Was it Woody Allen who said: “Bisexuality immediately doubles your chances for a date?”
Singlehood. It felt like a jacket that belonged to someone else – a sweaty, itchy jacket that was five sizes too small. The Singlehood Jacket. Leather; constrictive; black. So tight that it was squeezing my insides.
Without her, I felt unmoored from reality, and unsure of myself. Still, I was out, and Bonobo was pulsing. On that Thursday night, Konstantin, the celebrated German house DJ, had somehow turned Bandra into Berlin.
There was nothing to do but dance, and I felt myself drawn indoors, to that dingy room that’s become a second home. House music was calling. Inside, the music shook me this way and that — deep and dark and delectable. I lost myself, for a blissful hour that felt like no time at all.
Berlin's Konstantin putting Bandra into the right mood
She was petite. She wore adorable hipster glasses and danced with unencumbered grace. She came up to me, and said that she’d heard me DJ before, and that she’d enjoyed it. She even followed me on Soundcloud.
Female attention! From a stranger! It felt soft, and comforting, and warm. I smiled, and chatted with her about music, desperately trying to look cheerful. But something – either the whisky or the singlehood – was making me far too queasy to be useful.
The lights came on. I said goodbye to her, and asked her to follow me on social media. My buddies glared at me. They knew how rare this situation was.
Mumbai can be ruthlessly lonely for single men, and it’s considered bad form to walk away from a pretty stranger without at least asking for her number. In Mumbai’s bars, men are expected to approach women – knowing that they’ll probably be ignored, scowled at, or reported to a bouncer. A girl approaching a guy? It’s almost unheard of, especially if that girl is Indian.
But I just wasn’t ready. To talk. To flirt. To ask for someone’s number. I’d shown up, I’d drunk whiskey, and I’d danced. Now it was time to go home.
I guess it’s easy for men to blame women, to wish they would initiate conversations with us. You know, the way it is in Europe.
But that wish is reductive. We can’t expect to live in a city where women feel comfortable approaching strange men in bars, but uncomfortable walking the streets – no matter the time of day. We can’t have it both ways. Either women feel safe – everywhere. Or they don’t. Pretty much everywhere.
This may have contributed to my confusion
As the tipsy throngs pulled me out of Bonobo, a guy and girl grabbed me by the hand. I’d seen them both on the dance floor a few minutes ago.
“Our friend thinks you’re really cute,” they said.
“Oh,” I said.
“You have to meet our friend,” they said.
“OK,” I said, feigning casual indifference. Inside, I thought: two different girls coming up to me, in one night. What is going on!
But as they dragged me away from the counter and towards their table, the girl said: “Our friend is a guy…
… don’t freak out.”
“OK,” I said.
“Don’t freak out,” they said again.
“OK,” I said.
I am like most men. I fall in that large, amorphous grey area between homophobia and homosexuality. I cling (I think) to the median, the average, the very center of that continuum.
Most of us men seek solace in booze and the fairer sex; but some of us find comfort and transcendence in other dudes. And I’m completely OK with that.
The way I look at it, we’re all in together, us men. Gay or straight, it’s all good. We’re united by our flaws.
Masculinity, I feel, is a mantle that must be worn with resigned dignity — a graceful acceptance that our lives will largely be defined by suppressed emotions and inadequate communication.
But how to express all this in a crowded bar, to a complete stranger?
It was too late to prepare any thoughtful words. Before me stood a young man, not more than 22, a young man full of purpose and energy and hope.
I shook his hand. He was calm, intelligent, and sharp-featured. Masculine. We made small talk, as I would with any other stranger, and I enjoyed the conversation.
But the context was different, and I felt it keenly. I was secretly flattered, but haunted by a nagging desperation to spit out four words. Four words that I knew to be horribly insensitive, but still felt were necessary:
“I’m not gay, bro.”
What do you do, in that moment? What do you say?
I believe that every human being has the right to find love. I knew that this poor kid’s interest in me was technically illegal, and I admired his courage: for being out, for being open, for being himself.
In India, we’ve mastered the art of homoeroticism amongst straight men. We live in a city that happily accepts two dudes holding hands in the street — as long as those dudes aren’t going to hold each other that night. I accept that hypocrisy, even though I’m discomfited by its essential weirdness.
But even though I’m trying to be a writer, even though I’d like to think I’m open-minded and sympathetic to the LBGTQI cause, I found myself helplessly inarticulate in that moment. Linguistically, I was fine. But emotionally, I was ill-equipped for this dialogue, for subtlety and empathy and grace.
Luckily, a friend pulled me away, out into the sticky Mumbai night, and as she did, I was able to blurt “I gotta go,” with a shred of dignity.
The next day, I did some Googling. There are 2.5 million gay men in India, according to figures submitted to the government by the Supreme Court in 2012. That figure seems low; research conducted in the U.S. and the U.K. suggests that anywhere between 1 and 2% of both the male and female populations consider themselves exclusively homosexual, with between 0.5 and 1% bisexual.
So if even 1% of Indian men are gay, there must be at least 6 million gay men in this country – roughly the population of Pune.
That Thursday night was the first time I’d even considered them. I’d been forced to acknowledge that gay India exists – and that it’s got a voice that deserves to be heard.
So the fundamental question, I guess, isn’t: “what do you do when a guy hits on you?”
The fundamental question is: what is our responsibility, as democratic, liberal, educated men, towards our gay brothers?
How far are we willing to go, to help them find happiness in the circus of a country, and how deeply are we willing to confront our own fears?
My first night out, as a single guy, in over a year. It was more eventful than I’d imagined. Me, nervous, shy me, approached by a woman and a man, on two different occasions, on the same night.
Clearly, the game has changed in Mumbai.
But we’ve still got a long way to go.
If you have suggestions, stories, or similar anecdotes, do share them with us in the comments.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are independent views solely of the author(s) expressed in their private capacity and do not in any way represent or reflect the views of 101India.com.
By Kunal Bambawale
Photographs by Kunal Bambawale