I Believe in the Promises Made by Passing Strangers: Cruising and the City

By Anindya Shankar Das

Illustrations by Anjali Kamat

As a child, there were few places I feared more than a public toilet.

The way they smelled of men, the way that no amount of phenyl or naphthalene could mask the rank smell of ammonia was in such contrast to the tiny, cool room at home that smelled of Lifebuoy soap and Sunsilk shampoo. Where Ma would bang suspiciously on the door if I spent longer than five minutes inside.

But behind the terror was also a nervous excitement. I had no idea I was also attracted to men back then in junior school (or did I?), but I did know that there was a whole code in those pheromones which stirred something forbidden. “Say no, say no,” an insistent voice whined and I said no to public toilets and blamed it on hygiene.

Till that one evening in Pune.

As a student in Pune, on an evening walk after a particularly long film in a particularly cold theatre, I had to break the old, personal taboo and use a public restroom. It just so happened that the one that I was destined to use that night was right out of my worst nightmares. Dark in a way that made me wonder about mugging even as I struggled to hold it in, and putrid in a way that I could smell from across the street. I walked into the darkness and unzipped. In that moment, as 20 years of bladder control flooded out of me, I was awash with gratefulness for the existence of every public toilet ever. I will never forget the street-light streaming through a broken window into that ruin of a toilet. God does speak in mysterious ways.

And then, as I adjusted to the light, I saw a grotesque shape to my right, in the shadows. It had four hands and a writhing body. It was my monster, my curse let loose. I froze.

The next moment came to define my immediate life to come; the monster uncoiled itself into two young men. My entry had interrupted them, but when they understood I was harmless, the kissing slowly resumed (as I realised that the only monster that existed was in my head). I stood at my urinal, transfixed in terror. And excitement.

Later, I stammered mentally as I walked briskly down the footpath, flushed with fear and desire, unable to shake away the image of the two men. Something unleashed in that toilet, something that I had bottled up for twenty years in societally imposed in-sanitation.

From there, my fascination with cruising began. I had read a little on online forums about cruising in my teens (mostly with disgust) but now I would take long walks across Pune in the dead of the night – walks that mostly led to the extremely cruisy railway station toilet. It was big, that loo and manned by a shrewd looking fellow who seemed to be measuring the world in the way he chewed his gutkha. The moment you entered, there was this huge stained mirror that looked on as all kinds of men washed faces and limbs. Taking a right would get you into an L-shaped hall with a high ceiling, where an incessant stream of travelers of all sorts would come to attend to Nature’s call. None of them really bothered to take the trouble to walk down to the end of the L – and that is where I learned to head; a place where a different sort of call, no less urgent, was being attended to.

Often I would stand at the far end of that railway station loo, pretending to pee as if my life depended on it, cheeks flushed red – as around me, strangers looked into each other’s eyes and depending on a nod or a nay, changed the pissoirs they were standing at. Men unzipped and tugged at themselves as strangers slipped silent, gentle hands and helped. Depending on the time of the night, more would happen. Never was a word spoken.

At 20, I vehemently believed that sex was possible only when in love. That the craving of my body was a test against being tainted. Nevermind that I wound up at the toilet so often. When someone would reach out, I would shy away and leave immediately, burning with shame.

One night at around 2 am, I saw someone I really liked. He was like me – nervous, naïve, young and a little sleepy. His eyes darted to mine as mine did to his. He took off the handkerchief hiding his face, a dark sweating face with a curly beard and adjusted the heavy bag on his back. I took a deep breath and made my way next to him. After an eternity, we touched.

I forgot the smell of piss, the leaking pipe, the footsteps around me. I was completely in my body. In that moment, in the most public of private spaces, I finally saw the visible in the invisible. I had found the end of one road. Or perhaps its beginning.

I smiled at the toilet attendant as I left that night. He was a little taken aback.

Slowly, in the act of making eye contact with strangers and learning to read body language, I began to see how my community had subverted urban public spaces. And I began to talk to the people I met about their experiences of cruising.

 

* * *

 

At 5.30 pm Palash leaves office as usual after a long, sweaty day of work. An affable bhadrolok a year away from retirement, he says a polite goodbye to his colleagues. Putting distance between himself and them, Palash walks off the road that leads to the metro station and takes a detour.

