8 in the evening: As we enter the park in the middle of this moderate-sized Goa town, my friend S says, knowingly and almost as if coming home, "Ahhh! They're all cruising!"
I mean, I'm looking around and all I see are shadows and bushes, and a few men here and there; a familiar sight in any park in India on an evening like this. S is looking at the same scene, and it's also what he is familiar with from parks across India on an evening like this, and yet he sees what I don't: these men are cruising. These men are looking to meet other men, sex on their minds. Or even just companionship on their minds. (As we soon find out). S knows: he has done this himself countless times.
In a corner are the men we've come to talk with. Vasu and Altaf, sitting on the back of a park bench; Ronald and Ramesh, pacing up and down as they wait for us. Four perfectly ordinary men, guys you might travel with on the bus and not look at twice. And yet, what else should they be but ordinary people? Coming upon a man and woman sitting together in a park, I wouldn't think to myself that they are perfectly ordinary people whom I might travel with on the bus and not look at twice. Why do I have that thought with these gay men?
Vasu is 37, ready smile that lights up a pleasant lively face, red shirt, moustache, hair slicked back. He has been coming here for nearly 20 years. In the beginning, he says, he hated himself for what he was feeling, and yet coming here was the only outlet for those feelings. Meet another man, have sex, or just sit and talk. Years and years like that; at least he doesn't hate himself now.
And then he got married. "Few days before my wedding", says Vasu, "I was very frightened. Went to a doctor and told him I was gay, I was getting married, would I be able to get it up to have sex with my wife?" (Not for the first time, I'm amazed at how easily these men talk about intimate sexual details. Not something I'd find in a group of hetero men). "And the doctor said, 'Don't worry, you'll get an erection, you'll be able to have sex with her.'"
Proof: Vasu has a six year old son.
He still comes to the park here every evening. Does his wife know? "How can I tell her?" he asks with another smile, is it tinged with sadness? (Though I can't believe she has not guessed). "Every evening, I say work kept me, or I was with a group of friends and couldn't leave."
"Every day", Vasu says, still smiling, "I have to lie at home."
Every day, for some seven years now. Every single day he lies because of the stigma that surrounds homosexuality. What must it be to live like that? To be secretive and furtive about something profoundly fundamental about your very sense of self? I cannot imagine that stress and tension of that dilemma. Yet this man Vasu looks so ordinary.
"But since I got married," he cuts into my thoughts, "I've completely stopped having sex with men. I come here because I want to, but I don't have sex."
"Because there's a risk of infection." Then he explains explicitly just why there's a risk. (Again the intimate sexual details). "And I have sex with my wife, right? I don't want to pass on the infection to her."
This ordinary-looking man. Here he is, living through the misery of having to hide, for years with no end in sight, what is fundamental to his very sense of self; yet he finds the wherewithal to answer that call; and from within that conundrum, he resolves to protect his wife by denying himself one whole part of himself.
Talk about courage, talk about heroes. I might just point to Vasu with his slicked-back hair.