With no job in hand and a reluctance to find one, I spent most of my time in a youth association – Youth of Gulmohar – that Nitin and I had put together with other youngsters of our colony. From organising events on environment, health and hygiene to creating platforms for talent contests and sports, we were a popular association in Gulmohar Park and neighbouring colonies. We also had a tabloid-size newsletter called Expressions, that I wrote and edited.
“You can’t do this for the rest of your life,” Dilip said, reminding me that four months had passed without a job.
Sonu and Dilip spent a long evening at home discussing what it meant to work, earn and be responsible. Ma was present too but she said very little.
I reiterated my desire to be a naturopath or maybe a teacher. Not giving either of these options even a moment of thought, journalism was thrown at me. The premise was that I liked to write and had been doing so in school, college and even now. “There is a lot of respect and power attached to the pen,” Dilip said pitching the prospect.
“I do not want to be a reporter. I would rather have a desk job, probably editing copy,” I said. I did not like the idea of running around and meeting people all day long and I told them as much.
Still, I went to meet Paranjoy Guha Thakurta who was then the business editor of The Pioneer. This meeting was set up by Dilip who was then in the communications field working with a corporate.
The newspaper, although pretty small in terms of circulation, was highly respected given the team of journalists that worked there. I went through three rounds of interviews that focussed on topics related to finance, stock markets and business. I had little to say and replied with basic knowledge on commerce and shares that I recalled from my class ten school textbook.
But somehow I was selected and started working at The Pioneer, in its business bureau. As a sub-cum-reporter, my profile entailed going out and meeting people related to the beats that had been allocated to me and report on those areas. Also, depending on the roster, I would have to stay on till late night to edit and place the reports on to a page as well.
I settled into this role of multitasking pretty quickly, writing my first feature for the Sunday edition of the paper within days of joining. It was on a topic I had little knowledge about – the NCAER (National Council of Applied Economic research) report on consumption trends. I was soon writing on the Delhi Stock exchange and then the Securities and Exchange Board of india. Even page-making, which had seemed so daunting earlier, was now not difficult as I was surrounded by a team that was helpful.
While I did bring some of my baking skills to the fore, sharing cookies and cakes every now and then, my record as a reporter stood out a lot more. This was in contrast to my stint at Penguin Books where no one recalled the work I did as it was below par for sure.
I was savouring my role with the newspaper. The appreciation from my colleagues, the calls from strangers wishing to meet me, the creation of a network of sources – all of it was changing who I was. When I attended a press conference, who I was mattered and not only to the organisers but to the reporters in other publications as well who were reading what I was reporting.
I disliked missing news and felt elated while writing exclusives. I was just happy being in the office making a new set of acquaintances, not only in my bureau but across all the departments.
It was a general practice to read competing newspapers cover-to-cover to stay aware of one’s competition. This meant scanning every page and not just the business section. This is when I came across a report that implied salaciousness of a different kind – men seeking men for sex.
The article was about how such interactions took place in the dense and dark areas of Nehru Park, playing up homosexuality in a negative manner and alleging a sex racket too.
I didn’t have the wisdom then to see how a community had been profiled and displayed in a degrading and sensationalised manner. The only thing that mattered was there were other men like me. It was worth a try to see what Nehru Park was like, I thought, nervous and curious, driving down one Sunday evening.
As I reached one of the entry points on Vinay Marg, I saw just one other car in the parking area. The daylight was slowly fading and the area seemed desolate. I looked around feeling unsure of where I was and what lay ahead. I walked into the park surreptitiously as though I was going to steal something. It took me a few moments to adjust to the changing light. I saw silhouettes of trees and lampposts bereft of electricity, at times even mistaking them for men.
It took me only ten minutes, which had seemed like hours, to spot one tall man. However, that triumphant moment turned into fright as he moved his eyes in the direction I was. I felt intimidated, unsafe, exposed and scared. He was about six feet in height and muscular enough to be a bouncer.
As he started to move towards me, I felt a desperate anxiety to leave. I moved quickly to the gate I had entered from. I rushed to the car and drove out of the parking lot hurriedly. I was panting and my heart was beating fast. I drove with no destination in mind for around half an hour before deciding to return home.
I rushed to my room, pulled out the news report and read it again to see if I had missed anything the first time. I am not sure whether I was fearful, angry or upset, but I tore the report into shreds.
That day, I was sure I would never return to Nehru Park, at least not for the purpose of finding a man. I was also certain that “cruising” to find another man – a stranger – in a dark, public space, was not something that I had the courage for.
Excerpted with permission from ‘Straight’ to Normal: A Gay Man’s Story, Sharif D Rangnekar.