The Paramparas, Pratishthas and Anushasans of Techno-Sexualities: The Kothis and their Phones
In her account of the dynamic lives and identities of ‘Kothis’ in late-2000s Mumbai, Maya Indira Ganesh makes a powerful case against the thinking of ICTs as mere vehicles of ‘development’, and the ideas of Bottom of the Pyramid Populations as passive recipients of that ‘development’. Mobiles are not just for “poor farmers who use the internet in mandis wholesale markets) to compare crop prices, and nurses who use SMS (Short Messaging Service) to remind people to take their anti-retrovirals” (Ganesh, 2010, p-10). They also offer a medium for people to undertake a whole new spectrum of activities, from individualised sexual entertainment to new collective and individual sexual identities, personalities and relationships. They are enticing new avenues for entering all kinds of identities and worlds, including the sexual, and users are enthused by the myriad possibilities they offer,from fulfilling relationships that might not be possible in the non-digital world, to a larger techno-individualism if not independence. However, these are embedded, if not entrenched, as both Green and Krijnen point out, in the larger web of what Ganesh refers to as ‘moral economies’ — the sexual, social, cultural and spatial structures that regulate interactions in everyday life.
Fig 1. Amitabh Bacchaan’s iconic dialogue from “Mohabbatein” as the all powerful, hyper masculine principal of a ‘gurukul’
Who are the Kothis?
To begin with, kothis are men who have sex with men, usually understood as being the ‘recepients’ of anal sex, and hence at higher risk of HIV/AIDS. And their sexual partners, their patrons or clients, are called Panthis or Pareekhs, colloquially the ‘givers’ (Ganesh, 2010, p-20). There are exceptions aplenty — kothis can be ‘givers’ too, and the identity of being the feminine in a relationship extends into the material as well with expectations of being ‘maintained’, i.e, desires of being afforded the status of wives or girlfriends. Many often have wives, children and families of their own, in the ‘normal’ heterosexual world of jobs and joint families. The second question, of their place in the world, is perhaps answered best by one of Ganesh’s respondents:
“There are three levels in this — gay at the top, Kothi in the middle and Hijras at the bottom. You never see anyone actually moving up though everyone wants to. You never see a gay man saying that he wants to become a Hijra but you see Kothis becoming Hijras.” (Ganesh, 2010, p-27)
Fig 2. “A rose by any other name..”
This empasises an identity distinct from Hijras, who have a very visible community and solidarity, and the Gay community that is mostly from India’s upper or middle classes.
Thus the Kothis must negotiate a place as sexual subalterns in heteronormative urban spaces.
Kothis arean aspirational lot — being seen as ‘gay’, or upwardly mobile, is one such desire — and mobile phones are one visbilisation of that aspirational hunger. Ganesh’s conversations with one member reveal how a better or more expensive phone, like clothes, are a means to embody the urban and escape the rural, and to look attractive to prospective partners, a part of their larger aims in life — “Bade bade logon se milna, ameer hona, acche kapde pehenena, acche restaurants aur disco mein jaana” (Ganesh, 2010, p-24). Thus they have ‘de-essentialised’ (Krijnen, 2015, p-4), their gender identities by independently negotiating a femininity, while ‘re-essentialising’ their maleness and its affordances by not surgically altering their penises — they mostly never ‘give up’ being male.
There is another dimension to the possession of mobile phones and the identities constructed — that of a tension between “anonymity and display” (Ganesh, 2010, p-23). On the one hand, the phone must be seen to make judgements about its owner’s wealth or means. But this is situated in a larger reality, on the other hand, of carefully cloaked and mediated identities, that while visible, don’t overly challenge or make uncomfortable the established heterosexual equilibriums of urban societies. As Green and Singleton would construe this is not a “gender-free” or gender-neutral, but rather a highly ‘gendered’ society, where the “technologising” of relations and society (Green and Singleton, 2013, p-37) has produced new gender complexities. The Kothis sit uncomfortably in the binary of gender relations and that is not just because they occupy multiple gender roles at once. It is also because their experiences and the intermingling of those roles is complex, requiring us to acknowledge “fluid virtual (in this case technologically mediated) identities and spaces that potentially empower individuals to challenge gendered inequalities” without “losing sight of the specific social contexts and changing social relations within which such individuals and virtual spaces are embedded”, i.e, the all pervasive politico-sexual worlds these identities operate in (Green and Singleton, 2013, p-35).
