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Framed
March 19, 2019

Queer Haunts Of The ’90s

Text by Ojas Kolvankar and Shubham Ladha. Photographs by Mallika Chandra.

Carefully navigating conservative social norms to avoid being outed, ostracised or questioned by the authorities, men who belong to marginalised LGBTQIA+ groups cultivated safe spaces for their interactions in the ’90s.

The establishment of these meeting grounds – which occupied both the private and public spheres – and the communities that formed within them laid the foundation for the more progressive and inclusive society that the country is witness to today.

Six noted members of the queer community who experienced this Bombay (as it was called until 1995) of the past, open up to Ojas Kolvankar and Shubham Ladha, reliving the energy of excitement and the feeling of uncertainty that flowed through these spaces…. Ashok Row Kavi, founder-chairperson of the Humsafar Trust; Sridhar Rangayan, filmmaker and founding director of the Kashish Mumbai Queer Film Festival; R. Raj Rao, writer and academic; Balachandran Ramaiah, management consultant, entrepreneur and social activist; Ashish Sawhny, filmmaker; and Pallav Patankar, public health policy expert; share intimate stories about lifelong friendships, lustful encounters and being at the forefront of a path-breaking movement…

“There were the ‘respectable’ queer-friendly public places, such as Gokul, (a no-frills bar in Colaba that is still active today) and Voodoo (earlier Slip Disc, the sweaty, pulsating nightclub that used to be tucked away behind the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel until it shut its doors in 2012). What I mean by ‘respectable’ is that these places were where the upper-middle-class, English-speaking, gay-identified men of Bombay hung out, and could admit to it. There were also more subversive spaces, which, according to me, were more interesting because of the possibilities they held. In this category were the gents’ restrooms at the Churchgate, Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus (CSMT), Marine Lines and Dadar railway stations, as well as a host of others on the Western and Central train lines. This category also included public urinals on busy thoroughfares, like the one on Haines Road off Worli Naka; as well as the two maidans in South Bombay; Azad Maidan and Oval Maidan.”
-R. Raj Rao

“After spending time at Gokul and then at The Walls (a popular cruising area along the Gateway of India promenade) most of us had to get back to the suburbs. We would take the last train (nicknamed The Maharani Express by the community) from Churchgate to Borivali. Our revelry – singing, dancing, gossiping and laughing – would continue on the train. Since we were a big gang, and very raucous, no one dared to trouble us. A lot of us would even go hang out at Horizon Hotel in Juhu (now an address that houses several restaurants), where we gathered on the lawns next to the sea and talked into the wee hours of the morning. We owned Saturday nights!”
-Sridhar Rangayan

“In the ’90s everything was so hush-hush and underground. ‘Gay’ was not a word that was spoken out loud, and there was a lot of fear in the community about people’s identities being disclosed. Since there was no internet then – or online dating sites – gay men met at either house parties or in public places, like parks and train stations. This was always fraught with danger, and exploited by the police and blackmailers. Many gay men I know lost a lot of money and were sexually molested.”
-Sridhar Rangayan

“Gokul – and later Voodoo as well – became default community locales where we felt like we belonged. We visited the bar not only for fun and enjoyment, but also for queer community-building. International visitors and gay men from other cities would meet us there too – that’s how links were made. Some of us hung out together to start India’s first gay magazine, Bombay Dost, and later, the first registered gay organisation, the Humsafar Trust. Gokul also became a space where we could invite young men, who were just coming out, to get a sense of the community. The older gay men would be mentors (actually hen mothers!) to the younger ones and teach them the ropes of how to interact, be safe and avoid dangerous situations. A public gay movement was beginning! History was being made.”
– Sridhar Rangayan

“People at Voodoo were pretty forward and bold. The music was good, loud; and a lot of people would dance. The back room was dark – some sexual activity would happen there and the club administration knew about it, but they would look the other way. There were two toilets that also saw some action. The whole atmosphere was highly sexually charged.”
-Balachandran Ramaiah

