The first time was entirely Divya’s fault. And Goutam blamed her for it. He would never have been on that trip if not for Divya. And now, he was paying for it, running out of the bus like a school-kid, holding onto the railings in one hand, his stomach in the other, and on the roadside his body bent over, trying to puke out his guts, as if the wretched sight had infected him with a deadly monstrous cursed disease.
Yes, it was her fault. All Goutam had wanted was to marry Divya. He didn’t want the parents involved…at least not yet. All that nonsense about horoscope, and height and weight and skin colour. Besides, all that would only bore Divya, and she’d never go out with him that way, let alone marry him, Goutam knew that. And he had crushed over her too long, went to the office sometimes just to see her, and hated work on those long vacations she took trekking some mountain or the other. And when she was around, he cursed his office mates for being around all the bloody time just when he got the chance to meet her. Once, only once, did he get chance alone with her, and then, what had he done? He’d trembled shamefully, unable to bring out an interesting word from his stupid mouth.
Of course, he knew his mother would never approve. Firstly, Divya was not a Gowda, but more importantly, she was not the kind of girl that thought of temple, makeup, clothes, and cooking: the kind of girl his mother wanted for him. (Although cooking, Goutam wished Divya would learn, a girl should know how to cook, but so many girls learnt after marriage). No. Divya, wore sexy hot jeans, tight T-shirts, trekked mountains, wandered alone in caves, fought her way through leech-filled forests, swam in bikinis in lakes and beaches. And he wanted her, and her alone. She terrified him and fascinated him at the same time, and when Divya invited him for a trek, Goutam jumped at the chance. The bus would pick them up at Majestic on Friday evening, Divya said, and then the adventure would begin.
Of course, the first half an hour into the adventure in the bus had been enough for him. And he’d returned to the bus, his body quivering, as all the ten other folks in the tempo traveller enquired after him. “Are you OK?” said Kartikeya, the only man that Goutham had dared to befriend. Kartikeya was from Bellary, Goutam’s own hometown, and had come to Bangalore for work, just like Goutam. And Goutam had befriended the shy man instantly. Besides, he even knew Kartikeya’s elder brother, as they’d gone to the same school, and hence, he was glad that Kartikeya was on this trip at least. “Annayya, is it food poisoning? Do you want a tablet?” said Kartikeya, already rummaging in his daypack for a tablet. Goutham shook his head as his eyes watered, and walked to his own seat, avoiding those lecherous eyes at the back of the bus that had disturbed him so. When he sat beside Divya, her eyes found his, a mischievous smile filling her brown, pearly eyes and her jamun lips. “What?” He said, half-irritated, half-embarrassed at her glare. “You are such a softie,” she said, giving him a shove on his shoulder. “The hairpin bends have not even started, and sir is already puking.” He glared at her, unsmiling, he said, “What is wrong with those people? Why..are they acting….so strange…” He couldn’t bring himself to say it. But there was something wrong here. Sinful.
“The two of them, you mean? At the back?” She said, turning for a better look. Goutam could only imagine what obscenities she was seeing, and wished he hadn’t pointed it out. But she had to know what was happening here, for her own good. But she gave him her wide toothy grin, “Arrey, they are gay, that’s all. Such a silly boy, you are.” His eyes widened, and his stomach lurched as if with the bus. She had said it…so lightly. They are gay. Then why had this trekking group allowed them to join?
And now he had to be careful. Careful what he saw.
But he had other problems. Like Souvik, the trek leader. At the bus pickup point Majestic, Divya had greeted Souvik with a lingering hug, the kind that brushed her boobs against the man’s broad, muscular, chest. Souvik was the kind of man that made Goutam uneasy, with his easy charm, smooth words, confident handshake. His dark tanned skin made him look like a Chola Prince, and Goutam wondered if Divya imagined the guy on a horse with a set of arrows, a medieval superhero. It made Goutam look at his own flabby body, made him wish he had the discipline to go to the gym and lift some weights. At least Souvik was shorter than Goutam, and Goutam was fairer, that had to count. But the man was a Bengali, the intellectual type. Dangerous, they were. Too much talk. Very hard to compete with.
At the campsite, Souvik scaled a gigantic Banyan tree as if it was the most natural thing to do. Goutam wouldn’t have been surprised if the guy fished out a cigarette from his back pocket and stretched himself on the branch for a relaxed smoke. Divya, of course, shrieked with delight and scrambled after Souvik, up and up like a little monkey. At the top-most branch, she let Souvik give her a hand to boost her up and tumbled all over him. After a round of selfies, Divya shrieked to Goutam, “Come up here, silly! What are you sitting there for? You should see this wonderful view! The sun..ohmygod!”
