Is it only sex without love? A man in a megapolis talks about the loneliness of gay life
It was about these sexual encounters where you didn't even get to see the face of the person, recounts Karthik Kalyanaraman, who is now a little less afraid of betrayal.
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We are all time machines. In trying to locate the loneliness of others, I figured I was on the map and if you zoomed in, you could see me sitting by the glass door, looking out and on the phone with another lonely soul 1,000 or more miles away... asking them if they think they can tell their story.
Sometimes they ask me for my story. I tell them what they ask. This is how we transcribe notes on loneliness, on love and on loss. Some stories must tumble out of the closet. And they must be told in full length. They must flow freely. Some conversations can't be compressed. There have been many conversations over the years with men who have felt strange because they chose to love men. There are many stories out there. And you pick one to tell.
I left him a message late night asking him if he would tell me his story.
He said he would.
He wasn't brave enough to go to the dark enclosures in Cubbon Park in the city he grew up in as a closeted gay guy to understand the gay experience. Sometimes he would borrow gay fiction to read and that was how he felt a little less lonely.
And now, as an openly gay man, the sexual encounters as part of the subculture in the gay world that's often called "cum dump" are what makes him wonder if it is his sexuality that could be what makes him lonely.
When Chris and Karthik met Barack Obama.
"I want to explore things beyond the bed. All this sex made me lonelier," he says.
In the neon-painted, unfriendly city of Bangalore with its startups and its clubs, he finds himself going back to the poem called Broken Tower by Hart Crane, the gay American poet whose epigraph reads "lost at sea".
Hart jumped into the sea at 32 and the Broken Tower is his last poem.
For Karthik Kalyanaraman, a 39-year-old who runs the curatorial collective 64/1 along with his brother Raghav KK in Bangalore, the loneliness of a gay life lies in the lines of the poem that go:
"And so it was I entered the broken world
To trace the visionary company of love..."
Twice he sank deeper and deeper into depression like the poet he reads often.
Twice he attempted to kill himself because it was such a helpless/hopeless search for love and acceptance.
Once, when he was growing up and was closeted in Bangalore, he figured he would end up lonely all his life, and again in 2002 when he was in America and felt he couldn't reconcile to the isolation his sexuality had imposed upon him.
"It breaks my heart when he says the bells, I say, the bells break down their tower. We are so much at the mercy of desires, aren't we?" he says.
"There is a part that haunts me, which describes the desperate search for love in this broken world. The 'choices' he is talking about are partly the erotic choices: he used to have one-night romances with sailors in New York. And what he is bringing out is that in the most promiscuous machine-like series of sexual encounters, there is some buried ideal, a search for 'the visionary company of love'. What's heartbreaking is that he doubts his own vision in the poem."
The tower symbolises a distant past.
A lost god who he has often searched for desperately but has been unable to find in the "broken world" to seek love, that fleeting fragile love that always destroys, that never promises to be faithful.
I remember the epitaph of A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams.
They are the lines Karthik remembers.
Blanche DuBois, the character of Williams' novel, has her encounters in her search for love.
Williams is a "poet of lost souls" with his writing echoing the loneliness of all of us. Blanche's feelings were too great to be contained in her size and Williams was a long time admirer of Crane and Williams described desire as being "...rooted in a longing for companionship, [it is] a release from the loneliness that haunts every individual".
I tell him about Blanche. I tell him that being a single woman in the city is also about this strange loneliness. We are of the same age. We both have lived elsewhere. We both have returned. We both have chased love.
We stand at the periphery of the social life and from that ambush, we have observed betrayals.
That's how we connect. Through loneliness in this digital world. Through the desire to trust.
Until dearth do us part? Initially, Karthik was terrified of introducing Chris to his parents. (Photo of the duo getting married)
At his age, he has lived through an unexpected transformation in the status of gay men and women in India, a country he left as a closeted gay young man and the country he returned as an openly gay man.
"You know I have never talked about all of this publicly. I'm a very private individual. The only reason I'm even talking about this publicly is my hope that my story of complete acceptance that I had from my father, the difference between life and death that it made might help some other individual accept their queer son or daughter," he says.
The decriminalisation of homosexuality by the apex court will perhaps help people shed the baggage of a closeted life because the legal sanction for harassment is gone, says Karthik.
But the bigger hope that is that there will be a chance to find love in broad daylight and not in dark clubs where it is more about the release and not about knowing the other.
"I have seen — through my experience of what marriage equality did in the states — that social change is both grassroots and ground up as well as top-down and spurred on by laws. So I am no cynic about the impact of this change," he says.
The first time he tried to kill himself was when he was in 7th grade in Bangalore and the second time, it was in Boston. It was a middle-class family he grew up in like many others where talking about sex was a taboo. And he had felt at odds with the world.
"It was because I felt I would always be alone in my life. I had never managed to date, the few encounters I had tried to have had gone terribly wrong because I was so inexperienced at the age 23 in even how to meet other men. The combination of lack of meaning in work and love in life I think pushed me into spirals of depression," he says.
