Kumam Davidson is an independent journalist, activist and educator. Co-founder of The Chinky Homo Project, a digital and print queer anthology from North East India, in an interview with Shikha Aleya, Davidson talks about growing up in the shadow of insurgency, his writings, and his worry that “in 2019 even after Section 377 has been partially revoked, I continue to grapple with questions of intimacy and sexuality here in my state. Sadly, it feels that a cheap hotel in Churachandpur, or a rented flat in Imphal, or at worst among the bushes in the hills, or a dark alley in the night, is where the intimacy of same sex lovers belongs, and nowhere else.”
Shikha : Davidson, thank you for speaking to us about your work and beliefs. You have explored themes of intimacy and sexuality, in the context of the lived reality of queer lives in the North East. In your story Imphal Express Bus, there is a sense of disconnectedness between intimacy and life events, with the shadow of conflict forever upon the characters. Please tell us more about the thoughts and experiences that lie behind your writing on these themes.
Davidson: This is an extremely complex case of context and lived experience. The way one navigates intimacy and sexuality in a place like Manipur calls for an insider’s perspective to throw some light on it. Intimacy and sex or sexuality are taboo subjects in most sections of society. I lived in a small town in Manipur where I had literally no experience of intimacy and sexuality, something that changed when I moved to Imphal and then to Delhi, where I have lived with my lovers, and have a complex relationship with intimacy and sexuality. Both cities, far away from my roots, have come to define my experience of intimacy and sexuality. Now that I am back in my small town, it feels that I have come back to a life without intimacy, let alone celebration of sexuality and identity.Indeed I experience a contradictory sense of intimacy and belongingness. Where I belong, I experience no intimacy, and where I find intimacy is where I am without roots and belongingness. I wish I could claim both and I fear– what if I fail to?
I had experienced intimacy before I even understood what it meant. There are a lot of personal sentiments and memories embedded in the story Imphal Express Bus. Being in an all boys’ dorm in a residential school at a very young age, where homosociality and discreet intimacy are often common and accepted to a large extent, intimacy between two boys who are best friends as well, is not likely to be questioned. You have to understand that the shared emotional intensity between them is not a sheer fictional creation. Young people feel attracted to each other and in the process feelings of love develop as well, or vice versa. But, as you rightly pointed out, the shadow of the region’s conflict does fall on the characters. I personally believe one’s lived experience, thoughts and outlook are often shaped or influenced by the context of the place they live in. The story is set in early 2000 when state-wide political conflict and militancy was still at its peak and I lived through those years. And today’s generation of young queer boys may not relate to the sentiments of the characters as much as I would. There was immense fear and uncertainty. I remember running home as fast as I could or taking shelter in someone’s house because there was an encounter with security personnel nearby. Everything was shut by late evening and no one would be seen in the street once it was dark because firing between militants and armed forces broke out every now and then. And yet, two boys far away in a residential school in the hills are lost in the warmth of their skins and the tingling touch of one’s hand on the other’s chest tucked underneath the blanket. And when one has to leave the other, there was the pain of separation felt on both sides. In their world, the region’s conflict was hardly significant; their emotions and bodily sensations were far stronger and overpowering. Of course, the bigger picture is more complex and nuanced given the region’s political landscape that has changed over the years, and is partly reflected in another story, Gay Cruising in Imphal.
Shikha: That leads us to the question – how do you understand and define intimacy? What according to you is intimacy and how does it connect with sexuality and sexual expression?
Davidson: Intimacy for me is the expression of love, lust, desire and fantasies between people; through both verbal language and non-verbal acts and expressions. The in-between lines of the different facets are mostly blurry. Intimacy is in fact the natural embodiment of how a human being is biologically, emotionally and socially or/and come to be conditioned as well. Social indoctrination and value judgements sanctioned by society continue to define the acceptability or unacceptability of forms and ways of intimacy.
While intimacy is an act and expression that can hardly be contained in tight compartments such as marriage, heterosexuality or heteronormativity, most societies persistently try to contain it. I think that’s why intimacy found its way into dark theatre rows, shady public toilets and parks, which are now increasingly being replaced by virtual apps and exclusive parties. Heteronormativity has continued to glorify intimacy in very narrow terms, exuding conservatism when it comes to expressions of sexuality and intimacy, in most societies and in popular art. However, the fact remains that intimacy has an inextricable link with sexuality. How much of it can be truly expressed and articulated freely without inhibitions depends on how open-minded society is.
