2 min

Queering up Kolkata

'Kolkata is like Canada in 1960s' our writer hears on his second week in India

Officially, there’s no gay bar in Kolkata (formerly known as Calcutta).

But ask anyone in the city who self-identifies as gay, and they’ll tell you to go to Ginger on a Saturday night.

My guide to Kolkata’s underground gay scene is a short, cute, 26-year-old Indian named Neil who I met on the internet. It’s surprising how many locals are willing to display their names, faces and (often) phone numbers online, considering homosexuality’s status in India — illegal. But when you’re part of a persecuted minority, you have to be bold. Especially when it comes to finding fellow queers.

“Kolkata is like Canada in the 1960s,” another internet friend tells me. It’s a small but tight scene, with no geographic base.

Except for Ginger.

Every weekend, it’s the place where Kolkata’s homos go to be themselves. After meeting my guide, Neil, for vegetarian thali, we jump in a cab (literally, since traffic here never stops) and head to the closest thing this city has to a gay bar.

With room for about a hundred people, it looks a lot like a small bar back home. But here, the formally-dressed bartenders do something I’ve never seen before. Every few minutes, they dim the lights, pour oil up and down the bar, and set it on fire. At Ginger, it’s not just the guys who are flamers.

But the truth is, it’s hard to tell the gay guys from the straight ones. There’s no real “gay uniform” in India. It’s up to my guide, Neil, to point out the heteros. He tells me that they’re the ones talking, dancing and negotiating with the women in the bar — all prostitutes. After all, Neil informs me, homosexuality isn’t the only illegal form of pleasure you can find at Ginger. Even cigarettes are okay, despite Kolkata’s new city-wide smoking ban.

As the dance floor fills up with merry men, their stomachs swelling with hot drinks, Neil gives me the facts of life about gay India. In this country, he says, marriage and family are valued more than anything else. As a result, Neil’s first boyfriend is now married with kids. The second guy Neil dated just got married, too. (But the groom has a male lover on the side. Apparently, his new bride doesn’t know.)

In India, the rule is clear: Men are expected to find a wife by the time they’re 25, and if they can’t, their families will find one for them. It’s a tradition that Neil is trying hard to resist. Last year, he informed his mother that he’s gay, but still, she persists in asking him when he plans to marry.

Due to India’s wedding obsession, gay long-term relationships in this country are rare. So are guys who self-identify as gay. It really is like Canada in the 1960s, but with deadly consequences. The absence of an out, gay community in India, coupled with the continued illegality of homosexuality, is contributing to the steady rise of HIV/AIDS among men who have sex with men. But that’s a subject for next week’s column.

‘Til then, I’m busy losing myself in the music — and the happiness — at Ginger.