THIS IS THE STORY of Brown. How it travels over state lines, oceans, and lips to feel beautiful. This is the story of beautiful — of learning the parts of us that cling on too hard for us to scratch them out, of the failure of human heart to desire more boldly. This is the story of a brown too bold to be beautiful, or too beautiful to be brown, or, in other words, a boy who no longer tries to use English to tell his story. This is their story.
My senior year of college I had enough. I took off the Fall semester from school and moved to Bangalore, India to organize with the queer Indian movement (read: find myself). Let’s call it a naïve desi romanticizing the homeland. Let’s call it a cliché. Let’s call it foolish notions of finding Love and finding Brown and not being able to tell the difference.
The story begins something like this. At the peak of its empire they say that the British controlled almost 85% of the world’s landmass. India was the crown jewel — that place of tea, and mystique, but mostly sex. Colonialism they tell us was a project of benevolence. The civilized white people of the world were there to help us — we the brown, the abject, the queer. When they came to our lands, they talked about how sensual our women were, how our beauty was not gendered, the familiarity of our bodies with one another and the intimacy of it all. They brought words like “sin” and “homosexual” to describe the rhythms of our people, stifling our songs with sodomy laws and penal codes; they wanted to make us more pure for God and for profit. (Is there a difference?) And at some point, we began to believe them. We stopped speaking about sex, we ignored the thousand-year old- temples with gods of all genders fucking, and we threw the hijras on the streets and on our backs in secret. The Brits blew us so hard that we scattered like dandelion seeds across the world — English branded on our tongue, white branded on our heart.
My parents somehow landed in Texas. When you fly into the two-plane airport of College Station, the first thing you’ll see is a sign that says: “Home of the George Bush Library.” I was in elementary school when they opened the behemoth — that destination of every fourth grade field trip and that thing that finally put us on the map. That year, my teacher asked me to come to school wearing “traditional” clothes. When they would ask me who my favorite President was, I’d always say George Bush; he was the man who not only led the country when I was born, but held me — and the rest of the world — in his lap. There is a photo somewhere out there on the Internet that will prove it.
History repeats itself. When you exit the airport, go down Highway 6, turn onto Rock Prairie Road, and then I’ll meet you at Arroyo Court — that house where Google Images first taught me the word “gay” (read: white). Then I’ll take you down the road to my elementary school where I grew up developing crushes on white men with names and politics much like George. I’ll show you the rooms where I used to write love letters to the white boys in my classes and sign them “from Crystal,” hope that the swirl in the “L” would give me away — like the way I smiled too hard while we played truth or dare. This is the park, this is the school, this is the street, this is the town where I grew up loving white men and hating myself. This is where I grew up wanting to sleep with the very men who called me faggot, called me terrorist and noticed me.
It took me years to come out not because I was afraid, but because I didn’t want my family to know that I was becoming white.
Growing up in Texas, I developed a bad case of white fetish. I could show you the porn I used to jack off to, and I could show the boys I fell in love with. I could tell you how the only representations of homosexuality I consumed were white, but in some ways that’s only part of the story. You see, white fetish is a condition that’s only partially about sex. For Indians white fetish is in our blood. It’s why we moved to America, it’s why we work hard to get in the best schools, it’s why we buy skin lightening cream to feel beautiful. White fetish is ancestral violence inscribed in our bodies; it’s a condition that describes the ways in which we are ready to be penetrated by America. Give us your racism, give us your Orientalist media representation, give us anything, and we will say thank you and keep quiet. We will check you in your hotel rooms, and we will hand you your groceries, and we will be your second-in command, and we will dress our kids in J. Crew and make them only speak English so we can be like you. And sometimes we think you believe us.
Pack all of your bags as fast as possible, dash back to that small goddamn airport and catch the first flight out to Houston, then connect to San Francisco, then run to Stanford University and I’ll show you the classrooms where I learned fancy words like “decolonize,” the poorly lit dorm rooms where I shed tears and cloths and cum and tried to do it by letting white men inside of me when they told me they were “different from the rest.” I’ll introduce you to the first boys of color I met — the ones who called me beautiful but I didn’t believe them because they did not have names like George.
So I told my parents I wanted to go back to India for a while. My Mom didn’t get it, “Why would you want to go back?” I didn’t really have the words for it at the time, but I felt the tug. I bought a ticket across the ocean and ran.
