Friday, March 20, 2015

Qatha: Times and lives of girly boys from ‘60s Kolkata (part 2)

People, Mar '15
By Pawan Dhall and Soma Roy Karmakar

Varta brings you the ‘Queer Kolkata Oral History Project’, an initiative to document five decades of queer lives in Kolkata (1960-2000). Our aim in this project is to go back in time and bring forward diverse queer voices through a series of interviews, which will provide a landmark to Kolkata city's queer history. Typically, the focus will be on the queer scenario in Kolkata during the growing up years of each interviewee – how it was to be queer in Kolkata in different decades since the 1960s till more recent times. The effort will be to bring forward a mix of the well known and the lesser known voices. Apart from the excerpts published here, the project also aims to publish a collection of the interviews in different formats. All interviews are based on informed consent and where requested, all markers of identity have been removed for reasons of confidentiality.

We bring you the second part of an interview with journalist SD, 62, who shares 50 shades of queer in Kolkata since the 1950s. In the first part of the interview (published February 2015 issue of Varta), he spoke about life in school. In this part he talks about the years in college, at his workplace, and his understanding of the gender fluidity inherent in Indian traditions.

The interview was conducted by Pawan Dhall on August 9, 2013, and transcribed by women’s and child rights activist Soma Roy Karmakar. It has been illustrated by artist Rudra Kishore Mandal.

Pawan: Where did you study?

SD: [In] JKL . . . one teacher [in college] was so tolerant – I was foolish enough to imagine that he never knew – because much, much later in life – may be about 10-12 years later, I formally told him (laughs) . . . and then . . . so college was heaven after that – and . . . well I used to have crushes on my class mates . . .

Pawan: The milieu here as well was mixed people from . . .

SD: Oh, entirely – in ‘71, we had moved from Howrah, from our old Howrah house to Calcutta . . . to where I live – that was 1971.

Pawan: I see.

SD: So, here the milieu was completely different, well, and then . . . I used to have a gala time with my neighbours . . . love thy neighbour . . .

Pawan: Okay (laughs) . . .

SD: And . . . well, everybody here in the neighbourhood knew, but then . . . they never raised a finger – that was something to do with class . . . and also I made it a point to be . . . to be very . . . staid outside, and then . . . so here, it’s a very mixed sort of population.

Pawan: So when you say class issue, it means which class?

SD: Well, class issue in the sense upper class.

Pawan: Would you call that tolerance or acceptance or don’t ask, don’t tell . . .

SD: Neither tolerance not acceptance – see what I feel is that . . . they, these youngsters who used to molest us [in school] . . . they were just getting their rocks off . . . they just . . . I mean . . . they would want to penetrate anything that was moving . . .

Pawan: (Laughs) . . . and it was only a boys, I mean a boys-only school . . .

SD: Yeah, we didn't have girls.

Pawan: Yeah . . . but you never came across any friendship, between say, two hunks . . .

SD: Never, never, never, never – this is something I have only encountered in books – in . . . again American porn – I mean porn from the West . . . there were strong friendships no doubt among men, but then I would never call them homosexuality – we have a tradition of very strong male bonding in India . . .  see there are characters like Krishna . . . and then in our old kirtan, there are . . .  there are references to Krishna's friends, male friends, and then they used to hold hands, and they used to embrace each other, but then it was not homosexuality surely . . . and then also the . . .  the gender of our gods was very fluid – they could be male one and female next moment . . . and then . . . quite unlike the old Jewish traditions – I mean, if you are male, you are male and if you are female, you are female – it's not like that na, and then as a matter of fact . . . Krishna used to switch roles with Radha quite often na, and then there’s the famous song sung by a Muslim singer – he was Bade Ghulam Ali Khan's brother, Barkat Ali Khan who had chosen to migrate to Pakistan – Tum Radhe Bano Shyam – it was this beautiful . . . what’s it called . . . Thumri . . . so, that was there and then in Indian performing art, as I said before that all these male singers, they were such huge hulks . . . like think of Bade Ghulam Ali Khan haan, when he wanted – when he sang Khayal, his voice could be so robust, and mannish and . . . yeah . . . very masculine, yes, very alpha male because he was identifying with Shiva and all that . . . and then, and also Hari Om Tat Sat, but then when he sang those very flirtatious Thumris, he was almost a woman, I mean the timber of voice of his voice never changed, but then the flirtatiousness was there in his voice . . . and then also woman singers, they had very male voices – we had that mardana style – so I don't think that Indians could have had any stigma against . . . they won't call it homosexuality, but then . . . I think that if you call yourself a homosexual, then perhaps you’ll be stigmatized – and then, I think in places like Bihar, they used to have all those Mauga dance . . .

