In the afternoon, Babaji held a two-hour Q&A session in a cavernous auditorium. The conference organiser sat beside Babaji on-stage and sorted through a Santa-sized pile of letters, selecting the questions she considered the best or most interesting. Those of us who couldn’t understand Hindi wore headsets that broadcast a live English translation. Some of the questions were general; others were bizarre: How do we reduce obesity in woman after HRT? How does one eat right, and when should one eat? Which yoga practices should and shouldn’t be done during the menstrual cycle? Can yoga address autism? What about yoga for muscular dystrophy? How can we use yoga to help enlarge our prostates? Can yoga help with multiple sclerosis?

Babaji nodded and answered each question in the affirmative: yoga could help with all these things. All of them. He insisted you would never need anti-wrinkle cream if you did yoga, citing his sisters as living evidence. Yoga could also cure osteoporosis and cancer. If you had glaucoma, eye drops and laser surgery weren’t necessary. Natural ayurvedic medicines could easily reverse the condition. In fact, he’d recently cured a woman of glaucoma with a simple natural remedy, combining white onion, ginger and lemon juice, which the woman administered directly to her eyes. My eyes involuntarily watered thinking about it.

Author Benjamin Law. Photo: Paul Harris

He laughed again. I imagined it was the kind of laugh that came after convincing someone to squeeze onion, ginger and lemon juice into their eyes.

Then came a question about sex.

‘When we do more yoga,’ the conference organizer read out in English to Babaji, ‘should we also feel like wanting more sex?’

Babaji smiled again, greatly amused for someone who’d apparently never had sex himself. It was the first time sex had been mentioned during the conference and he approached the answer boldly. ‘Through yoga, wives and husbands will have balance restored,’ he said. ‘They will be loyal to one another from the core of their hearts. When you do yoga, sexual disorders will be removed.’ He nodded, certain in his convictions. ‘Through yoga, your sexual desires will be balanced.’

The following day, when I got to meet Babaji one-on-one, I could see he was wrong about the wrinkles. Crows feet had gathered around his eyes, though his skin was still smooth like a polished apple. There was also a single crease on his forehead, as though someone had run a blunt fingernail through it.

Babaji had agreed to grant ‘private’ interviews, albeit ones in which we would be surrounded by his all-male entourage, one of whom was a man in a business suit who would translate Babaji’s Hindi for me. Babaji understood English well enough, but needed help communicating his responses. After we sat down together, surrounded by his team, I asked him about some of his health claims, like the one that yoga had the power to cure people of HIV. Babaji laughed—everything seemed to amuse him—and said he stood by those claims.

‘I never claimed to have personally cured HIV,’ he said. ‘But as far as HIV is concerned, there are three things that I’ve witnessed and claimed, and will say even now. One is the viral load. The CD4 counts responsible for your immune system, in some people with HIV, have decreased from 700 to 800 to as low as twenty-five.’

A scene from a pride march in Tokyo, Japan, 2012. Photo: Toru Yamanaka/AFP

‘But through pranayam breathing, the CD4 count becomes normal,’ Babaji said. ‘The decrease in viral load is significant. The infection normalises. Even now, there are patients who experience these benefits.’ He looked me in the eye, as if to challenge me. ‘It can still be achieved with any patient you wish to refer or to send.’

On one level, I was impressed: Babaji was familiar with the language of HIV and knew about CD4 levels and how viral loads worked. But the idea of AIDS patients doing breathing exercises to boost their immune system?

‘Then in 2009, with the repeal of Section 377—’ I started.

Babaji nodded, putting up his hands and interrupting, knowing what I was about to ask.

‘When I visit the US or the UK, people—the gay community, gay individuals—they look at me and think, “Oh, this could be a dangerous person."’

He laughed again, raising his eyebrows at his entourage as if to say, Am I right? They nodded their agreement and laughed back at him.

‘But I think positively of their conditions! It’s a habit. It’s a wrong habit, and also, it’s a mental disorder.’ He switched to English, as if to make his statement more official. ‘Homosexuality,’ he said, ‘is a bad mental habit.’

His interpreter looked at me sternly to make sure I’d understood. I nodded.

‘The perversion can extend up to a level,’ Babaji continued, ‘where people wish to have sex with animals.’

