Gay Bombay: An Interview with Parmesh Shahani (Part Two)

A central focus of the research concerns an online discussion list for Gay Bombay. What significance did this site play in the lives of your research subjects? What relationship exists between their online and off-line lives?

My research subjects were physically located in and out of Bombay city, and in some cases, out of India. Some of them accessed the Gay Bombay website and newsgroup exclusively online (either because they were apprehensive, married, lived out of Bombay or simply did not have the time to attend any of its offline manifestations) and for these individuals, the website and newsgroup engendered what Maria Bakardjieva has called “immobile socialization”- enabling them to feel connected to the Gay Bombay community at large. Those that lived in Bombay and were comfortable attending the local events equated their participation in Gay Bombay primarily with attending the city based events, and not with the list or website. Even here, there was a split between those who thought of it as primarily a party space and those who thought of it as a space for other kinds of community events.

For the newsgroup subscribers, the reasons for signing up were varied. For some it was just curiosity, for others, a way to know more about the emerging gay world in India. For activists, the possibility of advocacy and working for the issue of LBGT rights was the lure. But often, it was simply a search for empathic gay friends.

I found the Gay Bombay newsgroup to be an excellent site to observe the performative aspects of my respondents’ identities. They used the Gay Bombay newsgroup along all aspects of Annette Markham’s continuum of “tool”, “place” and finally “a way of being”.

The choice of their online nicknames typically resonated with their own sense of self or certain affiliations they wanted to highlight. For some, their nicknames were a combination of their religious and Indian identities. One respondent chose his nickname as a tribute to an iconic lesbian filmmaker, another’s was the title of his favourite Bruce Springsteen song, and there were many nods in the direction of famous poets, fashion designers, and characters from literature and cinema. Others shifted between using multiple nicknames while posting to the group. Some respondents stated that their identities were the same online and offline. But the majority reported consciously activating a change in their online persona and performing it with pleasure. A few used their online selves to be more bitchy and flirtatious, something that they could not imagine doing offline because of shyness or being in the closet. Another said that he was very “violent and oppressive” in his writing, something that he was certainly not in his offline life. Significantly, for several respondents, the real issue was about identity in gay versus straight settings rather than online versus offline identities. Several of my interviews spoke about having distinct gay identities that they revealed or ‘performed’ in settings in which they were comfortable.

Given what you tell us in the book about the mainstream India media’s often hostile treatment of gay-related stories, what has been the response to the book in India?

Well, I would call the media’s treatment mixed. It is sometimes hostile, but at other times, the mainstream English media has been extraordinarily supportive to gay-related stories. Just last week, for example, the Times of India ran a front page opinion about why they felt section 377 of the Indian Penal Code needs to be abolished.

I am happy to report that the response to my book has been largely positive. It has been reviewed across the board – in mainstream newspapers and magazines, in the business press, and in the lifestyle media. In addition, it has also managed to get some decent international press, as it is available worldwide, including online on Amazon. I am especially happy that reviewers are looking at the book as not just a book about contemporary Indian sexuality, but about contemporary Indianness at large. You can check out some of these reviews:

Businessworld Magazine.

Financial Express.

Mint.

I suspect the autobiographical passages will be some of the most controversial aspects of this book. What do you think those chunks us to see about being gay in Bombay that we would not get through more traditional academic means?

I knew that the autobiographical pieces would be controversial. They were not easy to write, and I’m still queasy when I see them in print. But at the same time, I felt that if I had to do justice to the book, I needed to implicate myself in it, and this felt like the most personal way of doing so. For me, the process of research wasn’t just a process of going through media archives, and of conducting and transcribing interviews with others; it also involved trying to understand myself, and where I fit into all of this. I felt that by going through my autobiographical passages, readers might have a closer to the ground view of everything else that I was describing. I call this autobiographical layer my memoryscape, which constitutes my thoughts, memories and lived experiences, both material and symbolic. It s the self-activation of my own imagination at work – my personal narrative of being gay in Bombay. I wrote the narrative exactly the way it appears in the book – in a weaving pattern, between and around the other parts of the book.

