The Boatman: A Q&A with John Burbidge

Last week, history was made when the US Supreme Court finally delivered what the vast majority of society has been demanding for decades: the right for same-sex couples to be allowed to marry. It’s a joyous time for LGBT society as awareness and acceptance rapidly increases. But what if you were coming to terms with your sexuality in a place where homosexuality itself was deemed illegal? John Burbidge, author of his memoir The Boatman, tells us about his time in India as a community development worker, and his intense self discovery in a repressive and at times brutal social setting. 

Paint us a picture of Bombay.Boatman front cover 50%

A grande dame who has seen better days. An insatiable monster sucking in the rural impoverished by the thousands per day. A city that functions in spite of itself, not because of foresighted planning and infrastructure. A place where you can walk down the street and see vignettes of life from different eras of history and wildly varying traditions co-existing side by side. Stove-pipe pants with short-sleeved white shirts and the ubiquitous fountain pen in every pocket, rainbow-coloured saris of buxom women, white kurtas and imported jeans of dashing young men, flimsy singlets and grimy lungis of the vegetable carriers. Within five minutes walk of my place was a Muslim mosque, a Hindu temple, a Jewish synagogue, an Anglican school and a Catholic hostel. Traffic is endless, except between about two and four in the morning, and is composed of every kind of vehicular structure ever invented, along with hordes of bipeds and quadrupeds. But unlike in many Western cities it keeps flowing, albeit at times like a slow surge. Footpaths are where people live, eat, sell their wares and defecate. They are not for walking; better to use the roads instead. It is a city of endless celebration with festivities for Diwali , Eid-ul ftir, Ganesh Chaturthi, Dusserah, Holi, Ramadan, Christmas and dozens more. Bombay/Mumbai is home of the gods, Bollywood superstars and cricketing giants, and at times it is hard to distinguish among the three.

For more detail, read Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts, The Silver Castle by Clive James, Maximum City by Suketu Mehta…and of course, The Boatman!

What projects were you working on in India as a community development worker?

I worked in India in two periods in two different capacities. My first two years (1976-78) I spent living and working in villages across the state of Maharashtra, of which Bombay/Mumbai is the capital. Unlike many other NGOs, ours did not specialise in one arena, such as health or education or agriculture. Nor did we bring lavish funding from abroad. We had evolved a series of methods for engaging local people in planning and operating their own development programs, based on a participatory approach developed in the ghettoes of Chicago and refined in communities around the world. Once a village had agreed to be part of the scheme, we would conduct a strategic planning consultation with as broad a cross-section of the community as possible to assist them to come up with their own blueprint for development, which usually involved economic, social and cultural aspects of village life. We then assigned a team of Indian and foreign staff to live and work with the community to help them implement their plan. With the villagers we would seek help from government, private sector and other voluntary organisations. Our role was to ‘shadow’ the villagers and allow them to develop the confidence and skills to be their own agents of change. It had its ups and downs, successes and failures. Sometimes it felt like the only people really ‘developed’ were those of us who came to assist from abroad, as I well discovered. But many Indians today are doing work they would never have dreamed of had it not been for their participation in these projects.

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During my second stint in India (1980-1984) I was part of the fundraising team, based in Bombay/Mumbai but travelling throughout the country to raise money and support for the village projects. I spent a lot of time criss-crossing India by train, as well as meeting scions of industry and government officials at all levels from block development officers to chief ministers. This was the period when our NGO organised the International Exhibition of Rural Development in India, so in addition to raising money for our own projects we also sought funding and other support for this major global event. I worked on funding and PR materials, which involved securing sponsors from large Indian companies and also introduced me to the world of advertising agencies led by creative young Indians who were a delight to work with. One the thrills for me was arranging and hosting visits to villages by sponsors and supporters, many of whom had never set foot in an Indian village. It was like lifting a veil for them and bridging the gap between two disparate worlds. This was also the period when I undertook my sexual exploration described in The Boatman, so I was straddling two worlds. The balancing act that called for, scary as it was at times, was strangely energising. I imagine it was a bit like being an undercover agent in a foreign country.

Burbidge - striped shirt cropped 50%

John Burbidge

What was your life like in Australia before you left?

Immediately before leaving Australia, I worked for a couple of years with the same NGO on a remote Aboriginal community in the Kimberley region of WA, a greater contrast to India that would be hard to find. There were about two hundred Aboriginal people and a dozen of us so-called ‘advisors’. In many ways it was the toughest assignment I ever had. It was within my own home state but so far removed from life in Perth that it was another world entirely. Trying to assist a severely broken community to come together and rebuild, trying not to be like the missionaries who had come before us but to honour their contributions, trying to combat rampart alcoholism and the violence that sometimes resulted. But there were moments I am so grateful for – going hunting with the old Ronald Morgan and learning about the two German aviators he helped to rescue in 1932, one of whom I would later meet and write about; seeing the community embrace the Bishop of the Northwest, Howell Witt, on his annual visit and working with Witt to arrange a trip to Perth for one-legged Daniel Evans so Daniel could realise his life dream of going to a Charlie Pride concert; accompanying a group of elders on a visit to Kalumburu and learning from the Benedictine fathers there how they and the Aboriginal residents had rebuilt their community three times, including once when it was bombed by the Japanese in WWII.

