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Book reviews and articles on ‘Gay Bombay’ May 5, 2008

Posted by nitinkarani in Hindustan Times.

1) Mint

Book Review: Gay Bombay


A frank and honest account of what it means to be gay in a bustling metropolis of a fast changing nation; the book balances research with personal experiences, information and emotions

Taneesha Kulshrestha/ livemint.com

Gay Bombay
Globalization, love and (Be)longing in contemporary India
By Parmesh Shahani
Price Rs395; Pages 349
Sage Publications

In my 12- year old mind, I cannot yet comprehend the feelings that I am developing for E. I have a crush on Suraiya. That I know. She is wonderful to be with and when she speaks to me, it makes me happy. I blush whenever we are teased together and it makes me feel respected and appreciated amongst my friends, even though it is supposedly clandestine. But what am I to do with my feelings about E? I never stare at Suraiya the way I stare at E

It is such nuggets of subjective personal information packed within the larger objective question on the ramifications of being gay in India, that make Gay Bombay an informative, thought provoking and interesting read.
Well researched and written in a frank and conversational style, the book manages to bridge the gap between being heavily academic and serious and being frivolous and mushy. The book also represents a coming-to-terms with the self, for its author who is also gay.
Parmesh Shahani wrote the book while he was doing his Masters in Comparative Media Studies at Massachusetts Institute of Technology as a graduate thesis. Without being self conscious he says, that in many ways, the book marked the end of a chapter in his life, a time when he could come out in the open about his sexuality.
At the core, the book studies a social group called “Gay Bombay”. Formed in 1998, it represents a “queer haven—a safe space for gay individuals to come together, affirm their identities and explore their sexualities.”
As of January 2007, the group’s website had a membership of over 5000 people and an average of 450 postings a month. Much of the book is based on characters and situations that the group members experienced. It also explores the circumstances that led to the book coming out in its present format.
It sensitively tracks some of the media’s reportage of gay issues and its effect on group members, the online and offline interaction of these members and the feeling of strong kinship that came to exist between them.
The book places all their questions, concerns and even affirmations within a historical and contemporary context, providing the book with its ‘soul’. For instance, Shahani identifies key trends and examples in coverage of gay issues in the media including print, electronic and radio to trace hesitant acknowledgement of a group till now considered on the fringes of society.
He traces the effect of Internet and technology on people with alternate sexuality living in a bustling metropolis like Mumbai. What comes out quite clearly is the fact that times have changed, even in conservative, hypocrtical India. The book brings out various nuances in interactions of the community, hitherto considered taboo to even talk. Some of the chapters explore questions like class differentials that exist within the folds of the gay community and the expectations which gay men have from one another.
Parmesh ends on a note of optimism, hoping that Gay Bombay and the Indian “queer movement” will be able to create a better society which includes them as equals. His own personal journey with rich anecdotal material gives love and affection a new dimension.

2) DNA

India, through the lens of sexuality



Thursday, April 24, 2008 15:42 IST

NEW DELHI: Sexuality can be an interesting lens to examine changes happening in India — the economic surge, the higher political profile, the cultural explosion on the world stage and a new and assertive confidence in its own capability as a major world power, says a new book.

In ‘Gay Bombay,’ venture capitalist Parmesh Shahani, chooses Gay Bombay — an online-offline community in Mumbai –to describe what it means to be a gay man in India’s financial and entertainment capital.

“The timely emergence of pop culture homogeneity, pan-Indianness have enabled gay-identified Indian individuals to imagine a distinctively Indian gay identity,” the Mumbai-based Shahani, who also works as research affiliate of Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Convergence Culture Consortium, writes.

He says the present gay scene would not have been possible but for the economic reforms of the 1990s.

“Closely connected to this is the political landscape of the time,” he writes. According to Shahani, the queer activist movement in India is broad and diverse, pursuing several legal and health agendas.

“The history, the legal challenges and the medical interventions have enabled an ideoscape of gayness to be formulated and to circulate within the Indian society. There is an awareness of certain issues, an acknowledgment that gayness is something that exists in India,” Shahani writes.

Shahani says being gay does not mean the same for all Indian men — for some it just represents their sexual desires and for others it was a political statement or a social identity.

“For some it is a state of being or a way of life while some feel it is an emotional commitment to other men. But for all of them there is a common element — the imagination of themselves as gay in whatever way they wish to articulate the imagination,” the book, published by Sage, says.

3) The Pioneer

‘We are Indians above all’


Interview of the weekParmesh Shahani wrote Gay Bombay while he was doing his Masters in Comparative Media Studies at Massachusetts Institute of Technology as a graduate thesis. Well researched and written in a frank and conversational style, the book bridges the gap between being hardcore academic and terribly mushy. While talking to Utpal Kumar, Shahani hopes that Gay Bombay and the Indian ‘queer movement’ will be able to create a better society which includes them as equals —Gay Bombay
Author: Parmesh Shahani
Publisher: Sage
Price: Rs 395

