was doing. When the book was launched in New Delhi in February 2014, its timing couldn’t have been more opportune. A month before, the Indian Supreme Court had overruled the Delhi High Court’s 2009 decision to strike down Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code. The Court’s ruling came with the backing of conservative religious and political leaders, some of whose arguments ranged from the ignorant to the absurd.

A public outcry against this about-face was equally vociferous. Among many voices decrying it was that of 83-year-old Leila Seth, a former Delhi High Court judge, state Chief Justice, and the mother of one of India’s best-known authors, Vikram Seth, who is gay. Not only did she condemn the judgment because it failed to appreciate the stigma it attached to gay people and their families, but also because it claimed, erroneously, that it would only affect a minuscule portion of the total population.

My return to India after 30 years coincided with the annual Republic Day celebrations in Delhi. I was invited to participate in a rally that was held that afternoon, focusing on the repeal of Section 377. But I soon discovered it was much more. It pulled together a broad coalition of groups representing the marginalized in Indian society — the disabled, women against sexual violence, those who dare to marry across religion or caste, and more. They had come to protest their exclusion from the protection of the Indian constitution, which had been celebrated that very morning with a massive parade of military might and cultural splendor down Rajpath.

As the crowd wound its way through the city streets to the rally stage, my mind drifted back to my experience of India a generation before. It was inconceivable to me then that such a public demonstration for gay rights could take place and that gay men and women would join forces with others similarly oppressed. The passionate speeches by civil society activists and others exuded courage and conviction and inspired those present to fight for their rights.

India had changed, or so it seemed.

My own story now assumed a new relevance. I had written it to share one of my most life-changing experiences. The playwright Mahesh Dattani referred to it as my coming out to India. I often think it as my way of thanking India for allowing me to come to terms with something I had denied so long. The Boatman is now steering its own course as readers engage with the book. I hope it will encourage South Asian LGBT men and women to tell their stories since this is key to changing attitudes and removing prejudices, which in turn paves the way for political change. The more their stories are heard and understood, the more difficult it is to perpetuate myths about homosexuality, such as it being a disease or a Western import.

Leading the charge in this effort are the urban, educated elite of the South Asian LGBT community. But they are only a fraction of the total LGBT population. When the Delhi High Court ruled in 2009, gay activist and journalist Ashok Row Kavi called it “a minor victory for poorer or working class gay men…who really bore the brunt of the law, which was used against them as a tool for extortion and blackmail.” He also reiterated the need to focus on the plight of women, the more forgotten and restricted members of the LGBT community and society at large.

In a similar vein, British actor Stephen Fry, in a BBC documentary on gays around the world, called on a gathering of young gay men and women in Mumbai to reach out to those beyond their immediate world. “India is one of the most comfortable countries in which to be gay,” he said, “especially of course if you are educated, English-speaking, middle class.” He exhorted them to use their talents and influence to venture out into the suburbs and rural areas to make LGBT rights really count.

A young Indian woman in the UK recently asked me whether I thought homosexuality would ever be accepted in India. I am optimistic it will, given that Indian society is one of the most inclusive in the world, with its variety of religions, languages, beliefs and customs. Before the British administration made homosexuality a crime in India in 1861, it wasn’t. Indeed, there is historical evidence that a wide range of sexualities was accepted and embraced as part of India’s pluriformity.

But for such acceptance to occur, an effort is required. Others need to get to know LGBT people as individuals, not as stereotypes. LGBT people have to come out — to friends, acquaintances, co-workers, and hardest of all, families. These have been essential steps in LGBT people gaining acceptance anywhere; there is no reason to think it would be any different in South Asia. Indeed, it may even be more critical there.

The pivotal issue with homosexuality in India seems to revolve around the centrality and sanctity of the family in Indian society. Since most faiths place a high value on families, producing heirs, and caring for elders, there is enormous pressure on gay people to follow suit. Because homosexuality is often perceived as not doing this, many view it as a threat. If LGBT people can show they too have families of their own and would like nothing more than to be embraced by their blood families, broad acceptance of homosexuality might be more forthcoming in India. Until this happens, India’s lawmakers are unlikely to take the political risk needed to overturn Section 377 and rid the country of this colonial anachronism.

John Burbidge is a writer based out of Washington state, USA. The article relates to his memoir The Boatman: A Memoir of Same-Sex Love. He also has a Facebook page of the book. 

(The article was originally published in Littleindia magazine)

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Forks in the Road : 10 places to eat in Delhi

Delhi has so many diverse cuisines to offer. Here is the list of 10 places to eat in delhi which you can not miss

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Foodie Delhi
10 places to eat in Delhi (pexels)

Delhi, the present day cultural hub of India, which was once under the rule of The Parthians, The Turks, The Afghans, The Mughals and The Britishers which left an impact on the city and gave it its own  unique status. Tourists from all over the world come down to Delhi and lose their hearts to it scrumptious cuisines.