Goutam began climbing the tree, wondering if it made any difference seeing the ‘ohmygod-sun’ from a treetop. And wondering if Divya was a little soft in her head. What decent girl climbed trees and shrieked and clapped like that? He heard Divya and Souvik whispering and giggling, talking about some tree-climbing movie they had suddenly remembered on the top of the tree. A spray of sunset gold trickled through the sharp green leaves, and umber-brown branches and twigs around him, and suddenly, amidst it all, his face was inches away from another, a child of about seven, face as round as smooth as the boy’s eyes, looking at Goutam with the most alarmed expression. Goutam felt his breath stop, as the tree-child and he stared at one another for a split second, until the child broke it off, and scrambled away, as if to escape Goutam’s evil stare, disappearing among the thick leaves.
“Guys!” shouted Goutam, as his body heaved with the effort. The child had unsettled him. How come Divya and Souvik hadn’t noticed the child?. The effort of the climb was embarrassing him as much as it was irritating him. Who was this Souvik, anyway? This guy with his well-cut trek pants, and sling bag, and long hair thinking that he should climb all the trees in the world just to impress girls. When Goutam finally reached the duo, Divya was busy braiding Souvik’s hair and had just tied it with the pink band from her own hair. It made Souvik look a bit girly, but even then the guy did not look silly. Divya turned as she heard Goutam, shrieking happily, flinging her thin white arms around his neck, giving him a sudden kiss on the cheeks. Stunned, he felt the heat rise into his cheeks, his ears, and his eyes suddenly froze onto Souvik’s, who smiled, his eyes amused, and gave Goutam a comforting pat on the back, one bro to the other. “Let’s take a selfie, guys.” The man’s voice drawled easily, and Goutam stared at himself in Souvik’s camera, forcing his shocked lips into a tight smile, even as his eyes looked stubbornly dumb. Divya in the center, her arms looped around him and Souvik, smiling. Goutam could feel the warmth of Divya’s body against his own, sending his entire body into convulsing shivers.
After the third pic, Divya’s eyes flitted away, shrieking, “Oooh…everyone is at the waterfall, let’s go!” She scrambled down, letting Goutam and Souvik follow her in their own time, Goutam behind Souvik, wishing he could just push the man down. As they climbed down, Goutam had almost forgotten the horror of the bus. But now, his eyes fell upon them again, their red grins, wide, and disgustingly leery. He dared himself to look at them this time, their hair was yellow, blue, and silver, their underpants painted with flowers and hearts, their hands linked with each other. In the water, they pushed and tumbled over each other, pulling and tugging at each other’s clothes, rubbing their groins against one another. It was unnatural, for sure. And he couldn’t understand how they were so shameless about their lust.
Later, at the campsite, one pair of those leery eyes turned, and locked onto Goutam’s, a strange inviting smile dangling at the lips, and Goutam felt his breath shorten in terror of that flagrant stare, the sour-bitter taste in his mouth again, and when the Kajal-lined eyes winked at him, he felt his body tremble in a deep shameful blush. He was terrified and looked around for Divya and Souvik. He wanted to rush into Divya’s arms, imagining her bosoms wrapping him in a strange maternal peace. But they had disappeared, rushed off behind some fishermen who wanted to catch fish in the night, leaving him behind. Well, they’d asked him, but he’d been too lazy and tired, and told them he was going to sit with Kartikeya and have a drink by the campfire. And now…
He knew Hijdas, the transgenders that loved torturing men like him in trains and on the streets, threatening to lift their saris and flash him if he didn’t pay up. But these weren’t Hijdas. They weren’t women either. To Goutam, they were Rakshasis, female giants, muscles bulging from their thighs and arms, their laughs nasal, high, their waists huge and curvy, their dance powerful and graceful and seductive. They could lift Goutam in their arms if they wanted to. The campfire crackled and gorged into the dry wood. The forests shrouded around enclosing them with the eerie song of crickets and bats. ‘Jalebi Bai’ boomed from the JBL speakers. The demons danced around, their waists grooving as if entwining Goutam in sticky-soft Jalebi, like a wasp trapped in the deathly grip of flower’s honey. Goutam tried to smile at them as if in appeasement, he was one and they were many, he looked at them as if this was all very funny, a joke, while they circled him, perhaps laying a trap, perhaps just satisfying their curiosity. He had begun to recognise them, even as his legs froze to the ground, the silver-haired one always smiled, eyebrows high and questioning, inviting in Goutam’s direction, giant-like and bouncy around him, loud laughter, slapping Goutam’s arms, his fingers lingering around his ass. While the yellow-haired one, proud as an angry, ignored queen, ready to burst into a thousand flames at only the slightest provocation. Goutam stared at them, one inviting, the other repelling, a strange exhilarating combination moving towards him like storm and flame.
