The message was confusing. In May 2013, several news sources across India, and online, had headlines that seemed to burst with pink pride: “This July, Goa will be a Gay Haven,” they said, while serving as an advertisement for IndjapInk, reputedly the country’s “first and only gay boutique travel agency.” IndjapInk was organizing a “Life is a Beach” package for travellers wanting a “most sensational, super sexy gay group tour of the year to Goa.” So, what was so perplexing about all that then, one might ask. Well, to accompany this ebullience and gay abandon, IndjapInk provides images of the wistful scenarios that patrons might aspire to once at the “gay haven.” The company’s Facebook page depicts scenes where swimwear-clad men lounge on sandy shores, get massages, look upon companions lovingly, and even laugh it up in groups of four that hint at the promise of, shall we say, more to come. One of the problems is there is no guaranteeing that any of these idyllic settings are actually in Goa (last I checked, most beaches have sand...). And all of the men in the pictures are white.
What exactly is IndjapInk offering? Is it: a) Goa as a destination for white men? b) Goa as a destination where Indian men can access white men? or c) Goa as a destination where the people themselves are, perhaps, white?
While beaches litter the coasts of India, what sets Goa apart as a favoured holiday destination in the Indian imagination is the liberality associated with it. Undeniably, the Indian film industry – Bollywood – has influentially played its part in crystallizing this perception, often by negatively representing Goa and Goans, through such movies as Dum Maro Dum (2011) and Go Goa Gone (2013), which portray the coastal location as a hedonistic playground for the pleasure of those that seek it. However, it must also be contended that assumptions of Goa’s permissiveness are tied in with its divergent colonial history from the rest of the country, which adds to its exotic allure for Indians. Goa was a Portuguese dominion between 1510 and 1961, thus pre- and post-dating the colonial association of most of the rest of modern India with Britain. Because of the nearly 500 year presence of the Portuguese in the region, a notion that persists is that Christianity and interraciality generally characterize Goan identity, giving its people a more Western and, so, more tolerant bent toward sexuality for one thing. Ironically, not only have Christians been a Goan minority since before Goa was decolonized, but white-Asian miscegeny had been a rarity that only saw its heyday as far back as the early sixteenth century. So much, then, for choice c, above, even if it is what IndjapInk might subliminally be selling with the Goan tag on its package.
Because Goa is an international tourist destination, white bodies do dot its beaches, making options a and b viable. Nonetheless, there is an interesting tension between the two possibilities. Does a company that chooses to name itself with a moniker that conjures the orientalist fantasies of a repressed colonial sahib (say “Indja” and try not to think of a stiff upper-lipped fellow with dreams of the Kama Sutra running through his head...) have any choice other than to offer an India of days gone by to white gay tourists? At the same time, what option b presents the Indian gay traveller to Goa with is, conversely, a modern experience. Because the Indian tourist may potentially share the same space as white gay men, his identity is placed on par with others on the gay global scene, which makes him just as modern and emancipated as them. The Indian gay tourist to Goa is being told that he has “arrived” because he can avail of the same pleasures in Goa as gay men of international origins.
Goa’s liminality plays a peculiar role in affording Indian gay men the opportunity to establish their identities as tourists and as members of a global fraternity. And afford is the key word here. The 25 May, 2013 Times of India headline puts it best when it notes of businesses like IndjapInk, that theirs is the task of “Luring the Pink Lucre to Incredible India.” Partaking of a gay lifestyle and demonstrating one’s liberation as a gay tourist is clearly only the domain of those able to drum up the right amount of pink rupees. This, therefore, is not about gay rights for all and sundry but, instead, a demarcation of the privilege of a few – a few men, at that. It is evident that the company is not aimed at drawing in women travellers. For the Indian gay male tourist, then, Goa becomes a proving ground of his liberation because he might encounter gay men from other parts of the world, but it also fixes Goa as India, but not quite.
In his essay titled “Tourism and Nation-Building: (Re)Locating Goa in Postcolonial India” (2007),anthropologist Raghuraman Trichur argues that Goa’s unique position as “India with a ‘difference’,” not only presents the region as a commodity for tourist consumption, but does so to integrate Goa with India. What Trichur alludes to is the manner in which Goa was subsumed by the Indian nation-state in 1961 though “Goa never figured in [the] imagination of independent India,” because “[t]he shape and form of postcolonial India is largely defined by its history of British colonialism.” Therein, Goa’s decolonization occurred not as an act of the self-determination of its own people, but at the hands of a nation that took it over.
What the current wave of Indian gay tourism does is to reinforce the identity of a narrowly defined segment of the population, those of a certain economic ilk, by hailing them as elite and moneyed members of the nation. This homonationalism simultaneously sees the gay male subject as a participant in the ordering of India along ethnocentric and class lines, to the exclusion of the marginal, while he is concurrently given the chance to see himself as a player on a global stage that is similarly narrowly defined. So while the IndjapInk slogan might proclaim that “Life is a Beach,” the subtext reads: “Gay rights, one sandy shore at a time, but only if you can pay your way there...”
This article appears online here and also in the Winter 2013 issue of Trikone Magazine.