Ashok Row Kavi is arguably the most flamboyant gay man in the country. Controversial about almost everything and always itching for a good argument. But he’s also a counselor and advisor who works 18 hours a day for the gay community, and its main link to the government. Nonita Kalra meets the real Maha Maharani, India’s best-known and most controversial gay activist.

 The setting could not have been more perfect. After hearing several contradictory things about Ashok Row Kavi—from Bitch Goddess to Best Friend—it seemed both paradoxical and fitting to meet the country’s most public gay man in Kamathipura. He is sitting in a municipal school, located in the 7th Lane of Bombay’s red light area, in the office of Prerana, an organisation that fights for the rights of commercial sex workers (CSW is the politically correct term used for female prostitutes these days). Chatting in a mix of English, Hindi and Marathi, he stops for a brief moment to introduce me and then continues with his conversation. After a few minutes we all get up and stream out behind Ashok. We are heading to another school in the area for a talk Ashok is giving on the importance of focussing on male sexuality in the control of AIDS.

He keeps up a steady stream of conversation as we wend our way through the busy streets. Commerce dominates the area but instead of the flesh trade you expect, popping out from every street corner—it is broad daylight after all—there are glasscutters, iron welders and mechanics plying their trade. We narrowly miss a bunch of children careening down the crowded street on a handcart, piled high with dabbas—probably stolen from a napping dabbawallah. Ashok neatly sidesteps the hurtling missile, without missing a beat. He hasn’t even noticed them. He walks briskly, talks fast and is busy acquainting himself with the social workers who are accompanying him. I begin to suspect he has forgotten about me when all of a sudden he falls back and points to a municipal garden, “That is Gandu Park,” he says. The ayah with us hears him but does not bat an eyelash. She seems to know Ashok well.

Just like women the world over owe a debt to feminists for setting the stage for the freedoms they enjoy  today, Ashok is among the few people responsible for giving gay India an identity.

We walk into an old abandoned brownstone school. And the first thing Ashok says is, “I need to convince them to give me the space.” Ashok runs the Humsafar Trust, a drop-in centre for gay men on premises given by the Mumbai Municipal Health Department—“the only homosexual centre in Asia to get a place from a local governing body”—and he is always in need of more space. An old building like the one we enter puts Ashok’s mind into overdrive. We walk up a flight of stairs into a narrow corridor, filled with the voices of women singing: “Hum log hain aise deewane/Duniya ko badalkar mane gay.” They are sitting on a bare floor covered with plastic chattais, set against the four corners of an empty classroom. Ashok walks in and immediately becomes the source of energy. A blackboard is found for him and after establishing a sort of easygoing banter, he has the group sitting up and listening. Today he is talking about why he is not in favour of the onus of AIDS prevention through contraception being placed on women.

Citing NACO statistics, Ashok points out that 80 out of every 100 AIDS patients are male, which contradicts the government’s belief that CSWs are mainly responsible for spreading the disease. Given that 75 per cent of AIDS patients in India contract the virus through sexual contact, he points out that the wrong sex has been targeted in an attempt to control the “epidemic”. That’s a word that Ashok is not shy to use, even though he thinks the government is: “According to the Bombay Plague Act, ‘if prevalence in the general population goes above seven percent it is declared an epidemic’. A study at the Sion Hospital’s Biochemistry Lab alone has 12.6 per cent AIDS cases—determined through a decade, from 1988 to 1998. The samples were over 80,000 in that period and hence representative of the poorer, lower middle class section in the city—but no one is using the word.”

A southpaw, Ashok uses chalk liberally. And every word he says, every graph he draws is duly copied. He is introducing the concept of homosexuality to a group that may or may not have heard of the word, let alone the concept. But that does not inhibit his presentation. “In 1869, the word ‘homosexual’ was used for the first time by a clinical psychologist in Austria… the word ‘homo’ comes from Greek meaning ‘same’.”

Ashok Row Kavi: The Real Maha Maharani, MW archives

The gathering sits up when Ashok quotes the Alfred Kinsey study, conducted in 1940. Based on statistical research, after speaking to 12,000 men, Kinsey came up with six categories: the first being men who only sleep with women (about 10 per cent) and the last being men who sleep only with men (five per cent). The remaining four categories that fell in between were people with ambiguous sexuality, who could go one way or the other. By now, Ashok has really warmed up. Quoting numbers and facts, he talks about a similar study, conducted in Kerala, where category six actually threw up an 11 per cent figure. Looking to shock, Ashok indicates that even if he scaled that down to five per cent, there would still be 1.3 crore gay men in India (based on the figures made available by the 1991 census).