Just a block away from Dalhousie, a bustling business district in Kolkata, is an old public toilet adjacent to a mostly empty park. The ancient toilet attendant outside gives him a customary nod – Palash has been visiting this loo once or twice a week for the last thirty-odd years.

“As someone in my fifties now, I never could ‘come out’ the way people do today, though I’ve known I’m attracted to men my whole life. In the early eighties, one day soon after starting work, I got talking to a man at a bus stop. He took me to this toilet which I had crossed but never entered.”

“Inside was another world. Two men were kissing and people were peeping over the cubicles at each other. I left that day but ended up returning – it became a haven for me after work, a small break that let me be myself before I caught the bus back to my wife and child. It took time, but I grew confidant enough to make eye contact with men and take them to the park nearby. And now, though so much has changed, I can’t stop going back there once in a while,” says Palash as we sit talking on a roadside bench, drinking chai.

I know what it feels like – it seems so much like my own story, except instead of a family, I would go back to a jolly group of friends at the hostel. Friends to whom I was out – but being out doesn’t really take care of desire, does it? Desire sometimes pulls you down its own rickety road, scented with pheromones and carpeted in shadows. Millennia of bodily desire carving a path through memory and morality, through concrete and contact. A path that leads to parks, toilets, cinema halls, bars, massage parlours and stations – places to pick up strangers or maybe just have a go right there – the deity of desire is not one to always take it lying down. The spirit of sex resides as much in spaces as it does in human bodies. Think of cruising as a pilgrimage.

Before I encountered the world of offline cruising, meeting men meant hanging around in Internet chatrooms or on sites dedicated to queer men dating (yes, it took years before the straight community caught up). No one really had profile pictures in those days and come to think of it, wandering about in a Yahoo chatroom with bradpittt2002 or myztikaldude007 was like cruising in a park – only with blindfolds on. Words became the primary connect. Then came a blurry photo.

On the other hand, cruising revealed a language older than words, flowing through blood and bone and brain. Not just fingertips on a keyboard but an entire body moved to the rhythm of the immediate environment, saying what was needed to be said and hiding what needed to be hidden. A body that dared to say – I need more than a computer. A body that dared to follow the shadow between choice and compulsion.

 

* * *

 

If not for cruising spaces, where else would so many members of the queer community, many living in the closet and distanced from a ‘gay’ identity, find sexual release? Many with no privacy at home. Many without a conventional home.

(Surprising as it may be to some younger readers, many people in India don’t have access to the Internet, let alone smartphones.)

When “old timers” like Palash talk, it reveals not just the thrill of cruising, but also the diversity within the queer community. They speak of how class, caste, language and body types would not be as segregated as they are now on apps with all their filters and raging body trends. Often profiles proudly advertise – only English, no femme, no dark, no Asians, no fat, no uncles. No this, no that. A far cry from a scenario where a civil servant would be standing beside a daily wage labourer in a park, while a student checked both of them out from a distance.

Rejection has always been a part of cruising – but that rejection is at least a conscious one – momentarily bittersweet, tangible. Like smartphones themselves, their users are subject to the copy-paste virus, leaving something as powerful as rejection to the vagaries of consumerism.

Those born into smartphones might view cruising as a desperate act, sometimes forgetting that public spaces could be safer and more measured than, or at least as risky as, inviting a complete stranger into one’s bedroom. There is a growing restlessness, a feeling that app driven dating/hooking up forces people to be less authentic versions of themselves. So many of my friends are fed up of Grindr or Tinder – an endless cycle of deleting and reinstalling. Drowning the user in a deluge of profiles, all the app seeks is your attention; a desire that belongs to a lover is devoted to an algorithm. A body, made up of so many things, is reduced to an identity.

When out cruising, the ‘feeling’ of another person matters when it comes to attraction and safety – and it matters a lot. What really is anonymity? Does a profile photo held in your palm make the person more known than a stranger you have been exchanging glances with on a train? Your body senses things it needs to know.