Could you explain the title of your memoir?

No. Sorry. You’ll have to read the book to find out! In particular, page 254 (Transit Lounge edition) and pages 224-225 (Yoda edition).

Do you think you’d have been able to come to an understanding and acceptance of your sexuality if you hadn’t lived in India?

Probably but it may have taken me even longer. I suspect I may have tried to marry (a woman), being the very other-directed person I am. I did make two attempts at marriage, but both fell through, thank goodness, for me and my prospective wives. Perhaps if someone had taken me aside and said, “Now look, John. You are gay. Face up to it and get on with your life” I may have come to terms with it sooner. But no one ever did, at least not so explicitly and no one ever tried to have a sexual encounter with me or I just didn’t pick up the vibes. This may seem difficult to grasp now but in the Australia in which I grew up being ‘gay’ carried with it such negative connotations — and still does in some places — and my own self-image was so diametrically opposed to that — the good student, the dutiful son, the responsible young man trying to change the world for the better — that I never connected the dots. In addition, I lived at home during my university years, so that made sexual experimentation more difficult and immediately after that time I joined a church-based social movement in which we had little time or energy for personal adventuring and which was predicated on a traditional family-based lifestyle.

Homosexuality is illegal in India, but in your story it seems the streets, trains and public gardens of Bombay are all commonplaces for sexual interaction between men. What are the repercussions of being forced underground for the gay community in India?

Being an out gay Indian man during the 1980s, and I suspect still today to some extent, was virtually impossible. Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Parsi, Jain or Jew, your primary duty as a young man in India is to care for your parents in their final years and to produce heirs who will care for you in yours. Anything that interferes with this and threatens this basic premise of Indian society cannot be let go unchallenged. Hence, most of the young gay men I met in India saw no option but to marry, to fulfill their filial duty and have sexual encounters with men on the side if possible. This puts enormous pressure on the man and is quite unfair to his wife — not a good formula for a stable and productive marriage. Another repercussion is the threat of blackmail and physical and sexual abuse of gay men at the hands of the law. Police in India, and in many countries, are not reluctant to act above the law when they can benefit financially. Blackmailing was a common tactic of Indian police, and was effective in that the threat of exposure to one’s family or employer was more than most young men could contemplate. Beatings and violence were also commonplace. I heard of police using bicycle chains to beat up gay men who were doing nothing more than sitting together on a park bench. Fortunately, today, with the advent of gay support groups, gay venues, publications, and media coverage, the gay community has a public face and voice in India that makes such abuses less likely to occur or at least to go unreported. Also, a growing body of support and understanding among India’s rapidly expanding middle class means that those who try to change laws and public opinion about homosexuality have more chance of succeeding than they formerly did.

Why do governments – India, Russia, and to a lesser extent Australia – insist on vilifying same-sex love?

Governments follow public opinion, not lead it. Rarely, if ever, are they on the cutting edge of social change. They will not enact laws that might risk their grip on power or cause their popularity to diminish. I can’t speak for the situation in Russia because I have never been there and am unfamiliar with it.

In its brief European history, Australia evolved a strong macho-male image, typified until fairly recently in the heavy drinking, outdoorsy, Ocker stereotype, even though I suspect this bears little resemblance to most Australian men today. Robert Hughes, in his epic book The Fatal Shore, noticed that from earliest convict days three groups in Australian society were despised and marginalised — Aboriginals, women and homosexuals. It wasn’t until a couple of decades ago that these groups finally began to rid themselves of their second-class status in Australian society. Some would argue that they still have a long way to go. While women and Aboriginals are visible sub-groups, homosexuals are much less so, which in some ways has made their plight tougher. What we don’t understand or what threatens us we tend to vilify, ridicule or deny, and in some cases legislate against.

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In the case of India, a lot of blame for the current law can be laid at the feet of the British administration and Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code that it introduced into India  (and also into other colonial possessions) in 1861, which made homosexuality a criminal offence punishable by imprisonment. Prior to this no such prohibition against same-sex activities existed in India. Scholars have shown that ancient Indian religious texts contain no indictments against those who do not embrace heterosexuality. Indeed, transgendered people were often associated with Hindu temple life and continue to be today.