Shikha: In your story, Gay Cruising in Imphal, there is a sense of intimate knowledge amongst strangers at a public place, which is then strongly contrasted with the finding of a room at the end of the story. Do you think there is such a thing as a publicly shared intimacy, or sense of intimacy, at one end of a spectrum, where the other end would be the intimacy expressed in the privacy of a room? How does intimacy unfold, or how is it shared, at these different ends of the spectrum?
Davidson: Intimacy indeed takes different shapes, contours and intensities in my opinion. In the public sphere, one is always aware of the surroundings, the gaze of people and the looming fear of being caught or decried for an act of intimacy. However, intimacy does play out in cunning and subtle ways: a sly touch by one’s fingers, or eye contact, or the pursing of the lips, or a simple wink. People always find ways to connect, to be intimate in different spaces. How else do people connect with each other, express attraction and desire, share feelings and emotions? Yes, there is, to an extent, such a thing as publicly shared intimacy; heterosexual couples holding hands in public space is a classic example. However, like I said, how much of it can be truly expressed and articulated freely without inhibitions depends on how open-minded society is. Given the context of Manipur or Delhi where I have mostly grown up, public display of intimacy is mostly considered inappropriate or unacceptable. That’s why people seek privacy, a safe space free of fear and uncertainty and without the unwanted gaze and scrutiny of people. In the private sphere, one is more upfront about expressing and playing out not just intimacy and sexuality, but also fantasies.
In the story Gay Cruising in Imphal, the sense of intimate knowledge amongst strangers at a public space is a clear indication that cruising is a culture known and practiced by a certain section of people in a given society. Cruising is not an isolated practice, it is practiced everywhere around the world. There is a certain structure in which cruising spaces are navigated and maintained. Even the state authorities are aware of it and yet it is an unnameable and unprosecuted practice largely. A Commando jeep looms large in the area probably to leverage sexual favours or cash. Despite the vigilant Commando, the two men manage to interact without garnering unwanted attention and find their way to a shady hotel room nearby where they briefly fulfil each other’s sexual urges. As you rightly observed, there is a slight contrast at the end where the narrator lets the other guy lead the way to the hotel and make the booking while he simply observes, follows and cooperates. This is primarily because he doesn’t know about the hotel and its workings, as contrasted to the shared knowledge they both had of the public cruising space.
Shikha: What are your thoughts about the ways in which society, politics, and culture impact our experiences of intimacy and sexuality?
Davidson: This is a vast topic in itself and a very complex one in the context of Manipur. Growing up I learnt about sex and intimacy as extremely tabooed entities. Expression of love, desire and intimacy is hardly the norm in my society. Rather, one may be publicly persecuted by local organisations and associations for an intimate or sexual act between consensual adults. There is a culture of “keinakatpa” (forced marriage) in Meitei society (Meitei is the way the locals refer to the majority ethnic group in Manipur). If a man and woman are caught in a ‘compromising position’, suspected to have been intimate, be it in a public or private space (private space is also liable to intrusion), then they are forced into marriage by the local Meira Paibi (women’s group). Also, vigilante groups in collaboration with Meira Paibis, conduct ‘restaurant drives’ where they hunt down lovers probably being intimate inside restaurants and punish them through forced marriage or by defaming them in public. This doesn’t mean that people are not having sex at all; there are other spaces such as hotels exclusively accessible only to the rich.
A woman accused of being a porn star and a mayang (outsider) allegedly involved in the making of a porn film were killed by an insurgent group in Manipur in the late nineties. The group allegedly stated that this was a punishment, and issued a statement to the public that imbibing ‘outside culture’ (pornography) may call for such actions. This was just prior to the banning of Bollywood films in Manipur in 2000 by Revolutionary Peoples Front. The Manipuri Digital Film industry was born overnight following the ban. Hugging (to be precise, a woman’s breast is not supposed to touch a man’s body though this may have changed to an extent recently), kissing or other intimate acts are not shown onscreen, probably reflecting public attitudes towards intimacy and sexuality, reaffirmed and reiterated by film censorships bodies. The interweaving of politics, culture, society and state is apparent here. But, there are avenues for subversion or indulgence nonetheless. By indulgence I am speaking of how certain spaces, like film theatres for example, become sites where people indulge in their sexual fantasies or desires while living in an otherwise restrictive society.
