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‘I make it clear to my travel service providers that I’m queer and I expect to be treated equally’ | Condé Nast Traveller India


Parmesh Shahani’s new book Queeristan shares his journey from being a closeted South Mumbai college student to living openly as a gay person in Boston, before he returned to make one of India’s oldest businesshouses LGBTQ-inclusive as Head of Godrej India Culture Lab. Queeristan was published just weeks before the second anniversary of the Supreme Court verdict decriminalising homosexuality on 6 September 2018, a landmark ruling for queer rights that Shahani explores in the chapter “Jugaad Resistance”. “Queeristan” is Shahani’s name for the “new, inclusive, intersectional India”, and while his book shares policies for LGBTQ inclusion in the workplace, the ardent traveller reveals his favourite queer-friendly businesses and top travel tips to CNT in the interview below.

What are your essential tips for LGBTQI+-friendly travel in India? 

There is such a thing as the pink rupee, so my first tip is to support queer-run, or queer-friendly travel businesses. Chains in India like The Lalit are completely out and proud, with queer-friendly policies and more than 100 queer employees. There are smaller initiatives like The Unhotel Co., a queer-friendly travel advisory service or Out and About, which does queer-friendly treks. 

I have had some of the most wonderful experiences in India simply because I made it clear in advance with my travel service providers that I’m queer and that I expect to be treated equally. The Alila Diwa Goa upgraded me and I had a tub full of romantic rose petals waiting for my partner and I when we checked in. The Oberoi Cecil in Shimla delivered a wonderful dessert by room service, with a special message.

There are cafés like Aamra Odbhut Café Kolkata, Café Guftugu in Mumbai and Chez Jerome – Q Café in Delhi that are very proudly queer-friendly. Support them!

The second tip is that queer community organisations exist not just in big cities. Imphal has Ya_All and Ahmedabad has QueerAbad, to name just two. If you can catch a queer event or learn about the queer scene while you’re visiting a new place, nothing like it, na? 

One thing you’ve never told anyone about your travels?

I haven’t told anyone how much I love erotic stores. There is a particular frisson that comes from visiting an erotic store in a city’s famous queer district like, say, Christopher Street in New York. It’s like a throwback to the 1980s and early 1990s, pre-internet, when furtive visits to stores and magazines wrapped in brown envelopes were often the entry points into a world of forbidden desire. So if I’m going to a new city, I always try and see if they have a famous space selling erotic merchandise and/or a historic queer store, and I go and check it out! 

The second secret is that I really love textiles. You’ll often find me textile-hunting across the country with friends in cities that I visit. In Hyderabad, artist Varunika Saraf will take me to Suraiya Apa’s atelier for the best kalamkaris while in Chennai, poet Sharanya Manivanan and I will whiz across to get the softest towels at Kalpa Druma after grabbing a quick bite at Amethyst. In Jaipur, I have managed to shop for textiles at Soma, Jaipur Modern and Teatro Dhora in the middle of a literature fest, with Shobhaa Dewe both sneaked out for an hour and made it a really worthwhile excursion! 

What precautions do you take when planning to visit a place that is not known to be open to non-heterosexuality?

Honestly, as far as possible, I try not to go to places that are not open to non-heterosexuality. I don’t want to waste my pink rupees! I’d much rather spend my money on places that are either already queer-friendly, or in the process of becoming queer-friendly. Needless to say, if you have to visit such a place, then you have to be very careful. Some years ago, for instance, I went to Tanzania for the TED Conference and also was lucky enough to do a safari. The experience was exhilarating but also anxiety-inducing, because you can’t be as out as you might be otherwise. You shouldn’t use apps like Grindr that may be monitored by authorities, and if you are travelling with your partner, you have to be very careful about displaying your affection towards each other in public, or even letting people know about your orientation. Needless to say, you should always stay at places that have good references, and use services like travel guides that are whetted in advance.  

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Parmesh Shahani - LGBTQI+-friendly travel in India, queer
Parmesh Shahani. Photo: Gurunath Dhamal
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Your favourite small and secret hotel in the whole world?

The Siam Hotel in Bangkok, designed by Bill Bensley, is a wonderful oasis away from the hustle and bustle of the city, with its own private boat to take you up and down the river, and private dining options. I also really like Kayal Island Retreata resort on an island on Vembanad Lake, near Kochifor its discreet sophistication. 

Favourite shop you discovered on your travels and what you’d buy there?

There are two. In 2014, the fabulous Melbourne retail legend Christine Barro welcomed me with open arms into her eponymous Aladdin’s cave of fashion in Flinders Lane. The shop has now relocated to Collins Street, more upscale though I really loved the older location. We spend an hour trying out the range of hats, jewellery, handbags, shoes and clothes that she has curated from her travels across the world, including labels like Lanvin, Stella McCartney, Céline, Adrian Lewis, and Christopher Graf. My favourite was an exquisite gold hand-cut lace mask by London milliner Philip Treacy. 

Then in 2015, I visited the uber cool Merchants On Long concept store in Cape Town, South Africa, where I bought myself some exquisite Okapi products. Okapi is Hanneli Rupert’s home-grown brand that produces ultra-luxurious artisanal handmade-in-Africa bags and accessories. Hanelli also stocks some of the continent’s cutting-edge brands like Ethiopia’s Lemlem and Cameroon’s SAWA at her beautifully laid-out store and while I did shop up quite a storm then, I wouldn’t mind going back for more. 