‘Right,’ I said, taking notes. ‘So it’s a sliding scale, then. A spectrum.’

Actor Celina Jaitley with LGBT activists in Mumbai, 2009. Photo: Mandar Deodhar/India Today Group/Getty Images

‘And what about female homosexuals?’ I asked.

Silence.

‘Lesbians,’ the translator said ominously in English.

Babaji shot me a little smile, as if he’d heard a dirty joke. ‘Oh, it’s also the same thing! If they were purely lesbian, you could argue that it was biological. But behaviourally, they are heterosexual also. Only the minority—1 per cent—of these people are purely not heterosexual, purely gay or lesbian. Most are not attracted to each other sexually, but to each other as individuals. And then it becomes …’

‘Something else?’ I offered.

‘Something else,’ he said. ‘These relationships can have a normal spectrum, but also a perverted spectrum. The practice of pranayam and meditation can give us a mastery over it, so we’ll be able to get out of the bad habit. People want to come out, but they don’t feel confident enough because they don’t have tools to come out.’

I looked at Babaji confused, before I realised he didn’t mean ‘coming out’ in the usual sense, but ‘coming out’ of a life bound by homosexuality. Looking at his beaming face, I felt conflicted: what he was saying made me squirm, but I also wanted to reach over and squeeze his adorable cheeks. For someone so insane and hateful, he was almost lovable in a cartoonish way. How horrible could he possibly be?

‘You say you can cure all this,’ I said.

A moment from a rally in Mumbai to celebrate the reading down of Article 377 of the Indian Penal Code, 2 July 2009. Photo: Indranil Mukherjee/AFP
A moment from a rally in Mumbai to celebrate the reading down of Article 377 of the Indian Penal Code, 2 July 2009. Photo: Indranil Mukherjee/AFP

So Babaji’s infamous de-gayification program was all about breathing correctly? Pranayam was the basis of breathing techniques taught in yoga classes all over the world. I thought of my yoga classes back in Australia. Often these classes were packed full of gay men who wouldn’t be straightened out even if you surgically inserted metal rods into their spines.

Do you see homosexuality as a Western import?’

Babaji shrugged. ‘This is not a Western or Eastern thing. Only a bad habit. It’s unproductive sex! It’s like throwing the seed into the fire.’

‘Like masturbation, then.’

Upon hearing that word, everyone nodded and murmured disapprovingly.

‘Have people come to you for advice?’ I asked. ‘I mean, say if I was to come to you and say, “Babaji, I am a homosexual, help me," what would you say to me? What step-by-step advice would you give?’

‘Of course I would help,’ he said. ‘We’d start with the pranayam practice, and that will lead the way forward –’

‘It’s as simple as that?’

Babaji gave me an exasperated look, like a teacher working with a dim child.

‘It’s those four breathing practices that you’re aware of now,’ he said.

‘The internal change comes from practice,’ a member of his entourage whispered urgently.

‘Uh-huh …’

Babaji snapped. ‘Next question!’ he said, shaking his head, decidedly offended. ‘Stop this! Stop!’

His entourage bit their lips and looked away awkwardly.

‘Stop this!’

So we stopped.

******

Gaysia—Adventures in the Queer East: By Benjamin Law, Random House India, 325 pages, Rs 350
Gaysia—Adventures in the Queer East: By Benjamin Law, Random House India, 325 pages, Rs 350

I’d already been in touch with the organisers of the upcoming Queer Azaadi Mumbai Pride Parade (QAM). This year, it was going to be big. In 2008…they’d had 500 marchers. The next year there’d been 2000. This year, QAM expected roughly 3500 people, and there would be a new week-long festival leading up to it. QAM was going to be the biggest queer event ever held in the world’s most populous democracy.

To organise an event like that, you had to field a vast volume of emails every day without losing your cool. Messages were constant and came at all hours: questions, responses, confirmat-ions, costings, budgets, schedules, agendas, minutes, congratulations, encouragement, thinly veiled passive-aggressive remarks, squabbles, reprimands about the number of thinly veiled passive-aggressive remarks being distributed.

