Random House India
Quarantine is a bouncer. It leaves you clean bowled and yet begs for another ball from the other side. Rahul Mehta desperately does for New York what Armistead Maupin did for San Francisco, albeit the defiant dysfunctional desi way.
The book can be done in a maximum of two sittings and is delightful reading — albeit a bit irritating because most of the gay men are highly out of sync with their ersatz environment, the ever present long shadow of the Big Apple but without its perpetual fizz.
For a citizen of Bombay, New York is a sister city in every which way — it has the similar wavelength of on-the-edge energy, totally wicked and wry people living for the day and never thinking of what might (or might not) happen tomorrow. The book is inhabited by people trying very hard to be successful in a bindaas bare-ass kind of way.
However, a small warning. Unlike Maupin, the stories here don’t all tie up in the end into a karmic knot. They are like cotton strands intertwining into a fine muslin-like fabric that says the US of A also has Indians now domesticated but going in the other direction on the crowded road called success.
The first story, 'Quarantine', aptly sets the trend. It’s an acidic etching of three generations trying to finally come to terms with their lives and ends with the son making it amply clear he’s breaking away despite paying obeisance to the Indian tradition. I like the way gay sons have been accepted as part of the familial landscape here, with the same rights and without a second thought of ‘what will the relatives say’ interfering.
The second story ‘Floating’ swings all the way back into small- town India and pries out the male-male sex that is rampant there. I liked it because it’s so finely crafted. You’ll meet hustlers like Rajesh all over India, smartly dressed and hiding under labels like ‘guide’, ‘artist’. In the story, Darnell and his Indian lover are being cased by all the local guys with their sharp antennae long before they even catch on and discover ‘what’ Rajesh is.
Some of the stories are about big losers like the Indian wannabe writer in ‘Yours’. Again it’s finely crafted to show the tussle between a tugging ambition and a marsh of existential ego-muck. I was hungry for the end and yet let down by it. It goes to show that Mehta can be wicked when he wants to be a queen promising a happy ending and fails to deliver on purpose.
The best story is ‘A Better Life’ in which a Gujju boy plays a smart New Yorker and tries to fool his and his guardian’s family on his wasted years. It’s got that ‘gay men trying peek-a-boo with family and friends till he doesn’t know what he’s upto and yet manages to be endearing in that he doesn’t lose your sympathy’ quality about it. I wouldn’t have patience for such guys in Bombay. But here, strangely, it seems okay and I question myself ‘Why?’
The important chain link of family is never lost by Mehta. It tugs you back the moment you feel you’ve lost your way. Like Jewish mothers, the Indian family is stronger than we know, however dysfunctionally deadpan we may try to be. There is that underlying truth that Mehta never loses and it’s sort of assuring in a welcome way. Each time I’ve tried losing my family, I’ve found it in strange places, including New York and Dallas.
I do think Mehta needs to be welcomed with a screaming gay party at Polka in Kailash Colony with the pickpockets and the Punjabi trashy boys. Or better still to the L-Lounge at Royal Garden in Bombay where the dykes light your cigarettes with a match struck on their jackboots.
Ashok Row Kavi is the founding executive editor of Bombay Dost and technical officer for sexual minorities at UNAIDS, Delhi