Parmesh Shahani: Dhiren, thank you so much for having this conversation for the special anniversary edition of Gay Bombay.
Dhiren Borisa: Thank you for giving me this opportunity. On my way here, I was reminded about how I stumbled upon the book Gay Bombay. As a shy small-town boy in the big bad city of Delhi, I had come to seek a future and a refuge for my queerness – a word that I later learnt and am still learning. Among the several parallelly laid bookshelves at a distant dark end of the JNU library where I was studying, my eyes sparkled at the sight of the word “gay” next to a “city” that I had never been to, but knew of, through Bollywood and fashion – Bombay.
There were several books on the subject of queerness here but not many that my closeted self could readily relate to. Nobody knew of my sexuality then, so I sneakily picked that book up (I could not dare issue it and proudly wander in the campus with that word too visible) and hid at some other corner – a place I would later hide and read this book. I had hidden it among other books which would train me to think of geography and places in particular, and often disciplining ways, and ways I have been since then trying to undo, as to queer it.
It showed up in years later when I would do my doctoral research at the same university on queerness and city. Not Bombay but Delhi. When I was exploring my sexuality in the 1990s and in my early 20s, I was introduced to the Yahoo chat rooms, and the excitement and the fantastic world that it allowed you to create. Your book spoke of similar worlds but of different times and possibilities and of people, and I think this conversation is interesting because it takes us to a decade after that and in the process many places that we both might have inhabited, loved and despised.
P: Let’s talk about the prehistory of the queer Internet. How did my book influence your work?
D: It’s interesting because queerness and technology have such an exciting relationship. And this book explores it so beautifully. There are so many similarities between what you do, and I did in my work. The very ways in which we write because we use the memoir.
We undo the rigidity of ethnography by saying, “I am going to tell my story and you will have to listen to it.” That itself is a moment of pride and queerness. That’s how we queer the very idea of doing and writing about our lives. And that was very helpful. Like Gay Bombay…a list of this, and then for me to have my first interaction in Yahoo chat rooms and people asking “asl” and I was like what is “asl”.
P: Asl and “have place”. That’s the second question.
D: “Have place” still continues. (chuckles)
P: Yes, have place continues. Even on Grindr…
D: Yes! Indeed. Not in the similar sense of a place to mean the spatial possibility of a sexcapade (as on Grindr on any of these apps), what is interesting with Gay Bombay is that it is Bombay. The place. That locatedness of it. But it’s still not limited to Bombay. It’s global.
P: I write about how all these places come about because of a dialectic. I mean it’s Gay Bombay, it’s Indian queerness but how is it formed because of network of influences and possibilities. Gay Bombay built upon not just the work of say a Bombay Dost or Humsafar Trust or based on the dial-up Internet of VSNL but also magazines like Trikone that came out of San Francisco and South Asian queer networks like the Khush list.
For large parts of time on the Gay Bombay and other lists, more than half the people were diasporic queers, more attached to the idea of Bombay as this imaginary homeland which they felt happier in than maybe the physical queer world they were living in whether London or San Francisco. I actually wanted to end this book with you because I really look up to you and your dissertation work which we hope is going to come out soon as a book. Scholars like you are in a sense the legacy that I was hopefully trying to create when I wrote Gay Bombay. Then there were very few queer books in Indian voices in terms of academia. There was literature but there were very few academic works on queerness.
I am actually very happy to see how you have taken this intersectionality of technology and sexuality into a new direction with your work, I wanted to ask you since you remember the time of chat rooms: what you feel has changed and how we imagine and articulate queerness today digitally since my times. I really feel like a veteran and in the foreword of this book I write how when Gay Bombay came out first it was an ethnography and anthropology, and now it belongs to the history section. You are now doing the queer anthropology today so what do you think has changed since those days in terms of how we express ourselves online?
D: I think a lot has changed and still a lot is very similar. In the sense the very question of access still remains, despite over time we know new kinds of bodies have entered these spaces often on contested terms. When you talked about how Gay Bombay came up, you said that the people you were writing about were mostly diaspora, people who were everywhere in the world, had access, had resources, could go anywhere, mostly men.
I write about my first time in my PhD, when I got to know someone in the Yahoo chat room. They would tell me that they stayed in these cities that you speak of, around the world – Delhi, Bombay, London, San Francisco. At the same time, I was in love with this boy who was rich, upper caste. This boy would tell me, “I could take you home” because you know you do not look lower caste. That I was meritorious, smart and popular in school and spoke so eloquently – traits that certain privileged bodies were entitled to.
P: …and you still loved him?
D: Love is so flawed in that sense. We desire what kills us. He was studying in Delhi and I could not even imagine coming out of my hometown. He took me for the first time to a cybercafé. This underground basement. He said let me show you something.
He opened Yahoo messenger and pointed, “See, this is like Delhi Gay chat rooms and here we can talk to random people.” It was like some Rs 50-60 for half an hour and from the background I came from, I did not have that luxury. So I would save money, go to the café but be very scared of leaving a browser history.
When I talk about the intersections of technology and queerness, and many other social axes I struggle with, this is what I mean – survival, of desires and selves. What the Internet was allowing me to do was an attempt at undoing certain kinds of histories and recreating myself in
that. Because if I was there at that point of history in those spaces, I was automatically assumed to be upper caste and upper class. Similar to how my then lover thought he could take me home because I didn’t look lower caste.
It was on this random chat room that somebody asked me, “what’s your PR id?” and I was like what the hell is this? I thought and stupidly so that isn’t it “public relations”? Waiting only to be illuminated by someone who would introduce me to this portal, PlanetRomeo. I was asked to “go there, make an account.”
That space itself, so fraught with anxiety, even if you want to be there, belong there, you are manufacturing so much. You know that you might not even meet that person you are talking to. Unlike today. Because not everybody was saying the truth, in that not saying the “truth”, everybody was saying the truth. A truth that could hold fantasy of the self more than the assigned identifications of the “normal” world.
Today there’s a lot of conversation around what is real ID and what is fake ID. Why aren’t you showing your picture and who gets to show their pictures? I feel that earlier it was very stationary in the sense that the cybercafé was a very located place bound entity and you had to go there and then randomly chat with people. The mobility that technology has allowed you in terms of smartphones that you can move around everywhere has changed the very grammar of this interaction but also made queerness available as a very thin archive.
We might not be bothered about location today (similar to the yesteryears of gay loneliness – not to say that we are not lonely anymore – I would differ and say we are all the more) but we still need place. Where will the act happen? Where is sex going to take place? Where are we going to meet?
Excerpted with permission from Gay Bombay: Globalization, Love and (Be)longing in Contemporary India, Special Anniversary Edition, Parmesh Shahani, SAGE Select.
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2020/ 344 pages / Ebook (Kindle Edition): ₹435.00/ Paperback: ₹595.00 (9789353884208) / (Also available on KOBO and Google Play)