Gay Travellers To India Finally Have A Reason To Rejoice
Sanjay Malhotra’s Indjapink is India’s first travel service catering to gay men.
Sanjay Malhotra started Indjapink (the ‘J’ just sounds better, he says) around nine years ago. He was a fashion designer, running the studio Déjà Vu, but he’d been growing increasingly disillusioned with the fashion world well before he founded Indjapink; his passion for the craft had been waning. That, coupled with his enthusiasm for travel, meant Indjapink was almost inevitable. “At the time,” he tells me over sporadic sips of hot coffee, as we begin chatting in his office, “it was the first, the only company in the history of Indian tourism that was dedicated to bringing in gay travellers — gay and bisexual men from all over the world — and helping them travel in India. The inspiration for it, really, was myself.”
Malhotra identifies as a proud gay man, and he has a real penchant for travelling, heading out three to four times a year. “I realised there was a void in India; I thought it would make a lot of business sense as well.” In fact, Malhotra started Indjapink before the landmark High Court of Delhi ruling decriminalising Section 377 of the Constitution (before it was overturned in 2013). “I knew it was a challenge,” he says, “I knew it could be risky. But, there was nothing we were doing that was ethically or morally wrong, or against the law. We were providing a travel-related service to gay men, and we had a right to do it. It was a risk that needed to be taken.”
What Indjapink does is curate luxury travel plans for gay travellers, customised on the basis of their preferences and budgets. The company has hired their own specialised guides to assist travellers, and they have tie-ups with various hotels across the country to craft a comfortable experience for their clients. They fashion itineraries that would be most suitable to them, while giving them opportunities to meet, interact and socialise with other gay men here.
Given his own experiences as a gay traveller, Malhotra feels he’s well-equipped to provide the ideal experience for tourists visiting India. “How we’re different is because we totally understand what it is to travel as a gay man in India,” he explains. He feels that the rampant homophobia affecting large swathes of the country can be a deterrent for tourists, and safety, security and comfort become paramount. They’ve mostly been discreet, and haven’t promoted or marketed the brand too heavily, instead relying on the belief that a good product or service will gain recognition based on word-of-mouth. “We launched on a gut feeling I had. It doesn’t give me much; gay travellers are still very apprehensive and worried about coming to India. But, it’s about passion. You can’t only do it for the money.”
Everyone that Indjapink works with has been carefully vetted and sensitised to ensure that there is absolutely no discrimination that the guests have to face. They only work with people who are not just comfortable and aware, but also welcoming, and Indjapink is clear about keeping everything transparent about the profile of the company and their guests. Not surprisingly, they’ve had encounters with hotels that haven’t been quite as forthcoming, leading to pointed emails by Malhotra questioning why a place has to concern itself with the sexual preferences of its guests.
It’s manageable in a metro like Delhi, he says, but it gets a lot harder in parts of the country where awareness is upsettingly low, where people aren’t able to grasp the concept of not being attracted to the opposite sex, and unable to come out due to fear, ostracisation or persecution. He has plans to eventually open a kind of support shelter, where individuals who come out to their families and aren’t accepted can temporarily come to seek refuge.
Further, Malhotra runs Mister and Art House, a five-bedroom guesthouse catering exclusively to gay men, located in Delhi. The ‘Mister’ in the title refers to the guesthouse, while it also doubles up as an art gallery. It’s a “tastefully done, creatively stimulating space”, featuring works he’s collected from across the world, as well as homoerotic art, vintage artworks and specially commissioned works. He plans to expand Mister and Art House, setting up guesthouses in Goa and Jaipur.
Malhotra is 48 now, and he remembers coming out some 15 to 18 years ago. He’s glad that things have changed considerably since then, or even since the time he started Indjapink, but he asserts how there’s still a lot left to be desired. There’s the business angle that he pragmatically points to: there’s a multi-billion-dollar market waiting to be tapped once Section 377 is unequivocally abolished, and how it’s a goldmine. But more importantly, he stresses, “From a social perspective, it needs to go now, not even today.”