On a Saturday night, exactly a week before the march, QAM called one of its final meetings at Mumbai’s Humsafar Trust headquarters…. It was modest, even cosy: a storage space, a pantry-sized bathroom, a tiny kitchenette, an office with two desks and a living room for gatherings. I tagged along to the meeting with Chandan, a smart guy in his late twenties who worked full-time and volunteered the rest of his waking hours to QAM. He was one of those gung-ho volunteers who made himself heard at meetings, winning people over by virtue of an easy confidence that came from being slightly too handsome for his own good.

The organisers were a diverse lot. There was a young male journalist from the Times of India, a beautiful and alarmingly thin transgender woman named Payal from a dance troupe, and a shaggy-haired twenty-something entrepreneur who’d just opened a gay men’s clothing shop nearby. Over thirty people crammed into the living room with its red-carpeted floor, sitting around in a circle as a leonine man named Sheru drove the meeting forward.

One of the major points agreed on was that everyone should feel welcome, including families and kids. One guy raised the issue of face-painting, and whether marchers should come to the parade already decorated.

‘It is handy if someone wants to hide their face,’ someone said cynically.

‘It can be beautiful as well,’ Chandan offered.

******

Manvendra Singh Gohil. Photo: Hemant Bhavsar/Wikimedia Commons
Manvendra Singh Gohil. Photo: Hemant Bhavsar/Wikimedia Commons

Just past midday, the crowd grew and stretched across the oval until there was barely room to move. Thousands of people had gathered around a stage on the far side of the oval. Middle-aged, middle-class women carried placards that said, ‘I’m Proud of My Gay Son,’ while hijras arrived in hordes, holding hands and wearing elaborate pots on their heads, decked out in saris of every imaginable colour. People led call-and-response chants in Hindi, carrying banners and flags, and I didn’t see one painted face in the crowd. These people didn’t care if they were recognised. On the oval, the hijras danced the Karakattam, a Tamil Nadu folk dance, shrieking and whooping as an American exchange student joined in and the drumming grew more frenetic. Newspaper photographers, sensing an opportunity to convey the international flavour of this event, pounced on the hijras and the American girl as they squealed and laughed.

A car pulled up behind the stage and the Bollywood actress Celina Jaitley got out wearing rainbow fairy wings. Everyone adored Celina, who had fiercely debated on TV for the repeal of Section 377 in the lead-up to the court ruling. I was standing there, awestruck, when I noticed an Indian prince standing to my left.

Prince Manvendra Singh Gohil was a little jetlagged, having just flown back from Chicago after his second appearance on Oprah to update her on the progress of gay rights in India. He might’ve been tired, but he still knew how to make a joke.

‘Hello, Your Highness,’ I said, quietly introducing myself.

‘Pleased to meet you, Benjamin,’ he said. ‘I am Prince Manvendra Singh Gohil of Rajpipla and I breed hermaphrodites.’

It was his standard introduction. Manvendra might have been provincial royalty, but he also had a degree in farming and bred earthworms professionally. The first self-proclaimed only openly gay royal in the world, Manvendra was in his mid forties, had a thin moustache and long manicured fingers. His laugh was adorably muppet-like.

Manvendra’s story was as famous in India as it was tragic. When he publicly came out as gay in 2006, people in his home state of Gujarat burned effigies of him in protest. To them, he was an abomination. Gujarat was ruled by the BJP, the Hindu fundamentalist party that in 1996 had burned down cinemas screening Fire, a film which matter-of-factly depicted lesbian love. Unsurprisingly, Manvendra’s father publicly disowned him in a statement to the local newspaper.

Still, Manvendra continued living at the palace. By that stage, he didn’t talk much to his parents outside formal settings and he was already running his HIV organisation, the Lakshya Trust, and involved in the case against Section 377. He wrote supporting documents for the Foundation’s original petition, stating that he was both royal and openly gay, and reciting the history of ingrained homosexuality in traditional Indian culture over centuries. Homosexuality had been rampant in the royal families forever, he told me, and was especially so these days. He’d said so in the court documents.

‘You really used the word “rampant"?’ I asked.

‘I can prove it!’ he said.

I laughed. ‘Do you know that, or are you just speculating?’

‘We know that for sure. Our gay network is very strong in India! We know who is gay and who is not. There are a lot of royals who are gays or lesbians, but they don’t talk about it. They’re all closeted, we know that for a fact.’

Excerpted with permission from Random House India. The book is out this month.

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