The truth about northern Kerala’s homoeroticism
Ullekh NP | 27 Dec, 2019
(Illustration: Saurabh Singh)
PLACES ARE ONLY AS famous or infamous as their people and, over a period of time, a destination begins to take on the traits of its demography. Going by anecdotal evidence, in Malabar, which comprises a handful of districts in northern parts of Kerala, homosexuality is rampant. There may not be any sexual-orientation data or surveys to establish this as an incontestable truth, but the region has acquired a reputation nevertheless for married men being interested in boys, consenting or otherwise. Mind you, the region is not yet a historical metaphor for same-sex sexual habits such as Sodom or Gomorrah, two cities that find mention in Genesis as well as the Koran. But there have been a few studies about what an author called ‘homosociality’ in this part of India that has had great, centuries-old trade ties with West Asia, Africa and the West.
A south Keralite would typically squirm at the mention of same-sex relations as though such things happen only ‘up there’ in north Kerala, but that is certainly a lie. People of south Kerala, too, like the rest of the world, seek varied ways to get sexual gratification, including homosexuality. In Indian mythology, as evident from the sculptures of Khajuraho, men are shown displaying their genitals to each other. No form of sex, even those that we now see as bestial, was apparently taboo in ancient India. But as happens when stereotypes take root and influence reality in an unending cycle, the perception that homosexuality is synonymous with the northern part of Kerala runs deep. And who can resist stereotypes?
The place I spent my early childhood, Kannur, along with Kasargode, Kozhikode and Malappuram, comprise a region that falls victim to this stereotypical notion: of its older males being prone to exhibiting predatory sexual behaviour towards young boys. For someone who grew up in an all-male boarding school in south Kerala, I would emphatically contest the claim. But I can only make feeble attempts to bust the stereotype. After all, such notions about various regions, races and groups exist all over the world. For instance, Nigerians and Brazilians are looked up to as studs, people known for their virility and longevity in the act of lovemaking. Is there any truth to it? Better not go there. All we know is that they are truly blessed with a perceptional advantage. The truth beneath the sheets, we may not know.
Similarly, there are perceptional disadvantages, too, depending on the way you look at it. Writing about Argentina in the 1970s, VS Naipaul said he was haunted by the habit of sodomy that the people of that country—he seemed to assume rightly or wrongly—flaunted at the drop of a hat to announce their masculinity. According to him, the best act of lovemaking that made an Argentinian male proud was that he sodomised even his wife. No sexual conquest was complete without it. Roberto Bolaño wrote many years later about Naipaul’s reportage in Buenos Aires in 1972, dwelling upon the Indian-origin Nobel laureate’s conclusions about Argentina and its people, ‘All of their (Argentinian males’) faceless lovers have at some point, Naipaul reminds himself, been sodomized. I took her up the ass, he writes. It’s an act that in Europe, he reflects, would be regarded as shameful, or at least passed over in silence, but in the bars of Buenos Aires it’s something to brag about, a sign of virility, of ultimate possession, since if you haven’t fucked your lover or your girlfriend or your wife up the ass, you haven’t really taken possession of her.’
Bolaño himself argues elsewhere that Naipaul’s explanations may have been erratic. Sir Vidya’s long-time partner, herself an Argentinian, had thought that he was totally wrong about Argentina. Perhaps they were right and he was wrong, but he wrote about perceptions and perceptions tend to be as infectious as a good laugh. They die hard.
True, we all have to fight stereotypes, but the task is more challenging than one assumes. A single odd incident can reinforce them. For instance, women from certain nationalities in the Middle East are often unfairly stereotyped for being prostitutes while a middle-class African in Mumbai is taken for a drug mule. Poor Indians are seen as those who defecate tirelessly in the open, the Japanese as punctilious and the Swedes as cold. These views are often biased, if not conceited, but they get stuck because they are influenced by cultural and literary references such as Shylock in The Merchant of Venice, Injun Joe in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Muslim names in regional Indian literature. This is perhaps what is true of North Malabar and homosexuality. However ahistorical or illogical it is to link the two, the tag tends to stay. Even the people of the region have no qualms about admitting it because they grow up recognising this aspect of sexuality, perhaps at a very young age. It is not as though there is a race called Homo North Malabaricus, but the understanding among young boys of unwarranted male touch or stares is high by force of habit, thanks to what could be an adaptive cognition of the subject early on in life.
SOME PURISTS MIGHT look down upon such assertions as hackneyed ideas or clichés but, as we all know, nothing persists without a raft of reasons. In the case of North Kerala, academics have offered explanations why homosexuality is a Muslim contribution to this society. Filippo Osella, Professor of Anthropology and South Asian Studies at the University of Sussex, has spent years studying Islam, trade and migration in South Asia besides entrepreneurship in the region. In one of his essays, titled ‘Malabar Secrets: South Indian Muslim Men’s (Homo)sociality across the Indian Ocean’, Osella delves into, in his own words, transformations in forms of male sociality and same-sex intimacy among Muslim men from Kozhikode (formerly Calicut) in Kerala, south India. He adds, “I focus in particular on the way in which the globalisation of capital and labour markets—in particular, long-term migration to the Gulf countries of West Asia, a predominantly male affair—has produced novel forms and spaces of homosociality. By highlighting long-term religious and trade connections between Kozhikode and the Arabian Peninsula, the article problematises hegemonic representations of masculinities and same-sex relations in India as an expression of a specifically ‘Indian culture’”.
