The morning traffic moved at a snail pace, often coming to a halt, and halting for what seemed like an eternity. Exasperated, for he had been late for office thrice that week, Abhay unrolled his car window to ask a whistle-chewing traffic police officer: Dada, what’s wrong? Accident? The traffic police officer nodded his head: No, a part of the flyover which was under construction has collapsed. Abhay was alarmed: Any casualties? The policeman was nonchalant: Yes, one or two. Didn’t you hear the news on FM? Why did you take this route? Abhay was not expecting so much concern. He just smiled helplessly, and rolled up the car window. He was stuck as no U-turn was possible.
Suddenly, Abhay, touching 55, only five years away from retirement, felt terribly claustrophobic. It seemed as if he was having an anxiety attack. He rolled down the car window again and tried to breathe in some fresh air. The expectation of fresh air amid rush-hour traffic was impractical. Even so, he tilted his head out. The closed space of the small car, the nauseating fragrance of the lemongrass car-freshener his wife loved, and the fast beats of ‘Baby doll’ played by his driver, Mohan, made his head spin. A dreadful anger seized him, and he wanted to bang his head against the glass until he bled. Instead, to his utter surprise, he burst into tears, and did not even try to hide it, even as he felt the curious eyes of Mohan staring at him in the rear-view mirror. Sir, all ok? A flabbergasted Mohan asked.
Abhay, slightly embarrassed, nodded his head and made a gesture with his hand, indicating he was fine. Mohan was deeply perturbed; he had been working for Abhay for the last two years. He had never seen him like this. He turned off the music and looked ahead without asking any more questions. Abhay collected himself, and wiping his tears, told Mohan: Won’t go to office today. Can you drive me to Princep Ghat? Mohan said: But how, sir? This traffic will not clear any time soon. On top of that, there’s no U-turn.
Abhay sighed heavily and nodded silently in agreement. No U-turn! Indeed! Even at 55 he was looking for that unexpected little opening in the divider, which could allow him a U-turn from where he was in life, so that he could go back and do-over the journey so far. And, on his way back, he could abandon all that he never wanted but had been imposed on him, while picking up everything he had had to let go. It was not that he had not tried; but, the price he had to pay for it was too high for what he got in return.
Brought up under the tutelage of an overbearing father, the only option Abhay had was to follow his orders without demur. Even when his marriage was arranged, he complied, believing that doing so was the only ‘normal’ course life could take. At 26, he never quite understood the unnamable attraction he had felt towards that handsome, sporty classmate of his; he could never quite tell why he had an insatiable urge to gaze at bare-bodied swimmers changing out of their trunks while playfully pulling at each other’s towels at the local swimming club. Before he could make sense of his feelings and come to terms with them, he was married. Within two years, he became a father, financial responsibilities grew, and he quite forgot about this strangeness in him. Not that he did not steal a glance at an attractive young man passing him by or check out a young new male colleague; but, he never responded to this desire and forcefully buried it as soon as it surfaced. He did not even want to think about it, often dismissing it as an unspeakable eccentricity which the world need not know of.
Around the time he touched 40, he began coming across news items on the LGBT movement, and the community’s struggle to decriminalise homosexuality. A particular story had caught his attention: a certain Lucknow-based NGO was raided by the police under false charges of a gay sex racket being run by the director. He followed the story for a while with interest. The innocent director’s harassment at the hands of the law alarmed him infinitely; he withdrew into his shell even more, and tried to forget about it. In any case, he was deeply ensconced in his marriage. He had never questioned it; for he never thought that there was an alternative to it, notwithstanding whether he was happy or not.
But then, life took a sharp turn and landed him on a road which was open and pleasant, but had perilous edges where a slightly wrong move could throw him into a deadly ravine. An artsy colleague of his invited him to a niche film festival one day and the film that was showcased blew his mind. Happy Together. Abhay watched in awe, almost hypnotised, unable to lift himself out of his seat as the end credits rolled. The desire he had suppressed so far confronted him in a beautifully compelling way, throwing him into a tizzy. The film forced him into soul-searching. It appeared to him that he had been indulging in self-deception for a little too long. He had refrained from accepting the truth which could have granted him a different life.
The Internet came in as a great tutor that coached him into understanding his sexuality more meaningfully. Initially, his research was limited only to gaining knowledge; although he was tempted to set up an account on PlanetRomeo, which kept showing up during his numerous searches on ‘homosexuality’, he never quite mustered up the courage to venture into the dating world. After each search, he was cautious to delete his browsing history, apprehensive of his daughter finding him out for she had access to his laptop.