Regardless of his obviously conservative audience Ashok is not willing to pull his punches. It is well known among people who know him that he thinks most men are gay and he has an arsenal of information to back that. For the next two and a half hours, he talks about the various kinds of sub-divisions that exist in the gay world—kothis (men who are passive in their sexual encounters with men), panthis (more aggressive men, who might also sleep with women but prefer men), hijras (eunuchs) plus several overlapping sub sects.

He also talks about MSM (Men who have Sex with Men), but adds that he hates the term and hates the fact that the government seems to prefer it. “MSM goes nowhere with our identity. It looks at it as a hidden act, like men cannot be asked to be responsible for their own sexuality.” And out of the blue, Ashok feels compelled to take charge of his own orientation. “Even if a woman appeared naked in front of me, I could not have sexual relations with her,” he says, firmly.

That’s Ashok Row Kavi for you.

I’m a blind man in great darkness trying to find a way out. Therefore I have made mistakes. Only people who work make mistakes and all my mistakes are hands on.

You may not agree with Ashok. That’s easy. You might think he is provocative for the sake of being provocative. Even he would not argue that. What is not so easy is to win an argument with him. Not only is he highly intelligent, he is extremely catholic in his learning (the son of a respected Mumbai film-maker, he walked off with honours in chemistry during his textile engineering course. Later, during his training as a monk, he got a diploma in religion and comparative theology from the Ramakrishna Math. After that he was a highly respected journalist for nearly two decades with publications like The Indian Express, The Daily and The Week). He has also learnt to use information any which way, as long as he wins the day. Which is why Ashok has had every name in the book thrown at him. And yet, when I asked him why so many people don’t like him, he was not pleased: “Perhaps you should ask them.”

 We move on to other, more general things. “I’m a blind man in great darkness trying to find a way out. Therefore I have made mistakes. Only people who work make mistakes and all my mistakes are hands-on,” he says suddenly, my question still turning in his head. It has got under his skin and every once in a while, Ashok returns to it.

He talks about the now famous Nikki Bedi television show episode which created a national furore when he called Mahatma Gandhi a “bastard bania”—referring to it as his “greatest mistake”; not for what he said but for the fact that he did not ensure he had more editorial control over what finally appeared. “I had called Gandhi a ‘bastard bania’ in print in 1971 when I appeared for my Times of India Trainee Programme, where I was selected. However, the remark created a furore and, of course, I was out. Nikki had done her research and asked me what I had said that had upset all of them so much and I repeated the statement after repeated questioning. You cannot punish people for the second time for the same silly crime (defaming the father of the nation) but they cut out the 1971 mention and kept it going as if it was said on the screen.”

He also airs his now well-known right wing view of society. Ashok is a conservative gay activist and he sees no contradiction in that. He thinks that with 80 per cent of India Hindu, it is okay to fight as Hindus. “I am not a secularist anymore. It is already a Hindurashtra, there is no argument about that.” In the same breath, he calls himself a “midnight’s child”—Ashok shares his year and month of birth, June 1947, with Salman Rushdie and stands up for the Satanic Verses author, kind of—“the prophet does not need humans to defend Him.”

However, man needs every weapon he can lay his hands on when it comes to self-defence. “I was a premature baby, always ill,” Ashok claims, “Words were my only defence. I have a wacky sense of humour. I am a bitch. But malicious? No. If I hate someone I pretend they are dead.” So he doesn’t hate Nikki Bedi, in fact he quite likes her. But he is not so forgiving of Saif Ali Khan and his “cowardly” attack on his home and mother. Apparently in reaction to Ashok in the same Nikki Bedi show saying that Sharmila Tagore “had more lice in her hair than there are Bengalis in Calcutta.” According to Ashok the plot is far more sinister though. “The Saif incident had a longer history. He had phoned me saying he had read my review of his film Main Khiladi Tu Anadi and didn’t like the homosexual sub-text I had brought up. I told him off. This was two months before the Nikki Bedi show. Saif used the Nikki Bedi show to take out the past ‘wrong’ done to him. In fact he kept on saying it when he entered my house.”

He then takes off. On the people he hates—pet peeves that have been well documented. But that’s Ashok. Every so often he feels the need to sink his teeth into a controversy, perhaps just to sharpen his fangs. “There is a lot of ugliness in people and I don’t mind showing it to them.” Through  lunch and a cab ride to Churchgate station—with an admiring taxi driver stealing glances at Ashok through his rear view mirror—he is looking for a defense that satisfies him. “I mouth what the community wants, so I take my kicks. I am not asking to be in the firing line.” The firing line includes salvos accusing Ashok hating other gay rights organisations, of introducing the issue of sex into every gay interaction, of dismissing foreign funded NGOs and social organisations as CIA agents or worse, pimps for paedophiles, of hating all lesbians… the bombardment is relentless.