Bengaluru Airport is nothing like College Station’s. Outside there are a couple of fast food restaurants that all mean “food poisoning” when translated into English. Swarms of men smelling of that combination of sandalwood soap and sweat will ask you if you need a taxi. Push past the chaos with your luggage, button down shirt, and slacks. Your accent will mean that they will rip you off, undoubtedly, but they will listen.
The taxi will take you through the outskirts. Marvel at the billboards with faces that look like yours and gawk at the Ganesha at the mantle, the foreign made familiar. When the driver asks you where you are going, show him that chit of paper to your uncle’s place near Abbas Ali Road, shukria. Move out as fast as possible. Find your own place. Oops, that bougie apartment in Vasant Nagar where there’s even an interracial white/African couple and their boisterous child — complete with a gym! Do not tell your friends how much you are paying; remind all of your Skype calls back home that the currency rate is in your favor. Breathe in the salt, the sweat, the indigestion of India. Make home out of the leftovers Padma the cook leaves for you, that stray puppy you picked up from the street, and the contemporary art you plaster all the walls. Do not think twice before you cross the road, just leap out. The eighteen lanes of traffic will mold around you. This is India.
To get to work, tell the auto driver to take you to Infantry Wedding Hall. Dismount and walk across the street to what looks like abandoned house. This is actually your office. Push through the screen door (but make sure the kittens, puppies, and occasionally street children run out) and set your stuff down wherever you see a spot. Don’t bother to open your laptop: your boss will ask you if you want a cup of chai. Do not say no even if you don’t; they will think that you are rude as fuck. The trick is in changing the hand that holds the piping hot glass as frequently as possible in order to avoid burning yourself. Do not wince or seem disconcerted. Smile and sip as frantically as you can.
Before they ask me my politics, they ask if I have a boyfriend. The question arrives in different ways, always subtle. “So, are you single?” he asks, his eyes staring intently ahead as he negotiates all the traffic. It appears that the entire gay movement in India is polyamorous — finding ways to politicize their voracious libidos — so I try my best to fit in. I wear Bata chappals and over-compensate for the skinny chinos with an eager bobbling head and pseudo-accent (with a hint of cardamom). “Well, it’s complicated…I’m not really interested in physicality…I’m more invested in the idea of…romantic friendships…building affective solidarity?” “Does that mean you are single?” “No, no, I’m not, but I’m not sure if I’m necessarily looking, either.” I play my cards cautiously in this place where veins run slower than telephone lines, and secrets function as currency.
Another asks me as I cling on to him as he speeds his motorcycle down MG Road.
Maybe it is something about the wind on my face, the Bollywood drama and desperation or the accidental intimacy of the embrace, but I feel more at ease this time. “Do you have a boyfriend?” “No.” “Why not?” “Umm…I don’t know…I just…” My voice is lost in the sound of traffic.
Another asks me out for dinner at a cheesy American-themed restaurant. (Drunk is a language that transcends borders.) He is surprised that I don’t fuck as much as him, “But we’re young, you know. It’s in our hormones!” So I try my best to tell him about racism in America — how white gays either ignore or fetishize us. I tell him about the first white boy I kissed — the one who told me that he always wanted to “be with a brown man because it makes him feel like he’s with a real man.” He nods his head in agreement but I think these are the lessons one has to learn in the flesh — seeing oneself as a Brown does not happen in India.
Oppression does not happen to me in India. I can’t claim any political marginalization: me, the upper-caste, upper- class, English-speaking, male-passing buffoon who stumbles across the streets lost late at night — always safe. In fact, I am learning what it must feel like to be a white man in the U.S.: the whole world bending itself backwards for me. The auto drivers always stop when I wave my hand, the waiters trip over themselves to lay the napkin on my lap, and the men, well, the men all want to fuck me.
I realize this first when I walk into a local support group for queer men. There are about twenty-five of us in attendance. I am trying my best to keep calm as I join a circle of men who look just like the family friends I grew up with. We go around and introduce ourselves.
All eyes turn to me. “Hi, I’m Alok. I’m visiting from America.” Their faces lighten up like diyas on Diwali. “Tell us more.”
I join them for dinner after. They are joking about me in Kannada, Hindi, Tamil, all the languages we are losing across the ocean. “We should hang out. What’s your number? Do you need a ride home?” Five of them escort me out to make sure I don’t get ripped off from the auto driver. My phone is buzzing all night with texts: “Hey.” “Wuts up?” “ ;)” (The language of horniness transcends borders.)
