Gay and Lesbian Humanist

Spring 2001

Love in a Different Climate: men who have sex with men in India, by Jeremy Seabrook

reviewed by Jim Herrick

The key phrase is in the subtitle – “Men who have sex with men”. The structure of homosexual behaviour in India involves, on the whole, sexual activities rather than homosexual relationships. Many of those who indulge in “homosex” are married, claim that they are not gay but satisfying a quick desire, or are sex workers.

Jeremy Seabrook has based his book on a survey of men in the Park in New Delhi. He has interviewed 75 men who cruise in the Park. They may not be representative of homosexuals in India as a whole, but they do give us a window on a usually invisible group. The ages range from 20 and under to 51-60 with the majority being in the 21-40 bracket; 29 of them are married. They vary considerably from the men who come “to enjoy” but do not consider themselves part of any minority community to those accepting cruising in the Park as a regular activity. There is a machismo to those who do not accept penetration and do not regard themselves as gay, while those who play a passive role form a subgroup with mutual support.

A small number of them identify as “gay”, but most disclaim responsibility for what they are doing: “Women will not give me the sexual variety I want”; “I do it for relief”; “I will get married later on”. This is not surprising where the social pressure to marry is almost inescapable, and where there is no recognition of sexual minorities. Article 377 of the Penal Code that criminalises “acts against the order of nature” is a legacy of the colonial system. It is not frequently put into effect: occasionally a group of police descend on the Park, capture a few in the jungle with their pants down, and then take bribes to set them free. There is a suggestion that the police might themselves enjoy such raids. In the longer term a tradition of Urdu love poems between men and of young men holding hands in the street (which I have frequently seen) is accepted. Ironically, wider knowledge of homosexuality might lead to encroaching stigma.

Twenty-five per cent of those interviewed knew of their desires before they were 16, while 23.7 per cent were not aware of their sexual feelings until over the age of 22. There is not the youth culture found in Western gay communities: on the contrary, there is considerable respect for older men, and in some cases initiation has taken place between an older and younger man, perhaps a teacher, or older cousin, apparently to the pleasure of both parties.

There is little knowledge of the transmission of sexual diseases. Some think that unprotected sex is better because the passage of semen strengthens the recipient. There is a belief in the Park that AIDS is caught from Westerners or contact with the vagina. Most commentators think that AIDS is likely to be a huge problem in India in the future – not seen as specifically a homosexual problem. Undercover and sometimes anonymous sex is ideal for transmission: for example, meetings at bus stops, on trains, with truckers.

Sexual life in the villages, which are still the largest part of Indian life, is hidden: but men talk of seduction within extended families and in the privacy of the countryside. The exhausting workload of many men also affects their ability to find a satisfying sex life.

The Gandhian tradition of belief in continence and celibacy has influenced many Hindu fundamentalists. Homosex is seen as coming from the decadent West. Certainly it is within the young middle class that the few long-term loving relationships are found. Many in the Park express desire for sex where it is quiet and private and there is time to enjoy lovemaking.

Jeremy Seabrook was accused by an Indian of being an “imperialist of compassion”. I don’t think he is taking advantage of those he interviews, rather advancing understanding for everyone. The social observations are the bones of the book, but the flesh is in the personal accounts of many Indian homosexuals. Their excitements and frustrations come through.

Seabrook demonstrates his understanding of the complexity of the culture he is trying to understand in an interview with a widower who articulates the integration of his own ambiguous sexuality. He has accepted in himself “son, husband, father, engineer, Hindu, Hindi and English speaker, lover, friend”. At a mature stage of his life he comes to accept that “a same-sex relationship is a force for integration, a sign of completeness and wholeness: it doesn’t threaten to overwhelm or crowd out the rest”.

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Created : Sunday, 2001-05-13 / Last updated : Wednesday, 2007-12-12
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