ON THE HIV BEAT IN BOMBAY
This article is an attempt to capture my experiences in Mumbai, the
new official vernacular name for Bombay,
on the evening of Jan 29, 2000. I wanted to learn about the
dangers that HIV poses to men having sex with men (MSM) and
understand how the Humsafar Trust was practising HIV
intervention. Humsafar Trust is a pioneering Non Government
Organization (NGO) dealing with issues
of MSM and HIV intervention in that community. It was co-founded by
Ashok Row Kavi, who publicly acknowledged his gay identity in the mid eigties
and since then has been working towards helping MSM in India come to terms with their
sexuality. With the current explosion in HIV infections in
India, and especially within the MSM community, the Trust has
lead the way in dealing with issues specific to MSM. It was
therefore an obvious place for me to begin my education.
After an introductory half hour with Ashok Row Kavi, the
evening was spent accompanying Harish, an outreach worker, on
his beat to distribute condoms to MSM.
I had wanted to meet Ashok Row Kavi on his home turf of
Humsafar Trust in Mumbai for over a year. Knowing him
only through his fiery articles on the impending devastation of
MSM by HIV and via e-mail was somehow inadequate. However, I must
confess that meeting him on the second story landing of the
rundown building that houses Humsafar Trust was a shock -- I
had expected a more upbeat establishment. Ashok quickly
explained that this was essentially an abandoned building that
he had saved from demolition and was trying his best to make
functional. All the funds were going into working with
people and there was not enough money to worry about decorative
infrastructure improvements. Any doubts I could have had
about the functioning of the organization quickly vanished as
we started to talk about their work. First, I witnessed the
community program for about 60 "street kids" and what it takes to
prevent them from becoming victims of crime and violence. Then he introduced
me to two of his outreach workers, Harish and Sweetie, whom I was going to
accompany on their beat that night.
The conversation turned more serious when we began discussing
the recently started Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STD) and HIV
testing clinic. Operational since July 1999 and run by
Dr. Maninder Singh, the clinic had already tested 210 men and has
found a shocking 17% of them to be HIV+. The people being tested and
those infected come from all walks of life. Also 37% of those tested had
a history of STD infection. There is, as expected, complete
correlation -- those who tested HIV+ also had a history of STD's.
Faced with these statistics, it is hard to dismiss Ashok's fright --
the implications of these figures when extrapolated to the half million MSM in Mumbai,
and perhaps to the 20-50 million in India, are devastating. Ashok's
mother-like concern for their welfare is very evident and heartfelt.
I finally begin to truely realize the dimensions of the
problem in the MSM community in India, something that Ashok
has been forcefully articulating for years now.
Ashok next described the outreach work. In addition to condom
distribution, Humsafar workers spread awareness. To document
this work on educating people, each outreach worker must fill out a three page
report outlining the risk factors, places of carousing, and
the person's knowledge of HIV and STD's before and after
tutoring. Although the twentythree and twenty years old
Harish and Sweetie display a childlike enthusiasm for their
work, it is evident that they take this job very seriously.
Tonight, Harish would bypass this key aspect of his job, educating others,
in order to be my guide.
We rush through my introduction on what lies in store
for me that evening since Harish had to leave for his beat.
Ashok begins by pointing me to a map of
Mumbai on which he has marked the "hot spots" for the three
types (extremely risky, very risky, and risky) of MSM
activity. He stresses the obvious -- knowing where men
rendezvous to plan or execute sexual encounters is the first
necessary step in their intervention strategy. He outlines
that today Harish would first visit urinals on XXX station platform
(the name of the station is being withheld to prevent police harassment)
which are labeled extremely risky as there men actually execute anal
penetrative sex on the way to and from work and the police
often intervene with violence. The second stop will be the
promenade by the sea near the Gateway of India and the Taj Mahal hotel
in Colaba -- a very upscale area and a tourist must. This area is
listed only risky as young adults, between eighteen and twenty
five years of age from middle class and higher backgrounds,
go there to romance and pick up partners. This preparatory talk is over in
five minutes, and before I am fully able to grasp the implications
of what I have set myself up for, Ashok hands me over to Harish,
asks him to take care of me, gives directions on where we should eat
dinner, and wishes me good luck. And we were off.