Pawan: Launda dance, that's still there . . .

SD: Yes, Launda dance, it’s still there, and they are . . . oh, then also I was not surprised to read about . . . in Lucknow, how in those, in all those kothas, there used to be Kashmiri boys who used to be prized possessions of those kothas, because they were so good looking . . . and also our Lucknow Nawabs, they used to switch roles all the time . . .

Pawan: Switch roles, in what sense?

SD: In the sense that . . . like Wajid Ali Shah . . . sometimes he used to become a woman, and then the next time he would become Krishna – there was a lot of tolerance for all that – but then I . . . I guess with the coming of the Brits . . . and since they . . . when they consolidated their rule – it was in the Victorian era  and then we imitated them so slavishly, we started to think that homosexuality too is  I mean then we used to think of it as homosexuality.


Pawan: . . . a name came for it . . .

SD: Yeah, the name came for it . . . and then since it was also a criminal act . . . I guess homosexuality became stigmatized . . . and even then . . . when I was born, naturally the Brits were gone, and then . . . but then the mindset was still there – but among the lower classes, I don't think that it would have ever occurred to them that homosexuality – even among Muslims, Hindus . . . they would have . . . if you keep your eyes and ears open, I think so many of these cross-dressed boys living with – I’m talking of pavement dwellers . . . and then also in the Jatras, they used to cross dress . . . it’s there, it’s part of the tradition – and then it was not all that latent either, I mean there was a lot of visibility.

Pawan: So you’ve given quite a nice picture of how things were . . . at home, but what about the workplace? . . .

SD: Yeah . . . about workplace – I began working in ABC [newspaper] in 1978, and then ABC had a . . . had a great homo-erotic tradition haan, because the Brits were there – and then, and there actually used to be editors who had . . . who had an editor who had a Pathan, well, he was very close to that Pathan . . .  yeah, of course, it’s widely known . . . and then when I joined, the news editor PQR . . . was gay . . .

SD: . . . and then . . . and then, then, of course, I used to be horrified because . . . because some of the gentlemen . . . I used to think that in ABC people would be so . . . straight as a ramrod, and they wouldn't use bad language, or cuss words . . . but then . . . apart from the fact that it was a great place for hours and hours of chatting . . . and then, I mean we used to . . . everybody loved to talk 19 to the dozen and then . . . and everybody was like a loose cannon . . . it was a lovely place . . . and then we used to have this great tradition of . . . what we used to call the peyadas . . . bearers . . . for generations they’d been bearers, and they were from one particular . . . village in Sultanpur . . . Sultanpur, a district in Uttar Pradesh, and there were some Biharis too . . . they used to be the ones who used to take newspapers . . . they used to distribute newspapers, and then . . . they did nothing, they used to just sit there and vegetate, and then their main job was distributing papers . . . some of them were real hunks . . . even some of the drivers used to be very good looking . . . and one of them had described me as “ladies type” . . . he was a Muslim man, DEF, I wonder where he is, because the last time I met him was many, many years ago . . .

To be continued.

Pawan Dhall aspires to be a rainbow journalist and believes in taking a stand, even if it’s on the fence – the view is better from there!




Soma Roy Karmakar passionately believes in gender equality and women’s empowerment. She works on issues of child sexual abuse with RAHI Foundation, Kolkata.





Rudra Kishore Mandal is a painter and freelance graphic designer and calls his artistic quest Rudrascape (http://rudrascape.blogspot.in/).

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