I knew two friends who were somewhat different in their physical and mental makeup than what I thought to be masculine. The first guy was a school mate, a neighbour, and the brother of my classmate. I will call him Soman. As we grew up, Soman became somewhat emotionally – certainly not physically – dependent on me because I did not make fun of his gait, his girlish mannerisms or the lack of hair on his face. Almost everyone else I knew made fun of him; his mother cursed him for being born into her womb.
When he heard that I was joining the Air Force, he told me: “I would have liked to join too, but they wouldn’t take me.”
“Why not?”, I asked, although I knew that what he said was probably the truth: “Why don’t you try?”.
He didn’t answer. He turned his face away while his shoulders shook in a silent sob.
A year later when I went home on leave, my mother told me that Soman had died a month before.
“Poor boy,” she said: “He would often come here and ask me when you’d be coming on leave. I heard that one day a few boys booed him when he was trying to get into the bus. He went back home, bolted his door and never came out. He died the next day. His mother said it wasn’t suicide. He was just heartbroken.”
I suspect Soman was born sexless. His dependence on me was certainly not in the physical sense. I got my sexual education at 13 from a visiting older relative who had no claim to being L, G, B or T.
The second friend was my batch-mate in the military school. His voice was plainly feminine, he had the smooth, hairless body that any woman would envy. He never stood and piddled in the common urinals. The rumour was that a lover of his had managed to get him recruited, which, even on hindsight, I can believe. He once tried to get into the bed of another guy in our dormitory and got kicked out with a loud curse. Nobody complained to the NCO in charge of the billet, so he got away with some loss of face but no other harm. Apparently, he never tried again. He boldly bore the taunts as if they were mere jokes, retaliating only on a rare occasion.
More than a decade later, I found his name in the list of those who were commended by the Air Chief. Though somewhat surprised, I called to congratulate him. His voice had not changed much, but had the authority of a Flight Sergeant –Chiefie in Air Force parlance. He had acquitted himself commendably in the war on the Eastern front, which earned him the proud commendation.
A couple of years after the training, I landed up in a far-away island on special duties. There I was introduced to a stout, well-built NCO, who looked about thirty despite his balding head.
“Be careful,” said the Corporal who introduced him to me: “If he Madhu gets a chance, he would shag you”.
Madhu smiled, unembarrassed, and shook hands. “Don’t be afraid”, he said : “This guy is just jealous”.
I was the youngest, a low-ranking aircraftsman, in the small camp of thirty or so men and a single officer, and felt somewhat wary of Corporal Madhu. As I got to know him over the days, I found him a jovial guy who loved to display his inclination. When someone would bite a banana at the breakfast table, Madhu would hold his crotch and pretend to scream:
“Don’t, please don’t. Go easy. Your teeth hurt.” The joke was harmless enough and never failed to elicit a guffaw that echoed through the dining room.
Only one fellow got furious when the prank was played on him – Tiwari, who preferred to be called Pandit .
“You dirty fellow, I know what you two do, you spoil the culture of this camp” he shouted, pointing at Madhu and the younger man sitting next to him: “This time I am going to tell the CO and see that he sends you up to a court- martial”
D’Souza, a senior awaiting his promotion and transfer was known for his sense of humour. “Sit down, Pandit. Don’t be such a holy shit. Everybody has seen you wanking it in the bathroom”.
Pandit’s eyeballs bulged, whether in anger or surprise, I couldn’t tell. He walked out of the mess.
“Did you really see him doing it?” someone asked D’Souza through a chuckle.
“Who doesn’t wank in this bloody lonely island? Anyone who says he doesn’t is a bloody liar.”
It transpired that nobody in our mess was a bloody liar. Tiwari lost the honorific of Pandit. Instead, he got a more popular nickname – holy shit.
In a fancy restaurant in a rather westernized part of Madras (not Chennai then), I sipped beer and watched with great interest the crowd that was gyrating on the floor to the beats of a live band. A tall white man with pink nose and ruddy cheek bones sitting at the next table reached out and touched my shoulders: “See that girl over there? She sits like a wall flower. Why don’t you ask her to a dance?”.
“I don’t dance, ” I said, feeling like a village bum.
He passed me a card. “Nathaniel, from Canada. I teach ball room dancing to celebrities as well as ordinary people. Come see me at this address coming Sunday. I will teach you.”
Big and fat Nathaniel was all grace when he danced. He taught me all the styles that had been the white man’s entertainment and means of finding a wife for centuries – Fox-trot, Waltz, Rumba, Samba, Tango – all for five rupees a month. Once I got over the confusion in keeping up with the western beats, I could pass off for a good enough dancer.