It was as late as 2013 that he made an account on Facebook, on the insistence of his college friends. Old-school as he was, it took him time to figure out how to make friends with like-minded strangers; and then he came across a group – Hues of the Rainbow. It was a closed group; he could not see much except a profile picture of two men kissing under a rainbow flag. Like a child who is animated by the sight of their favourite toy, he sent a ‘Join request’, with his heart thumping against his ribcage. His request was accepted by the page’s admin within 24 hours, and it appeared to him that he had eventually found the door to wonderland. But, he soon realised there were many more ‘wonderlands’ as Facebook began sending him suggestions of similar groups. With the enthusiasm of a novice, he began exploring. He soon made numerous friends who, very often, complimented him on his good looks, which initially embarrassed him. Even in his 50s, his athletic physique was still intact for he had been diligently and consistently practising swimming and yoga. Soon, he found himself looking at the mirror more frequently than before, and investing in self-grooming. The sudden change took his wife by surprise: Did you buy a face scrub? Really? Abhay had anticipated the question; he had prepared an answer beforehand: Nowadays, if you are not well-groomed, the younger people in office do not take you seriously. His wife was surprised at his sudden interest in cosmetic products, having known him for years. She chose not to probe, but also sensed that all was not quite right in their world.
On the other hand, in Abhay’s newly discovered wonderland, everything seemed to be awfully right. Soon, he began receiving proposals for sex-dates. Initially such proposals shocked him; for it took him a few months to get used to the fact that sex with men was only a click away. Once his initial shock waned, he began entertaining, or at least responding to these proposals, but always with a disclaimer that he preferred emotional bonding over sexual intimacy. The idea of sex outside of marriage was still something he could not bring himself to accept. Brought up on rigid binaries of ‘virtue’ and ‘vice’, of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, he found it difficult to step beyond his self-inscribed lakshman rekha. But, he was also delighted that handsome young boys desired him; it had amused him that he now had an identity he wasn’t even aware of until recently – a ‘sugar daddy’. A 19-something- year-old had jokingly introduced him to the term: “You look like a typical sugar daddy of porn films…hahaha!” However, Abhay did not quite grasp the full meaning of this term until he googled it one day. It did not amuse him as much anymore.
In a year or two, he gave up his utility phone in favor of an Android-operated one. It took him a few months to get the hang of the device; but once he was adept at using it, he got increasingly addicted to it. He soon realised that the phone gave him much more privacy to browse the Internet, for it did not require him to delete his browser history anymore. The phone, to his delight, insulated him automatically from unwanted judgment, rewarding him with unlimited ‘me’ time. Soon, he felt the need to protecting his phone with a password as he started becoming more intrepid in his explorations. Upon discovering this, his daughter teased him: Baba, affair-taffair korchho naki? (Dad, are you having an affair?) He was taken aback, and looked at her, petrified. His daughter laughed out loud: Oh God! Look at your expression. I was joking, baba. I just saw that your phone had a password. He was about to say something in his own defense, as if caught in the middle of committing a heinous crime; but his daughter gestured to him to stop: It’s ok, baba. You too deserve your privacy. Abhay was relieved. He was almost about to feel guilty of self-indulgence. Yet his daughter’s open-mindedness in understanding his need for privacy made him remorseful too – would she approve of his virtual adventures? But, he had also begun to appreciate the importance of self-love, of doing things that pleased him, thanks to those innumerable YouTube videos which showed up when he browsed ‘positive thinking’.
He was eventually happy, albeit for those fleeting moments of guilt that troubled him. However, he progressively felt the necessity of companionship – with a man. Would that mean cheating on his wife? He couldn’t tell. But the desire grew with time.
It happened one night. Abhay received a text on Messenger: I wish you were reading out to me from Whitman as I lay my head on your lap. The sender’s name was Swapnil. Two days earlier, Abhay had posted a few lines from On the Beach at Night, a poem he was particularly attached to since he had had his daughter. Nobody seemed to have noticed that post. He was taken aback that this young man knew Whitman. He clicked on the chat window and opened his profile. Two pale brown eyes smiled at him from beneath entangled locks on a headful of disheveled hair; slightly twisted lips curved impishly at the edges; a perfect jawline cutting a beautiful face that seemed to speak a thousand words in silence. He was surprisingly attractive. Abhay scrolled down the page to make sure it wasn’t a fake profile. It wasn’t. Abhay could not resist flirting with him, though he could not get past the thought of why such a handsome boy had messaged him. Nonetheless, he wrote back; to his surprise, he could recall lines that suited the moment perfectly: Are you the new person drawn toward me?