In the 80’s and 90’s there were theatres and video parlours that played erotic Hollywood films, including what used to be called ‘blue films’, meaning porn films. You see, today people increasingly indulge in their fantasies of intimacy and sexuality through smart phones apps, but back then it was done in the dark rows of theatres and video parlours that were exclusively male spaces. The realm of fantasy comes to hold a prominent place in people’s lives precisely because intimacy and sexuality being taboo subjects remain mostly out of one’s immediate reach and lived experience.
Shikha: And how did and does all of this affect your own life?
Davidson: Growing up, I too visited video parlours to see ‘blue films’ and Hollywood films with explicit sexual content, as that was the only site where sexuality was celebrated. But when it came to intimacy, it was only in the residential school and rented flats in Imphal that I discovered intimacy and male bonding, to whatever degree I experienced those. For a young boy who was hardly aware of his identity and sexual orientation, surprisingly the experiences occurred quite spontaneously. I was neither part of the subculture of the transgressive Amaiba and Amaibi (religious functionaries of the Meitei) associated with Lai Haraoba (festival of deities), nor was I part of the global networking among LGBTQ people through apps and social media –until I discovered Orkut in 2008 while in Delhi. Before that I had already been in same sex relationships. Only in retrospect, years later, I realised that my relationship with my past lovers in Manipur were influenced by heteronormativity. The relationships evoked homophobic feelings, and we couldn’t come into terms with kissing even though we were often naked in bed. But there is nothing to be surprised at this: I grew up watching popular Hindi and Manipuri romantic films, and the intimacy of same sex relationships was something unheard of and unknown to us back then, even though it must have existed within closets. In 2019 even after Section 377 has been read down, I continue to grapple with questions of intimacy and sexuality here in my state. Sadly, it feels that a cheap hotel in Churachandpur, or a rented flat in Imphal, or at worst among the bushes in the hills, or a dark alley in the night, is where the intimacy of same sex lovers belongs, and nowhere else. Of course, spas, saloons, and parlours are also considered spaces where sexual transactions continue to happen. But not every queer person inhabits those spaces.
I often dream of the day when I can hold hands with the person I love and walk down the street in my town without being shamed and decried. I also dream of happily living with the same person in a house somewhere around here, not shunned and abhorred by my family and neighbours. It’s been exhausting living under homophobia and the garb of heteronormativity.
Shikha: Thank you for sharing so much with us. Please do tell us a little bit about The Chinky Homo Project. As described on the website, the project “seeks to explore, discuss and archive the lived experiences and narratives of people living in the cusp or intersection of both subjectivities”. What are the kinds of responses you have received while working on this?
Davidson: The Project seeks to explore, document and archive narratives of queer people of the northeast. There have been both appreciative and critical responses. It doesn’t attempt to reclaim the words ‘chinky’ and ‘homo’ and some community people from Manipur feel that the word ‘homo’ brings back the unwanted history of violence against transwomen in particular and queer people in general. We take the criticisms seriously and there have been conversations among the core group to address the grievances in the best way. If required the Project will be renamed.
I would also like to take this opportunity to share a new-found anxiety about the Project after I relocated to Moirang in Manipur. Now, I genuinely fear for the future of the Project, my own social activism and life. If I were in Imphal where there are better prospects for media, NGO, activism and advocacy, the Project could have easily taken a new phase with us doing more work on the ground. Moirang is 45 kms away from Imphal and public transport is too unreliable to keep one’s engagement in Imphal active while actually living in Moirang. Imphal being the centre of everything out here, sustaining a Project from the periphery of the already peripheral northeast India has various challenges. And I am not in a position to relocate to Imphal or Delhi at the moment.
Also Pavel and my other queer friends in Delhi with whom I have been closely working on the Project are struggling for their own livelihood and career. We all understand the circumstances in which queer activism and advocacy are carried out: little or no resources and personal crises with regard to family and society to grapple with at the same time, adding more pressure, stress and challenges. But none of us are giving up yet either. I wake up every morning and sit for hours crafting the future of the Project, discussing it with queer friends in Delhi over Whatsapp messages, email and phone calls.
What is really heart-warming at the moment is the continued love, support and trust from the community and allies both in the region and outside, and the individual work each of us has been doing. There is probably a silver lining somewhere and that is what we are trying to find.