By Aatish Basu
Illustrations by Akhila Krishnan
I realised I was bisexual when I was on a musical tour. I had a brief relationship with one of the men in the group. I was in my early 30s. I didn’t realise I was attracted to him or recognise the feeling was romantic or sexual till later. It began with an unexpected connection, a special intimacy even if unfamiliar, in a safe, comfortable situation. He is a man of compassion, intellect and taste. We were roommates as per the room-sharing plan across the cities we toured. I remember some mornings in our room when I would be catching up with work in my laptop while he would be meditating sitting on the bed. It was effortless – the cohabiting, and companionship. He had a grounding presence. I was more outgoing. Some nights I would return to the room late after a raucous evening with the cast and crew, and find him in his bed with a book. We would close the night with a conversation and turn in (on our respective beds). He was thoughtful, attentive and engaging. I felt special, I had forgotten the feeling in those years after my separation from my ex-wife. A friendship had grown between us. And perhaps by the third city, the beds had joined.
That’s when I discovered that I could have sex with men.
Recounting it now sounds like it was a logical progression. It wasn’t really. It was just easy enough to give in to it. There were somehow no big question marks about what I or anyone else was to make of this or about who I was or had become at its behest. The traveling company we were with, allowed us to be openly surprised, amused and excited about this new sensation we shared. That we were away from our maiden contexts helped. But also, the readiness with which everyone around us celebrated our adventure, I now feel grateful for. At the time it was just a habitual wonder laced with jokes, jibes and new rituals, all in unending mutual amusement.
I suppose if a sexual act had happened when I was younger, then I’d have known for sure that I was sexually attracted to men but it just never happened. I had deep friendships with men as with women and they remained in that zone. I never had any sexual curiosity to try something with a man. Or maybe there wasn’t an occasion for it.
The relationships that actualised early on were all with women. And when I was in a relationship, my mind stayed within that relationship. Through my 20s, I was with just one woman and we got married when I was 29. Within a year and a half, our marriage crashed but it had nothing to do with my sexuality. In fact, my first relationship with a man was probably 4 or 5 years after my wife and I separated. I’m now in my early 40s, live in one of India’s big cities and work in a creative industry. Now, I’m in a relationship with a man who I live with.
How I discovered my sexuality
I assumed I had crossed over after my first time with a man. I thought chalo ab gay ho gaye hain. And when I became openly ‘gay’, my old friends and associates were curious. So, that whole period was about ‘chalo, now Aatish is gay. Who’s the man he’s seeing?’ and so on and so forth.
After my second relationship with a man I met an Australian artist – a woman – and we became lovers. I realised, well, okay, I’m still drawn to women as well. I hadn’t thought of myself as bisexual. I don’t think the term was much in currency back then. I hadn’t met anyone who was bisexual.
Till that time, in my early 30s, my relationships were outcomes of who captured my imagination at any given point in time. There was no space left for anything else. It wasn’t a situation where my antennae were out and I was responding to signals or vibes from everybody. Psychologically, I was the kind of person who was thinking inside a situation once it had begun. So, when this attraction to men period began, it seemed to kind of fill up my life, which is why it was a surprise that I was attracted to the woman from Australia who then became my girlfriend.
How it affected my sense of masculinity
This whole notion of masculinity versus something that is not masculine enough is an awareness that I came into only after I discovered this other side to me. The whole issue of masculinity became a subject of some thought only after I became ‘gay’ so to speak.
And all this happened so late in my life that these issues didn’t necessarily inform my sense of self in a significant way. This is not to say that it wasn’t something that didn’t concern me or didn’t come up in conversation but it remained at a relatively superficial level. I remember, in the beginning, a friend of mine would insist that I wear more colour to communicate my interest in men. I’ve always liked whites and I wear black sometimes but I’m not really prone to a lot of colour in my wardrobe. But I must say that being with men has made sure that I keep up with my physical regimen. I noticed that gay men are much more body conscious and I became more self-conscious about how I looked.
There was more acceptance than prejudice
I eventually gave up trying to call myself gay or not gay or bisexual. If somebody was to ask, I’d just say I’m with a man or with a woman. In my experience, gay men are highly suspicious of bisexual people. It’s been easier for me to negotiate the straight world, socially. The kind of prejudice that I’ve faced has been from gay people and I found the greatest amount of acceptability and flexibility among my straight friends.
At one point, I began to date a boy and a common friend of ours warned him, “You know Aatish, he’ll go this way and that, so just beware.” While he may have had my then-partner’s best interests in mind, I was annoyed at the time about this odd response to the announcement of this new development in our lives.
