I see your picture for the first time two summers ago, sometime in early July. I am scrolling through Facebook, my forearms hurting from spending too much time at the computer, when I chance upon a picture of you with your arm around a girl I recognise from my time at art school. I am taken by your face, the top half of which is covered by a pair of sunglasses, the bottom with a thick moustache. You are wearing a full sleeve T-shirt, and a pair of headphones hang casually around your notably broad neck. I can’t be sure given the fuzzy background, but it looks like you are standing in the middle of a busy marketplace. ‘OMG… full lowwww!’ someone comments beneath the picture. ‘Full loweeeee1 is right!’ you reply. Based on the delight on the girl’s face as she looks up at you, delirious from your attention, I assume a romantic bond. I am jealous of her happiness, of her ability to hold you and look at you the way she does, in a way that I imagine I will never be able to.
I remember first encountering your photograph while sitting in my bedroom in my old family house in West Delhi, by the window overlooking the large sports complex with the cricket field and newly built swimming pool. But this cannot be right. Your photograph was uploaded on 2 July, 2016, well after my parents and I had relocated to their current house in North Delhi, in late 2013. I remember the first time I saw a series of pornographic magazines was in that old house, on a summer’s day in August 1995. Perhaps this is why my memory plays tricks on me, for I have since returned to your picture with the same furtive image-lust. That day in ’95 I skipped school, pretending to be sick so that I could re-watch three video cassettes I had found in the TV cupboard some months earlier, none of which were explicit per se, but all of which contained a few scenes that kept me sexually invested for a short period of time. All the Right Moves (1983), an American college football movie starring Tom Cruise, and The Piano (1993), Jane Campion’s romantic tale of a mute musician, were stored in the third drawer. Color of Night (1994), an erotic thriller with Bruce Willis, was in another cupboard, stored carefully under a stack of my father’s official university papers and a box of condoms. Of these three, the one I watched most frequently was All the Right Moves, always returning to a lovemaking scene between Cruise and Lea Thompson somewhere around the one-hour mark. It includes close-up shots of their nipples grazing as she removes her slip, a long shot of him undoing his Jesus necklace and placing it in his jeans pocket, and finally – this one was my favourite – a blink-and-you-miss-it shot of his crotch as he takes off his jeans.
While rummaging through my parents’ bedroom in the hope of finding further material, I discovered the magazines inside a brown paper bag in their safe, under a stack of fresh bank notes and my mother’s gold jewellery. The bag had become thin over time, and I made a gash in the paper in my haste to explore its contents: Penthouse, Debonair, and two Spanish magazines which I assume were bought by my father during his year as an exchange fellow at a business school in Barcelona in 1989. In the years since, when I have tried to imagine him buying the magazines, I picture the expressions of anxious excitement on the faces of the young men who lurk around the magazine stalls in Connaught Place, hoping not to be recognised as they peer at the assortment. I wonder if my father was ever one of them.
One of the photo stories in the Spanish magazines featured a woman astride a motorbike with her legs spread, inside a studio recreation of a graffiti-splattered men’s loo. Her femininity was amplified by her submission to objects with which heterosexual men can easily identify: the large, black motorbike and fresh graffiti which drips on her as she places one foot on a urinal for support. As a 12-year-old boy confused by his attraction to men, I felt a mixture of nervousness and confusion looking at her genitalia. It was only after flipping through many pages that I finally saw a man, standing next to a queen-sized bed, opposite a woman in lace lingerie. He is wearing a white shirt and black trousers, and his sharp Hispanic features, tanned skin, muscular, hairy body and blowdried hair made him look like Julio Iglesias (notorious, at the time, for announcing that he had had sex with more than 3,000 women). As the storyboard proceeds the pair inch their way towards each other, shedding their clothes in the process, until the woman inserts his penis first into her mouth, then her vagina, and finally her ass. I carefully scanned the images into my brain, adding them to an already-large mental archive for my planned weekly masturbation sessions. Now, as if guided by a private compulsion, when I am alone I return over and again to your picture on Facebook, as I once returned to Tom Cruise, and later to the Spanish man. On one such visit, I note that the photograph was taken in the midday sun, causing the girl from art school to squint one of her eyes. You look down calmly, your sunglasses hiding your face from the bright light. She has used a pencil to tie her hair into a bun – an art school trope. Everything you wear is blue.