Getting to know Harish
In the taxi on way to XXX station and over dinner, I try to
get to know Harish. He opens up immediately and is very
communicative. He is excited that I can speak Hindi. During
the course of the evening he keeps repeating his original
worry -- what would he have done if I did not speak Hindi. Without any
hesitation or reserve he tells me how it all began for him.
His first sexual arousal was at age twelve with an older boy
of nineteen who was tutoring him. It began with fondling while
lying together. For two years he did not allow anal
penetration, thereafter, since age fourteen he has been enjoying
sex with men with a passion and has no interest in women. He
often finds himself checking out men as he walks through the
streets. At times he has to be careful so that his wife does
not become suspicious. Hearing that he is married I ask in
dismay -- Why did you get married if you have no interest in
women? Again, without any reserve that his behavior may seem
contradictory to a stranger, he says that she, and his
relationship with her, is different and one of a kind. He has known
her for seven years and while he was having sex with men throughout that
time, he never touched her. They got married recently, and now he pleases
her as often and as much as he does himself with his male friends.
He shows me her picture and laughingly tells me how surprised Ashok was
when he told him that he was getting married. Driven by curiosity I ask
if she knows of his second life. No, he sends her to her parents house on
saturday nights, as those are his, first to do his job as a HIV intervention
worker and after midnight to revel with his friends. On other days he works
as a tailor and plans his escapades such that he is home at the regular
expected hour. He works three jobs, the third being HIV intervention, but
the hectic schedule is no sweat as he is just twentythree and
needs only four to five hours of sleep.
My restrain in giving him advise breaks down when he tells me that
he diligently uses condoms when having sex with men, but does not
do so when having sex with his wife. I try to tell him that he should,
but it is obvious that he sees no reason for it since he has eliminated
the risk. My words of caution that condoms protect but don't guarantee
100% safety fall on deaf ears.
Many times during the revelation of his fairy tale existence my mouth
opens to articulate a "but". I am glad, however, that I did not. Many
times I feel embarrassed as he recounts his lusty and
romantic escapades oblivious of the taxi driver or the waiters
at the restaurant. My attention to his fascinating and at the same time
comic descriptions, accompanied by obviously feminine gestures
and much rolling of the eyes, is far from complete. I am very
keenly aware of the waiters, wondering what they must be thinking
-- ah! another sugar daddy? The dinner
over, the bill paid, we walk over to XXX station. My relief
at leaving the possibly judging eyes behind is substantial.
On the beat: XXX Station Platform
The station is not very crowded as 10 pm is way past the rush
hour. The urinal looks just like any other and empty; yet
this is supposed to be where things happen. We walk through it
and on the other side Harish spots someone he knows, runs to
him, pulls out a condom package from his backpack, embraces,
kisses, and hands over the treasure all in one flowing movement. I stand
rooted to the ground wondering if this is how it is supposed to be done!
Next Harish introduces me to "Savitri" and "Nona". They
will be coming with us to the Gateway of India. Harish quickly
tells me that she, "Savitri", is a fiesty one. She will beat
anyone up if after giving a blow job, the partner does not
let her screw him. I am wondering how such strength could be
harbored in such a thin body when I notice her carefully
manicured nails. It will take me much longer to accept that
"Nona" too is a she.
We linger around, and even though nothing obvious is said, I can
sense that the decision to get on the next train and head
towards Victoria Terminal (called VT by all) is
fermenting. Suddenly, Harish darts into the urinal and is
back in five seconds. To my obvious quarry he responds that he went to give a
condom. To whom I ask? He points to a person through the stone grill window
who seems to be peeing. No, says Harish, don't I see he is shaking his penis.
