Homosexuality in South Asia: Men and Masti

Source: Blogcritics magazine
16 Feb 2007

Homosexuality in South Asia: Men and Masti

By Amrita Rajan

“Yaargh!” said Cleopatra as she walked off stage. “She kissed me!”

As the despairing director of our terrible high-school production of Antony and Cleopatra, I’d perked up the instant Cleopatra’s faithful handmaiden had leaned over the prone body of her mistress after her famous meeting with an asp to sip the poison from her lips. That one (inadvertent) ‘smooch’ had single-handedly converted what could only be described as a stinker into a popular, if not critical, success.

That day I learned two things: 1) homoeroticism sells and 2) teachers don’t like it. During the next few weeks, over much banter, I also learnt that as long as women are the principal characters, it generates much hilarity and lewdness, but the moment it switches genders, it becomes unforgivable.

A couple of years later, when I met Govind — a young man with a lisp and a bald head, much addicted to psychedelic sarongs and tie-and-dye kurtis paired with neon flip-flops, all of which taken together were enough to fuel rumors of his homosexuality — it didn’t surprise me to hear what people had to say about him – and he knew about it.

The whispers might have raged behind his back, but those snickers were industrial strength. A social animal and loath to give up his sartorial or social affectations, he chose to deal with it by escorting a series of anorexic supermodels (it’s a long story, but suffice it to say he was very well-connected to the fashion world even if he didn’t work in it) to all the parties in town.

This didn’t improve matters any. Instead, the sniggers got progressively more unkind, and soon men were making faces and gagging motions behind his back while their girlfriends muffled their giggles.

“Why?” I asked.

“Ewww!” was the not very articulate answer.

In some circles, it seemed, it was infinitely better to be accused of incest or be unflatteringly compared to various denizens of the animal kingdom, than to be accused of preferring men who prefer other men and thus must be effeminate deviants whose perversion just stops short of contagion.

You must understand; I grew up in very conventional urban India. We knew about things like homosexuality, but 10-15 years ago, nobody really talked about it, at least not so I knew. My own reaction to the issue — complete ambivalence tinged with ignorance — mirrored that of many of my peers. We simply didn’t know and didn’t care to know. Growing up, I can’t remember a single discussion on the issue of sexuality. Period. You were either straight or else you were “yuck”. End of discussion.

I don’t know if others around me actually went through a process wherein they thought about it and came up with a rational answer that supported their revulsion or whether it was instinctual. I do know that I, personally, was used to casually derogatory remarks being made about gay people in my presence and didn’t really pause long enough to think about it.

This made it all the more interesting when I came across the term “masti”.

‘Masti’ denotes the homoerotic behavior of men who do not describe themselves as homosexuals. It is not necessarily penetrative and neither does it fall within the Western definition of homosexuality wherein two males are ultimately seeking a committed partner much like heterosexual couples. Its closest Western alternative would be the ‘down low’.

Masti, a word that literally means mischief in Hindustani, is a relationship that in most cases does not imply permanence or emotional attachment. It is not seen as a substitute for a conventional heterosexual relationship leading to marriage and children. Neither is it limited to a particular geographic location as studies in India and Pakistan have proved.

Basically, it is a continuation of the subcontinental “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy as regards to all matters sexual. As long as a man does not openly exhibit his bisexuality or homosexuality, the man is merely up to some mischief. As soon as he comes out of the closet, he is a pervert.

However, Ashok Row Kavi, the man commonly hailed as India’s foremost gay activist, would like to point out that the diversity of South Asia means that, unlike the West, a common gay identity that holds true across socio-economic and language divides is still in the process of evolution across the region. Men who like to have ‘a bit of masti’ in their lives refuse to see themselves as part of this process. It is further fractured by other classifications such as MSM (men-who-have-sex-with-men) or “kothi” (penetrated males), peculiar to the region.

The introduction of Western sensibility into South Asia during the colonial period and its adoption as the standard, as well as the increasingly urbanized global slant of culture today, means the Western interpretation of homosexuality is also the best defined and most accepted. Therefore, any openly homoerotic or even homo-affectionate behavior is considered to be homosexuality as understood by the West.

