Sex and travel. Rhythm and tempo. Alok poetically delves into sexuality and identity and finds himself in transit – while laying down tracks, or getting laid on tracks, through a Bombay landscape that is always sliding away.
There is a secret that unites every gay, bisexual, man-shagging man in Bombay and it is this: two-by-two – the second door of the second compartment in Bombay’s local trains. No one seems to remember when this section of an otherwise ordinary second class compartment became prime cruising ground – or how – but there we are. Today, it is where men who love each other and are shameless and desperate enough to express it gather in peak commuting hours for hot and steamy sex. They look, they touch, they love and they commit very private acts in a very public space.
Like every becoming queen, I learnt the lesson too. My best friend Fakhree, a fellow sister from school days – from the days when we shagged the milk man together – first told me about it. Back then, I didn’t travel much by train. Once, caught in a crowded second class compartment, I felt a hand moving about my crotch, but I didn’t think of it as sexual. I was younger then.
My first train encounter was also my best. It happened long before I became a regular. I was with a young, working class Maharashtrian boy who was dark, muscular, compactly built and very sexually charged. We held tight to each other’s waists as the fast train rushed on, throwing us closer and closer. We brushed our sweaty, hungry lips together when we felt we could not be seen. There must have been at least a hundred people surrounding us. In large crowds no one really observes anything.
When I turned seventeen, I started using the train regularly. I chose to attend a college far away from home partly due to the allure of the rail-high club (I know: it’s a poor equivalent). I would get up early, rush to Kandivali station, and catch the 7 a.m. fast to Churchgate to be in time for my first lecture at Xavier’s. The first few weeks were not encouraging. I travelled in the first class compartment, surrounded by respectable men, shaved, perfumed and on their way to some respectable occupation. Where was all that debauchery I had been promised?
As it turns out, sex on the train began for me on a deeply spiritual note – at the Sai Baba temple near my home. I’m not really religious, yet I do turn to divine power in desperate situations. I prayed for fifteen minutes and chanted some complicated mantras all so that I would meet someone in the train the next day. “I have to, God, I just have to.”
The next morning – a Saturday – I got on the train with renewed hope. The first class compartment was as usual filled with people reading the Economic Times and Business Standard and chatting with officemates. Not a single person noticed me. We passed Dadar, then Bombay Central, then Grant Road. I was now three stations away from losing all remaining faith in God.
And suddenly I saw a very fair, tall, muscular man with long, coloured hair. He looked so different and uncommonly dressed that I was convinced he was gay. He smiled at me and I smiled back. He winked, and that made me both nervous and ecstatic. We sailed through the crowd towards each other, rowing aggressively with our hands to part the sea-storm of people, until we came close enough for our hands to touch.
We played the game, gradually working up to a bit of fondling. Standing right in the middle of the throng, the air redolent with sweat and powders and perfumes, we were aware only of each other. It was a strange act of love – performed strictly below the torso, away from the gaze of fellow passengers. My man had mastered the act and was thoroughly enjoying the deep, unexpected appreciation evident in my dilated eyes.
I slept with him a couple of times. His real gift to me was a crucial piece of information that he let slip inadvertently. “It’s okay to meet people in first class, but you must never enter the two-by-two. Only dirty, slum men go there,” he said. I left his apartment, reached the station, went to my platform, and walked straight in to the two-by-two.
It was like stumbling into a cave. Large, glowing eyes stare out from every end. You want to look back, but fear that the eyes will see right through you and discover exactly what you want. You look anyway, and they zero in on you, getting closer and closer, until you have no control. At this point you submit and forget everything: your day, your work, your family, your lover, and – given the times – the lurking possibility that your train will be blown apart.
After college, I began working for a legal NGO in the Fort area. Disinclined to work late, lest I miss the rush hour crowd, I would leave the office at 6 p.m. sharp. My regulars were the 6.14, 6.26, 6.31 or the 6.44 Borivali fasts – depending on which set of regulars I wanted to travel with. Committed people like me do not do as ordinary commuters would. Firstly, we prefer to travel during rush hour (the more crowded the more opportunities); secondly, we will gladly miss a train in order to catch the right one with the right man, and thirdly, we never ever try to find a place to sit.
It sounds crazy: after a long day at work, over a long journey that could last two hours, who wants to stand? That would be us: sly queens who wait for the breeders to settle in and only then ascend. We place our bags on the overhead racks, expertly evaluate the options and find some strategic corner to place ourselves in. Cruising is limited by several factors, the most important of which is the orientation of platforms along the way. Say my destination is Santa Cruz. Now if you were in my compartment and had to get off at Bandra, then we wouldn’t be able to get it on, since our platforms would fall on opposite sides of the compartment, and that is how we would have to position ourselves: as every seasoned commuter knows, cutting across a densely packed train is impossible. However, if you happened to be travelling to Dadar instead, we would be on the same side of the compartment and could enjoy just fine; bearing in mind though that Dadar is only a short distance away from Churchgate, and as such, comes too soon.
As for etiquette, anything goes and the excitement is commensurate with risk. My biggest accidents have been when I am lost in enjoyment and the train unexpectedly pulls in at a station: the compartment empties out and I have about half a panicked second to avoid exposing myself to a substantial section of suburban Bombay. Believe me, it’s no fun. Mostly, I go with the heavy-petting approach. Rumours of more vigorous sexual adventures abound, though I have yet to experience such wantonness. Paradoxically, the best thing that can happen is also the simplest. The most exciting sensation in encounters such as these is when a stranger takes your hand in his. Not clumsily, but with fingers entwined tight. And then you realise that it’s about holding someone close, about knowing that you are not alone.
Every day and every night, hundreds of trains move up and down the reclaimed islands of Bombay, heaving with a desire that rarely spills out. I have got to know plenty of regulars in my time, and yet almost never had sex with any of them in the city. For most of my fellow passengers, enjoyment is something that happens inside the compartment and nowhere else. Being gay means little or nothing. A knowing glance, a furtive encounter and perhaps a hand to hold on to is all they permit themselves.