To drive home his point he walks me through the urinal, pointing out the
two men in adjacent spots, both shaking their penises and sizing each other.
Whether or not they find each other acceptable, they will need a condom
tonight and it is his job to make sure they have some he says as a matter of
Harish, Savitri, Nona, and I take the next train.
Harish is relieved that no one actually "did it" in the urinal
while we were there. I feel cheated as I will have to simply
take their word that such wanton acts actually happen
in open view and accompanied by the sounds of others peeing
On the train Savitri pulls out a photo album. I am shown pictures
of them dressed in sari. They talk about the party at Humsafar Trust when
they all went dressed as women and how Sweetie was such a delicious hit.
Nora and Savitri flow in and out of each others embrace while I try to
avoid the eyes of the other passengers.
As we near VT, Savitri pulls off his shirt revealing a
lycra like T-shirt underneath. Next, out comes a makeup kit
from her handbag and she proceeds to highlight her
eyelashes, put on powder and lipstick, spread her shoulder
length hair, practice her gestures, roll her eyes and finally
declare herself ready for the night. Next Harish dons a
little of the same. Nora does not and he still baffles me,
there is nothing effeminate about him and yet
they assure me he is a she.
On the beat: Gateway of India
From VT we bundle into a taxi to get to the
gateway of India. Part two of My Journey begins. But before that,
just outside VT, we run into two women in their thirties.
There are greetings of familiarity and they talk quickly. One of the
women then complains of night sweats and chills. Hearing that I am
all attention. I ask Harish her background -- she is a prostitute
and has been one for many years. With her beauty fading she is
increasingly taking on cheaper customers. The symptoms are ominous
so I ask her if she has diarrhea -- No. Does she drink heavily
-- she used to but not any more. I sense the struggle in her,
I think she knows about HIV but does not want to accept the
possiblity. To save her immediate trauma I suggest that it may
be jaundice (hepatitis B) and ask Harish to take her to Humsafar on
Tuesday when the blood tests are done. They fix a time to meet on
Tuesday, he asks her to take care of herself, and we are off. I
wonder if this all there is to the life of a prostitute and
dealing with pain!
Sitting on the half-mile long stone wall separating
the ocean from the city were happy and cheerful teenagers and
men in their early twenties. Harish exchanged loud greetings with
many and accompanied this by much embracing and kissing on the
cheeks and the ritualistic passing out of the condoms. Outreach
workers from Humsafar had already carried out
the awareness program with most of them and distributing condoms was
all Harish was going to do tonight on my account. All of a sudden he
gets excited and says "there is Sweetie". I fail to recognize
the person with flowing shoulder length hair, a bold swaggering
walk, and an animated personality approaching us as the
second worker Ashok had introduced me to earlier at Humsafar
Trust. What a transformation -- and how obvious it now is why she would be
such a hit at the Humsafar party in a sari. Unfortunately, since
Sweetie only speaks Marathi we continue our separate journeys after a
brief attempt at conversation. In the ensuing silence I ponder
the fact that the driving force behind this congregation of
youth from middle and upper middle class families is the desire
to explore their love for people of the same sex. One cannot deny
it, one can only try to make sex safer.
At one point I ask Harish how he met Ashok. Right along here
one night he says when they were both carousing and made eye contact.
Ashok offered to train him and give money for the work, so he
accepted immediately. A year later he loves the work, thinks educating
others is very important, and finds it a lot of fun too. The
only unbreakable rule he informs me is that he
cannot play or have sex while on the job. However, since his shift
ends at midnight while the night is still young this is
hardly a limitation.
As the evening progresses I notice the swagger of the
hips, the increase in the pitch of their voices, the
exaggerated motions of the arms, and the rolling of the eyes.
These kids are in obvious delight at being able to act out
their sexual identities. They are not worried about being
seen or reported on. They are amongst their own.