“The DJs were in sync with playing queer music – think disco, some early techno house and a large smattering of Bollywood. I’m still haunted by the endless shrill refrains of Alisha Chinai’s ‘Sexy, Sexy, Sexy Mujhe Log Bole/Hi Sexy! Hello Sexy Log Bole!”
– Ashish Sawhny

“Fashions were changing too – our wardrobes began to include a lot of Lycra and we all wore tight T-shirts made of this impractical material. There was sheer, sheen, sparkle and shine – and there was more than one time when we raided our girl friends’ wardrobes. How we had the gall to leave home and traverse the city undressed like that amazes me! While spring cleaning recently, I found my cherished and life-altering PVC silver shorts! They were bought in a giddy moment, and were my go-to for the Voodoo nights in ’96. I had grown comfortable with myself, learnt about the joys of polygamy, and of the dark side of being in love with a straight man in those shorts. Shame that they just won’t go up beyond my thighs anymore!”
-Ashish Sawhny

“It was empowering to be at a bar that was mainstream, yet predominantly queer and underground. The door of Voodoo opened into a little chamber-room that housed a desk, a phone and an affable Parsi owner, Shapur Irani. The entry fee was 60 rupees a night. There was an open dance floor, a small DJ booth, a bar that ran along the left and a large revolving ‘storm’ fan. This would later claim its own popularity for the excessively sweaty ones who would monopolise it – hoping that their hair was flying in the right direction. The dance floor led off to an open area – that effortlessly became our ‘Backroom’ with a few tables tucked into dark corners. These would host many a gay duo or trio that would sink into the corners to kiss, cuddle and experience the unbridled joy that came from first uncovering an unknown appendage.”
– Ashish Sawhny

“The Walls have been a cruising place since time immemorial; the area allows people to line up and check out one another. Eye contact, its duration, looking back at someone you liked and body language were used to show interest.”
-Pallav Patankar

“What were you afraid of in the old days? Blackmail, or being outed! But fear has this habit of losing its value; it becomes a useless currency. When people started attending these parties and interacting with others like them, they began losing the fear of being outed. They drew their strength from numbers, became bolder, and more ‘out’.”
-Ashok Row Kavi

“There are certain norms and restrictions in private parties – you have to be of a certain class. At one party, they didn’t like people coming in rubber chappals because they were then assumed to be poor. That’s an irrational restriction – the party is for gay men. In a hotel or an open space, it’s not as easy to discriminate based on class or caste. That’s a big difference between private and public spaces.”
-Ashok Row Kavi

“In the ’90s we saw the division of filtered information coming, the internet generation had not begun then. People were still within specific silos, and places like Gokul were the melting pots. Because gay men from really high socio-economic backgrounds were meeting those from lower middle-class or middle-class backgrounds, there was a sort of cultural exchange taking place. People did not mind fraternising with one another for the sake of sex. They also realised that HIV or AIDS do not discriminate. The class and caste differences went out of the window, because it gave rise to the larger movement.”
-Pallav Patankar

“One was obviously more vulnerable to homophobic attacks in train station urinals and maidans. But even pubs were not free of risk. I remember being at Voodoo one night when the cops raided it. The owner, Mr Shapur, used me to convince the cops that the place wasn’t shady – even educated writers and professors like me went there. I told the cops that men frequented the place merely to have an innocent drink, as their wives wouldn’t allow them to at home. We used alibis of this kind all the time….”
-R. Raj Rao

Hidden City: In the Company of Women

The question “What spaces did queer women have in the ’90s?” when asked blithely, draws bitter smiles from most of us who were around at that time. No, we did not then, nor do we today, have any public “cruising” areas like the ones for men, to meet other women in search of like company.
Public spaces for the transaction of sex, lust or love, have traditionally not been available to women, except for sex workers and transwomen and that too because men also seek them openly. The very private, ‘alone’ places have been the only real ones that those biologically-assigned women, especially, lesbian and bisexual women, have had all along.

To reminisce about the ’90s is to first remind ourselves that it was a time without any personal means of communication – mobile phones, the internet, social media ­­– and the small but important virtual spaces of privacy that these devices create.

So where on earth could two women meet? The answer is both nowhere, and everywhere. Each of us grew up believing “I am the only one who feels like this”. And yet, we did fall in love or lust.