It happens again the next week when I am volunteering to teach English to a group of kothi sex workers. I start first with the ABCs and one of them blurts: “U is for underwear! Do you wear boxers or briefs?” They ask for my number, if I want a massage, where I live, what it’s like to live in America, fuck me America. Two can play this game: “A is for Anus, B is for Buttocks, C is for Cock.” They promise me they will come back next week.
That Friday I somehow direct the auto driver to this bar on the outskirts of Bangalore. Tonight there is some cheesy gay party my friends all tell me I must go to — with some theme like James Bond or AmericaTM. It is packed to the brim. Boys of all shades, smells, castes, regions and languages are actually dancing to the hybrid Bollywood/American fusion music. In the office we like to call the repeal of Section 377 — the British imposed sodomy law — the party law because all that can change is that gay men can now congregate in public. The city of Bangalore usually shuts down all parties by 11:00 (because late night dancing encourages prostitution). But for some reason, the gay parties keep booming until at least 1:00.
Everyone wants to know who I am. Everyone wants to dance with me. I have never felt more wanted and more desired in my entire life. And I know it’s because my skin is lighter than theirs and I know it’s because my passport is more American than theirs, but for a moment I feel beautiful and I want to believe that there is something in that. But then I notice the entire crowd stop moving. They are still dancing, but their eyes are turned to the entrance. Three white guys walk in and the entire pulse of the party changes. I notice the way we all continue taking to one another — but still glance back. I notice the way I feel that warmth in my body. I hate them so much, but I want to fuck them. We hate them so much, and that’s why we want to fuck them. I go home early.
My colleagues accuse me of having a bad case of diasporic angst. “America is so hard, why don’t you just move back here?” And it seems so simple, so doable for me, the foreign-educated rich Indian with U.S. dollars stuffed in his back pocket, the one who gets away with the nose piercing because the wealthy are excused from custom, excused from gender. And at first the prospect of it all seems so tantalizing: the food and the hospitality. But the white fetish is not gone.
Race finds a way to haunt me here. At the first queer youth social I attend, they berate me with questions: “Have you slept with a Latino before? I heard they have big dicks.” “How do you know?” “I saw it on porn.” “Have you slept with a white boy before? I heard they are cleaner than Indian men — more loving, more compassionate, more open, more tolerant, more accepting…” At the support group everyone talks about their dream of getting married: of having some white Fulbright scholar find them on Planet Romeo (Indian Grindr) and take them back to America. Leading gay activists aren’t excluded from this: “Americans just have…a better sense of culture.”
And I try my best to dull at the noise but at the end of the day I still believe them. I believe them as I use my high-speed Internet to watch Western porn of white men fucking each other. I believe them as I close the pop- up windows of Indian men — the first time I have ever seen bodies as hairy, as Brown as me on a screen. I believe them as I stumble on ex-pat parties with white boys at hotels that won’t let in my friends and hate the American boy who dresses up as a “Mexican” for the Halloween party but still wants to take him home.
So my roommate makes fun of me for it: Why haven’t you brought a single boy back with you after all the parties you go to?
I don’t have the language for it: the way the nice boy after the support group offers me a ride home on his motorcycle, the way the wind kisses our faces, the way he stops half-way and asks me for a drink and the way I sit on the steps of the road and I lie to him that I have a boyfriend.
How to explain to a body that it is Brown? How to explain white fetish in a country which has been fucked for years? To a city whose most famous landmarks are the cum stains left from the British? To a city with a commercial street where you can buy Adidas sneakers and watch Hollywood movies in 3D.
Pick up an auto from Mantri Mall and ask it to drive you to the Design School outside of Bangalore. Meet up with your friends at the liquor store and sneak the girls into the house. Sit in the corner as your friends dance to the Bollywood tunes your hips cannot comprehend. Pretend to act drunk, even though you are not drinking. When the bottle spins to your direction, lean across the circle. Do not think about it: kiss him as they gasp and clap. Wake up the next morning and realize that this is the first Brown boy you have ever kissed.
Fly back home via London. Heathrow Airport is much larger than College Station’s. Take the Tube all the way to his arms. Wait for him in the coffee shop in Queen’s Lane. Open your eyes and pretend that you do not see him like the way you have hidden that photo of you and George Bush. Pretend that he is just the Skype screen. Pretend that he is just the friend. Pretend that he is just the past.
Fuck him that night. Wake up and recognize that he is white. That you are Brown. That nothing has changed.