It was when I was around seventeen that I came across an internet forum which talked about men seeking other men in the public toilets of Kolkata. At that time, I had a fear of any toilet that wasn't the one at home. It wasn't just about hygiene; it was also something about the smell and look of these spaces that terrified me. With morbid fascination, I devoured the entire thread. Men, toilets and sex. And then with time, what with this site and that app, and cushioned in middle-class morality, I forgot about that forum.
Till one night when, in the first year of my post-grad course in Pune, I exited a late-night film show with a bladder that was just about to burst. There were still traces of that old phobia but my bladder was having none of it. I rushed into a dark toilet adjacent to an innocuous jogging track and mercy! It was then, in the shadows that I saw two men clasped to each other. At first, I stupidly stared, wondering what they were up to and when I realized, cold sweat broke upon my brow and an electric current coursed up and down my spine. I got out, my heart beating with excitement and terror.
It was that night that the dreams started. Long empty roads at first. Then the toilets. And men. I slowly began to surrender, slipping out of the hostel at midnight, sometimes 1. I began to get a glimpse into the world of cruising.
At 5:30 pm Palash Dutta leaves office as usual after a long, sweaty day of work. An affable bhadrolok a year away from retirement, he says a polite goodbye to his colleagues. When no one notices though, he walks off the road that leads to the metro station and takes a detour. Just a block away from Dalhousie, a bustling business district in Kolkata, is an old, dark public toilet adjacent to a mostly empty park. The toilet attendant, an old man perpetually chewing paan, gives him a customary nod. Palash has been visiting this loo for the last thirty-odd years, once or twice a week.
“As someone in my fifties now, I never could “come out” the way people do today, though I’ve known I’ve attracted to men my whole life. In the early eighties, one evening soon after starting work, I got talking to a man at a bus stop. He soon understood about me and took me to this toilet which I had crossed but never entered. Inside was another world. Two men were kissing and people were peeping over the cubicles at each other. I was shocked and confused. I left that day but ended up returning. Again and again. It was a haven for me after work, a small break that let me be myself before I caught the bus back to my wife and child. It took time, but I grew confidant enough to make eye contact with men and take them to the park nearby. And now, though so much has changed, I can’t stop going back there once in a while”, says Palash as we sit talking on a roadside bench, drinking chai.
Since long before the days of the internet and smartphone apps, members of the queer community have been finding each other in public spaces through eye contact, body language and hints of various kinds to meet for sexual and/or romantic reasons. This could sometimes be in very crowded public spaces or sometimes in areas of a city a little less frequented by the mainstream crowd. Sometimes there would be designated spaces like a park or a cinema hall whereas news of the safety of the space grew amongst the community, the number of queer people claiming it would increase and the subtle hints could be done away with. These parks, toilets, cinema halls, bars and stations would be places to pick up strangers or maybe just have a go right there. Where else would so many members of the queer community, many living in the closet and distanced from a ‘gay’ identity, find sexual release?
“Old-timers” like Palash talk about not just the thrill of cruising, but also of diversity that existed in the community. They speak of how class, caste, language and body types would not be as segregated as they are now on apps with all their filters and raging body trends. Offline cruising was of paramount importance to the queer scene, and countless bonds were forged in public spaces. ‘Gaydar’ was in constant use as a very real tool to find willing partners and often, cruising would involve a whole spectrum of sexualities – blurring the lines between homo and hetero.
When out cruising, the ‘feeling’ of another person matters when it comes to attraction and safety - and it matters a lot. One would argue that it is the same online but as Pankaj, a gay transman living in Mumbai puts it, “I prefer cruising because I can feel the vibe of another human in the way that I never can in a photograph or a few words. Cruising comes with a story that breaks the formula of online dating and yes, body language means a lot to me. I get attracted to different kinds of men when I am out there. Maybe if I saw them on a profile, I wouldn’t feel the same.” Pankaj says he has left online dating and chooses to meet his partners through cruising.
I ask him if cruising spots are still active in Mumbai. He gives me a wide smile.
Mohammad Karim drives an autorickshaw in Bangalore. In his early twenties, he hails from a village in Uttar Pradesh and tells me he has never heard of any of the dating apps - Grindr, PR or Tinder. He says the only gay pages he knows are on Facebook but he has never used them as he doesn’t have a smart-phone yet. He wants one though so that he can use GPS. How then does he manage to meet men? Shyly, he tells me that there are men all around if you only know how to look.
“The eyes are the most important. And touch. You can tell by touch. A few casual words maybe. But the eyes are the most important. Once in a while, I will catch a passenger staring at me. But I never do anything during my business time!” As our ride gets over I ask him if he is aware that cruising can be a source of STDs due to risky, unsafe sex. “Yes”, he says, “though I have not always been careful in the past. When I first came to the city I did not know of STDs. Now I do. I plan to have a blood test soon.”
Apart from the risk of STDs associated with quick, anonymous sex ( incidentally once upon a time a toilet in a popular park in Pune was so known for men having sex with men that there was a condom vending machine installed inside, though it is now defunct), the police and touts can be big harassment to those cruising. Plain-clothes policemen or local hoodlums in search of a quick buck routinely pretend to be looking for sex in known cruising spots and then rob and physically/sexually assault their victims, often older gay men and transwomen. Sometimes this extortion continues through blackmail for months or years. A student who wrote to me was so shaken by his experience of being caught and harassed by the Delhi police in a public park two years ago that he still has nightmares about the incident.
Arnab shifted to Kolkata from a small town in West Bengal to pursue a college diploma. At over 6 feet tall, he is an imposing figure. Yet he tells me, that in his second visit to a soft porn theatre where the famed balcony turns into an orgy of queer folk, he was almost raped by a man stronger than him. He is still a visitor to the hall, though much more confident and intimidating himself after a year of being a regular. “When I first saw what happens at this hall I was shocked. I had hardly ever even met anyone who is gay before. In my town, the nearest match on Grindr is 150 kms away! And even though that guy tried to force me, I held my ground and people around made him leave me. I dealt with it. I returned because this space felt like I belonged here. I feel terribly lonely in the hostel. No one knows about me. I feel like myself here.”
Some of the most visible members of a cruising space and often with exclusive spots of their own are members of the trans community, mostly transwomen. They have been trailblazers in claiming and defending queer public spaces, many a time being at a much greater risk of violence. NGOs and trans individuals have filed several ongoing cases of extortion, physical and sexual abuse against perpetrators of violence in public spaces but a huge number of cases go unreported. And lesbians are almost invisible when it comes to cruising. Tales of meeting strangers in bars, sports centres, malls or other spaces are common but there are hardly any cruising spaces for lesbians the way they are for gay men or transwomen.
Says Ajitha, a trans woman from Chennai, “Many of the members of our community are from working classes with no access to these dating apps. They are definitely not comfortable with English. Also, the apps have a huge amount of transphobia, even from within the queer community. For us, cruising is not just a thrill or kink…it is a very important way to meet partners, in spite of the risks.”
And indeed, the stories of experiences are as varied as the people who cruise. There is no real way of classifying or simplifying the phenomenon of cruising for so many of us in cities, suburbs and towns, packed into our boxed lives in a society that is far from accepting of sexuality in general and queer sexuality in particular. As cities change and policing becomes stronger - old, much loved cruising spots die and new ones take their place. Malls are now very popular and as public spaces now get locked up early into the night, 24/7 medical shops are slowly becoming a new place to pick up late night partners. With the smartphone market growing exponentially and the world becoming more and more technologically controlled, it will be interesting to see the new turns that offline cruising takes, especially in India. The primal instinct that cruising stems from will be impossible to wipe out, much as any agency tries.