Later at night, in one of the three dorm room, their bodies moved closer to him, twirling around him, their fingers searching inside his shirt, pinching his nipples, his buttocks. He felt their beards, their moustaches, the hair that grew from their chests and legs, the hardness that rubbed against him, and the truth seeped into him like a poison dart. And he felt the fall in his stomach, the truth staring into his eyes like a ghost in his bedroom, a spectre that defied his rationale, questioning his sanity, his safety, his mouth opening, a scream filling his lungs, like a thousand wasps crawling in the brain, a scream that refused to seep into his mouth, not a whimper of help escaping his lips.
They were men, men just like him.
When he ran out of the room, peeing almost into his pants, he didn’t want to rush into Divya’s room, even though his body begged for the comfort of her arms. She’d call him a softie. He’d lose all face. Besides, they had fought when she’d come back. Now, he sat in the darkness of the forest, shivering like he’d been raped, as the mosquitoes discovered and surrounded him, ready to suck him alive like those demons in his room. They could easily follow him outside, trailing behind him like hungry wolves, and where would he escape to? Into the forest? Into the bathroom? Then he heard a rustle beside him, and the breath caught hard in his throat as he saw the back of a man, head low, facing the trees. Who or what was this? He felt his body take short terrified breaths, his hands gripped the bench he sat on, a bead of sweat trickling down his face, unclear where to run. The door of the bedroom opened, and the silver-haired man stepped out, walking towards Goutam now, his smile as leery as before, his eyes darting at him, his fingers twirling in invitation. Come here, his mouth seemed to say. Goutam felt his throat bob, a whimper at his lips, his hands rushing to his chest, covering them. He looked again at the erect body that was turned away from him, which was now turning slowly, disturbed by the sound, and the face revealed in the moonlight, the beard cut deep and clear, as the face shimmered into view. Souvik!
Goutam felt his body flood with strange relief, as he scrambled towards the man. Almost throwing himself onto him, but stopping himself just in time. Only an hour back, he had been so angry at the man. “Divya, where were you??” Goutam had asked, unable to contain it any longer, when she’d returned from the fishing expedition with Souvik, that Goutam was sure meant dirty business. Going out in the dark with another man, alone. He would not be made into a fool, he had decided. And asked. “What were you doing with Souvik in the dark?” Divya had let out one of her strange laughs, a throaty one as if Goutam had cracked the funniest joke in the world, “Ninn Thalay!” She had said. Your head. Indicating that he was being so silly and stupid. Souvik was not like that. He didn’t like girls, she said.
Souvik was one of them. They all were. All ten of them were gay.
“Hey man…” said Souvik. The silver-haired guy had attached himself beside Goutam, rubbing himself against him. Disgusting. Souvik pushed the guy off and sat between them. Then he grabbed something out of his back pocket, a joint, and lit it, took a puff before offering it to Goutam. Goutam had never smoked a joint before, but he didn’t want to refuse, he accepted it from Souvik, his hand still trembling, put it into his mouth, taking a deep puff as if it were a cigarette, passing it back to Souvik. “I take it you’ve met Sunil?” said Souvik. The silver-haired guy grinned at Goutam, “Oh we’ve more than met…” said Sunil, grinning, his hand extending for the joint. But Souvik sighed, “Sunil go to bed…” he said, “I want to talk to Goutam.” Sunil glared at Souvik, like a child who’d been asked to share his toy, his voice high, “Well, give me a puff at least!” but Souvik refused, “Get your own joint, Sunil. Now get lost!” he said, his voice had a warning edge to it. And Sunil stood up with a huff, scampering away, throwing dirty glares back at them until he reached the door.
When they were finally alone, Goutam let go off his own arms curled around himself tightly, the heat flushing through his body, his right hand suddenly curling into a punch. His teeth gritted at the memory, the utter humiliation he had felt, they had treated him like a girl. Had Sunil picked a fight with him, Goutam could have punched him. But Sunil had treated him like a girl. Confused him. And he had felt like one. And now this Souvik…he felt his muscles quiver, the vein in his head pulse. His voice was trembling in anger, as he snarled at Souvik, “I don’t need your protection. You people are disgusting.”