Some local historians also attribute male-bonding and sensuality to the martial arts culture-in which the guru and the shishya shared a special bond and even the disciples wrestled with their bodies locked with each other
Novel forms and spaces of homosociality that migrations have produced certainly provided men enough scope to give vent to their sexual desires. And it is possible that people, both Muslims and non-Muslims who came under their influence, refused to let go of the habit. There is a joke about a typical Muslim bisexual: that he would visit a restaurant with a younger man and order a biryani for the partner and a sulaimani (black tea) for himself (how it is said in Malayalam depends on the dialect in sub-regions of Malabar: Chekkanu oru biriyani, njammakkoru sulaimani is the one I am more familiar with. Writer Manu Pillai tells me a more popular variant is this: njamukke oru sulaimaniyum kunddanikku oru biriyaniyum. Biriyanile eri lesam kurakkanetto (chekkan is Malayalam for lad while kundan stands for catamite. The last part of the sentence in the second version is quite interesting. The older man is telling the waiter to make the biriyani less hot, hinting at sodomy). Although it is a habit that is more attributed to Muslim men, men from other religions are not far behind. It was not uncommon for bus stands and railway stations in the 1990s to play meeting ground for middle-aged men looking for partners in exchange for food and a fee. In the old Kannur bus stand, there was a gentleman often referred to as Mr Nambiar who had a knack for ensnaring younger partners. Most often, such courtships were friendly and incident-free. Of course, southern Keralites travelling to places like Malappuram and Kasargode often complained of being groped in buses. It always started with an amiable, warm smile, then a pat on the back and the dropping of a hand on your thighs as the assaulter turned the newspaper to read the next page. The idea was to keep trying until there was resistance. One of my teachers in Thiruvananthapuram never forgave northern Malayalis for a bitter experience he had in Kozhikode: a man sitting next to him on a bus started nudging him on his belly and pressed his own thigh against his. “These Malabar men are disgusting,” he maintained until the day he died.
If you happened to overhear conversations between like-minded predators, their expressions of speech offered greater mirth than watching them woo a potential partner. They had categories for younger men: starting with tea or appam and graduating to the most prized one, biryani. I recall a 50-year-old married uncle of a friend of mine confess to some of us that he found sex with boys far more pleasurable than with women for a plethora of reasons. His logic was that “When you have an extramarital liaison even with a consensual female partner, there is enormous fear involved: the fear of getting caught and the humiliation and complications that follow. It’s all too much of a hardship. In the case of boys, you can make it happen on a beach or just about anywhere without being the object of suspicion.” It is not that being seen with a younger male doesn’t invite doubts in such places. It does, but—in a judgmental society—it is still safer than being seen with a woman who is not your wife.
Though India has progressed in many ways and boys and girls across even rural regions do interact publicly without inhibition, strangely, members of the family and even strangers stare or raise eyebrows when they see a young boy and a girl together in most northern Kerala towns. Going by practical experience, I can vouch for that fact: you are at the risk of being continuously stared at even if you are with your sister or a cousin of the same age. Even more strangely, the phenomenon does not occur in southern parts of Kerala. Can I explain why? No. Why do people disapprove of young men and women interacting in public or in private in northern parts of Kerala? One doesn’t know for sure, but it is probably to do with the repressive feudal nature of relationships in the region, the historical reasons for which are too old to be dug up. The good news is that things are changing now and inevitably so.
Anyhow, it is in this context of living in a highly compartmentalised, judgemental society that same-sex bonding becomes a safer option for sexual escapades in north Kerala. To be fair, commoditisation of women in public and constant sexual harassment is a larger menace across Kerala as in India, where patriarchy is in full display. The mannerisms of Kerala males when they see the female of the species are worthy of a thesis. Even so, as someone who has lived in various corners of the state, I find the scale of disapproval of a girl and boy being seen together almost nauseating in north Kerala. On some occasions, they are subject to interrogations by large groups in a mob-like frenzy.
It is no wonder that couples need platforms that offer spaces for same-sex camaraderie, the most significant of which are cadre-based organisations. It is an area that is not as well explored as the Muslim link and migrations. North Kerala is home to large-groups of cadre-based organisations, such as the communist party, Islamic groups and Hindutva paramilitary outfits, where homosexuality—or homosociality as Osella calls it, offering it greater dignity—is seen as par for the course. In cadre outfits, as in the armed forces and guerrilla movements, homosexuality is condoned for fear that relationships with women may trigger internecine wrangling or bad reputations in societies they live in. A disciplined volunteer of a community party, if found to be in an extramarital sexual relationship with a woman outside of its disciplined confines, could earn a bad name for the entire unit. Typically, such relationships are scrutinised and gossiped about endlessly by people. The organisation, naturally, feels that it is not wise for its popularity. It also feels an obligation to uphold the notion of morality in the society it works with. And so, it offers a safety valve or overlooks homosexuality within its ranks. The cadres, too, are more inclined to indulge in a relationship that doesn’t embarrass their organisation, and prefer homosexuality over an ‘adventurous’ heterosexual relationship. For a party in which individual discipline is paramount, homosexuality is a lesser and perhaps necessary vice that is tacitly endorsed.
