Editor's note: 'Surya' is included in Lord of the Senses, a collection of stories by Indian-Norwegian gay writer Vikram Kolmannskog. The book was published on 6th September 2019, on the one-year anniversary of the scrapping of section 377. Vikram has recently been touring India with the book.
Here's an excerpt from the book:
I can’t sleep. I am thinking about Surya.
I went to a party. Some of the guests were complaining about Modi. Others were discussing a recent but distant terrorist attack. Everyone was trying to look sexy and seem intellectual. In English. While drinking Chandon. A lot of Chandon.
At some point I left. It was still early: I blamed it on the jetlag. I found a taxi. The driver unlocked the front passenger-side door so I could climb into the seat next to him. I tried to open the door behind, so I could have some privacy. But the back door was locked, and he didn’t open it, so I got in next to him.
It is uncomfortable to be so close and not speak. I look out through the side window without really seeing what is there. I pick up the scent of tobacco and something sweet and floral inside the car. Maybe he smokes. I hear him singing softly to himself. Maybe he does that when he is by himself, or when he feels lonely – even with passengers here. I don’t know the song.
Then he pulls over.
‘Ek minit, sir,’ he says.
He gets out of the car and disappears down a dimly-lit, narrow side-street. It is not exactly a basti, I think, but it is certainly not somewhere the people from the party would live. He probably needs to take a piss. He is gone for a couple of minutes. Then he reappears.
‘Peshaab?’ I ask when he gets back in.
He opens his hand: a small lump of hashish, almost black in his palm. I look at him. He is young and handsome, and though his eyes are slightly bloodshot I am sure many men would want to have sex with him. I wonder if he does that. Maybe for the extra money. He asks me something. Do I smoke? Or perhaps whether I want to smoke? I tell him no. Stumbling along in my broken Hindi, I ask him about the hashish. The quality. The price. Small talk. He tells me that this is enough for ten joints. He smokes one every night before he goes to bed. It gives him energy, he tells me. His Hindi is excellent. I ask where he is from.
We are talking now; that is, it is mostly him talking. I pick up words here and there and try to understand from the context and his body language. Perhaps it is good my Hindi is so bad; it levels out the relationship. And no matter how clumsily I say the few things that I do, he doesn’t laugh at me. I still wish my Hindi were better, though. I want to understand more of what he is telling me.
He comes from a village, I gather as we drive along. His parents and younger siblings are still there. It’s difficult, he tells me, his voice cracking a little. He hasn’t been back to see them since he moved here three years ago. I ask him where in the city he stays. He sleeps in the back of the car, he tells me. I glance over at him. He is wearing a clean, white shirt; it is almost shining against his skin. For a moment I wonder if I am invading his privacy, but I keep asking questions. Where does he shower and clean himself and his clothing? And then: what’s his dream?
God, why did I do that? It is like some kitschy film thing. But why not? Everyone has dreams. To help his parents and younger siblings, he says. I wonder if he doesn’t also want something for himself. No, only helping them, he insists. Suddenly a Neruda line lands in my mind: ‘I want to do with you what spring does with the cherry trees.’ And then I realise I don’t even know his name.
‘Aapka naam kya hai?’
Surya. The sun. He asks for mine.
‘Very good,’ he says in English.
I feel more connected to him after the exchange of names. I want to share something more with him: Where I am from. What life is like there. Uttar Europe.’
I start talking about how the sun is slowly disappearing there now; how in winter there is hardly any sun, only white snow and dark skies. We live like that for many months, I tell him. It is difficult. But then comes spring and summer.
‘Hamesha surya. Twenty-four hours’ sun.’
‘Achcha,’ he says. He smiles. And when Surya smiles, his eyes light up. I am attracted to him. But I don’t think it is sexual. I don’t know. Somehow he feels more like a brother to me.
‘Yahaan left,’ I say.
Surya turns left and continues talking. But I have to interrupt again.
It is coming to an end. What would it have been like if I had smoked a joint with him?
‘Yeh mera hotel,’ I say.
I am a little embarrassed about the hotel – quite upscale – but he doesn’t seem to notice. I look at the meter: 375 rupees. I find a 500-rupees note in my pocket and give it to him.
‘Rest is for you.’
No, brother, too much, he tells me. He tries to give it back to me, his hands covering mine. Suddenly I have tears in my eyes. I don’t know why. In a way this is so degrading, me giving him this money, forcing it on him. In a way he is so beautiful for refusing to take it. Maybe it is also him calling me brother instead of sir that makes me so sentimental. Maybe it is the Chandon I drank at the party and the jetlag kicking in. Regardless of the reason, I have tears in my eyes now, and Surya takes the money. He asks if I have an Indian number. I don’t. And I don’t ask for his. He says that maybe we will meet again anyway. I take his hand briefly, and our eyes meet. Then I open the door and get out.