Souvik stared at Goutam, his eyes dull, taking another long puff, offering Goutam the joint again. Goutam jerked his head in annoyance. He didn’t want the man’s joint or friendship. Souvik sighed and said, “I’m sorry that happened to you. Some people are just jerks. And I think you should sleep in our dorm.” But Goutam lashed back, “What is all this. Do you think I am your prison bitch?”
Souvik sighed, got up, and said, “Your call. See you then, man”. The man got up, and Goutam watched his back receding, feeling his toes freeze with a shameful terror. Then he ran making to catch up with the man, promising to himself that after tonight, he would never ever go with these disgusting people ever again.
Next day, he woke up beside Souvik, snoring away in bliss. Goutam stomped back into the room where all his bags and clothes were. Sunil was already awake, and when he saw Goutam, he smiled, “Good morning sweetheart! We missed you! Give me a good morning hug!” He said, his hands already around Goutam’s waist. Goutam gave the guy a shove, and said, “Get lost, dude.”
Sunil laughed as he snarled back, “Homophobe!” Goutam glared at Sunil, before picking his bag, packing his stuff, and returning to Souvik’s room.
Breakfast was served at the common area, a shed beside the homestay, and Goutam had his meal, refusing to make eye contact with anyone, Souvik, Divya, no-one. He drank his tea, and returned to the room, informing Souvik that he would not be joining for the day’s trek, but would be staying on in the room. “Ok man” drawled Souvik, “But we’ll be back only by evening. You Ok with that?” Goutam nodded and began walking back, just as he caught Souvik exchange a glance with Divya. Divya could go to hell, thought Goutam. And what did she care? She’d see a mountain and run behind it. Souvik would climb a tree, and she’d forget Goutam. Clearly, Goutam’s feelings didn’t matter to her.
Goutam came out of the dorm room he’d shared with Souvik only after he was sure that the homestay was empty, and all the trekkers had left. He saw Divya lying on the hammock, a pillow propped at her head, reading a book. “You didn’t go?” He said when he reached her. “And leave you here in peace? No way!” She said, laughing, and he gave her hammock a push. “It’s not a swing, idiot, its a hammock.” She said, grabbing his hand so suddenly, that he lost balance, and fell into the hammock with her. She giggled, as she watched him blush at the contact with her breasts. “So silly, you are.” She said and got him to lie beside her in the hammock. They lay there, as the little tree-child appeared before them. Goutam felt his breath catch again. “Can you see that child?” He asked, and Divya looked at him …, “Of course I see that child. What you think he’s a ghost or what? Such an idiot!” She said. “No yaar…I saw it in that tree yesterday. It’s not talking only…Is it girl or boy?”
Divya laughed, “I don’t know. Maybe it’s not decided yet…But it looks like a boy.”
The tree-child had an older girl beside him, and another tiny one, about two, with its round head, short hair, in pants and shirt, and eyes so cute Goutam couldn’t tell if it was a girl or boy either. The eldest girl was clearly the boss, throwing orders around. This way. Here. Take this. She distributed three flattened Coke bottles, and all climbed to the top of a little grassy mound, holding hands. Here they sat on the bottles, and slid down, screaming at the bumps and twirls that the steep elevation threw at their path, the girl throwing orders, and the tree-child mumbling some animal words in reply, and the youngest shrieking. They climbed up the mound again, repeating the process. Again and again. Even after the twentieth time, Goutam felt he could watch the kids play endlessly, lying beside Divya in this hammock, away from the world, the phone, WhatsApp, Facebook, Insta, just swinging in the gentle breeze, watching the mountains around them, the gurgling stream beside, the sounds of routine housework from the homestay, grinding, washing, singing. Divya had snuggled beside him, her arms around, and fallen into a deep sleep, and he flicked the hair from her eye as the flies that scuttled around them. For a few moments, it felt like he was living here with Divya, watching their own children slide down happily from those mounds.
At lunchtime, the children joined Divya and Goutam, and Goutam tried to befriend the tree-child, handing him chocolates from the city. But the child refused, and Goutam left the chocolates on the table and looked away. When his eyes returned the chocolates had vanished, and the child’s face splashed with chocolate brown. Goutam laughed, wondering why the child refused to speak. Had something terrible happened to the child? What would happen to the child when he grew up? Would he become as disgusting as Sunil? Or like Souvik?