Many leaders of cadre-based parties, be they communists or Hindu nationalists, have not been coy about it within their fold. One of them had even floated a theory: that there is nothing unnatural about it and that it is such pleasures that help you stay active at work. This is in line with the Greek fascination for gay sex. Surely, such pronouncements were much ahead of a largescale campaign in favour of LGBT rights in India. Within the party’s multi-layered organisational machinery, stories of who is in a relationship with whom; who is into bisexual ways; and who got promoted thanks to proximity with a particular leader— all that is often common knowledge. Somehow, like Muslim traders who had to stay away for long without their female partners, many leaders and workers from cadre organisations, too, have to stay away from their families whenever there used to be bans on their parties, when they are forced to stay underground and in jails.
A well-known politician from North Malabar, much married and with children, was known in his youth as someone in a ruthless pursuit of homosexual pleasures-to the extend that boys kept themselves out of his sight whenever possible
Some local historians also attribute male-bonding and sensuality to the martial-arts culture—in which the guru and the shishya shared a special bond and even the disciples wrestled with their bodies locked with each other. Most often, they were clad only in a loin cloth and had to practice with their oiled bodies in close contact. The chances of teenagers discovering their sexual instincts invariably started with their early years in kalarippayattu, though some exponents of the martial art contest this, saying such familiarity often meant that they found nothing special about male bodies. Whatever that is, Romans thought that homosexuality became a custom among the Greeks mostly because they exercised scantily clad. Greek elders have often been quoted in books admiring young boys and their bodies as they walked by.
HOMOSEXUALITY WAS ALSO extremely common among the Samurais of Japan and several warrior classes across the world. Although the term homosexuality itself was coined only as late as the 19th century by Karoly Maria Benkert, a German psychologist, same-sex relations have been part of folktales, royal legends and ancient mythologies from time immemorial. Of course, questions about the morality and naturalness of the act have also crept in. Even Plato, who was not unfamiliar with the idea, had on occasion said male-to-male love was the best form of love, but later he, perhaps under compulsion, found it an ugly affair and became a votary of love without lust—and thus we have the expression ‘platonic love’. Nonetheless, he had discussed the issue at length in his Symposium, which continues to be a source for understanding queer behaviour and formulating new theories. We are also familiar with the story of the Athenian general and politician Alcibiades, who lived in the 5th century BCE. The greatest description of him is that ‘in his adolescence he drew away the husbands from their wives and as a young man the wives from their husbands’. It is said that even Socrates was attracted to him. In this context, it can easily be said that erotically charged relationships between males in parts of Malabar are perhaps nothing to be ashamed of, considering that they are not on the wrong side of history.
Though relatively forbidden or entirely reviled in the former Soviet Union and in today’s Russia, homosociality has given comrades in northern Kerala enough solace. The same is true of those nationalists whose compatriots may look down upon homosexuality as a disease or a mental condition. An apocryphal story has it that a senior communist leader of yore used to talk affectionately of his sexual partners and referred to the experience as a form of medical treatment to calm his nerves. A well-known nationalist, for his part, found it as a union with god.
Though most such liaisons were known to be consensual, there were also some predatory instincts at play. A well-known politician from north Malabar, much married and with children, was known in his youth as someone in a ruthless pursuit of homosexual pleasures—to the extent that boys kept themselves out of his sight whenever possible. He was also wont to promote his partners out of turn to plum positions of power. As regards another Kozhikode-based veteran leader who was notorious for his ‘hunts’ (vetta, as he used to call it in Malayalam), the whole process is said to have given him a lot of thrill. One of the most popular leaders in Kerala, now deceased, found it easy to find partners thanks to his stunning looks. Families, in some cases, knew of these excesses, but kept mum.
Abstention from sex is a vow that many people often take in the idealistic years of their youth. It has been an obsession as well as a confusing custom among various Christian denominations the world over, yet some of them realise soon that natural desires are tough to be suppress. The Roman Catholic Church, like many other faiths, denounces homosexuality and sees as sinful any sexual practice unrelated to procreation by a married couple. Of course, there are some who hold a flexible approach to the subject. It is no surprise that the victims of same-sex abuse run into thousands in the history of the Church with holy men breaking their vow and then making it a habit.
Such abstentions among cadre party members in North Kerala have certainly contributed to a spike in same-sex relations. But there are numerous other social and economic factors that define the perception about the region. Be it a clichéd approach towards a region that amounts to stereotyping of a people or otherwise, the tag remains. Thankfully, far from discrediting those at it, the people of this place have been largely accommodative in assimilating this practice as part of their culture. The sexual stereotype simply evokes laughter and is rarely despised as a dangerous deviation, and people who indulge are not vilified unless it is forced. In the long run, this rising respectability only means the stereotype is even harder to break. Hands and thighs in buses, take note.