Q. What is Gay Bombay and how did it come about?
A. Formed in 1998, Gay Bombay represents a queer haven — a safe space for gay individuals to come together, affirm their identities and explore their sexualities. It is an online-offline community, running a website, a newsgroup and physical events in Mumbai. It is a community that is both imagined and fluid; identity here is both fixed and negotiated; and, to be gay in Gay Bombay signifies being ‘glocal’ — it is not just gayness but Indianised gayness.
As for the reasons that led to the origin of Gay Bombay, one cannot discount the importance of globalisation and liberalisation. Media exposure, too, has helped its cause, leading to opening up of bars and social spaces, besides providing impetus to gay activism. However, I believe there were several forces at work that led to the unique set of circumstances in which Gay Bombay was engendered; the post-1991 changes in India were only the last piece in the larger jigsaw. After all, there was already a thriving social gay community in Bombay during the 1970s and the 1980s. In the 1990s, the pioneering efforts of Bombay Dost magazine and the Humsafar trust had laid the groundwork for the possibility of Gay Bombay with their constant outreach through media.
Q. In this book, you have regarded India society’s attitude towards gay culture as colonial by-product. Why?
A. In ancient Indian texts like Arthasastra, while homosexual sex is unsanctioned, it is treated as a minor offence. Similarly, in Manusmriti, the penance for a man who has sex with another man is minor. In general, such a relationship in India, even when disapproved of, was not actively persecuted. It all changed during the 19th century. In 1861, the British legal system was imposed on India as the Indian Penal Code and Section 377 of this code was an offshoot of the British 1860 anti-sodomy law. However, one must not blame colonialism for everything. The continued perpetration of stigma against homosexuality in India owes as much to nationalism as it did to colonialism.
Q. What does being gay mean in Gay Bombay?
A. I think to be gay in Gay Bombay signifies being ‘glocal’; gayness here stands for Indianised gayness. Unlike other gay communities in the West, I feel Gay Bombay serves as a secondary community for its members rather than their primary community. Insofar as one’s primary community is concerned, the blood family still rules the roost.
At another level, Gay Bombay means a world of possibilities and a way to define one’s identity, though, as I have said before, this identity is part of family or even the nation. For me, the two identities are complementary. And, believe me, it is typically Indian scenario. As Pavan K Verma has written in his book, Being Indian, the popularity of pop culture in India was accompanied by a revival of interest in Indian classical music, there is no black and white in this country. Here, the two seemingly contrasting ideologies co-exist amicably. So is the case with gay culture and Indian family values and tradition.
Q. How do you look at the future?
A. I see Indian society opening up and accepting us as equals.

4) Tehelka

Ethnography Gone Wild

A study of the gay community lacking rigour or focus


NITHIN MANAYATH PARMESH SAHANI’S Gay Bombay: Globalisation, Love and (be)longing exemplifies, to near parodic excess, philosopher Harry Frankfurt’s concept of “bullshit”: academic work unmoved by truth or lies, wrought by those unconcerned about “describing reality correctly”, so long as their interests are met. Gay Bombay lurches drunkenly, scavenging concepts from mindbogglingly diverse, even contradictory theories and comes up with some new ones.

Scholarship unravels early. In the introduction, Sahani proposes using Arjun Appadurai’s framework of “scapes”: mediascape, financescape, ideoscape, ethnoscape and technoscape to explore what being gay means to members of Gay Bombay’s offline-online world and to understand how they negotiate the local and the global. Not only are these scapes conflated with the production of gay subjectivities, strong critiques of the framework, such as those made a decade ago by Partha Chatterjee, are ignored. Sahani rushes us, instead, through Appadurai’s framework and defends his choice with this academically rigorous and pithy rationale: “I love it.” Worse, he adds to this framework his own ill-defined concepts of “memoryscape” and “politiscape”. Elsewhere, he uses “gay” as ethnicity and as a mode of self-fashioning. As these two perspectives generally preclude each other, it is unclear how they can be used here without major theoretical innovations.

Thirty-two subjects, members of gay Bombay’s online and offline communities, are yanked about to fit into this motley framework. Included, gratis, are narrations of “various personal, intimate, significant details” of the author/researcher’s life. This “autoethnography”— a chatty stream of inconsequence in blog style — “evocatively” constructs an amusing portrait of the author, that of an alpha gay male and self-confessed drama queen. His experiences include being disgusted by desperate doctors, being movedby the pathos of poverty, “semi-hot boys”, his “lowering of standards” when he’s particularly horny, and being “appalled” by a TV show host who sought his advice on a show on homosexuality but failed to use it. Sahani’s detailed descriptions of his encounters with Gay Bombay members are very engaging. These are ruined only by his constant navelgazing and a facile reflexivity that obscures more than it reveals.

While Sahani’s work calls for us to study new sites of articulation of state power such as the Internet, he does little to examine the relationships that make up online subjectivities. His use of multi-sited ethnography does not seem to merit multiple methodologies, and no discernible patterning is displayed in the interviews. There are insights into how social networks work, for instance, the use of Grannovetter’s idea of social resources derived from weak ties to demonstrate the effectiveness of a group like Gay Bombay. Also present is a neat elucidation of recent queer film theory responding to Indian cinema and the commendable effort that has gone into compiling a history of gay representations in the media. These portions, however, are marred by dissonant and persistent quoting and footnoting: some sentences contain up to four different quotes. The last chapter, as he warns us, is the “modus vivendi”, which kills any idea that his research subjects inform his manifesto for the future. Interviews are thrown aside to proffer a list of things to do as gay men that sounds like an NGO vision statement.

The academic book today is but one part of an oily network of book publishers, commissioning editors and logrollers, where your ability to get published is determined more by the political economies of location (read: who you party with) than with any design of rewarding scholarship. The subject of this book demands reworking. The author could set himself to this task, but only if he thought of himself less as a keeper of academic memory through endless quotation and instead focussed on explaining the social phenomena that he has only, at best, succeeded in describing.

From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 5, Issue 17, Dated May 03, 2008


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