Swapnil responded: To begin with, take warning —
I am surely far different from what you suppose…
This boy surely knew his Whitman. Abhay was astounded. He was too astounded to reply immediately.
Swapnil: Surprised, Mr. Fearless? Yes, I discovered Whitman in my school library at 12; since then, I have been with him. I married him when I discovered at 21 that he was gay.
Abhay: What! Whitman was gay?
Swapnil: Oh! You posted his poems without knowing that? Well, everyone does not believe he was. But most do! Calamus, dude.
Abhay was infinitely amused. Impressed. He had never had a chat like this with a stranger. They continued chatting well into the wee hours of the morning, at the end of which Abhay learned that the man was a painter and a philatelist. He danced to Exo-Kai’s songs when happy; he watched Before Sunrise when sad. His dream was to make love under the sprawling Norwegian sky, bathed in the Northern Lights.
The story with Swapnil didn’t stop there; instead, it seemed to progress like a dream and Abhay began to feel that a time machine had taken him back to his adolescent days. The boy messaged him round-the-clock, and always had something interesting to share, apart from his occasional naughty insinuations of a sexual escapade with him. Abhay was tempted, but he was too prim to show his interest openly. Rather, he sidestepped them with emoticons, gingerly choosing the right expressions. But, it was impossible not to adore the boy.
One morning Abhay woke up to a forwarded Lady Gaga music video, another morning he opened his eyes and saw some 25 messages describing how Swapnil had eventually found a rare stamp from Greenland dating back to 1939. Halfway into the day, Swapnil sent him snapshots of his painting of a lonely boat lost on the high seas, while their nocturnal chat ended with a picture of his bare torso. The boy rarely disappointed, and was never imposing; and Abhay began to get impatient if he took more than 30 minutes to answer a blue-ticked message. This continued for two months, uninterrupted, by which time Abhay was a changed man, as his colleagues, wife, and daughter noticed. Never before did he check his phone so often during an important meeting; never before did he remain so aloof at the dinner table; and most of all, never before did he sneak out of the apartment to answer a phone call. His wife and daughter did not cross him, though. His wife was too proud to ask; his daughter too preoccupied with her office and social life to even remember to ask.
When the ‘affair’ entered its third month, Abhay asked Swapnil out. To his surprise, the boy did not agree to the proposal as readily as Abhay thought he would. It was not in Abhay’s nature to force anyone. Disheartened, he did not ask again, but one fine morning, he woke up to What about a coffee date tomorrow evening? Abhay was euphoric, like a young adult going out on a first date. He invited him to Blue & Beyond, a rooftop restaurant, telling him he wanted the early evening coffee to extend into a late evening dinner. Swapnil accepted.
On the day of the date, Abhay took extra care to choose his shirt; he even shouted at his wife for not finding his best-fitting trousers in the wardrobe; he had never taken so long to decide on the cologne. It was quite an unusual sight for his wife who, although busy with household chores, noticed him spending an extraordinarily long time in front of the dresser. I will not have dinner tonight, he announced, as he left the house.
Abhay was apprehensive about the date, while at the same time also being uncontrollably excited about it. Would the boy be like the image he had of him in his mind? Of late, he had been noticing how different people were in real life as compared to their appearance on social media. People had become like commodities, peddling their carefully filtered avatars. But, in reality, they could be as disappointing as gimcrack products made alluring by glitzy ads. Asking Mohan to park the car a good 0ne-kilometre away from the venue, he waited at the restaurant with bated breath until Swapnil arrived. Abhay was relieved: those pale brown eyes, those unkempt curls covering his forehead, and that impish smile were all in place. He walked gracefully and rhythmically, and carried his clothes with panache. Much to Abhay’s surprise, the boy asked if he could hug him and it took Abhay a couple of seconds to respond in the affirmative, given that he was not used to showing affection physically.
The evening began on the right note; but as it progressed, Abhay noticed some inconsistencies between the boy on WhatsApp and the boy sitting across from him. He was far less talkative, at times elusive, and for a few minutes, he even seemed to have spaced out. Abhay also noticed that he was a bit cagey about his family and his friends, whereabouts in the city he lived and which college he had studied in. He also did not show any interest in Abhay’s family. That, however, relieved Abhay for he thought it would be an awkward topic to discuss.
