[Reader-list] Queer conversations about the city

sheba tejani shebatejani at gmail.com
Tue Apr 25 10:16:28 IST 2006

Hi everyone,

For all of you who have been waiting eagerly for further postings from
me, here it is! Hope you will forgive this touch of humour on my part-
it is meant to act as a foil for my tardiness. This posting would only
count as my second, though I hope to be sending other updates soon.

My project is a visual essay of the city of Bombay structured around
the conversations of two queer women. I've been trying to work on
different parts of my project simultaneously. Since I am writing a
(fictional) script of conversations between two queer women about
living in the city, I am also conducting interviews with queer women
who live in Bombay. The idea is not only to document those experiences
but to inform the creative process itself. I will recount here one of
the interviews I conducted.

Suraiya (name changed) is in her early twenties and works in the
media. She has been living in Bombay for the past three years, first
in a college hostel where she studied for two years and now
independently, as a working person. The contexts in which she lived
have been definitive in terms of her own consciousness of being queer
and slowly coming overground, as well as in leading her life in the
way she chooses. Though she obviously loves her college and the
friends she made there, it was not really a queer friendly campus. She
told me of the time when some student groups protested about a lecture
that a gay activist was to give on campus. How could they have a talk
on a topic like this, the students averred? Now living on her own, she
feels a sense of freedom, she can go out with whoever she wants, bring
her girlfriends home and there is no problem as she is earning her own
bread and butter.

Suraiya's interview was full of the mixed and ambivalent experiences
of living in Bombay, as a queer person, invisible for most part to the
public eye, but yet with access to spaces where one could be out.
There are some things that might be easier, for instance, her landlord
told her specifically that no boyfriends should come over to her
place- of course, she instantly agreed (!) but the irony of the
situation is not lost on her. It is not possible to be out at work
either, where it is assumed that everyone is heterosexual. When she
was having some difficulty finding an apartment, one of her colleagues
suggested that she should get married and take care of her housing
problems permanently. But, for her, probably the most attractive thing
about being in Bombay was that she was away from family. It was like
starting life all over again, she could even invent her past. Though
Suraiya has a close and warm relationship with her family being at
some distance gives her the opportunity to "just be".

Finding queer groups was a major thing for her, which she did in
Bombay. In Delhi it was different- though there were some groups they
seemed to have a niche crowd and were quite exclusive. I asked her if
there was something about the city of Bombay itself that lent itself
to these different possibilities. She had an interesting reply: she
felt that in Bombay you are thrown together with so many people-
travelling on the train, for instance, forces you to get close to
people in the literal sense- that there tends to be more tolerance. In
Delhi, many people travel in their own private vehicles and seem to
lead more private lives, where they interact mostly with people that
they know. Even when universities have lectures or events around
homosexuality people are afraid to attend and be identified as such.
When she took part at a demonstration against Section 377 in Bombay
she was surprised at how willing people were to stop and talk, discuss
or even read the fliers. Maybe it has to do with the fact that people
in this city are mostly migrants.

Of course that comes with its own dangers- Bombay, in a sense, is also
a city that forces you to be more "out". For instance, if a woman
dresses in a more "masculine" fashion or looks obviously queer in some
other way, the interaction with people and thus the possibilities for
harassment increase. At the same time, the chances of making
connections with people are also greater- she noticed a fellow
commuter looking at her rainbow badge once and then they ended up
meeting at a party some time later. The other aspect of Bombay that
she finds liberating is that it is relatively more safe for women.
Travelling alone or with other women late at night was unthinkable in
Delhi whereas Bombay affords that space.

Suraiya felt that the invisibility that allows her so much freedom is
also the most debilitating thing about living in the city as a queer
person. Being queer is still such a remote possibility in people's
minds that one has to perforce conceal one's difference. But still she
ended by saying that her experience has been positive and that Bombay,
in her opinion, is the queer capital of India!


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