I had a chance to discover how all language varies across geographies, including the language of the body. A colleague of mine from the Paris office came to visit and stayed in Mumbai for three months. We became friends and I was delighted to meet her again a year later. In conversation about the country she said she had fallen in love with, she suddenly remarked,
There are a lot of gay men in India!
I was surprised. We debated briefly on whether this could be possible. I mean, since human beings are fundamentally the same world over, barring superficial differences of physical appearance, can something as deep-rooted as sexual orientation vary by region?
The debate petered off when it fell into the abyss of ‘Why does a person turn out to be homosexual? Heredity? Environment? A deviant childhood experience?’ Neither of us had enough information to make a call on that, and true to our analytical roles, we let it drop with a unanimous judgement of ‘Data insufficient’.
But I went back to her original assumption later and discovered that it boiled down to a laughably simple point. She said she kept noticing men all over the place with their arms slung around each other’s shoulders. At my confusion, she clarified,
In Europe, only gay men do that. Straight men never put their arms around each other that way.
It took me awhile to get over my surprise at that to tell her that it was common practice in India among men, straight or not and no one thought twice about it.
It was a telling point. Cultures vary and etiquettes differ. On one hand, the West is a lot opener about displays of affection between opposite sexes. So kissing, hugging and dancing are all regarded as normal and these would raise a few stares in most parts of this country. On the other hand, behaviour between people of the same sex is rigidly demarcated in a way that it doesn’t even occur to Indians to think about.
After the above conversation, I’ve been studying how we behave with people of the same sex. There is a fair degree of physical contact between men, with the arm around the shoulders being the most common one. A man riding pillion on a bike and scooter is at ease holding the rider by his waist or shoulders. Older brothers, fathers and authority figures express their role of ‘benevolent benefactor’ by the arm on the middle back of their protege. Friends will massage each other’s backs in a gesture that would seem quite erotic if they had been from opposite sexes.
Women with women are even freer. There is plenty of hugging and kissing in the more Westernized factions. And in the others, there is a lot of touching, of holding hands, of squeezing up next to, of putting heads on the other’s shoulder or lap. I’ve done it myself without thinking about it, for years on the end.
In fact, the one interesting thing that came to light recently was when I realized that two women would not mind sharing a bed but a lot of men would be uncomfortable doing so. I don’t understand the reasoning behind this since the same two men would be perfectly fine with sharing their personal effects and talking about deeply intimate things that women would shy away from.
Body language is as nuanced and subjective as any of the verbal ones; possibly more since it is the one language that speaks only the absolute truth. This may be why the loose-limbed gesture that popular media often patronizes comes across as juvenile to real gay people. It could be why we occasionally blunder on the gay/straight perception divide and why ‘gaydar’ isn’t down to a precise science. And it may also point to the fact that sexuality isn’t a binary-defined world (one or the other) but as fluid as our moods and passions.