In 2004, I went to a party with an Indian reporter to check out the hip
desi gay scene in New York, who instructed me to walk 10 yards away from me. “I
do not want to be mistaken as gay,” he whispered. It was banter underlaid with
a homophobic tone. It echoed the hang-ups of most straight South Asians who
look away when they come across a member of the gay community. And when they do
look, they are voyeurs gazing through a peephole.
It could be said that Desilicious, as these parties came to be called, were organised with the aim to open these doors. You didn’t need to eavesdrop on this invisible desi subcommunity of mostly Indians, Bangladeshis, and Pakistanis anymore. Desilicious was a bacchanalian jamboree of queer homeboys and homegirls every month in New York, where you could let your hair down and celebrate your defiant sexuality, cross dressed in pagan-coloured ensembles and dhinchak music. It was created by the trio of Ashu Rai, Atif and Raj Parwatkar, who met at an event organised by the South Asian Lesbian and Gay Association (SALGA). They came up with a collective called Sholay, named after the cult film. This collective had its debut party in 2002, and it was the first time that the desi queers came out of the dark and partied like berserk fireflies.
The first wave of recklessness had toned down by the time I went in 2004.I had heard tales of carnal feasts and hook-ups on the dance floors when it had first started. The parties had lost their ghetto feel, and from the initial desi queer groupies it had moved on to include heterosexuals, whites, African-Americans and Latinos who came here to chill out.
I was embraced by a homey vibe in this wild desi party. People were dancing to Himesh Reshammiya’s songs like Rumi followers, dancing to break free. Posters of a bare-chested Shahrukh Khan, Salman Khan and Rekha (who unfortunately was not bare-chested!) shone on the walls. It didn’t feel like I was in the US as the desi community in the US is very uptight and cagey. Most of them come here to work and study, and they live with this constant pressure to prove themselves. After the 9/11 especially, these people felt more insecure and marginalised and kept to their hoods. To see people hang it loose reminded me of the mohalla parties back home.
Besides, I was seeing desi queers for the first time in my life. When I left Pune in 2002 for the US, the queer scene in India was underground. The fear of persecution was real. I had to swear secrecy to watch the homoerotic movie Bomgays screened by a gay professor at Pune university. Around the same time Deepa Mehta’s Fire was released to violent protests by militant right wing groups. There were constant reports of police harassing eunuchs and transgenders in the city. An NGO fighting for gay rights had published a map of Pune marking out meeting spots and pick-up places of gay men. It turned out to have an opposite effect—the police could now target them easily.
But in the US, the gay scene changed after the Stonewall riots in 1969. Many gay rights organisations had sprung up and annual gay pride marches that celebrated sexuality and sexual orientation were conducted. Indian gay community carried a baggage of persecution, but in these parties they seemed to just jerk it off with panache. While shooting I was groped and touched all over. Initially I was very uptight and defensive about it, but I relaxed soon. I realised that I did not mind it so much!
(As told to Shweta Upadhyay)