As Pankaj, a gay trans-man living in Mumbai said to me, “I prefer cruising because I can feel the vibe of another human in the way that I never can in a photograph or a few words. You can communicate everything through your eyes – body language really means a lot to me. I get attracted to different kinds of men when I am out there. Maybe if I saw those same people on a profile, I wouldn’t feel the same.”

Pankaj says he has quit online dating and chooses to meet his partners through cruising. I ask him if cruising spots are still active in Mumbai. He gives me a wide, naughty smile.

You know all those romantic songs about when eyes meet across a crowded place? Jaane kya tune kahi! Jaane kya maine suni! Baat kuch ban he gayi… (Who knows what you said, who knows what I heard, things came together anyway…) That’s it really, isn’t it? Eyes are meeting all around you, constantly – and sometimes magic happens.

 

* * *

 

Karim drives an autorickshaw in Bangalore. In his early twenties, he hails from a village in Uttar Pradesh and tells me he has never heard of any of the dating apps – Grindr, PR (Planet Romeo) or Tinder. The only gay pages he knows are on Facebook but he has never used them as he doesn’t have a smartphone yet. He wants one though so that he can use GPS.

How then does he manage to meet men? Shyly, he tells me that there are men all around if you only know how to look.

“The eyes are most important. And touch. You can tell by touch. A few casual words maybe. But the eyes are the most important. Once in a while I will catch a passenger staring at me. But I never do anything during business time!”

As our ride gets over I ask him if he is aware that cruising can be a source of STDs due to risky, unsafe sex. “Yes”, he says, “though I have not always been careful in the past. When I first came to the city I did not even know of STDs. Now I do. I plan to have a blood test soon.”

“Check out that man standing across the street. Look at the way he has been staring at us the whole time. Wanna go say hi?” jokes Karim.

In my opinion, the queer community has a curious way of both taking stock of disease and ignoring it. Most cruising spaces rarely see hardcore sex happen. Most of the activity is ‘soft’. Yet with PrEp available to those with money, where do the rest of us stand vis-à-vis unsafe sex in a world that has overcome a certain amount of paranoia around HIV? And of course, HIV is just one of many STDs to affect people.

Whether it is through cruising or through apps, there is definitely a risk of STDs associated with quick, anonymous sex with multiple partners. Incidentally, once upon a time a toilet in a popular park in Pune was so known for men having sex with men inside that there was a condom vending machine installed beside the sink. Tellingly, it was dismantled a few years ago, reflecting our State’s contentious understanding of sexual health and desire, despite other progressive changes in laws.

Especially before Section 377 was read down, plainclothes policemen or local hoodlums in search of a quick buck routinely pretended to be looking for sex in known cruising spots and then robbed and physically/sexually assaulted their victims, often older gay men and trans-women. Sometimes this extortion continued through blackmail for months or years. Surprisingly, these same policemen would have no qualms about waiting for a considerable time, often fully erect, at a urinal or a park bench. Perhaps they were pretending to themselves about other things too.

A student, R, who spoke to me was so shaken by their experience of being caught and harassed by the Delhi police in a public park two years ago that they still have nightmares about the incident. The beating. The threat of calling home. Taking every last paisa of a few thousand withdrawn for college admission. The humiliation by torchlight in a dark ground. They have not dared to go cruising again.

Thankfully, the story does have a happy ending. Noticing the visible distress, that night R’s flatmate asked if anything was wrong. R broke down and spoke of their ordeal. R’s flatmate came out of the closet. They fell in love and are still together.

 

* * *

 

Arnab shifted to Kolkata from a small town in West Bengal to pursue a college diploma. At over 6 feet tall, he is an imposing figure. Yet, he tells me that in his second visit to a soft porn theater with a balcony famed for encounters that would put the screen to shame, he was almost forced into a sexual act by someone stronger than him.

“I had hardly ever even met anyone who is gay before. In my town, the nearest match on Grindr is 150 km away! And even though that guy tried to force me, I held my ground and people around made him leave me. I dealt with it.”

“I returned because this space felt like I belonged here, amidst these men. I feel lonely in the hostel. I feel like myself here. I feel like I will meet someone.”

Arnab is still a visitor to the hall, though much more confident and intimidating himself after a year of being a regular.