It’s winter in Delhi, a perfect weather for sampling Delhi’s most famous attractions- its incredible street food. It’s not just the street food that Delhi is famous for but a lot of history and culture that is mixed up with the food. Everything from Asoka era to Mughals to the invaders who held sway over Delhi to Purana Qila, have left the taste of the food behind.

To the variety of chats that will take you on tour of tangy, sweet and spicy flavours to the non-vegetarian food which will remind of the rich flavours to the food never tasted anywhere, Delhi has it all.

Here are 10 places to visit for indulging into the flavors of Delhi.

  1. Paranthe Wali Gali
IndianGyaan

 

Paranthe Wali Gali since 1870s is the name of a narrow street in the Chandni Chowk area of Delhi known for its series of shops selling parantha, an Indian flatbread. The food is old fashioned, strictly vegetarian and the cooked dishes do not include onion or garlic. Stuffed aloo (potato), Gobi (cauliflower) and matar (peas) paranthas are the most popular ones. Lentil paranthas are also available. The cost could come up to 150 rupees for 2 people. This street is lit from 9 a.m. to 11 p.m.

  1. Dilli Haat
India Opines

Dilli Haat does not only showcase the rich Indian culture and diverse Indian Heritage, but is also one of the best place to enjoy regional food from all over the country. Dilli Haat provides various food stalls having food from various Indian States that gives you a variety of choice at low cost prices. Its timings are from 10:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Bijoli Grill- a West Bengal food stall offering Fish curry and Kosha Mangsho; Momo Mia, an Arunanchal Pradesh food stall offering Momos and Fruit Beer; Nagaland Kitchen, a Nagaland food stall offering Raja Mircha and Momos; Manipur Foods, a Manipuri Food Stall offering Fried Rice, Tarai Tong ad Fruit Beer; Rajasthani Food Stall offering Pyaaz Kachori, Desi Ghee Jalebi and Rajasthani Thali; Maharashtra Food Stall offering Vada Pav, Puran Poli, Shrikhand; Dawath-E-Awadh, a UP Food Stall offering Kebabs, Biryani and Phirni and other food stalls from states such as Andhra Pradesh, Assam and Kerala.

  1. Khan Market
The Urban Escapades

Khan Market is not only a place for die hard shoppers, it is also Delhi’s incredible food districts. A neighborhood that never sleeps, whose streets are filled with the scent of mutton kebab and fried rice. Khan Market has restaurants such as Town Hall Restaurant, The Big Chili Café, Yellow Brick Road Restaurant, Wok in Clouds, The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, Soda bottle opner wala, Azam’s Mughlai, Café Turtle, Omazoni and Market Café.

  1. Spice Aangan
EazyDiner

Tucked away in Safdarjung Development Area’s main market is a hole-in-the-wall tandoor-and-takeaway restaurant known as Spice Aangan. Spice Aangan has been a staple of the SDA market food scene for a while now. The hole-in-the-wall is bang opposite the small, grassless park located at the centre of the market. While there are a couple of steel benches at edge of the park to sit and enjoy their food, it is otherwise a purely takeaway and home delivery outlet. Restaurant serves tandoori snacks–chicken tikka, malai tikka, seekh kebab–as well as mutton dishes, curries, biryani and shawarma rolls. Despite so many options, though, you’d be hard pressed to find the regulars ordering anything other than the chicken shawarma.

  1. Karim’s
Musafir

Karim’s is a historic restaurant located near Jama Masjid Gali Kababian, Old Delhi, Delhi. It is know that this is the best restaurant in Delhi, serving non-vegetarian food since 1913. The original Karim’s is bang opposite Jama Masjid in the walled city area of Delhi. It is close to a market known as Darya Ganj. Those visiting Karim’s for the first time will be surprised at the location. Getting there is not easy, you will need to ask locals for help. Mutton Burra, Mutton Raan-this starter is huge, and is meant for four or five people. There is a wide range of kebabs including Seekh Kebabs, Shammi Kebabs and Mutton Tikka. Chicken Seekh Kebab, Tandoori Chicken or Chicken Tikka for those who love chicken. Mutton Korma, Mutton Stew and Badam Pasanda Chicken Noor Jehan and Chicken Jahangiri are the main courses to be tried once you get there. As for the bread Khamiri Roti is something not to be missed. Karim’s serves two main desserts Kheer Benazir and Shahi Tukda.

  1. Pandara Road
ScoopWhoop

Delhi serves delectable food in almost every nook and corner of the city. Whether it is crowded streets of Chandni Chowk or the sophisticated eateries of Khan Market. One such stop is Pandara Road Market, located near India Gate, the place serves best non-vegetarian food of the city, so all the meat lovers out there fill your wallets. Havemore offering the best Butter chicken and garlic naan and Gulati which is best known for its Dum Biryani and kebabs with the cost price of 1500 rupees for two, and many other restaurants like Chicken Inn, Pindi and Ichiban.