Ever so often he feels the need to sink his teeth into a controversy, perhaps just to sharpen his fangs. “There is a lot of ugliness  in people and I don’t mind showing it to them”.

But what cannot be denied is Ashok’s work through Humsafar in the area of AIDS and more importantly his work among gay men, particularly those in the working class and middle class. “Just like women the world over owe a debt to Feminists for setting the stage for the freedoms they enjoy today, Ashok is among the few people responsible for giving Gay India an identity,” said an associate of Ashok’s who baulked at the idea of being called a friend. Ashok is important and so what if he is not winning at the popularity stakes? The editor of Bombay Dost—a quarterly with the distinction of being the only gay magazine published in India—is respected where it counts: a readership of 10,000.

The next time we meet, it is late on a Thursday evening at the Humsafar Trust office. On the second floor of the Vakola Municipal building, on the wrong side of Santa Cruz—the eastern part of an otherwise affluent Mumbai suburb—is a centre that looks to promote “an interaction between the community and public health services.” But first you have to make your way through Support, a centre for street children. The din of young boys of all ages eating, playing, shouting, fills the room. But the minute I open a smallish, almost hidden door, I find myself surrounded by silence. Even though there is a gaggle of boys and men sitting in the ‘lounge’ there is a seriousness in the air and given Ashok’s predictions—“I estimate over 60 per cent HIV prevalence in the 5,20,000 MSM in Bombay, and the World Health Organisation’s calculates that India will be at the centre of the HIV/AIDS pandemic with 20 to 25 million infected people”—it seems merited. Not to say that the place is sombre. Attempts have been made to overcome from the ugly government-issued grey concrete floors and cheap not-so-cheerful whitewash that is slapped on the walls. Posters—some really sexy—endorsing the use of condoms and safe sex are hung all over. Pink curtains have been put up in front of the testing centre—every Tuesday and Wednesday, doctors from Sion Hospital, one of the biggest in Mumbai, sit at Humsafar—and a huge bowl filled with condoms lie outside the door.

Ashok Row Kavi: The Real Maha Maharani, MW archives

There are a few more rooms, and a library stacked with gay literature. The work Humsafar does is impressive and ingenuous. In a country where gay sex is not even regarded as sex but “masti” or mischief, educating people about safe sex is even harder. And yet, Ashok’s outreach programme is working—11 volunteers, who are paid Rs 90 for an eight-hour day—cover the city along the railway lines—railway station bathrooms are used by many gays in Mumbai for casual sex—where they strike up a rapport with other gay men and hand out information and free condoms. The end result is to get them to visit the centre and get tested. So far, a little over 3,500 individual gay men and MSM have been contacted since April 1999. Of these over 300 have been individually coded and all their details taken down—like social demographics (age, origin, self-identity, condom knowledge, condom usage, STD history, etc). “Our clinic has already tested over 240 clients since July 1999 and has the largest sample of gay men and MSM from this data,” he says.

It is hard work. Ashok spends every evening debriefing his volunteers. Snacking on bhel, he resembles a much-beloved schoolteacher. The ‘girls’—they all refer to each other as “shes”—kid around with him but are careful not to push too hard. He pulls up those who he thinks are fooling around and praises others. But he trusts none of them blindly. He claims to ‘spy’ on them as a matter of routine. He starts his day at 6.00 am and often ends it 18 hours later—he has the energy of someone much younger than his 52 years, even though he may not like admitting or feeling it.

In an interview to Perry Brass, author of How to Survive Your Own Gay Life, he talks about being “old and diabetic, losing my teeth nerves, feeling bloody insecure about my old age, and becoming an angry decrepit old queen. But I am the real Maha Maharani and I intend to be that way! And I will never give up without a good fight.”

Ashok suddenly turns around and tells me, “I can be malicious, you know. I study people to survive. Then I plan every move. It becomes a personal vendetta.”

In the same Brass interview, Ashok talks about being more than a gay activist. “I am India, spanning 50 years of her 5,000-year-old civilisation. A sliver of it but a good representative one, no doubt.” I disagree. So far I haven’t met anyone quite like Ashok Row Kavi. I’m not sure whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing.

This story was first published in June 2000