On my first night in Delhi, which is also my first night in India, I work with a colleague into the early evening, late enough that my friend Sunni who was going to meet up with other gay friends has left, and though he said he might return to the YWCA later that night, he never does.
My colleague leaves for home, and in the reverse position, I might have done the same: I tend to separate my work and personal life and offer less generosity to strangers and acquaintances these days. On the other hand, I think that Sydney is an easier place to negotiate toDelhi, and though I venture into the city for a few hours, it is unhappy and stressful.
So when offered on the second night to go out with Sunni and some others “on the town”, I am more than ready. It’s not a successful beginning. We were told that we’d be picked up at 7pm and aren’t. The phone of Anand, a flamboyant, thin, talkative lawyer who apparently is growing his hair long, goes unanswered. We give up and find a restaurant for dinner. Eventually, we reach Anand who informs us that though he won’t join us, his boyfriend, Rajesh, will be at the Y to pick us up at 9pm. Along the way, we pick up Vivek, a smiling Pakistani in round spectacles, a colleague who I’d never pondered gay, only thought a little odd.
Rajesh rolls up in a fancy white car, I’ve never known the models of cars, but this one has an air of old luxury. We pile in, he gives instructions to the driver, and then finally turns around to introduce himself. He is muscular and stocky in a tight white singlet, and is wearing lightly tinted sunglasses. I’m thinking ‘Indian film star’. He offers us a swig of a plastic drink bottle. Sunil enquires its substance. “Vodka,” he says cheerily, though with its dark colour, it must be mixed with cola.
Across many highways and with much honking, we finally turn into what looks like an industrial area, empty streets, a tall abandoned factory, and then on our right, a highrise surrounded by lawn and garden, and at the corner, a bright spotlight upon a doorway and a sign: Pegs N Pints.
In the West these days, we have a set idea of what homosexuality is about. It can’t be helped. It is a right. It has history that involves irony, sarcasm, and cross-dressing. The figure of 10% is repeated often. Many choose to live in the same neighbourhoods and support a small economy of discos, bars, saunas, and stores that sell rainbow paraphernalia. And while I don’t exactly believe all of the narratives we tell about ourselves, still, I can’t get over the fact that in a city of 14 million people, that Delhi, at present, supports one gay bar and it’s held on a Tuesday night.
Rajesh knows the promoter of the night, a short slim man in a white business shirt and tie. We’re introduced to him along with the names of our countries and front up to a podium where we’re asked for 300 rupees each to enter which will give us 300 rupees of drinks inside. I have the feeling that this amount is way too much for my colleagues from Nepal and Pakistan. I empty my wallet to pay for all of us and then wonder if I have enough money for a cab home. A huge bouncer stops and pats me down. He is a huge slab of meat wearing sunglasses.
When we enter, I realize suddenly that it is actually a gay-ish bar. A young white couple are in sight as I enter. I think at first it is a gay man and his woman friend but when they later start to dance with each other and the man in a clumsy fashion, I know they are straight. There are perhaps half a dozen young men on the ground level, and up a narrow spiral staircase, on a high balcony are another dozen, a group of four men together who are recognizably gay (I think with some relief), a few single men, and two couples together: two Sikh men with beards and turbans dancing with two young slim Asian women – I asked Sunil about their origins: “Nepal, Manipur, Japan – could be anywhere,” he comments and I think that perhaps I’ve never seen this particular racial coupling.
“It fills up at eleven,” Rajesh informs us. He is light with drink and sits with us only a while before rising and leaning over the balcony rail and soon disappears downstairs to dance. They’re spinning Black American dance music – I’m not a fan so I can’t name the artists but there’s rapping, and a reggae dancehall beat, and slick beats. They play the song about “Sexy Ladies” which I find cloying.
The bar itself is a clash of styles, exposed pipes and crossbeams, black metal and long wooden planks: there is an attempt to be an English pub, an attempt at a nautical theme, and something of a generic Western restaurant with a soaring angles and ceiling. After the first hour, the few lights are replaced by a few glowing bulbs of blue, and more than anything, I’m reminded of the entrance way to the Disney theme park ride “Pirates of the Caribbean,” something new pretending it is old, knotted wood, and a feeling of being submerged.
It takes until nearly midnight before the music starts to segue back and forth between Beyoncé and Bollywood, Hindi dance music taking over from American. The crowd is eclectic: expat straights at the most daring place they can find, and gay men in all shapes and sizes and garment: a business shirt, a sweater, a loose-fitting Indian top, a t-shirt; some young and lithe, a fat, short man dancing with one arm in the air, various metrics of strength and height.No more than a hundred people in all, but all clearly enjoying themselves.
I’m glad I’m here in a distant and amused fashion, but worry about getting home, as well I think about my cab driver at 6am the next morning who will take me to Agra and the Taj Mahal. Some other lifetime, I’d get drunk, chat to locals, and try to find out what it’s like to be gay in Delhi. But for now, Rajesh has instructed his driver to take us back to our respective beds – he hugs us goodbye and runs back inside to join his friends.