The night before I encounter you in person for the first time, I cancel going to ‘Step Inside and You are No Longer a Stranger’, the opening of a large museum retrospective of Vivan Sundaram’s work at the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, at the last minute. It is early February, the beginning of art fair week in Delhi, the air is thick with smog, and the city clogged with openings, parties and collateral events. The retrospective opens on the day I come back from an artist residency in Pune, and I am exhausted: too many artists, too much drama, too much theorising about art-making. I avoid picking up a friend’s calls for a while but cave in on his fourth attempt and pretend to be in bed. The next day I spend listlessly flicking through YouTube videos of drag queens giving make-up tutorials, and Tumblr pages dedicated to beefy Indian men.
My desktop is demarcated by sixteen folders, all of which contain links to the websites I frequent. Among them are DAILY, DOWNLOAD, ART, JOB, READ LATER, CAMERA, BUY, BODY, and MUSIC. Right in the bottom corner is X, in which I store a record of my favourite pornographic websites and Tumblr pages, and a few saved videos. A sub-folder of X titled ‘Desi’2 contains a list of Tumblr pages of big-bodied, middle and lower class Indian men: Shuddhdesi3 men, sexyjaat4, Matured Indian Bear, sexydesimen, Indian muscular man, desi gay stuff, sexy desi hunk, SMOKIN HOT INDIAN MEN. The images and videos that excite me are hard and brutish, and I turn to them during days of emptiness and frustration, as a violent juncture from the suffocating pressures of solitude and deadlines. Masculine violence, and the fetishisation of the lower class, are problems I frequently discuss with my queer friends. Knowing it to be anathema to my politics, and afraid of being judged for wanting what I also publicly critique, I keep this line of desire secret.
I may be ashamed, but I am not alone. Perhaps the rise of nationalism, with its fantasy of bloody masculinity and constant threat of violence, has infected the collective sexual psyche; perhaps the disjuncture between the cleanliness of queer ethics and the baseness of desire has sent more people like me in search of amoral material; perhaps heterosexuality dominates and excludes queer men so much that our subjugation has become our fetish; perhaps internet-sexuality, a mode of desire that revolves around abuses of power and easy typecasting, has simply continued to extend its dominion. Whatever the reasons, since 2017 there has been an increase in the number of amateur videos appearing on these India-specific Tumblr pages, and most of them follow a similar trajectory. A camera is placed upon a table, positioned below the waist of the protagonist in order to make him appear larger; the subject flexes his biceps, moves his hand up and down his penis, and smiles as he does a full turn to show you the results of a carefully crafted gym regime, thriving on the attention of faceless viewers who will get off to this image on their phones and computers. There’s usually a television on in the background, creating a soundtrack of news reporters talking frenetically, or commentary from a cricket match with the sound of screaming fans muzzled out, or dialogue from an old Bollywood movie. ‘Indian Hunk Jerking Off’, a video saved in the sub-folder ‘Desi’ which I count among my favourites, offers a minor variation on this formula. In it a Punjabi man (verified by his wearing of a kada5) of muscular build in his mid-twenties sits on the bathroom floor, on top of a neatly folded pile of clothes that he has removed. The camera phone aids his self-fulfilling prophecy: he wants the online world to honour him as a sexual overlord, and in this film he becomes one. After pressing the record button he gives a quick flex of his arms, once behind his head and again behind his back. Placing his hands on his knees he stares with clear intent at the camera, then breathes deeply as he moves his penis from side to top and finally parallel to the ground. At the 45-second mark, he ejaculates. No bodily actions preempt this climax – no contorted features, no opening of mouth, no sound, no rolling of eyes or jerking back of head – just a mild pause and a quick look down to make sure he hasn’t soiled the pile of clothes. Ejaculate spills out in eight spurts, each reducing in quantity until the last, which is barely a flicker of a drop. At the 55-second mark he moves towards the phone to press the stop button. The undercurrent of trepidation that laces this video brings me back to it over and again. I search for signs as to the context in which the ritual was recorded, attempting to absorb every detail of the moment this good-looking man’s veneer of virile confidence is cracked by his fear of being found out. (Why else worry about dirtying his clothes?) What locality of Delhi does he lives in? Who does his laundry? Are his parents in the next room, as mine often are? His wife? I look at the bathroom in the background and imagine what lies beyond the door, what he will do after he finishes this recording. A little past 6 p.m., after trawling through my pornographic archive, I head out to my usual cruising spots, but nobody piques my interest. I return home and turn on Grindr, scrolling through a smorgasbord of blurry faces, well-defined torsos, sunsets, porn stars and local television and movie stars. The area I live in has a low density of Grindr users so the boxes usually move up north towards Delhi University where the young college kids are, a demographic in which I have little interest. After a while I see a profile I vaguely recognise – a semi-naked torso photographed in evening light, and a hand covering half a face. I’m pretty sure it is S., the Brazilian yoga teacher from the coffee shop a few years ago. I message, asking if he remembers.