Beyond social markers, technologies also serve up new means of sexual engagement — numbers and ‘Burji Pao’ videos (pornography) are exchanged on local trains, and encounters fixed up through SMSes and calls. At the time of Ganesh’s writing, cybercafes had sprung up allowing for online meetings and chats, where there is a greater ease at judging if the prospective partner is worth emotional investment or if a relationship is likely to materialise or worth pursuing, beyond the routine access to pornographic material (Ganesh, 2010, p-26). These new techno-freedoms or independences have therefore become central, sometimes even the sole outlet or access point of the Kothi identity, reducing the risks of physical ‘cruising’ or intimacy with multiple partners, (Ganesh, 2010, p-27). However this can also become an important arena where larger forces reproduce the discriminatory experiences through their control over the flow and access to such technologies.
Post the 26/11 blasts, the government banned phones without IMEI numbers, which had impeded traceability, and were used by the terrorists. Most of the cheap Chinese dual sim phones used by the Kothis were of this kind, with a single number traceable back to 10s or 100s of devices (Ganesh, 2010, p-29). This afforded a privacy, a secrecy even, to avoid threats of blackmail, to switch sims and numbers at will. Thus their ban was a big blow to newly negotiated freedoms through them, and key instance of how, while larger structures such as the state, can ‘decriminalise’ such identities, they can also make sustaining them more difficult, even if inadvertently. Recent steps mandating Aadhar linkage with mobile numbers, among others, are yet another step in the direction of reinforcing both a digital divide, where technology use, access and the quality of interactions is not independent of social location, and also the shrinkage of the spaces for such heteronormatively ‘problematic’ or uneasy identities to exist.
Bilqis, Razeeem, and a ‘Neo-liberal Discourse’:
To illustrate the pulls and pushes on such identities, Ganesh outlines the gendered interactions in the lives of Bilqis and ‘Razeem’, a married couple, where ‘Razeem’ is a practicing Kothi. Razeem knows that being a father and a husband means that he must keep his identity a secret, and hence his phone, through which he coordinates and plans his trysts with partners, is always out of bounds for all family members (Ganesh, 2010, p-30). In some ways he is able to clearly delineate his two identities — his Kothiness is confined to the phone, (later to cybercafes) and the relationships he develops and plans through it, and with it, his femininity, his layered sexuality are regulated too. He is able to maintain regular contact with his wife who is told he is traveling to Pune, when instead he goes to Matheran to engage sexually (Ganesh, 2010, p-32). So the phone is not just facilitating but in some ways building, or an inseparable part, of his attempts at negotiating sexualities.
On the one hand there is something freeing about being able to occupy these identities at chosen times and spaces, but on the other, by keeping Bilqis away from his phone, and his identity as a Kothi, isn’t Razeem reinforcing a patriarchy, where he is advantaged by his maleness, when using its privileges to access a negotiated femininity, or what is called a ‘situational identity’ (Naz Foundation, 2004, in Ganesh, 2010, p-31)? How would these interactions be different if he was in a relationship with another woman? And the risks of blackmail and humiliation which could follow if such relationships/identitiies were discovered? When his sexual partner leaves him on knowing he is married, he again turns to the phone to search for ‘more’.
This is just one example of how gender, at various bounds, can be both an accomadative and pressurising force, sometimes at once. Technologies like the phone, allow for these forces to be negotiated, circumvented, and applied, much like the other larger, global economic and socio-politicical forces, that both birthed them and continue to be built and empowered through them. While a neo-liberal socio-material framework is what allows such technologies to be made available in the first place, the identities such as the ones that Razeem is negotiating through them, also become embedded in the ‘moral economies’ and power structures they reinforce and propagate. Thus they offer an outlet to justify and seek out these sexualities (phones and the sexual independence negotiated through them), while not destabilising their present positions in heteronormative societies and hierarchies (the aspects of privacy and ‘display’).
Ganesh M. I., (2010) ‘Mobile Love Videos Make Me Feel Healthy’: Rethinking ICTs
for Development. IDS Working Paper 352. Institute of Development Studies, Sussex, Brighton.
Green E., Singleton C. (2013) ‘Gendering the Digital’: The Impact of Gender and Technology Perspectives on the Sociological Imagination. In: Orton-Johnson K., Prior N. (eds) Digital Sociology. Palgrave Macmillan, London. https://doi.org/10.1057/9781137297792_3
Krijnen T., (2015) ‘Gender and Media’. The International Encyclopedia of Gender, Media, and Communication. Karen Ross (Editor-in-Chief), Ingrid Bachmann, Valentina Cardo, Sujata Moorti, and Marco Scarcelli (Associate Editors). Published 2020 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc.