5 min

Love and death in India

A gay man's secret to earthquake survival

CHECK OUT THE CRUISING WALL. Vancouver writer Cory Holliday loves to meet local gays in his travels of the world. Credit: a West files

Jan 24, 2001 I’ve had enough of Bombay and its crowded, noisy streets and thick phlegm-inducing smog. Tomorrow I’m taking the train north to Ahmedabad, the capital of Gujarat, and then continuing on to Rajasthan, the desert jewel of India. But tonight, I’m celebrating my last night in Bombay by checking out the one and only gay club in this sprawling city of 14 million people. By my count, that means at least 1.4 million queers live here and there’s only one decent bar. Sound familiar?

I arrive at the unmarked door, pay the 200 Rupee cover and enter a tiny club filled with smoke, cheesy pop music and nervous looking Indians. I squeeze my way through to the bar and order a Taj Mahal beer. Next to me is a good-looking guy around my age, so I break the ice by asking him if the music is always this bad. He smiles and replies, “Welcome to Bollywood. You’ll get used to it.” We talk for a while and it soon becomes apparent that Sujit, an aspiring actor, is totally full of himself, so I wish him luck and take a walk around.

One beer later, I can’t handle the music anymore so I leave and walk down the street to “the wall”-the infamous gay cruising spot near the Gateway to India.

Leaning against the seawall, I watch as macho motorbikers do wheelies up and down the street trying to impress the all-male audience. Several groups of men walk by and look at me inquisitively. I look back, uninterested; that is, until I see him. A striking Indian boy in his mid-20s with dark wavy hair and piercing green eyes, beautiful enough to land him on the cover of National Geographic. Damn, he’s with another white guy-I’m too late.

As they walk past, the boy looks at me and I turn to jelly. My mouth whispers “Hi” as the rest of me melts into those eyes. He smiles then turns back to his friend and keeps talking to him as they disappear into the darkness. Feeling tired, I start walking back to my hotel when suddenly someone is running up the seawall towards me. It’s him-and he’s alone. I think I might get lucky after all. The beautiful boy introduces himself as Divyan from Gujarat and sits down beside me.

“Where is your friend?” I ask.

“Oh, James is at the hotel waiting for me … but I want to talk to you. Can we meet here in the morning?”

“Uh, sure, but I have to catch a train to Ahmedabad tomorrow.”

“Hey, I live in Baroda, it’s just three hours south of Ahmedabad. Come with me and stay at my home. I insist.”

Ah, the Indian people are so friendly, so hospitable. I can’t resist his invitation. Or his eyes.

“Um, okay.”

“Perfect. Meet me right here at nine and we’ll go together. I can’t wait to show you my city!” he exclaims and leans over and kisses me fully on the lips, flashes me that beautiful smile again, then runs back down the seawall and out of sight.

Jan 25, 2001

At nine sharp I meet Divyan, we take a rickshaw to the station and soon we’re aboard an overcrowded train for the six hour journey to Baroda. I notice that the two guys across from us have their arms around each other and one is stroking the other’s thigh while they talk. I whisper to Divyan and ask if they are gay. He explains to me that most men in India are quite affectionate with their friends but it doesn’t necessarily mean that they are gay. I think to myself what a peaceful world it would be if all men could touch each other with tenderness instead of aggression. As I rest my head on his shoulder to take a nap, Divyan gently caresses my leg, and no one in the train bats an eye.

We arrive in Baroda and take a taxi to Divyan’s whitewashed two-story apartment not far from the town center. He shows me to the bedroom and immediately I push him onto the bed and drown him in kisses. He flips me onto my back, pulls off my shirt and returns my kisses with gusto. Soon we’re both naked, writhing in passion, screaming the names of Hindu gods.

In the evening Divyan treats me to a wicked curry vindaloo, followed by a wild motorbike tour through the cow-congested streets of Baroda. We return home for another round of lingam worship, and then it’s time to sleep, finally, in a real bed. Divyan says he’ll be up early to get groceries and I can sleep in as long as I want. It’s Republic Day tomorrow, a national holiday, so we’ll go watch the parade.

We snuggle and spoon and fade away into dreamland.

Jan 26, 2001

I wake up, notice that I am alone and look at the clock. 8:44 am. I decide to sleep a bit more. As I sink back into my slumber, all of the birds outside stop chirping. I sit up to look at the clock again. 8:46 am.

I hear a low rumbling noise and the bed begins to shake. No, the whole room is shaking. Holy shit! The entire house is moving.

“Divyan!” I scream. No reply. As the noise increases and the house shakes more violently, I jump out of bed, still naked, and run to the doorway. This is what I’m supposed to do in an earthquake, right? Shit! The whole house could collapse. Fuck!

I grab my boxers and run out through the kitchen, dodging dishes as they crash to the floor.

This is really bad! Am I going to die? I run outside into the street where people are standing around looking bewildered but strangely calm-maybe in shock.

I watch in awe as cows try to keep their balance and power lines dip down almost to street level. Time slows down to a surreal crawl as I surf the crackling pavement. I am standing still but moving laterally at least two feet each way as the ground slides back and forth beneath me.

This is the strangest sensation I have ever felt: totally helpless, at the mercy of mother nature, waiting for what seems hours for the shaking to stop. Finally, a full two minutes after it began, the earthquake ends. The house has not collapsed. In fact, I can’t see any buildings that have collapsed. Slowly and warily people return to their homes while others hug each other and thank the gods that they’ve survived.

I go back inside and turn on the television, and it works! I find an English station and wait for some news.

The phone rings and I grab it.

“Cory, thank God you are alive!” Divyan yells. “I was in the market and the windows were breaking and everyone ran outside screaming. It was awful, but I think everyone is okay.”

“I was still in bed and it took me about 20 seconds to get outside, but I’m okay. The house is fine, too.”

“Good. I’m coming home now. See you soon.”

When Divyan arrives, we hold each other and listen to the anchorman on television.

“A massive earthquake struck Gujarat this morning, measuring 7.9 on the Richter Scale. The epicenter is 20 kilometers northeast of Bhuj, according to the Indian Seismological Department. Initial reports indicate widespread damage and scores of casualties throughout the state. Many buildings have collapsed in Ahmedabad, in Surat, and in Bhuj, which suffered the most devastation. The quake was also felt as far away as Bombay, New Delhi and Nepal.”

“Did he say 7.9? Holy shit!” I exclaim.

“Buildings collapsed in Surat, just south of here, and Ahmedabad up north, and Bhuj to the west. We are lucky to be alive, my friend,” Divyan says, tears welling up in his eyes. I hold him and we cry together, thinking of those who were less fortunate than us today.

“And I’m lucky that I met you ’cause I would have been in Ahmedabad!”

* More than 30,000 people died in the Gujarat earthquake, with 200,000 injured and millions more left homeless. Ahmedabad suffered major damage and many downtown hotels collapsed while their guests still slept. Somehow Baroda was left unscathed while surrounding areas were devastated. I often wonder what would have happened to me had I been in Ahmedabad as planned, had I not been cruising the wall in Bombay where I met Divyan. Did desire save my life?