Asking the boys in the Park

Roger Clarke visits the hidden gay culture of the Indian subcontinent
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The Independent Culture
Love in a

Different Climate

by Jeremy Seabrook

Verso, pounds 19, 184pp

APPARENTLY THIS study of male same-sex liaisons in the Indian subcontinent is the first book of its kind. Yet most of the interviews that build up Jeremy Seabrook's engrossing account take place in Delhi and, more specifically, in a cruising area of that city he refers to as "the Park". How representative this cast of characters truly is of that vast and complex region remains to be seen. I do not think Seabrook particularly claims that his journey is purely sociological, despite the charts he produces clarifying responses to a sexual-habits survey he carried out around his dozens of interviews. His role as the cool voyeur hanging out as dusk falls in the park remains, for me, ambiguous.

This is a fascinating subject because so much of it hinges on a colonial legacy, as well as a deeper caste structure specific to India. It seems that the notorious Article 377 - the British law banning homosexuality, which is as yet unrepealed - was a piece of off-the-shelf colonial legislation. It even has the same number on the statute books of Malaysia. Yet this is one piece of callow colonialism that Indian leaders seem happy to retain. As one of his interviewees, Gopinath, crisply observes, "the government of free India also does not think its citizens sufficiently adult to choose their partners".

Seabrook goes to great lengths to prevent his readers persisting with western notions of sexual identity-politics. He feels that "gay and bisexual labels are reductive" in this context. "Homosex", he maintains, is almost a healing activity in India because nothing else quite cuts across the castes in the same way. It also shows up the nature of traditional marriages and the lot of women in Indian society - many of them miserably married to gay men. Try as he might, Seabrook only manages to talk to one of these women, and she is middle-class, westernised, and not much bothered about it.

I enjoyed the build-up of stories, accounts and personal histories that form a kind of quilt before your eyes. Certainly, there is a minimum of analysis, and too much presumed knowledge about Indian culture. I wanted to know exactly what it is in Hindu law that prohibits homosexuality, and to know why Seabrook feels that "shame" rather than "guilt" influences Indian social mores. But this book is more than anything a labour of love, and its glimpse into a hidden world is totally new and absorbing.