If you are a male and you grew up in a boarding school in 1960s’ India like I did, chances are you had at least one close brush with homosexuality.
The prestigious La Martiniere for Boys, my alma mater, in the northern Indian city of Lucknow was not a high school. It was a gauntlet that needed to be run every day and especially in the dorms every night. If you were physically scrawny like I was or effeminate, you were the runner. You could run and keep out of harm’s way by day, but come lights-out, you either fended off overtures with your fists or succumbed and just lay on your stomach, your knees drawn up and spread wide apart and endured the assault.
There was no one to turn to – no student counselors, no one among the staff members – whom you could make your complaint to. This was the 1960s, when no parent ever thought of sueing the school for damages, for the systematic rape of their children entrusted to their care. The house prefects and monitors, hulky 12th grade students who were appointed to maintain order inside the dorms, they were themselves the most depraved – hyenas designated by law to guard the henhouse.
Every night at assembly when we all stood at attention next to our beds, these goons strode by for ‘inspection’ and the runners among us waited in horror for the crooked finger to single us out. I specifically remember this little Anglo-Indian kid called Roland – seeing him shuffling into one particularly thuggish prefect’s room every night after assembly – head bowed, eyes averted – had become a familiar sight. Sometimes I wonder if Roland survived school.
The first half-hour after lights-out was always still and deathly quiet. Most of us would by then be fast asleep after a very taxing school day. After that, the silence in the massive cavernous dorm would be intermittently broken by the sound of scurrying feet and thuds of sudden capture. Then, if you buried your face in your pillow and listened, you’d make out the rustle of bedsheets and muffled yelps and moans.
And I wouldlay awake late into the night, trying to find answers on why I had to be here in the first place, why our neighbor’s kid, Samar, could attend day-school and I couldn’t.
I definitely fell into the category of runners but I was fortunate not to have been made to run for long. That’s because I had a guardian angel, Danny Quadros, a large Indian-African boy from Tanzania that no one in his right mind, not even the prefects, wanted to mess with. And thank God he was straight. Danny and I hit it off right from the start and while everyone else was screwing or being screwed, we played board games, went for treks and talked, him about his little sisters in Dar-e-Salam and me about my family back home.
Danny didn’t come into my life by chance. I believe he was sent. Here’s how Danny and I first met….
It was my first month away from home – the January of 1968, a particularly cold 1968 winter. Those days the ISC term started in January. A large, flat-nosed boy two years senior called Walter started taking more than usual notice of me. Walter was a foundationer in our boxing team. I’ll explain what a foundationer was later on, but for now let’s find out about Walter.
He lacked hygeine, but Walter seemed nice in the beginning. He would start up a conversation and be generally very friendly and I was thrilled to find a friend so fast.
Walter had this habit of creeping up on me when he found me alone but I didn’t mind that and I would laugh, thinking that maybe he liked playing an adolescent version of hide and seek or something. Then one day Walter got me a bun kabab from the school tuck shop for Rs 1/-. Bun kababs were coveted stuff. We got only Rs 4/- a week as pocket money from the school (the pocket money was billed to my Dad of course). Rs 1/- was huge and I hesitated accepting the treat but I was famished. At 13, you were always famished.
“Thank you”, I mumbled. That must have been a green signal to Walter because things gained acceleration thereafter. When we fell in for supper one evening (this was a military style school and you fell in for everything, even to go to the showers), Walter fell in right behind me and as we waited for the prefects to give us the march command, he moved up and started rubbing his crotch against my ass. His stale breath on the back of my neck almost made me puke. By now any illusions I still had that he was just being friendly, had evaporated.
In the showers the next afternoon, I tried to ensure I wasn’t alone and I quickly soaped and rinsed myself, my eyes furtive and alert. I was reaching out for my towel when I heard the shower curtain being drawn close and felt hands on my butt. I didn’t have to turn to check who it was. That stale breath gave him away. He had found a nice juicy pair of adolescent Bengali butt cheeks and he kneaded and squeezed them for a while. As I stood there paralyzed, he roughly spread my legs apart and began positioning himself behind, repeating over and over,” Don’t worry, it’s going to be okay, keep quiet, won’t take long.”
All of a sudden there was this thump and crunch of knuckles hitting jaw. I watched Walter become airborne and go crashing a couple of yards away on the slippery shower floor. As he lay there – stunned, squirming and blinking, trying to focus – this huge, dark, glowering guy came forward and stood over him.
“What did you do that for, man?” Walter had an expression of disbelief on him. He however made no move to retaliate, just lay there spread-eagled on the wet floor.
“You touch him again and I’ll smash your face in right and proper, f—in’ prick,” said the tall boy. Then, turning to leave, he paused and said to me in a flat emotionless tone loud enough for Walter to hear,” He bothers you again, anyone bothers you again, you’ll let me know.” He nodded toward me and stocked out.
I saw Walter pick himself up and scamper out, his tail between his legs. I looked around and saw that the shower stalls were empty. The shower heads just stood there, like mute witnesses – to an assault that didn’t happen by the skin of the teeth. I clutched the towel rack for support as racking sobs shook me. Of course Walter (or anybody else) never came near me again.
Oh yes, Danny Quadros had been sent, no question about it.
Our principal, a retired Lt Colonel, pronounced zero tolerance for the buggery inside our dorms. But that was only outwardly. In actual fact, he seemed ambivalent about it. He treated the school like an army out-post and believed that surviving the constant threats to the modesty was a rite of passage, a process of toughening up into a man. Unless a complaint was lodged by a parent, he took no action. Besides, those days the dorms were no place for kids who complained against fellow students.
Even the principal frowned on snitches. If you had a problem with another guy, you had to fix it by yourself, period. Back then, a lot of people got away with a lot of things. If it had been today, that principal today would be out on his sorry ass, no question about it.
What went on inside my school was probably more like adolescent lust and experimentation stitched into a harsh fabric of bullying and not real homosexuality. Everyone was buggering everyone else. Maybe many of them grew up to be heteros in adulthood, who knows.
Homosexuality laced into bullying wasn’t just specific to my school. It was prevalent in other Indian residential schools too. However at La Martiniere, conditions were particularly harsh and her’s where I’ll explain what ‘foundationer’ meant.
As part of it’s declared mandate, the school had to have 50% of its students who were orphans and couldn’t pay. They were called ‘foundationers’. It was therefore a semi-orphanage.
The foundationers were poor orphans, made up of Hindus converted to Christianity and Christian Anglo-Indians. Most of the foundationers had never seen the inside of a home or ever known what it was like to live in a family. They were in the school from a very early age, living under that harsh Darwinesque environment. One of our dorms was a nursery where we had children as young as 3. Some of the ogre-like prefects had been there from that age and had fought their way up.
My next brush with homosexuality – a harmless one this time – happened in Canada. I was in the 202 to Cote des Neiges and the bus that day was nearly empty. The gay couple next to me could each have had his own seat but the girlish one insisted on sitting on his wiry muscular partner’s lap.
There they were, right next to me, kissing slurpy noisy kisses, oblivious to others inside the bus. These two really were a pair of real suck-my-face goobers. Mr Muscles said after a while,”Do you have any idea what I’m goin’ ta do ta you when we get home?” and the laptop giggled. Then they looked at me, felt my discomfiture and went at it with even more gusto, glancing in my direction from time to time, just to see my reaction. By the time the bus pulled over at Cote des Neiges, I doubt if Miss Slim even had a tongue left inside his mouth.
I hurriedly got off at the next stop.