Consent in cruising is tricky. Without consent, cruising is not possible in public spaces.

How does one respond to a look in a tea stall? Or a gentle touch on the elbow in a train? Do they stop to ask for the time even though they are clearly carrying a phone? Is a smile returned? Or a lighter? These little things can go a long way in safely approaching a partner in a sea of people with different sexualities. It is part of the thrill – being right sometimes, being wrong at others. But cross the hazy line and cruising can become something else entirely. Something ugly. It is in either very crowded places like local trains or queer-dominated spaces like the cinema balcony mentioned earlier, where consent becomes unimportant for some. Like most humans, many in the queer community too have a lot to understand about yes, no and maybe.

 

* * *

 

Some of the most visible members of a cruising space and often with exclusive spots of their own are members of the trans* community, mostly trans-women. They have been trailblazers in claiming and defending queer public spaces, many a time being at a much greater risk of violence. NGOs and trans individuals have filed a number of ongoing cases of extortion, physical and sexual abuse against perpetrators of violence in public spaces but a huge number of cases go unreported.

Sujatha, a trans-woman from Chennai, says, “Many of the members of our community are from working classes with no access to these dating apps. They are definitely not comfortable with English. For them, cruising is not just a thrill or kink…it is the only way to meet partners.”

And lesbian/bisexual women are almost invisible when it comes to cruising in India. Tales of meeting strangers in bars, sport centres, malls, nightclubs or other spaces are common but there are hardly any specific cruising spaces for lesbians the way they are for gay men. Public spaces are designed, both morally and physically, for cis gendered men.

But in spite of this love persists, for cruising is not only about sex. Leaving behind the threshold of our homes, what other boundaries do we cross? Why is there an urge to risk it all for a seemingly anonymous encounter? At the heart of this dance is belonging. Of belonging to a community, to a moment, maybe even to another being. I have seen strangers touch each other like old lovers, I have met couples who have lived their entire lives together after a smile exchanged on a park bench.

 

* * *

 

There is no real way of classifying or simplifying the phenomenon of cruising. As cities change and policing becomes stronger and tech-based, old, much-loved cruising spots die and new ones take their place.

Is there a space for private queer love at home? Are all queer people supposed to leave their families or come out forcibly? Some of the most open expanses available to people are and will be public spaces. And they will always be used for the full spectrum of human expression.

As the smartphone market grows and the world becomes even more technologically controlled, it will be interesting to see the new turns that offline cruising takes. The primal drive to seek out partners that is such a basic foundation of us as humans will be impossible to wipe out, as much as any agency tries. We now live in a world where queer folk who grew up without the Internet live with those who have never been without it. Information is passed on forums, through films and articles. Many straddle both the worlds of offline and online cruising.

Young queer people (even with smartphones) now seek out cruising spots, seek out the history of their community. There is a power in these meetings, an ode to a spirit of community. As important as pride, as necessary as reading down Section 377.

The search for our true sexual selves is an elusive one, existing in some unclassifiable, intangible space, that apps and matrimonials can’t get to, that we ourselves spend a lifetime seeking to understand.

As far as I am concerned, the search has always led me to push a little outside my boundaries of class, language, geography, identity. For where does home, or even my body, begin… and end? Why should I be conditioned into whom to like. Or where. I believe in the promises made by passing strangers.

Falling asleep in a train, watching crows squabble in a park, holding my nose as I cross a garbage vat, wolfing down street food that I know will punish me soon, weaving through a market and soaking it all in a quiet bar. For me, cruising is all this and more. Lights and locks. Love and looking.

As we finish our chai, Palash sums up cruising for him. And indeed for so many of us in cities, suburbs and towns, packed into our boxed lives in a society that is far from accepting of sexuality in general and queer sexuality in particular. “Desire and loneliness”, he smiles as he gets up, glancing at his watch. “Achcha, I’ll leave now. I have to get back home to my family.”

I decided to stay back.

After all, the cruising spot that Palash mentioned was right around the corner.

Anindya Shankar Das is an independent filmmaker, cook, traveler and writer based in Mumbai. He is always on the lookout for interesting work!

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