In 2009 the Delhi High Court ruled that Section 377 was against the Indian constitution and for a short time rid India of this colonial hangover. But under pressure from an unusual coalition of religious conservatives, the Indian High Court later overruled it. Until a majority of Indian parliamentarians decide they can risk and overturn the law, it will remain in place, although public opinion will continue to grow as more gay men and women come out and tell their stories. The great American gay activist-cum-politician, Harvey Milk, said the most powerful political weapon gay people have is to come out and share their stories. I hope that The Boatman will encourage LGBT Indians to tell their stories and thereby help create a groundswell of opinion that will eventually result in changing the law.

What made you want to write your story as a memoir? Was it challenging to be so candid?

I could have done what others have in telling their life stories and chosen to call it fiction, thereby allowing for embellishment and imagination to take over and protecting myself from accusations of moral impropriety. But I felt that wouldn’t do justice to the tale I had to tell and would compromise its integrity. What’s more, I didn’t need to do any embellishing, since I felt I already had a rather unique and compelling story to tell. Indeed, the challenge was not adding to it but cutting out a lot of material that was either repetitive or didn’t bring anything new to the narrative. Neither did I need to apologise for it. It was my story, after all. There were parts of it I was apprehensive about sharing, not so much for my sake but for those who were involved with me, even with the use of pseudonyms to protect their privacy. Also, the book was published 30 years after the events took place, so I was able to stand back and tell my story from a different perspective than if I had just gone through the experience. I had moved on in my life and I assumed that others had in theirs, so I trust we can embrace the story with
a maturity that comes with time and age.

Have you read many other memoirs? What memoirs or books are particularly special to you?

Memoirs/autobiographies are among my favourite forms of writing, along with biographies and historically based novels. Some that come leaping to mind are A Fortunate Life (A.B. Facey), A Mile Down (David Vann), A Mother’s Disgrace (Robert Dessaix), The Road from Coorain (Jill Ker Conway) and Unreliable Memoirs (Clive James). Other books that are special for me are Bruce Chatwin (Nicholas Shakespeare), Cinnamon Gardens (Shyam Selvadurai), Cloudstreet (Tim Winton), Cutting for Stone (Abraham Verghese), Maurice (E. M. Forster), Shantaram (Gregory David Roberts) and Uttermost Part of the Earth ( E. Lucas Bridges).

Who is Gerald Glaskin? Why did you decide to write a biography of his life?

41ib0-a+XNL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Who is Gerald Glaskin? You mean you haven’t read Dare Me! The Life and Work of Gerald Glaskin? Oh my goodness! In his review of my biography in the Australian Book Review Jeremy Fisher says, “Never heard of Gerald Glaskin? With John Burbidge’s biography, you no longer have any excuses!”

Joking aside, Glaskin (1923-2000) was an Australian author, born and raised in Perth but lived for substantial periods in Singapore and Amsterdam. His 20 published books made one reviewer refer to him as ‘the ace of Australian storytellers’. He wrote both fiction and non, experimented with writing styles and moved widely over different genres from novels and short stories to travelogues, memoirs, plays and a trilogy on parapsychology. Eighteen of Glaskin’s books were published in the UK and translated into multiple European languages, earning him significant income at a time when few writers did. However, while Europeans were taken by his writing, Australians by and large ignored or overlooked him. My biography explores possible reasons for this and reveals a man who defied categorization and, as one person described him, ‘lived life to the inch’.

One reason I wrote Glaskin’s biography was that I deemed him to be passed over and underrated for his contribution to Australian writing in his day. Note that I didn’t say ‘Australian literature’, because not all his work would probably qualify for that title. But he was an important writer for his time, championing the causes of the marginalised of his day — homosexuals, Aboriginals, Asians, the young, the suicidal, victims of incest and more — through his fiction. His groundbreaking novel No End to the Way has been referred to as ‘Australia’s first gay novel’. It was published in the UK in 1965 and promptly banned in Australia. When I discovered this book, and that it was set in my home city of Perth during the years I was growing up there, I was drawn to find out more about the man. Unfortunately, I never met him but when his long-time partner invited me to have a chat about Glaskin I came away with my head spinning. There was so much to this man as a person and a writer that I felt compelled do something. I decided that nothing less than a biography would do him justice.

I had also been toying with the idea of writing a biography and had approached one of my favourite Australian writers, Randolph Stow (who once lived in the same street as Glaskin in Perth), to write his but Stow informed me that another person had just made the same offer and he had accepted, so I backed off and decided to tackle Glaskin instead. Shortly after I embarked on this project, I learnt that someone else was also interested in Glaskin but was coming at it from a different angle so I decided to stick with it. Thirteen years, 12 rejections and a lot of learning later, my biography of Glaskin was published by Monash University Publishing and featured in the 2014 Perth Writers Festival.

The Boatman is published by Transit Lounge, rrp $29.95.

WIN a copy here!

John’s website

More about The Boatman

More about Dare Me!

One response to “The Boatman: A Q&A with John Burbidge

  1. Pingback: Nick’s Pick for August at the Seattle Gay & Lesbian Book Club | The Shelf Life·

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