The impression we get in the media is that gay men cruising covertly for sex in the days before homosexuality was legalised was rather a sordid business. But for John Burbidge, an Aussie working for a development organisation in India, The Boatman shows that it was liberating and empowering. It helped him establish a previously denied identity, and built a foundation for a happy life with his eventual husband and parenthood in the US. (It’s a national shame that marriage isn’t recognised in Australia, but I won’t go there. Hopefully an election will take care of this absurd, cruel and insulting human rights anomaly in our domestic affairs).
But while The Boatman is a love story, it is also much more. The chapter entitled ‘Flying High’ was a fascinating insight into the world of corporate India, a world to which Burbidge was admitted as a fundraiser. Having read a few contemporary Indian novels which critique the social problems, corporate greed and inequity which have arisen in the wake of India’s rapid development, I found it fascinating to see inside the boardrooms, so to speak, and to learn the stories of some of India’s most successful entrepreneurs. It was especially interesting to hear about Mrs Birla, wife of the industrialist B. K. Birla:
As the morning wore on and we talked further, it was Mrs Birla who captured my attention more than her better-known husband. She modestly revealed that she played several classical Indian instruments and spoke a handful of foreign languages as well as a number of Indian ones. What she didn’t tell me was that in addition to her love of the visual arts, music, dancing and literature, she was a passionate promoter of education for young Indian women, which had led her to establish several private schools for girls. After more than an hour in her presence, I began to feel like a hippy. My efforts and those of our organisation paled into insignificance compared to what she had accomplished. Granted she was 60 and I was scarcely half her age; granted she had been born into wealth and trained to use it to good effect. Nevertheless I stood in awe of her. Living in a society in which women are so often relegated to secondary status, she had used her privilege, affluence and education to fight injustice and had something to show for her efforts. I began questioning what I had done with my life and came up short. (p.141)
Coming from a man whose living and working conditions and salary as a development worker in India would put many of us to shame, the humility of that last line might make some of us question what we have done with ours too.
The power and status of the circles in which Burbidge moved impacted, of course, on his developing sexual identity. Growing up in Western Australia, he had denied his sexuality for thirty years. But in the chaos of Indian cities, he felt an attraction he could not ignore, and despite the riskiness of cruising in a country where homosexuality is still illegal, he developed a network of friends and had a fine old time. But his night-time absences from the communal house where the development staff all lived were noticed, and given that his work meant that he had to be accepted in a society overtly hostile to homosexuality, at both a personal and public level he began to feel the pressure of having a secret life.
He came out to a co-worker named Sandy, and she became a great support. More than that, she was interested in reform of the organisation so that John’s situation was acknowledged. This had to be done overseas, and this put John in a quandary. He was in love with India, with his new life and identity, and with the satisfaction and importance of his work. While he understood the importance of activism in the cause of human rights for gay people, he felt he could not leave India at that time.
There’s a poignant reflection when Burbidge eventually comes out to his most influential colleague, Sir James (the international president of his NGO, knighted by the Brits for his diplomacy in matters Pakistani).
I was surprised at how easy it had been to share this part of my life with Sir James. It made me wonder what it would have been like to do the same with my father, had he been alive. Although I always considered my dad as a kind and thoughtful man, I doubt he had had the breadth of experience and exposure to the world that would have allowed him to accept my news with the same equanimity as Sir James. But I was certain my mother would have considerably more difficulty coming to terms with it. Breaking the news to her called for careful planning on my part. (p. 147)
And this is why we in Australia have to get this social issue sorted. It is just so sad, so unnecessary! that sexual orientation should come between parents and their children…
Anyway, on assignment in Kolhapur, John faces the dilemma again. The families in the Indian service clubs that he approaches for donations, all think of him as an eligible bachelor:
…how could I share with my Indian host families what was taking place in my life? I feared that news of my being gay would not only come to them as an incomprehensible mystery but also as a deep offence, in light of their unquestioned assumption that I, like a good son, would marry and produce offspring. As a consequence, I found myself telling lies and fabricating stories, skirting around the truth like an ice skater swerving in and out to avoid collisions. (p. 150)
This memoir is prefaced by the second verse of Bette Midler’s The Rose. I think it would be a breach of copyright to reproduce it here, but you can see it at this website. The verse is about the importance of letting go of fear in order to love, and it’s particularly apt for John’s story. Yes, he took some dangerous risks, but in doing so he found himself, and ultimately he found the happiness that all of us deserve.
Author: John Burbidge
Title: The Boatman
Publisher: Transit Lounge, 2015
Review copy courtesy of Transit Lounge