On the other hand –

“Have you ever wondered if you might be gay?” I once idly asked my friend, A.

“What?” he yelled, horrified. “Do I look like that?”

This idea of visible sexuality is directly derived, I think, from equating gay men with the popular subcontinental perception of eunuchs: the one obvious homosexual construct that does exist for South Asian society in general. Eunuchs and hermaphrodites in Indian society occupy a space that fluctuates rapidly between the sacred and the profane.

There are tales of the evil eunuch who steals babies and abducts young men to castrate them to reinforce a possibly dwindling community. On the other hand, it is considered opportune if they show up on auspicious occasions such as weddings and births. On Bombay trains and Delhi traffic intersections, among other places, they “extort” money from “normal” men by the free use of sexual innuendos and “a threat to lift up their skirts”.

This same group is also one of the most abused – the police are at liberty to intimidate and lock them up while their clients (if they are involved in prostitution as many are) all too often treat them with more contempt and brutality than their female counterparts. Popular cinema too has a less than kind view to take of them. They are usually the villains, the perverts, and the pimps in Bollywood, if not the clowns, and play to the worst stereotypes available.

This hostility towards effeminate, castrated men (although an increasing number of the modern day “hijras”, as they are called, have their genitals intact) when combined with the Western construct of homosexuality in which homo-erotic or even homo-affectionate behavior sets a man apart from the default marital tradition, has only magnified latent and ill-informed hostilities regarding homosexuality around the region and especially in the urban, westernized parts of it.

Javed Akhtar, renowned Indian screenplay writer, poet, and movie lyricist, once took the idea that most men are highly sexed one step further when he remarked that every man is a dormant rapist. When this “rapist” is faced with a man who has sex with other men — a thorough-going villain who is out to destroy the very fabric of society by refusing to knuckle down to the all-important business of marriage and procreation — does he instinctively believe that all homosexual men are rapists waiting for a chance to assault the “decent” and “normal” men of their acquaintance? Or could it be something else?

“How do you explain this hostility?” I asked M, a professor on whom most of us girls had a tremendous crush that wasn’t dampened in the least by the fact that he was openly gay.

“Maybe it’s a fear of rejection,” he grinned. “It’s one thing to be turned down by women, but to find that even the ‘fags’ don’t want you – ouch!”

Interestingly, many men carry their bias against homosexuality into their interactions with women. Even as to be labeled a “queer” or a “faggot” or a “queen” is deeply offensive to the male psyche, so they imagine it must be for women to be alluded to as “dykes”, “lesbos”, etc. The all-threatening figure of the feminist, for example, should just be declared as another synonym for lesbian, so often do men invoke the image.

In recent days, even as America debates the right of gay people to marry (and at least one Church is rocked by the issue of gay clergy), India is slowly waking up to the debate. More and more people are stepping up to talk about the issue, approaching it in ways unique to India. There are some who persist in seeing this as a “foreign” issue, but the voices we hear have a distinct Indian edge to them.

“How do you feel about that?” I asked A.

“Yuck,” he said scornfully.

“What do you mean?”

“Why are we talking about this?” he said, exasperated.

“I don’t know, because you’re my friend and your attitude bothers me?”

“Well, you’re not going to change my opinion, so you should just give up,” he said with an air of finality.

That might well be true. It’s a hard lesson to learn, but the fact is, one has very little control over the opinions and actions of others. It’s something I struggle to remember everyday when I see people whose views on life or society I find abhorrent – everybody is not the same all the time. My friend has certain facets to his personality that repel me, but others that attract me. Our friendship is a constant, at times unconscious, balancing act.

Interestingly, however, ever since I made such a thorough pest of myself on the subject, I heard fewer derogatory remarks from him. Has he changed his mind? I don’t think so. Is he more comfortable around gay people? Not so much. I might have succeeded in getting him to shut up around me, but that’s about the best I have accomplished. Is that enough?


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