  1. Amar Colony
TripAdvisor

Amar Colony is generally known to be the hub of garments but it is also the hidden street food hub. Home to a diverse population from India, Africa and Afghanistan, there is no doubt, diversity in food here too. A number of small joints for street food in Amar Colony exist which serve the most delicious dishes for you. Most of the shops are situated in the main market and are close to each other. Nagpal Chole Bhature, Hunger Strike, Tibb’s Frankie, Biryani Corner, 34 Chowringhee Lane, Sharma Chaat Bhandar, Deepaul’s Café, Dolma Aunty Momos, Muttu South Indian Anna, High On Burger are the best places to visit when on Pandara Road.

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  1. Hudson Lane, GTB Nagar
MY APRON DIARIES – WordPress.com

Hudson Lane, very close to the main North Campus area, is one place where you will find one of the finest cafés and best restaurants in Delhi. Mostly serving Italian, Café, and Fast Food Cuisine, these quirky joints offer an amazing culinary experience at an extremely pocket-friendly price. Woodbox Café, Mad Monkey, Indus Flavors, QD’s, Ricos and Big yellow Door are the most recommended places to munch at.

  1. Jung Bahadur Kachori Wala
Delhipedia

Situated near Paranthe Wali Gal, Jung Bahadur Kachori Wala is a small but popular street stall that’s been serving sought- after Kachoris since the early 1970s. Kachori stuffed with urad dal and served with special spicy chutney is a must try ther.

  1. Connaught Place
India Today – India Today Group

From fancy revolving restaurants to the delicious local rajma chawal, Connaught place does not discriminate when it comes to food. Home to some of the best restaurants in Delhii and also ironic dahbas, one can relish all kinds of cuisines here be it local, regional or international. Kake Da Hotel, Parikrama, Jain Chawal Wale, Minar and much more are the places to step up with.

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Dalai Lama says that India and China have great potential

The spiritual leader feels that both the countries are doing compassionate works

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Dalai Lama talks about India and China
Tibetan spiritual leader Dalai says that India and China can work together. VOA

New Delhi, Nov 19

Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama on Sunday said India and China have “great potential” and they could work together at a “practical level”.

“I think, a great potential… India and China combined are doing more compassionate work… At a practical level also. Imagine two billion people working together,” he told reporters here after inaugurating Smile Foundation’s initiative, The World of Children.

The spiritual leader, who has lived in India in self-imposed exile since 1959, said neither country had the “ability to destroy the other”.

“Whether you like it or not, you have to live side by side,” he said.

Underlining the ancient spiritual connection between the two countries, he said Chinese Buddhist Hsuan Tsang visited Nalanda (now in Bihar) and brought Nalanda Buddhist traditions to China.

“All thinkers of Nalanda are Indian. So Nalanda’s tradition is India’s tradition,” he said.

The Nalanda traditions had turned Tibetans, who were warriors, into more compassionate, peaceful and non-violent nation, he said.

“So sometimes in Delhi, teasing my Indian friend, (I say) if Tibet still remained in the previous way of life, like Mongols, Chinese invasion may not have taken place,” the Dalai Lama said in a lighter vein.

He said nobody in the world wanted violence but it was happening “because our minds are dominated by destructive emotions due to short-sightedness”.

“Nobody wants problems. Yet, many problems are our own creation.”

The Dalai Lama said the existing modern education was oriented to material values. India can take lead in improving the education system by combining modern education with ancient knowledge, he said. (IANS)

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Manushi Chhillar from India Wins the Miss World 2017 Title

India's Manushi Chillar won the coveted Miss World 2017 pageant here, 16 years after Priyanka Chopra won the title in 2000.

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Miss World
Manushi Chhillar has been crowned as Miss World 2017. Instagram #ManushiChhillar

China, November 19: India’s Manushi Chhillar won the coveted Miss World 2017 pageant, 16 years after Priyanka Chopra won the title in 2000.

Chhillar competed against 108 contestants from various countries at a glittering event held at Sanya City Arena here.

Miss World 2016 winner Puerto Rico’s Stephanie Del Valle gave away the coveted crown to the winner.

Chhillar, who is from Haryana, had earlier this year won the Femina Miss India 2017.

Miss world
Anti Ageing was the official skin care expert for Manushi Chhillar at the Miss World 2017 pageant. Instagram #ManushiChhillar

India, England, France, Kenya and Mexico grabbed the top five spots at the peagant.

Manushi, born to doctor parents, studied in St. Thomas School in New Delhi and Bhagat Phool Singh Government Medical College for Women in Sonepat.

Her entire family including brother and sister were present and they looked excited watching Manushi grabbing top five spot.

As many as 108 beauty queens from different parts of the world participated in the prestigious pageant. (IANS)