He grew up closeted and the only exposure to gay experience was through this basement library where he would get his hands on novels like the Folding Stars published in 1994 by Alan Hollinghurst in which a middle-aged teacher falls in love with his pupil and has affairs with two other men.
"The book with it's frank descriptions of sex and of longing was an erotic revelation for me. I used to hide their covers because they typically had scantily clad men on them," he says.
The book was his first gay novel.
He was 15 at the time and novels, including the The Waters of Thirst by Adam Mars-Jones, another gay author. These were complex books and not all gloom and doom, he says.
In his early years in America, it was almost a semi-closeted life where he says he came out of the closet and went back in.
It was in New York City when he was 22 years that he had his first sexual encounter. There were these gay bars and there were there rooms in the underground basement where you could find someone for a blow job.
"I went and stood there and it was an act of courage for me," he says.
When he first started dating the man he would marry and later divorce, he was nervous. But his partner understood the trauma and was gentle. That is the love he remembers. That's the love he is looking for.
Although gay life in America is hardly carefree, except in big cities where spaces that allow gay men to meet others of the same sexuality exist, in India it is not about Zip Codes.
Everything works against you.
Barring a few films, commercial portrays gays and lesbians as sissies or suicidal people that perpetuate the gay man'a shame about their past, their internalized homophobia, self-hatred and social isolation, and state terror. But then revolutions happen. And maybe it takes one lonely kid at a time to make a tectonic shift.
In 2002, he took a lot of sleeping pills hoping he would die.
But he didn't.
His mother called up and he didn't know what to say. She sent his younger brother to check up on him. That's when he came out to his family.
It was his father who said he didn't know too many gay men and decided to know more about the gay experience and was finally offered a role in Mango Soufflé, one of the first gay films to be made in India. His father was an amateur playwright and he told his son it was okay to love men.
But love, he says, is a strange word.
Kalyanaraman says the lonely life of a gay man is the product of many stereotypes the straight world heaps on them and somehow the community internalises those to estrange themselves further.
"A lot of gay teens are suicidal; so was I. Because there is a part of one's subconscious that adopts the viewpoint of society and blames one's own self for doing things that are considered wrong. Working through all that self-hatred wasn't easy so it's hard for me to even imagine what the situation is for a person who feels their parents would never accept them for who they are," he says.
But coming out to your family doesn't make you at home in the world; nor does sex. There are bonds beyond sex.
Ever since he returned to India last year in November after his 13-year-old relationship with a man ended. It was a monogamous marriage, he says.
He left for the US on a scholarship in 1997.
"I was completely closeted before then. The power of repression cannot be underestimated. I never thought I would ever find anyone. But one of the most liberating moments was when I came out to my parents. I had just attempted suicide in 2002 out of desperation and loneliness (I say this simply to draw attention to the fact that this is very common among gay teens everywhere) but when I told my parents about it, they did not express the least reservation," he says.
But here's the incredible thing about repression, he says.
Despite the acceptance by his immediate family, when he had started dating Chris, he was terrified of introducing him to his parents. "This is how deeply scarring homophobia can be. I was ashamed to touch him when he visited the first time though my parents knew exactly who he was," he says.
One step at a time: Karthik's father introduced Chris as his son-in-law at a family gathering. (Chris with Karthik's parents)
On his 60th birthday, Durgadas Kalyanaraman grabbed his son's partner and introduced him as his son-in-law.
"It finally took my father's courage to put an end to all my fear and shame," says Karthik.
But moving back was a challenge and when he was finally ready to meet other men to explore a possibility of a relationship, he was faced with a dating scene so radically different.
There was barely any queer dating spaces except for dingy nightclubs and for the brave, the public parks where police harassment was a norm.
"I was totally unprepared for the new world of Grindr," he adds.
"I think the biggest problem in gay life is simply how invisible we are forced to be in our social interactions. This puts a huge spell of illicitness over what is only the acting our of the natural desires within us. Would a heterosexual guy talking about the loneliness of modern dating be seen as taking a stand? No! Of course I come from a very privileged background: I have full acceptance from family and their circle as well; but when I think of the multiple layers of invisibility and illicitness that cloak natural relations between men and women more disadvantaged, I sometimes feel a disgust for the 'social', the 'cultural' and the soft yet steely power it exerts over our inner lives."
It is always the narrative of the rampaging predatory homosexual that is so prevalent and not only does it lead to fear and abuse but also affects policy changes.
That's why perhaps the "don't ask, don't tell" policy works beyond just the US military.
In Bangalore, which is a young city of tech startups, he hasn't been overtly harassed except a few times when people have joked about gay men and men being uncomfortable around him once they know he is gay.
"The other thing is invisibility... Even people who accept me will refer to Chris as friend not boyfriend, will never refer to that side of me at all as if it was like an unfortunate speech defect or something," he says.
Back in the US, it wasn't all good either. He remembers once he had been walking with Chris in Boston after a concert, they were yelled at and called faggots.
A beer bottle was hurled at them.