Margaret, Nathaniel’s lady assistant told me that he was gay. I, a small town boy from Kerala did not get what the word meant . I told her how Nathaniel once asked me if I knew what Connie Francis meant when she sang:
“Pretty little baby, you say that may be,
You’ve been thinking of me
Don’t you know it is fun to love,
While our hearts are young and gay?”
“He was giving you a hint,” Margaret told me.”Gay means homosexual.”
Margaret could be right. When the hint didn’t go home, I was left alone. In my memory, Nathaniel the man from Canada was a thorough gentleman.
In another rather westernized town (westernized, till the Anglo Indians migrated West or East and Goans moved to Bombay), I noticed these two elderly ladies dancing like a couple among the pairs of men and women. Those were the days men only danced with women and women with men; so they looked like an odd pair.
Perhaps I stared a little too long at them; Yvonne, my partner for the dance, whispered into my ear: “The one with long brown hair is my mother. The other is her boyfriend.”
“Boy friend? That’s a woman,” I said. The woman’s rising bust line left me in no doubt about her gender.
“Yes, boy friend. People say that mom and she are lesbians.”
I was struck by her frankness.
“No, “ I said: “I don’t believe that. Do you?”
“I dunno. But they sleep in the same room.”
She drew me a little closer. “Trust me, I am not that.”
She was pretty enough, but I already had in mind someone prettier. What’s more, she was supposed to be friendly with my best friend in town.
In Delhi, the wire girls in my small electronic factory complained that they never felt safe in the little slum houses they could afford, each sharing with two or three other girls, and with common bathrooms for a whole neighbourhood. The supervisor suggested that there was a row of nice one-room houses with a common verandah just across the road , which was occupied by nursing trainees who had vacated the rooms after their training. The houses would by now be vacant.
I met the young, handsome though rather plump and short jeans-clad Punjabi who owned the houses. We settled for a reasonable rent for four of the houses in a row with attached toilets. The girls (one of them with her husband and a child) moved in.
A month later, a hijra –eunuch – in loud makeup and colourful sari walked in to my office. Unfortunately, my factory was too small to employ a regular guard outside who could block intruders.
“Who let her in?”, I asked the supervisor..
“Not, her, him, tumhara landlord” said the hijra, in part English.” I was just passing by, so thought I could collect my rent. Still on duty, so no time to change my clothes.”
The supervisor smiled. “He – she – owns the row houses you hired for the girls”.
Yes, the face was familiar enough. “Sorry, I couldn’t place you,” I said. “But how…”
“No problem. I am the secretary of our association here. On duty, I wear these clothes. Off duty, I wear jeans and T-shirt.”
“Log bolte hai ki hum bheek mangte hain. Nahin. Tax lehte hai. Hameh Sharminda Karne ke liye. Kuchh log hai, gareeb. Hame tho-, inn kapodon mein achha lagta hai.”
He meant: People say we beg, but we don’t. We collect taxes from those who try to make us feel ashamed. Some of us may be poor. As for me, I feel nice in these clothes.
Rajesh Sharma, the landlord-eunuch insisted that I go with him to his house for a cup of chai. More curious than keen on a cup of tea, I mounted the pillion of his Vespa scooter.
Going by the standard of the middle-income house I had hired to live with my family, his was a luxurious villa. His wife was a pretty Punjaban, and child a cute little girl with bee-hive curls.
If there ever was a successful bisexual, Rajesh Sharma was one. Successful in business, apparently even so in marriage. To boot, Tax collector for the Eunuch Association.
“You are speaking to a criminal,” Vikram Seth is said to have told an interviewer after the recent Supreme Court verdict. Unlike Oscar Wilde of yore, this man of superb fiction and reasonable poetry is unlikely to land up in jail. True, the Supreme Court had said that Section 377 is to be amended by the Parliament, not by the Court. True, too, that Indian Parliament who fear the influence the holy shits of all faiths in the Country wield over the voting public would never amend the primitive Section that is meant to make criminals out of good people for being born with slightly different tastes or physical attributes.
Not to forget that the court also had said that penile penetration will need to be proved, I would love to see how anybody will prove penile penetration among lesbians.
I would also like to see what they would do with pedophile priests or with their superiors who conceal the crime.
As for the nomadic writer Vikram Seth, I hope he keeps a couple of fierce hounds outside his house while he is in India. The bedroom-peeping holy shits deserve a fierce dog bite.
Note: All names of people and places, except that of Vikram Seth have been changed for obvious reasons. I am sure that the great writer wouldn’t mind the liberty.