At 8 p.m., the friend I blew off the previous evening calls again. He’s heading to a photography show called ‘Mutations’ before the opening night party, and insists that I hurry and don’t arrive late as usual. I open my cupboard, put on the light purple sweater I bought at H&M last December, and head to 24, Jor Bagh – a residential bungalow owned by an ex-supermodel turned wealthy art patron, that has been converted into a space for art practices which sit outside Delhi’s mainstream commercial gallery circuit. The bungalow has two floors in which a maze of rooms lead into each other, where the interior walls are a mixture of chipped paint and carelessly thrown-on cement, all spotlit by expensive track lighting that carefully choreographs the space’s alternative credentials. ‘Mutations’ is a ‘large-scale contemporary exhibition’, runs the press release, ‘positing how we envision public and private zones as interlinked domains of encounter’. As I read the text I do not think of mass-migration, ‘identities in flux’, or any of the other grand themes that the exhibition’s curators would like me to, nor do I think of Malayalam fairytales and European settlers, as the artworks would like me to. Instead the relationship between the ‘public’ and the ‘private’ makes me think of how my desire has become pixelated and secretive; how sexual encounters play out like gifs and videos, discrete scenes to be stored away in the archive of memory, sequestered from my social life. 24, Jor Bagh attracts a particular kind of crowd: young curators and artists with degrees from expensive art schools in America, the old art frat drinking free booze and talking over each other, and a smattering of eager, art school kids along with South Delhi hipsters. There are a number of attractive, heterosexual men present, and one boy in particular who I cannot stop looking at. He is dressed in that painfully casual manner that straight men sometimes have: short-cropped hair and soft stubble, loose, ill-fitting jeans, and a baggy sweater hiding a body that looks like it has endured years of football training. He’s talking to two nondescript Caucasian girls, both of whom look as enamoured by him as I am. My desire for heterosexuality – the residue of a childhood yearning for acceptance from something always out of reach – accompanies me still. Like the image of you on Facebook with a smitten girl under your arm, his status as an object of desire among women makes me want him more than I otherwise would. I cannot hear what he’s saying but smile at the sight of his large, beautiful arms, which move up and down animatedly as he speaks.
About an hour later my friends and I head to the party at the Swiss Embassy that officially kicks off Delhi Art Week, a glitzy affair indicative of the money pumped into the art world at this time of year. We pass through the security check at the gate, and into a large outdoor area bisected by a pool I recognise from the opening party the previous year. Hovering over the pool are a series of large balloons onto which video works by the Swiss artist Katja Loher are projected, in which figures dance in formations that look like wild, blooming flowers. Here, the Delhi art crowd is joined by a few expensive-looking socialites who linger on the sidelines, and a large dollop of white male expatriates, all of whom wear black and blue blazers with formal trousers. Food stands run the length of the pool, the highlight of which is a dessert section with a large chocolate fountain. At the buffet, which includes an assortment of European dishes the names of which I find hard to pronounce, I bump into the boy who dated my ex after me. He is muscular in the way that his clothes stick to his body, demanding that you pay attention, soliciting enquiries about his workout routine. Conversation is awkward, as it always is with him. He backs up questions one after the other with no pause, pushing me to answer in quick succession. Eventually the music gets louder and people head to the dance floor – an elevated stage at the far end of the room. Two years after discovering your photograph online, it is here that I first see you. You are talking to a group of people, most of whom are my friends. Seeing your full body for the first time, there is a vertical tautness to you that I’ve noticed in trained basketball players. You are wearing a padded brown jacket on top of a crisp white shirt and khaki pants. When a mutual friend introduces us I say ‘Hey’ and quickly look away. I am nervous in your presence, and as we exchange light and inconsequential conversation I struggle to make eye contact. The music slows down to Prince’s ‘Purple Rain’, and you put your arm on my shoulder and ask if I’d like a male or female dancing partner. Because I’ve assumed a romantic relationship between you and the girl from art school, I take you for a straight man and your question for a taunt. The moment triggers memories from high school of boys making casual jokes about my lack of interest in girls; I shake my head with discomfort and move away. On the way home my friend asks why I did not reciprocate your interest in me, and I am dismayed to discover my mistake, forced to acknowledge that aged 35 I have needlessly turned a fantasy into a tired, teenage nightmare.