I think that all the approaches I use in the book combine to provide readers a fractal view about what it means to be gay in Bombay at this particular point in time. So, the media and cultural background provided segues into the interview comments, which in turn segue into the memoryscape. Also, specific themes raised within the book, such as the importance of family, coming out, class differences, etc. constantly repeat themselves – within the interviewee responses as well as within my own memoryscape.

You end the book with some very optimistic suggestions about the potential for change in your country. What gives you such great hope?

As I write in the concluding chapter, there are two Indian traits – fortitude and adaptability, which provide me with hope as I look towards the future of Gay Bombay and the Indian queer scene at large. Also, if Indianness is something that can be imagined and reimagined, then there’s no reason why gay people shouldn’t be a part of this imagination. I see daily instances of this imagination taking place all around me. I attended Bombay’s first queer pride march some days ago where over a thousand people rallied, marched, sang and danced through the streets of Bombay. I cannot describe in words the spirit of that afternoon. This year, several such pride marches were held across cities in India. Recently, at at the world AIDS summit in Mexico, India’s health minister came out strongly for section 377 being abolished. For someone in the government to be making a statement like this is unexpected. But the imagination isn’t just confined to the law. There are gay marriages, commitment ceremonies and anniversary celebrations that keep on taking place in India, despite the laws being what they are, and several incidents, big and small, of society accommodating LBGT people, so at the pride march it wasn’t just queer people who marched, there were so many families and friends, grandmothers, babies, everyone. It is moments like these that make me feel really positive, in the face of the negative news, and terrible incidents that also take place.

What did your time at MIT contribute to this particular project?

I could only have done this project at MIT. The idea for the thesis came about in 2003, during my first semester at CMS. As CMS students reading this might know (prospective CMS students, kindly note) we are strongly encouraged to think of our thesis from the moment we get into the program. :-) I knew right from the start that I wanted my thesis

to focus on contemporary India, and also work with many different media. There were a couple of factors that led me to fix on Gay Bombay as my final choice.

Firstly, I had just learnt about the existence of the Gay Bombay online-offline community before my arrival in Boston, and I felt kind of silly that I hadn’t known about while I was in India. Secondly, I spent my first CMS semester in planning for a film festival and conference that would be held in the following semester called Between the Lines that dealt with South Asian LBGT identity. While working on this event, I discovered that MIT is one of the best places in the world to do queer-related research. The resources are top notch – professors, libraries, institutional support in terms of funding and facilities, LBGT student and faculty groups, and so on. Everyone from Katherine Wilmore then the Vice-President, to the Office of the Arts, to the Graduate Students Council, and of course, CMS, chipped in, and made a difference to the quality of the event. This was also a chance to read up about and see loads of queer South Asian films, which I enjoyed. Thirdly, the sudden death of one of my close friends, Riyad Wadia, the avant garde documentary filmmaker from India, towards the end of 2003. Finally, the encouragement of MIT faculty and staff members like William, Henry, Edward, Tuli, and Chris Pomiecko, who I first bounced the idea off.

Besides the excellent academic and institutional support, my time at MIT was also special in terms of my personal life. I met my (now ex) partner Junri at MIT, to who the book is dedicated, and in a sense the book and the relationship wrote themselves while we were living together. The relationship is a key part of the book; it dictates its optimistic tone and its hetero-normative politics. Incidentally, the break-up also happened at MIT, on the day that I received the first advance copy of the book in my hands, so I suppose, it was like completing a full circle.

Parmesh Shahani is based in Bombay, India, where he works on new media, venture capital and innovation for Mahindra & Mahindra and also serves as the Editorial Director of Verve magazine. He is also a research affiliate with the MIT Convergence Culture Consortium. His prior work experiences have included founding India’s first youth website, business development for Sony’s Indian television channel operations, writing and editing copy for Elle magazine and the Times of India group, helping make a low-budget feature film and teaching as a visiting faculty member at a Bombay college. Parmesh holds undergraduate degrees in commerce and education from the University of Bombay, and a graduate degree in Comparative Media Studies, from MIT. His first book – Gay Bombay: Globalization, Love and (Be)Longing in Contemporary India (New Delhi, London, Los Angeles, Singapore: Sage Publications) was released in April 2008.