When the others returned in the evening, Goutam talked to everyone over chai, even though Sunil and the other one was there, making all the racket possible to attract attention. Goutam watched as Kartikeya played the flute. So beautiful, it seemed to meld with the breeze and pull at Goutam’s heart, it was making him cry as he lay down. The tree-child appeared and began pushing at Goutam as if asking him to get up. The child held a few pebbles in his hands, and Goutham taught the boy to prop one over the other, making a little house of pebbles. He chatted with Kartikeya, for a while, before he worked up the courage to say, “Do your parents know…?” Kartikeya shook his head unhappily, his head hanging low as if imagining the embarrassment he was to them. A peal of laughter escaped from Sunil, and Goutam glared at Sunil, his eyes cold and flinty, an itch creeping into his hand. He was sure Sunil was responsible for making Kartikeya like this. Even Souvik was a nice man. Sunil had to be the reason. There was no way a boy like Kartikeya, a simple boy from Bellary, could think up such an idea on his own. Goutam thought of Kartikeya’s parents, just like his own, old and living in the dream of grandchildren. Who would tell them otherwise? Did Sunil care? Devils. Demons. That’s what the man and his kind were.
In the meantime, Divya and Souvik were busy arguing with someone, a professor of Physics or something, a serious-looking man with glasses and a scarf about his red neck. She was waving her hands excitedly, saying, “Come on. How can you deny the genetic angle or at least the biological one? It helps the community, doesn’t it?” The man responded, “There is no single gay gene anyway. I am not for this genetic argument. It just gives heterosexuals a chance to do the ‘us’ and ‘them’, and I don’t think that’s healthy. There is still an element of choice. Get used to that.”
It was boring him, their long words and arguments, and he zoned out looking at the others. “What do you want to be when you grow up, little boy?” Goutam asked. He decided the child was a boy. The boy stared at him, refusing to answer, refusing to meet his eyes, just propping the pebble on top of the pebble house, rocking the whole structure, collapsing it to the ground. The boy burst into tears. Goutam tried to soothe the boy, trying to hold the boy in his arms, but the little boy wiggled away and ran.
When the boy returned later, the group was heading up a nearby hill with the plan to watch the sunset. The boy’s little finger was in Goutam’s giant hand and they climbed the long climb to the top. When Sunil laughed his high laugh again, Goutam swore to himself he would push the man from the top of the mountain. Good riddance it would be. To the world. To little boys like this one. To Kartikeya, To Souvik. When Divya joined him, he said, “These boys are sweet, all except Sunil and that other one. The others just need to find good girls like you. It will solve their problem. I am sure of it. They can’t live like this forever, no? I am sure there is some cure. Science is very advanced. And marriage will solve it.” Divya smiled, “Idiot, you are. Didn’t Kartikeya tell you he is married? Marriage won’t solve anything. That poor girl. What if it was our daughter?” And she laughed as Goutam’s eyes popped out as large as the sun. She was such a tease, he thought.
The sun was setting now, splashing its golden streaks into the air as it prepared for its final sleep. From the top of this hill, it was strange to watch the clouds settle below them instead of above, cotton-candy white, all around them, spread across like a giant carpet or an endless sea of clouds, the oddness of it all striking him as much as the endless beauty. Kartikeya had begun playing his flute, Sunil was posing shirtless pretending to hold the sun inside his fingers, and Souvik was taking the man’s picture. The little boy ran towards Sunil, who then put on his shirt and picked the boy up, and shouting to Souvik to click another picture. Divya had slipped her hands into Goutam’s waist, and they stared into the distance, her chest heaving with his, breathing together, watching as the sun drowned, the last rays of pink and orange disappearing, giving in to the odd sea of clouds at their feet. “So will you trek with us again?” said Divya. He looked at her and said, “I will trek with you, of course. But them….why can’t you find some normal people, yaar?”
Her eyes were fiery, the crazy gold of the stubborn sun, “Normalaa? Do you want to marry a normal girl? Donkey, you are. Donkey. Normal is so boring!” She was punching his arms with a lot of force.
“OW OW.,” he said hurriedly, “OK, Ok, I will trek with your normal friends! Stop Stop..” And she stopped, and he grinned at her, “Thu…you are too strong. Is this how you treat your boyfriend?”
“Oh…now you’re my boyfriend?” She grinned and gave him a big kiss on his cheek.
He blushed, and gave her a smile, and said, “My mother will think I am the girlfriend. Don’t even know how to cook….”
She grinned, “Tonight only, at camp…you teach me to cook…” she said giving him a hug, that warmed him like burning coal in the shivering sunset.