Eight in the evening: As we enter the park in the middle of this moderately sized Goa town, my friend Siddharth says knowingly, “Ahhh! They’re all cruising!”
I’m looking around as we walk, and all I see are shadows and bushes, a few men loitering here and there. This is a familiar sight in any park in India on an evening like this. Siddharth is looking at the same scene, and it’s familiar to him in the same way. Yet he also sees, and knows, what I don’t: these men are cruising. That is, the men seemingly loitering around the park are looking to meet other men, with sex on their minds. Or in some cases, as we soon find out, just companionship on their minds.
Just how does Siddharth know? More times than he can count, he tells me, he has done this himself.
We walk through, to the back of the park. In a corner are the men we’ve come to talk with, Vasu and Altaf, sitting on the back of a park bench and chatting quietly. There, too, are Ronald and Ramesh, pacing up and down as they wait for us.
Indeed: four perfectly ordinary men named Vasu, Altaf, Ronald, and Ramesh.* Guys you might travel with on the bus and not look at twice. And yet, even writing those two sentences makes me cringe inside. What else should they be but ordinary people? Why am I moved to even make such a comment? After all, if I came upon a man and woman sitting side-by-side in a park, it would hardly occur to me to remark that they are “perfectly ordinary people” with whom I might travel on a bus and not look at twice. So why am I compelled to record such an observation about these men? These gay men?
Let me tell you about Vasu. The others have similar stories.
Vasu is 37 years old. He has a moustache and his hair is slicked back; he wears a red shirt; his pleasant, lively face lights up when he smiles. For 20 years, he has been coming to this park to cruise. That’s over half his life. His cheerful friendliness, somehow, makes everything he says that much harder to hear.
When he was young, says Vasu, he hated himself for the way he was feeling. Attracted to men? Why on earth? Why wasn’t he like all his other friends, chasing after women? Why was he different? What could he do about it? Yet he could hardly be open about these thoughts. There was no way to tell his family or his other friends. Turns out that coming to this park was the only outlet for his feelings.
As I listen to Vasu, I wonder what it must have been like the first few times he came here. How does a young man, tormented by his feelings, find his way in this new world, while simultaneously keeping it secret from the old? Meet another man for sex—or even just to sit and talk as he and Altaf were doing as they waited for us— to spend years and years like that. Quiet, shadowy. How do you carry on?
At least Vasu doesn’t hate himself now.
And then one day, he got married. Had the usual jitters, though in his case, tinged with an extra worry. “A few days before my wedding,” Vasu tells us, “I was very frightened. Went to a doctor and told him I was getting married, but I was gay. So would I be able to have sex with my wife?” (Not for the first time, I’m amazed at how frankly these men talk about intimate sexual matters. Not something I’ve found in groups of hetero men). “And the doctor told me, ‘Don’t worry, you’ll get an erection; you’ll be able to have sex with her.’”
He was right, the doctor. Proof: Vasu has a six-year-old son.
Yet he still comes to this park, every single evening. Does his wife know? “How can I tell her?” he asks with a smile. (Is it tinged with sadness? After seven years of marriage, I can’t believe she has not guessed, or does not at least have some idea what’s going on.) “Every evening, I say work kept me, or I was with a group of friends and couldn’t leave.”
“Every day,” Vasu continues, “I have to lie at home.” He’s still smiling.
Every day, for seven years. Every single day, Vasu must lie to his fmaily because of the stigma that surrounds homosexuality in India and many other countries including the United States.
What must it be like to have to be secretive and furtive about something fundamental to your very sense of self? I cannot imagine the stress and tension of that dilemma. I cannot imagine living it day and day out.
Yet this man Vasu looks so ordinary. Like so many other men I know. (Why do I keep thinking that?)
“But you know, since I got married,”–—he cuts into my thoughts—“I’ve completely stopped having sex with men. I come here because I want to, to meet these friends,”—he gestures at the other three—“but I don’t have sex.”
“Because there’s risk of infection. And I have sex with my wife, right? I don’t want to pass on the infection to her.”
Yes, this ordinary-looking man. Here he is, having had to hide for years, with no end in sight, something that is fundamental to his being, his identity. He finds the wherewithal to answer that call, and at the same time he resolves to protect his wife by engaging in profound self-denial.
You might say, as people with whom I’ve spoken about Vasu have said, that he should be brave enough to come clean to his wife. To his family. To stop living this dual life. To finally—after all these years—be frank and honest about the way he wants to live. You’d be right, too.
Yet that’s hardly the whole story. I think of the constraints of life in a town like this one in Goa, the constraints for men like Vasu and Altaf, and I know: there are limits. And finding a way to live with them, while remaining true to yourself as best you can, takes serious effort as well.
Talk about courage; talk about heroes. I would point you to Vasu with his slicked-back hair.
|A computer scientist by training, Dilip D’Souza now writes for his supper in Bombay. His main interests are social and political issues in India.|