If you could have one feast in one restaurant in the world right now, where would that be?

A pastrami sandwich at Schwartz’s in Montreal. I’ve been craving pastrami, I don’t know why. For a complete over-the-top feast, I’d have to say, the kaiseki meal I had about 15 years ago, at the exquisite ryokan I was staying at in Kyoto, is something that my mind goes back to again and again. 

The book you read that inspired you to travel?

Butter Chicken in Ludhiana. Over the years, I’ve been privileged enough to travel all over the world. But there is nothing quite like travelling in India. Reading Pankaj Mishra’s debut book of travels in small-town India opened up new horizons for me, as a closeted, naïve college student from South Bombay. The book was kind of rough, smug and super opinionated, which is perhaps why I liked it so much as a college student who shared the same traits. Reading it made me realise how wonderful and strange and exciting my own country is, and awakened within me a wanderlust to explore my own India, as much as I wanted to explore the larger world. Even now, the pleasure I get in visiting Bhubaneswar, or Tanjore, or Baroda, or Indore, and just surrendering myself to the ebb and flow of life in our own country, can’t be matched by travelling anywhere else in the world. Some years later, when I read Bill Bryson’s The Lost Continent about his affectionate travels across small-town America, I realised that this combination of incredulousness, exasperation and warmth for one’s own country is actually a universal feeling. 

What song always reminds you of the holidays?

Actually so many, but what comes to mind now is Dil Se’s “Chaiya Chaiya”, for its spectacular choreography set atop a train hurtling through a lush verdant landscape. What I wouldn’t do for something like this in my life at this moment! 

Three items you always have in your travelling wash bag?

Kama Ayurveda rose lip balm. My mouthguard from my dentist, because I grind my teeth in my sleep. A Guru Nanak photo that my grandmom gave me before she passed on. 

Favourite way to meet new people when travelling?

My favourite way is to befriend a local celebrity and get invited over for dinner! So In Lucknow, if you can become friends with Saleem Kidwai. He makes the most wonderful shami kababs and if you’re lucky, he’ll host a small dinner party when you visit, at which you’ll meet all the fabulous people in that city, who can not only become your new friends but also give you valuable tips like where to get the best chikan from! Likewise, if you’re in Landour and you get to hang out with Stephen Alter, you’re pretty set; not only will he and Ameeta invite you over, but you’ll also get to visit places like the extraordinary Jabarkhet Nature Reserve with an all-access perspective that few others can have. 

A place you know that’s doing amazing things to make the world a better place?

I think at this time, I salute the entire travel industry in India, especially all our hotel chains who are doing so much, whether in giving accommodation to doctors on the COVID frontlines, or in helping local communities with food and other necessities. The Lalit group of hotels, for example, has distributed over 2 lakh kilos of food to around 2 lakh individuals across the country through NGOs, and many of these individuals are from vulnerable LGBTQ and specifically transgender populations.  

As you mention in Queeristan, Boston was where you first lived openly as a gay person. What’s your itinerary for a perfect 24 hours there?

Twenty-four hours is way too little, but here goesand wear comfortable shoes, because my Boston itinerary is done walking. I would start my morning in the beautiful Boston Public Garden, and then walk across Newbury Street to Trident, my favourite independent bookstore and café, for a breakfast omelette and juice. 

Then I would cross Harvard Bridge over the beautiful Charles River into Cambridge and explore the brilliant MIT campus, which was my home in Boston for three years. What I love most about MIT is that it is completely openyou can walk into so many buildings as a visitor and see the wonderful science being created to make the world a better place. You can also appreciate the architecture by stars like Frank Gehry, Eero Saarinen and our very own Charles Correa. Walk along Mass Ave to the MIT museumwhich always has a wonderful exhibit up. When I last visited in February this year, it was an exhibit on the history of the Polaroid cameraincidentally also invented at MIT. From MIT, I’d say, take the Red Line on the TBoston’s subwayand travel two stops to Harvard Square. 

Harvard Square is a pleasurable tourist trap, but the Harvard campus is full of treasures, like the Peabody Museum of Archeology and Ethnology. Stop at the hipster and student-filled Tatte for a mid-morning coffeeyou might bump into my friend Professor Kareem Khubchandani, who also performs as drag artist LaWhore Vagistan. Kareem teaches at Tufts, but is often found writing and grading assignments at Tatte. Have an early lunch at Mr Bartley’s Gourmet Burgers next door, and head on the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, my favourite in Boston, which is actually a person’s home preserved as one of the most eccentric and beautiful museums in the world. 

In the evening, head back to Cambridge for dinner at the extraordinary Craigie on Main, followed by some comedy at ImprovBoston and a late night of live music at The Middle East bar. There’s a lot more you can do in Boston, like catch a Red Sox game, or have cannolis at Mike’s Pastry in the city’s historic Italian district, the North End, or walk the historic Freedom Trail, or do a day trip to the gay haven, Provincetown, but you’ll need much more than a day for that! 





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