I think I’ve only ever processed the coming out aspect through the cinema I’ve watched or the people I’ve met through my second boyfriend who’s an activist. That period for me was revealing of how central one’s sexuality can become to one’s sense of place in this world. This wasn’t the vocabulary that we even engaged with at the time. I came to appreciate that I got lucky with the way I discovered my own bisexuality.
When it happened, we were travelling, we weren’t even in India. We were in a little bubble with the entire toli of this musical, doing a few cities in different countries abroad. There was a lot of love and acceptance as well as jokes and curiosity among the group but there was never disregard. So, in a sense, similar to when children are given a lot of love, they come out as reinforced adults, the same way, I supposed if I had received some strangeness from people around me, I may have approached all of this differently. But thankfully I didn’t have to go through any arduous drama. I knew what it was to have a sexuality away from the dominant paradigm but it didn’t disturb me in any way.
Relationships with men and women are different on an operational level
If there’s a difference, it’s in the way that the relationships play out. I grew up in a world with rules about men and women and how they should behave in the world and lived through 20-30 years of osmosis. For most people, regardless of whether they self-identify as gay, straight or bisexual, I think those same rules play out in relationships. There were some operational differences, but connecting with a person for me, has been a function of where I am personally, professionally, spiritually.
It’s been easier to be more authentic with women, more vulnerable, which some have even found attractive. With men, I’ve felt like I have to be more of a ‘man’ to woo a man. While my openness has met with desire regardless of who I’m with, vulnerability has often meant weakness with a man. Men don’t like that in themselves or in others. We probably play out the gender patterns we grow up around, no matter who we go to bed with. In that, I’d say that my own sexuality has been more a mirror to me than a lens.
Some of the gay men I’ve been with have been acutely aware of their masculinity or what position they occupy within their perceived notion of masculinity. They’ve happened to be less fluid than one might expect.
With women, I think, I am compelled immediately into a position of nurturing, at times ignoring my own needs, making it difficult later on in the relationship. I think it would be accurate, in my own experience, to say that being with a woman, inspires in me a need to look after the person. This can be oppressive for the other person, and could be presumptuous on my part. But my desire to step forward in doing the best I can to make the other person feel well is the primary response I’ve felt when I’ve been with women.
With men, it can go many places, depending on who the person is, what the dynamic is, and who you become when you’re in a romantic situation. I’m less confident with men. It probably comes from a lack of sureness of who I should be when I’m with a man. It’s not a calibration that is very set in my head. If it works out or seems to be working out, I’m grateful. Chalo, things are working out, somehow the energies seem to be balanced and it’s falling into place. But when I’m with a woman, I feel like I know what I’m doing, what I want to do and it’s easier for the other person also to figure me out in that way. Easier for them to figure out whether they like it or not, and what needs to change.
Pleasure is common but sex with men is rarely fluid
Sex with men and with women is actually very different but it’s difficult to articulate the difference in sensation. Both are pleasurable. With men, it’s probably more informal. It’s more familiar terrain. The sense of occasion is underplayed. It’s seldom that the roles are fluid with men. But, while you’d assume that because there’s a familiarity with the physical type, it would be even playing ground with men, it’s not. The roles are often well-defined. When they’re not, it’s more fun though. With women, there is a default setting but within that, the playing field is wide and open-ended. The default-setting is usually that of a ‘flower and gardener’. I find I’m almost always the latter. In fact, I realised this for the first time when I had sex with a man. Suddenly I was the flower. I loved it.
I tend to change in response to who I’m with and what the energy of the moment is. When I’m less assertive, it’s put off some men. Women have been certainly more turned on by the idea of a flawed man in me, than men.
I haven’t found an alternative to monogamy
If you are bisexual, people assume you’re not monogamous. If you are monogamous, you have to make a point of it. People will approach you even if they’re not going to be brash about it. Hitting on somebody’s girlfriend or wife is not considered cool but hitting on someone’s boyfriend is still seen as different.
As a norm, monogamy seems forced to me. Having said that, I have experience of being with an individual for long periods of time. While in principle, I think it would be good for human beings to come up with a format that allows patterns other than monogamy in the world, I will admit that I haven’t arrived at that format and, hence, regardless of how often I may be drawn to different people at given points in time, I stick to monogamy.
You relate to other people primarily because of what you need. So, for me it has almost always been about whatever needs of mine have been fulfilled at different points of time. At the end of the day, for me, it’s always about the person and how they make me feel. And then there comes a rare moment when your imagination is taken over by the other person. It’s about them now and I’m happy to follow where it takes me.
Aatish Basu dabbles in the performing arts and works in a creative industry in one of India’s metropolitan cities.