The evening ended with a proposal for another date from Swapnil.
Abhay was happy. It was not going to be just a fling after all. Soon, a second date happened, and then a third, all in quick succession. During each meeting, Abhay noted that the boy appeared more enigmatic than before. He talked with more ease; but he was very guarded about responses to personal questions. Abhay was unsure whether a stronger bond was possible if Swapnil did not open up. He decided to give him more time. His experience of the world, however, revealed to Abhay that there was something in the boy’s eyes which was disturbing. He could not tell what it was exactly; but there was certainly something waiting to be disclosed. But, this inscrutable nature of the boy allured him immensely too. He did not know why. But, he was falling for him. He was convinced about that.
One night, Abhay impatiently waited for Swapnil to respond to his: What about a date tomorrow? Are you free? The boy replied, almost one hour after reading the message: What about another kind of date? Abhay was taken aback: What do you mean? The boy: I am sure you understood. Don’t pretend, Mr Fearless. Abhay laughed: Well, I am not ready yet. He was not lying; he was still hesitant to take the next step. It was too early. But, for the next one hour the boy cajoled him into agreeing to see him the next day outside Dumdum Metro Station at around noon. He would take him to his place from there. Abhay did not want to go; but then, he was already so deeply invested in the boy that he could not turn him down.
Abhay couldn’t sleep all night; all kinds of thoughts crowded his mind. He enjoyed the boy’s company. He looked forward to seeing him. But, he had not been expecting to have sex with him so soon. However, he also realised that for Swapnil this might not be ‘so soon’: in the era of instant coffee, instant ego-gratification through ‘Like’ buttons, instant messages, instant mobilisation across social media platforms, there was too little patience to wait. He would have to submit to this immediacy of the times to keep up. He smiled to himself. He was also thrilled that he was finally coming out of his shell.
It was a Saturday. Abhay left home, outrightly lying for the first time: Important meeting in office. Have to attend! – which his wife did not doubt. But she asked: Why didn’t you tell me earlier? I told Mohan to take leave today. Abhay said: It’s alright. I’ll take the Metro.
That day, Abhay took extra care with his personal hygiene, put on his best perfume, and took a few extra minutes to admire his athletic physique in the mirror. He found himself envisioning the boy’s beautiful torso, pictures of which he had seen quite a few times. He was embarrassed; but, a strange thrill filled him, which he had not felt in a long time.
By the time Abhay reached Dumdum Metro Station, Swapnil had already arrived. He lightly chided him for being late as he showed him the way through a dreadfully congested vegetable market. It was so raucous and crowded that Abhay lost sight of Swapnil twice. Eventually, they entered a quiet alley with several twists and turns. Swapnil was quieter than usual; in fact, he appeared distant and detached as he led the way. Abhay’s heart misgave him. He suddenly felt he shouldn’t have come. He was no longer feeling the same way as he had standing in front of the mirror. He did not sense an erotic vibe from Swapnil, who barely spoke. Abhay thought that he was perhaps nervous; for, no matter how bold and naughty he sounded in his messages, he had noticed the boy was abstemious in reality.
They arrived in front of a two-storey building with a shabby door, from which a sad shade of green paint had peeled off to reveal termite-infested wood. Swapnil pushed open the door and gestured him in without saying a word. He led him up the stairs noiselessly, and, on the first landing, pushed open a door to his left and entered. Abhay entered behind him, unable to see inside the room, which was pretty dark. No windows were open. The boy switched on the fan and a night lamp. He turned around, and for the first time, smiled. Abhay smiled back, unsure what to do next. The boy came up to him, and unbuttoning Abhay’s shirt, peeled it off him. Already? Abhay asked, crestfallen. Soon he was standing in his inner-wear, when he heard a rush of footsteps at the staircase. He saw Swapnil go pale even in the semi-dark room, and before he could utter a word, three well-built men broke into the room and began clicking photos of him with their mobile phones. Abhay was dumbfounded for a split second, and as the enormity of what had happened sunk in, he dropped to his knees, frantically looking for his clothes on the floor. One of the men said: Don’t you move, old man! Another said: Shame on you! Sleeping with a boy of your son’s age? The third mocked him: Aye…what perfume have you used, oldie? Smells good! And, all three broke into monstrous laughter which would echo in his head for months to come.