In an attempt to rectify the situation I get your number from the friend who introduced us, and send you a WhatsApp message the next day, Saturday 10 February, 2018 at 3.39 p.m. I draft it six times to make sure I don’t sound too eager. After introducing myself, I ask if you’d like to meet. ‘Was wondering if you’d like to grab a coffee today? If you’re in Delhi that is.’ You reply three hours later, and to my excitement you tell me that you have to meet a few friends, but are free afterwards. We decide to head to the mall for coffee, where to my surprise we spend most of our time together fielding earnest questions from the other. I’m conscious that sincerity has replaced the mood of flirtation I failed to recognise the night before. You have a formality to you that is notably different in the light of the coffee shop, and you ask me about my childhood, my time at art school, and my ex-boyfriends. As we prepare to part I tell you that I am heading to a friend’s place and ask if you’d like to join, but you mention an early morning flight and politely decline. My disappointment at this is tempered by a sense of elation at our meeting; I leave hopeful about where this could lead.
Between 10 February and 5 March, my hope is fanned as we exchange twenty-six pictures on WhatsApp. Of these, seven are sent by you and nineteen by me. Of the seven you send, two are selfies, the first with the friend who introduced us. In the picture you are sitting at a table, with your hand around what looks like a beer bottle. Both of you are looking down towards the camera, and given the angle of your left shoulder I’m guessing it is you who is holding the phone. At 6.22 p.m. on Monday 19 February, after you tell me that you have been working on your ‘shoulders and abs today’, you send me the second selfie. It shows you flexing your right arm with an outward-facing fist; in your left hand you are holding a silver iPhone a little below eye level. As you perform for your audience you do not kneel on a neatly folded pile of clothes like the star of ‘Indian Hunk Jerking Off’, yet there are other clues to be gleaned about your life and attitude: two large windows, a dressing table with a mirror on top of it, cupboards made from expensive wood, and your sizeable, disheveled bed, fill a room in what looks like a typical suburban house. The sheets are a pastel shade of pink, and on top of them lies a blanket in a deep shade of blue.
On Monday 5 March, somewhere between 10.30 and 11 p.m., I get back on Facebook after a fourteen-month hiatus, specifically to skim through your pictures. It is the longest I have spent away from the social network, a break necessitated by an overwhelming anxiety about my life, career and finances that snowballed after my day job ended in December 2016, leaving me without reliable employment. Two weeks after I return, the New York Times and the Observer release information proving that Facebook has shared the data of more than 87 million users with Cambridge Analytica, a political consulting firm that was employed by the Trump presidential campaign. A furore ensues about privacy, and about how much of ourselves we share online. But I think about how little I am able to know about you despite scrolling through thousands of your pictures. You have twenty-six photo albums on your Facebook profile. The total sum of photographs in these albums is 1,066. Seventy-two of these are from your profile pictures album. Of these seventy-two, five do not have you in them. Thirty-four include other people, and six have other people cropped out of the frame. All show you at ease with the camera, excited to be photographed, chronicled and added to a large database of collective memories online. A photograph uploaded on Thursday 14 July 2016 has gained 200 likes, the most of all your pictures. It shows you sitting on the steps of a local, South Indian bus with a bag on your back and camera in hand. You are wearing a checked shirt, black pants and brown leather shoes. The focus of all the commentary around the picture is your moustache. It is the kind that has been curled at the ends, mostly seen on burly security guards outside expensive hotels. ‘This handlebar is serious,’ one friend says. ‘What’s with the pornstache?’ another asks. The blue seats and green steps of the bus add balance to the deep red of your shirt. As I sift carefully through your pictures, I find a photograph taken on the dance floor the night we met, uploaded on Friday 17 February. Almost everyone in the picture is a varying degree of blurriness. You are the only one in sharp focus.
Unsure how to read our exchanges to date, I decide to push for a resolution. On Friday 30 March, fifty days after first meeting you at the opening night party, during which time we have met once and exchanged over 2,000 messages, I take an overnight bus to Bangalore, the city where you live. I have arranged to stay with the friend who introduced us, after carefully planning with him to make sure you will also be free. The alibi for my unannounced visit: a Saturday afternoon lunch with artists and curators visiting from Europe. The bus ride is over 900 kilometres and takes a little more than fifteen hours. I arrive at my friend’s apartment early to help prepare the food. When you finally appear at lunch my excitement at seeing you is quickly tempered: there is an awkwardness between us that dampens the atmosphere of sexual provocation which I had read into our exchange of photographs.
