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Malavika’s Mumbaistan: Ashok Row Kavi, Mumbai’s Pied Piper

ByMalavika Sangghvi
Mar 31, 2024 07:16 AM IST

Row Kavi, the son of an upper-class Hindu family, residing in a conservative neighbourhood and the product of elite Christian educational establishments had come out as India’s first publicly self-acknowledged gay person in 1984, in an interview with a popular magazine. We’re talking about the Eighties here: a time when no one spoke publicly about being gay

“I was born in 1947 and history has followed me since then,” Ashok Row Kavi tells me, as we sit sipping ginger tea in his cosy apartment while his staff watch TV in an adjoining room and the sounds of kids playing in his building compound waft up. It is a government-established colony, inhabited by retired judges and senior media maven, he says. Located in an eastern suburb, it is a warren of buildings, low key, stolid, anonymous; attributes not usually associated with the seventy-seven-year-old LGBTQIA+ icon, activist and cultural provocateur, who has stood bang at the centre of history’s highway, often as its Pied Piper…

Malavika’s Mumbaistan: Ashok Row Kavi, Mumbai’s Pied Piper

Consider the case: Kavi, the son of an upper-class Hindu family, residing in a conservative neighbourhood and the product of elite Christian educational establishments, had come out as India’s first publicly self-acknowledged gay person in 1984, in an interview with a popular magazine. We’re talking about the Eighties here: a time when no one spoke publicly about being gay; when homosexuality was referred to as ‘the love that dare not speak its name’, ensconced between the pages of gothic novels or the cause of much awkward giggling in middle class drawing rooms; when the only representation for the community were psychopaths and serial killers in mainstream media and even in Hollywood poor Rock Hudson was still in his closet.

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Such had been the impact of Row Kavi’s revelation that in today’s social media terms, you could say the issue had gone viral.

Interestingly enough, it was not just his sexual orientation that had resulted in Row Kavi’s notoriety. At a time when India’s intelligentsia was steeped in a heady brew of left-liberalism and Euro-Christian influences, the fact that he’d spouted decidedly right-wing conservative Hindu views had made him even more of an outlier. According to him, Hinduism was the only religion which tolerated homosexuality and its stigmatisation in the country had been the result of colonialism.

A Hindu scripture-quoting, right-wing, homosexual, Kavi had certainly been a precursor of things to come…

***

But more significant than his public persona and its contributions in shaping India’s larger thought-narrative, had been Row Kavi’s tireless, often personally-endangering, commitment to the LGBTQIA+ cause and his work for his community, at the grassroots level.

The mid Eighties was when the scourge of AIDS had begun raising its head and the gay community was at its most vulnerable. As one by one, precious lovers, friends and family members died in what must have felt like a gathering storm, Row Kavi and a ragtag band of Mumbai’s gay men had responded to the challenge with alacrity. As founders of the Humsafar Trust, one of the country’s largest and most prominent LGBTQIA+ rights advocacy and health services NGOs, their work included counselling, outreach, condom distribution, police intervention, government liaison and medical aid. The fact that Row Kavi, a former journalist (he’d entered the profession as a contemporary of MJ Akbar and Bikram Vohra) had understood the ins and outs of governance and knew many of the city’s stakeholders, had resulted in path-breaking government-private collaborations that had saved many lives. Along the way, Row Kavi had launched India’s first gay magazine and had been at the forefront of almost every struggle for LGBTQIA+ equality and dignity, his efforts resulting in awards, accolades, invitations to speak at prestigious fora and the encomium of ‘Amma’ (mother) of the LGBTQIA+ community or as he laughs: ‘The Maha Maharani of the Movement’.

***

It would be easy for Row Kavi to be complacent and rest on his laurels now; after all, so much has changed since he began his struggle for acceptance, visibility and equal rights, all those decades ago. Today, after a long and hard-fought battle, homosexuality has been decriminalised in India; gay marriages abound across the world; city listings include gay venues and opportunities; gay dating sites flourish and every popular OTT serial appears to feature its mandatory gay character- airbrushed and attractive.

But when we meet, I see that Row Kavi isn’t letting up the fight any. His concerns now focus on tackling discrimination and homophobia on an institutional level, most urgently in our schools. “The bullying of gay and different- seeming kids must stop,” he says. “The government should declare zero tolerance of it, the way it had with ragging. Also, every school must have a gender-neutral toilet and a teacher, who is well versed in gender issues and can serve as a counsellor…”

It is evident that Row Kavi does not plan to rest until gay rights, awareness and acceptance have reached the last child facing confusion, shame and discrimination alone in the last school compound; also, he tells me, there’s much to be done with the group he’s launched: ‘Seenagers’ - senior citizens from the gay and transgender communities, the victims of discrimination, who, having had their bridges burnt with their families many years ago, now face loneliness and alienation in their sunset years. “They’re often the most vulnerable community,” he says.

There was a time when Ashok Row Kavi’s glib one-liners, salacious anecdotes and his penchant for shocking listeners had resulted in him being regarded as a die-hard iconoclast and a rebel without a pause. For many of us in the media he’d been both a fascinating friend and colleague, someone always ready to challenge the status quo; his words had been an introduction to the city’s throbbing underbelly, a portal to the darkest corners of Kamatipura and the back streets of abandoned construction sites and railway stations, where sex had been dangerous and furtive. The joke those days had been that according to Row Kavi, there existed only two kinds of people on the planet: those who were gay- and those who denied they were gay

Today, he’s content to swap crab curry recipes with me, and share his exasperation with The more woke instances of Mumbai’s gay experience: like young individuals insisting he refers to them as ‘they’ not ‘he’ and the needlessly provocative dressing up for gay pride marches. (“why can’t people just show up in their work clothes? After all, we want to be accepted as equal-not different.”) And he laughs naughty when you point out that of late, things have gotten so right-wing politically, that he comes across almost as a pinko’ in comparison, chortling at the blatant opportunism of recent converts to the right-wing bandwagon “(I’m the only one who’s got nothing out of them” he points out “not even a Padma Shri!”)

Hearing him speak about the work left to do and of some of his own life’s struggles and the courage it must have taken him to do what he did, I realise that he has mellowed, turned gentler, more introspective.

“I was born at seven months- a premature child” he shares, at one point in our chat.

Not premature, Ashok.

Just ahead of your time. As always.

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