At one point I ask Harish about the men from the Middle East that come to
Mumbai seeking sex with boys. To my surprise Harish rolls his
eyes in obvious delight. Oh! we love them, they have such big
cocks he says -- and with some longing adds that they come mostly
during the monsoons when they walk around endlessly in the rain. I am
flabbergasted -- I ask if he and his friends are not scared of getting
HIV from them. No, he says, because he has taught all of them how to put
a condom on the Arabian penis without the owner realizing that it is
being done until after the act. The trick is to hold the condom
in the mouth and put it on the other's penis without arousing suspicion.
They had been taught this trick by Ashok, and now he, and all his friends, were
well practised. I am speechless. I can barely stop myself from calling him
insane for taking such risks -- little good that would do given his obvious
excitement. So I drift off on my own trying to make sense of
what I have heard. It is becoming more and more obvious to me
why a stranger to this culture would have little success at intervention.
Could I bring myself to learn how to hold a condom in my mouth much less
teach someone else how to put in on yet another?
Harish and I reconnect after twenty minutes of my aimless walking.
We walk towards the dance club "Voodoo" he had mentioned previously. I want to go
in but he declines saying that it is too expensive and why bother when
his friends are outside on the promenade. Also, he says with a hint of disapproval
that, he has heard that inside men sit all night long on
toilets with their mouth open. Driven by curiosity I talk the
bouncer into letting me look inside for a friend I was supposed to meet. The place is
packed and as my eyes adjust to the darkness punctuated by strobe lights
synchronized with the throbbing beat, I can feel the raw power of such a place.
My horizons broaden -- I witness the outpouring of energy
and frenzy on the dance floor. In spite of the long hair, scarfs, and occasionally a dress,
I see no women inside. On tables couples are enjoying their tryst, their eyes
locked and displaying the delight of mutual appreciation. At the
bar men stand, their eyes roaming longingly. I feel uncomfortable just standing
there trying to clinically absorb all the activity. Anyway, my time is up so I exit
convinced that this is what a gay bar in America must have been (or be)
like. Could I, in these few short minutes, have learned how this somewhat
older -- aged twenty five to forty years -- crowd revels?
Harish informs me that while there are other discos like this one in
Mumbai, most of the upper crust will be found at the many
private parties that happen every saturday night.
It is nearing midnight, the jet lag is making my head woolly so I decide
to go back to the guest house. Harish diligently packs me into a taxi,
reinforces the directions I give the driver, asks one last time whether
I enjoyed the evening, and waves me goodbye.
What did I learn that night?
If I had made this same journey without knowing what I was looking
for, not having been sensitized to issues of homosexuality, I would,
most likely, have not noticed anything unusual and I would have,
in all honesty, concluded that such behavior is not common in India.
On the other hand having written about it, will people accuse me of
having created it, for it shatters their belief that all is well?
I would fail miserably if I attempted to spread awareness in this
crowd. It requires the Ashoks, the Harishs, and the Sweeties to
give information without any "buts", and to make sex safer by
distributing condoms as one of them.
How typical is Harish's behavior? How many men in India live
this double life without any thought of the contradiction in
their sexual and emotional identities? Can men love and enjoy
men and simultaneously be happily and harmoniously
married to someone who is kept in the dark as to the other
life? Can this bliss last a lifetime? I don't think I learned
any answers to these questions that night.
Ashok wants to enlarge his work to other cities and communities like
the hijras (the supposedly ritually castrated minstrels, 85% of whom,
according to Ashok,
are actually whole). He is in despair about lack of funds. I believe
wholeheartedly that funding must be found, and his efforts must be
supported on a much larger scale.
Can such an organization like Humsafar be duplicated in other parts of
India or anywhere in the world without first having a mother figure
like Ashok. Without his drive, passion, and a genuine empathy with
a multitude to whom he is bound by sexuality, can another who
simply wants to stop HIV succeed? Barring exceptions I believe NOT!
For further information on HIV/AIDS and if you wish to explore ways
in which you can help I can be reached by e-mail at
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obtained from the web page