Abhay felt as if he were having a cardiac arrest – hot air emanated from his ears, he sweated as if water was dripping off his body after a shower, and his heart palpitated so hard that he could hear it. The men sat him down forcefully on the bed, and told him politely: Just give us your debit card, your credit card, and that Rolex watch you are wearing and we will delete all your half-nude photos and let you go. Don’t be afraid, old man! Nothing will happen to you.Abhay heard them but he was too stupefied to speak. Relax…relax…just come to the nearest ATM with us, give us your money, and we will let you go. Promise! They spoke amiably but with a spine-chilling coldness that gave Abhay goosebumps. He looked around, still unable to believe that Swapnil had got him into this. But, surprisingly, the boy was nowhere to be seen.
What happened in the next half-an-hour, Abhay could hardly recall. It all happened in a daze. The three men escorted him to the nearest ATM and had him withdraw all his money. They took his watch but let go of his smartphone, mercifully. Then, they hailed him a cab and sat him in it. Abhay was surprised: they knew where he lived, and he heard them instructing the driver. His head was heavy, his pulse rate impossibly high; he was unable to think clearly. But, he had to think of a story before he reached home. After much deliberation, he decided he had to tell his family the truth – well, half the truth.
I was jolted out of my slumber late in the night by a phone call. It was Abhay. Very unusual of him to call at this hour! Apprehensive that a mishap may have befallen him, I swiped ‘Receive’. Let me pause here to tell the readers that Abhay and I became friends through Facebook, and in a few weeks of chatting, we connected, even though there is a huge age difference between us. In a few months, I became his ‘agony nephew’, as I jokingly called myself: he shared with me his life story, his doubts, his fears, his crushes. In fact, when he told me about his growing interest in Swapnil, I urged him to read Death in Venice, and often teasingly referred to Swapnil as Tadzio in our conversations.
Decent and modest as he was, Abhay never called me before asking for permission. Therefore, my heart sank seeing his name flash on my mobile phone screen at 3 in the morning.
All’s well, Abhay? I asked, not even caring to say hello. Abhay’s voice was unrecognisable. He spoke as if under the influence of sedatives. As he told me the story, he kept reproaching himself for being a fool. More than his loss, his humiliation, his betrayal by someone whom he had begun to fall in love with, what distressed him was his lack of self-restraint. You need not blame yourself, Abhay, I said several times. But he was not willing to listen to me. When he calmed down a bit, I said: See, an FIR needs to be filed. Abhay reacted as if I had dropped a bomb: No, no, no, never, never. I cannot take the risk of going to the police.
I understood. He had to tell the truth to the police; and telling the truth could defame him irredeemably. It could be more mortifying than what he had already gone through. I did not push him further.
What was more important now was to counsel him for the trauma he had experienced. It was not a simple case of humiliation. It also involved a person he had trusted and loved.
Surprisingly, Swapnil was nowhere to be found after disappearing mysteriously from the scene. His phone number was defunct; his Facebook account deleted. Although Abhay was determined not to, I tried to trace him for I was very angry. But, all in vain.
Abhay was so devastated by the boy’s treachery that I had to take him to a counsellor, a close friend of mine. We had been in touch every day since then, without fail. The day he broke down in the car, we spoke right after that. He had been hoarding too much inside him. That moment was a moment of release. Abhay had never cried all those days until then.
A month passed. I could see Abhay recover bit by bit. But, no degree of counselling could convince him to return to dating or even to initiate a conversation with another stranger. He grew intensely attached to me; and, I found myself almost parenting a man at least 2o years older than me. I didn’t mind, as long as he found in me that little haven he had never found in life.
We had both begun to forget Tadzio when one night, Abhay received a message from an unknown sender: Forgive me, if you can. I so wish you hadn’t come that day. He tried to call the number; but it was out of service. He phoned me immediately: I think I received a message from him. It took me two seconds to realise who he was referring to. What does it say? Abhay sounded paranoid: I think he did not do all this on his own accord. He was forced to. Else, why would he say he wished I had not come that day? You know, I doubt, I seriously doubt that he is safe. I understood he was not, but I didn’t say so. Abhay, calm down! It’s beyond us to do anything about it. It took me an hour to pacify him.
After he hung up, I could not sleep the whole night, thinking about Tadzio. Indeed, what could his story be?
We will never find out.
Cover Image : Pixabay