Sometimes, we walked together on seashores, and those were good, beautiful nights. Then there were the women’s compartments that saw many a stolen glance, tears and joy. That witnessed lovers’ tiffs, quick kisses or even some action hidden in the crowd. There was the occasional acknowledgement between two butch persons hanging on to different doors of the same compartment, because they knew that going in meant stares and mockery from ‘real’ women.

The rare times we managed to meet up with others like us, we hung out in houses of those few who had independent homes of their own. The smallest of the rooms was a refuge for many of us. Bottles of rum and cheap vodka were shared as were stories of heartbreak and longing.

Some with money or generous rich friends managed a night in discos and pubs, where you could flirt with a woman, who may or may not be queer, but was open to that in a public space.

We tried to have parties of our own; day parties so that some of us could make it in time for our curfews. We sought romance and love, but what we needed, almost more than that was a sense of belonging, of community – however ill-defined and fractured.

The ’90s saw the powerful beginnings of this community, and yet so many years later there is still much to be done. For those with the means to traverse this metropolis and with access to the privacy of the internet and a home, the world seems to have changed today. But for many, life is no different.

Until public spaces can be equally claimed by all, and the private ones open up to different ways of being, we shall still smile and answer the question “Where do two women meet?” with the same answer – nowhere and everywhere!
– Chayanika Shah, feminist activist and author

Hidden City: In the Shadows

The transgender community in India, the ‘T’ in the formulation LGBTQIA+, has always felt doubly marginalised – marginalised within a marginalised group. So how did the trans community network in the then Bombay in the ’90s, in the days prior to the internet and mobile phones?

It must be said at the outset that the hijra community was the most visible face of the transgender community back then. Most hijras, as 37-year-old activist, Gauri Sawant puts it, were from the non-English-speaking lower middle class. Thus, expensive hangouts like Voodoo, where westernised gay men met, were a no-no for them. Instead, they confined themselves to their respective gharanas (a house that is ruled by the hijra leader with many teachers who, in turn, have many disciples) where they socialised with each other. Other than that, there were a few places that by convention became their rendezvous points.

One such place was Maheshwari Udyan at King’s Circle, where hijras and kotis (effeminate working-class homosexual men) regularly met on Saturday and Sunday evenings. They would spend a few hours here, feel happy in each other’s company, and then return home. Sawant and fellow transgender-activist Laxmi Narayan Tripathi, fondly refer to Maheshwari Udyan as a place of refuge.

Platform One at the South-bound end of Dadar railway station was another meeting point. The hijras would assemble here, just outside the men’s loo, where some of them did outreach work like distributing condoms, and then move to the downmarket Shri Krishna Cafe opposite, for tea and samosas. The owner of the cafe was aware of their presence, and did not mind.

For those hijras who did sex work for a living, the street adjacent to Mahim railway station was the place to be after sunset. College boys and the like would pick them up from here. Of course, this was not without its share of occupational hazards. Cops often acted as agent provocateurs to trap the hijras, beat them up, extort money, and then force them to have sex, or solicit for them.

But it was not as if there were no upper-class transgender people in Bombay in the ’90s, whose lifestyles were radically different from that of the hijras. Two well-known transwomen of the time were Farah Rustom and Aida Banaji. In fact, along with BomGay (1996), based on my poems, the late Riyad Wadia also made a short film on Aida Banaji that same year, A Mermaid Called Aida. We learn from this documentary that she hung out at Voodoo and other swanky, upmarket bars. She wore designer clothes and spoke English with a westernised accent. Farah Rustom, to the best of my knowledge, found a German lover and went to live with him in his country. Unlike many hijras who postponed having their nirvana (castration), both Farah and Aida had scientific sex-change operations in top-of-the-line Bombay clinics under the supervision of well-trained surgeons. Aida was extremely conscious of things like breast size. Farah was shocked when her doctor told her that having a sex change operation did not mean that she would be able to conceive.

Laxmi’s life is interesting. She remains the only hijra of the ’90s to transcend class. She did this by learning English and acquiring a college education. Today Laxmi, as everyone knows, is a media celebrity.
-R. Raj Rao

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