But more than that, it is the world of closeted gay men that makes him despair.
In the spectrum of social dating sites, there are mostly younger men who want no more than a sexual encounter. The dynamics are different and there is the so-called promiscuity the gay world is often accused of, an often misunderstood imposition that has its roots in the outright rejection and criminalisation of alternative sexuality.
"I was just starting to date. I wasn't meeting anyone before I had chatted to them for weeks. There was this guy in his mid 30s who seemed very intelligent and articulate. Finally we met and finally we ended up going back to his place," he says.
The man invited someone else over and said "the more, the merrier" and Karthik got up and left. "I can still feel the sinking in my spirit. I'm not being moralistic, I have nothing against threesomes...But to have invested so much time in someone, to have started to feel like I knew him and then to realise that I knew nothing, that we are opaque to each other, sealed off from each other, was a sudden recognition of something I always knew: how alone we are in our skulls. But you know what, perhaps it is this loneliness that makes up open to love?" he says.
Grindr's "gaymoji" is a reflection of impositions of what gay life is.
Gay culture: Karthik slipped into depression because he didn't want to be part of that "culture"
An aubergine balanced on a ruler, a peach with an old-fashioned telephone receiver on top, a bent banana, handcuffs, raining men, etc. are part of the 500 plus graphic visual shorthands for gay life. It is a reminder and a perpetuation of the notion that sexuality forces gay men to be promiscuous, to have sex with strangers, to engages in orgies, to bring home men from the streets to have sex with. As a gay teen, Karthik had been pushed into depression because it seemed like the only choice he had was to be part of a lifestyle that is "gay culture".
But as he grew up, he understood that the so-called promiscuity is what brought them together as a community.
"Promiscuity knits us together. It enables me to escape my little English-speaking, cosmopolitan, upper middle-class cage and actually start to feel the lives of others in India," he says.
He has dated a migrant from Assam who is a security officer in Tamil Nadu and has talked to him of his sense of isolation from his linguistic community, his estrangement.
"And he says, even when he goes back and gets married, he will be lonely. Because no one around will understand his desire…," he adds.
Beyond the fact that his sexuality has made him deeply indifferent to social approval and almost irreverent, he feels that nothing else can allow for the deep interaction across the barriers of caste, class and religion.
"For sure it has been a deeply ethical education in itself, this so-called evil promiscuity," he says. "Desire is a mental phenomenon. I am not naturally promiscuous. You could say I am polyamorous. But my experience outside my social strata is through this gay world."But it also makes him live on an island.
"You know, there are two sides to loneliness. But I have been forced to somewhat come to terms with it. Being gay in India exacerbates this situation, It makes me devote myself to a larger community, to something outside the pairbond. But I won't lie, having lived in a relationship of 13 years and being faced with this strange new world of tech dating and the cultural expectations here is very estranging," he says.
And as he sits and reads poetry or goes about researching Artificial Intelligence, he finds himself in the "Present-Indefinite", which means he is sitting between universes trying to map his own path.
After all, it would be a matter of no courage to say they are stuck in some frozen moment. In their own time machines, they are following their heart as it moves through politics, history and class and now social dating sites. Why not admit desire and is desire not love? There are desires, needs, regrets, sex, anxiety, humor.
In the approach that is almost Dickensian with its grotesquely exaggerated detail of someone's appearance that defines the gay life from the vantage point of others.
Kathik finds respite in his reading room when he feels like a machine.
In the book shelves of his house, there are worlds he can lose himself into.
"Sometimes I felt like a machine," he says.
"It was about these sexual encounters where you didn't even get to see the face of the person."
And while he defends the AI, he says his work made him realise how machines can never be human. They can't feel that despair.
"If there is a difference, I think it has to lie in our interiority, our ability to feel, to experience our lives, to relate, to experience the ethical dimension of existence. It doesn't seem like that machines have this. I think this ties to my deep dissatisfaction with what the male sex drive in combination with social disapprobation has done to a lot of gay life," he says.
In the virtual world, he doubts if the straight life is all that different.
"Of treating one's desiring self as a set of erogenous zones that need to be pleasured seems so not true to the complexity of sexual desire. The encounter becomes formal: a bunch of piston-like bodies. A machine-like encounter. That is why I think being a 'slut' is so damn unsatisfying. We need more. I'm not talking about nuclear monogamy — which is stifling in other kinds of ways — and is the antithesis of this," he says.
But then, even if you keep aside ethics, the culture of having a lot of sex is ultimately very estranging. It makes the loneliness that much more severe.
Because in it we experience the loneliness of a machine, he says.
And maybe that's what the gay experience is.
But then, there is always a little hope for love.
The muchness and yet the hollowness of sex without love.
Whatever love is, he would like to have a chance at it. And maybe after the rainbow songs are sung to their highest pitch, there will no more closets. Maybe it is an utopian thought but that makes the loneliness a little less with a little hope. That's what it is for now. A little hope for love. A little less fear of betrayal.
And from the broken tower, we observe the rainbow and hope the love lasts forever.