I discovered Sarmad, the naked saint of Dilli, accidentally, while researching for a work of fiction. His story, not unusual for those times, mentions his obsessive love for a Hindu boy named Abhai Chand. They lived together in the city of Shahjahanabad, now in Old Delhi, in 17th century. Eventually executed by Aurangzeb for his support of Dara Shikoh, neither Sarmad’s poetry nor his relationship with Chand was considered criminal. It was a time in Delhi when same-sex desire was celebrated and love in diverse forms accepted. It was a more liberal and evolved Delhi than we will know in our lifetimes.

Reading Sunil Gupta and Charan Singh’s book Delhi: Communities of Belonging is to sift through a map of Delhi’s queer communities, numerous as they are. Set in modern Delhi, it could be the story of any large Indian urban city.

The characters of this book are drawn from differing times, social and economic classes and provide a chronicle of how much Delhi has changed and yet it has not. This was the city where the colonial law criminalising same-sex love was read down and then reinstated. It is also a city where one of India’s most visible queer communities emerged and exists till today.

Geeta comes from a wealthy family in Mumbai and only felt comfortable coming out in the US. She lives part of the year in India and the rest of the time with her American wife Kath in Virginia. "It matters to me that I’m in India. Sometimes it’s hard to be here... I feel like danger is stalking us in a much more different way," she says. Image Credit: Sunil Gupta and Charan Singh
Geeta comes from a wealthy family in Mumbai and only felt comfortable coming out in the US. She lives part of the year in India and the rest of the time with her American wife Kath in Virginia. "It matters to me that I’m in India. Sometimes it’s hard to be here... I feel like danger is stalking us in a much more different way," she says. Image Credit: Sunil Gupta and Charan Singh

Labels such as gay are too restrictive and unaccommodating, as we run through these stories. They were always somewhat alien in our contexts. Perhaps the more suitable terms to describe the dominant emotions, while engaging with the book, are desire, companionship, and love.

What do the images tell us? The queer people in this book, in Delhi or in India’s large urban cities, are now increasingly confident and unafraid. The pictures have a self-assurance and remarkable candour. They offer no discomfort with who they are. From the observed, they are in turn part of the observation. Still not free of violence, discrimination or societal pressure, they are striving to live free and independent lives.

Rituparna, a queer woman and an activist, had her first sexual relationship with a woman in college. She had no name for what she was experiencing due to her sheltered upbringing. "It took me one year of activism to talk about my queerness," she says. Image Credit: Sunil Gupta and Charan Singh
Rituparna, a queer woman and an activist, had her first sexual relationship with a woman in college. She had no name for what she was experiencing due to her sheltered upbringing. "It took me one year of activism to talk about my queerness," she says. Image Credit: Sunil Gupta and Charan Singh

Through these images, we see the stories of lives in transition, some shackled, though determined to be unbound in a society at odds with its own liberal history and inclusiveness. The images speak to us of love, desire, longing and conflict. These stories are also filled with a seeking of love and light (to borrow from Gupta).

In these images, the environment bears mute, sometimes grudging, witness to these desires. The economics of the city plays itself out, when presenting sharp contrasts in the choices that the privileged and economically independent have, compared to those that do not.

Pavitr, a graphic designer, comes from an affluent family. An activist, he shares a flat with another man and is single with a busy social life. "My family didn’t hassle me after I came out. From then on there was no marriage pressure," he says. Image Credit: Sunil Gupta and Charan Singh
Pavitr, a graphic designer, comes from an affluent family. An activist, he shares a flat with another man and is single with a busy social life. "My family didn’t hassle me after I came out. From then on there was no marriage pressure," he says. Image Credit: Sunil Gupta and Charan Singh

Jatin, one of the subjects of this book, reminds us that marriage is still a requirement for many to exist within families. You are then forced either to construct an alternative life, or break away from the patriarchy. I know at least two persons who could do neither and ended their lives, unable to reconcile this contradiction.

For some of us, who were part of Delhi’s queer movement almost two decades ago, Delhi’s transformation is apparent. In our early years of sexual explorations in this city, we discovered friendships, desire and love in public spaces across the city. We crossed class boundaries and lived dangerously, seeking both love and sexual fulfilment. It was a journey of self-discovery but also a discovery of Delhi’s numerous sub-cities. We did not care or perhaps had no other option. Boundaries did not matter – we sought fervently whatever was available.

Those who came out were few. We were a visible minority within an invisible one. This has changed substantially now. Numerous friends are now out, others are happily coupled in long-term relationships. They are stridently confident of their identity, within families, with friends and even at their workplaces.

Jatin belongs to a community of Dalits and identifies as a kothi (a term for an effeminate man). He was forced to get married and lives with his wife and three children in his parents’ home. He seeks out male sexual partners in the park on his way home. Image Credit: Sunil Gupta and Charan Singh
Jatin belongs to a community of Dalits and identifies as a kothi (a term for an effeminate man). He was forced to get married and lives with his wife and three children in his parents’ home. He seeks out male sexual partners in the park on his way home. Image Credit: Sunil Gupta and Charan Singh

This is why Gupta and Singh’s work is significant. This is not just a book about Delhi’s queer community, but a map to the numerous cities within Delhi. Through the narratives, this book questions labels and boundaries. What does it mean to be gay or homosexual in India today? Do these terms even define us? How different is our language of desire and identity across classes? Who has access to a community? Do these communities have access to each other? This book raises all these questions and is a reminder that in these times, we urgently need a new politics about desire, love, our sexualities and rights.

Where does it begin? From the stories and pictures in this book, to the conversation within homes, to television characters on our screens. Every change is useful, every protest remarkable and every pushback worthwhile.

The stories in this book are defiant, steady and filled with protest. A calm self assured dignified protest underlies every image. Protest to norms of sexuality, to neatly bound categories, and to restrictions on love.

Through these images the two artist-photographers present a stunning interweaving of multiple narratives to remind us that law or society cannot bind human desire and love. In these intolerant times, theirs is an instructive book to read to understand love and desire in a city of naked saints and other remarkable inhabitants.

Zahid and Ranjan are among the few openly gay couples in Delhi. 'Even though people are more out today, there is that thing in the back of the mind saying this is still illegal in this country and tomorrow if they decide to crack down on it, we are too exposed already, so we would be in a lot of trouble,' says Ranjan. Image Credit: Sunil Gupta and Charan Singh
Zahid and Ranjan are among the few openly gay couples in Delhi. 'Even though people are more out today, there is that thing in the back of the mind saying this is still illegal in this country and tomorrow if they decide to crack down on it, we are too exposed already, so we would be in a lot of trouble,' says Ranjan. Image Credit: Sunil Gupta and Charan Singh

The images are excerpted from the book Delhi: Communities of Belonging by Sunil Gupta and Charan Singh, published by The New Press. All images are © Sunil Gupta & Charan Singh.