After lunch the rest of the guests leave, but you decide to stick around. The three of us watch the first episode of The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story, and I put my hand on your right knee, only to have you immediately brush it off and move beyond my reach. The rest of the afternoon is spent planning what to do and where to go that evening, and I am distracted by the mounting realisation that this trip may have been a mistake. We decide to head to a brewery and then on to a gay party at The Sugar Factory, a nightclub at a fancy hotel later that evening. In an attempt to play Cupid, our mutual friend suggests that you spend the night at his place so that three of us can go out together again the day after. There is talk of swimming at the pool, or even heading out of the city for a long drive, but nothing is finalised.
By the time we arrive at the club, you have grown cold and aloof. From the bar I watch you mill about in the crowds, looking at men looking at you, your chest and head raised in the way men hold themselves when they are putting on a front for other men. Back at the apartment later that night, my friend insists that he will sleep on the couch in the front room, so that you and I can share his bedroom. Despite all evidence to the contrary, I hold out hope that you might let your guard down when we are completely alone together for the first time that day. Instead you sniffle and cough your way through an allergy attack, recoiling on the bed so that your body is as far from mine as possible. I ask you what’s going on, why I’m getting such mixed signals, why you seem so different in person. You tell me that this is new for you, that you’re not ready, that you have only been interested in older men, men in their fifties, that when we first met you felt a connection that was unusual because it is rare for you to feel anything for someone like me.
In the morning I roll over to look at you, hoping that in the few hours between our dispiriting conversation and now you might have magically changed your mind, moved your body closer to mine so that I can smell your morning breath, laugh with familiarity and affection, tell me that you’ve made a mistake, that this is to you what it is to me. Instead you are curled up with your eyes shut and your handkerchief still in hand.
I wonder if this is a front, if the handkerchief is merely a way of letting me know that I should steer clear of your face. Your body is in a foetal position, soft silk basketball shorts accentuating your already prominent ass. The band of your white underwear sticks out and I imagine what it would feel like to touch it. What would it smell like, your sweaty, used underwear close to my mouth as I peel it off and have you face down while I eat your ass until spit is falling onto the sheets, making large pools that lay bare my desire for you. I like when a boy moans gently as I stick my tongue in there, increasing the pace as both of us start gliding in similar motion towards each other, his ass moving closer to my tongue, my tongue digging deeper into his hole. I wonder if you would make any noise, whether you would grunt or moan, whether your face would contort if some of your ass hair gets stuck between my teeth, whether you would make eye contact or keep your eyes shut if I turn you over and pull your legs up so I can see how you respond to each flick of my tongue.
Restless, deflated and unable to watch you as you sleep, I decide to take a walk. I look at you from the doorway before I leave and see you as a photograph, an image once in fine detail that is losing texture and fading before my eyes. Once outside I shut the gate behind me and head onto the main road, walking past a half-broken-down house, an empty church that in a few hours will be filled with worshippers celebrating the end of Lent with Easter Sunday mass, past the guard at the big apartment complex about to finish his night duty, past a cute Doberman and his lady owner who shifts across the pavement when I walk by, past the supermarket where my friend and I bought food for the lunch we made for you yesterday afternoon. When I get back, you are just getting out of bed. After a bath, you decide to take a walk yourself and ask if I would like to join you. I say no: the idea of making conversation now seems impossibly laborious. When you leave the house, I switch on Grindr hoping for a distraction. The closest square I see on the grid was last online 21 minutes ago. ‘I am mainly interested in older men and a muscular or beefy body definitely garners my attention. However, just be height/weight proportionate. If you are able to hold a conversation – that’s a bonus! Dp is mine.’ Your picture is fairly nondescript. All that is visible is your torso leading into what looks like a pair of tracksuit bottoms with a thin band of boxers visible above the waistline. There is a brown towel in the left hand side of the image, and a strong tan line on your right arm. I look at the size of your arms and compare them to mine. Muscular and beefy ring in my head, louder and louder, like one of those German electronic tracks I sometimes listen to at the gym. This time the rhythm is jarring, like thin paper cutters on a chalkboard, cancelling out whatever little hope I had with you.
1 Informal way of saying ‘love’.
2 A loose term for the people, cultures, and products of the Indian diaspora, derived from the ancient Sanskrit term for ‘land’ or ‘country’. The term is fairly loose and thus fairly subjective, but it is widely accepted that India, Pakistan and Bangladesh are Desi countries.
3 ‘Shuddh’: pure, undiluted.
4 ‘Jaat’: originally meaning ‘tribe’, but specifically referring to a specific tribe of people from Punjab in north India.
5 Bangle worn by Punjabi men.