Friday, April 06, 2007

Confessions of an American - My Life in a New Delhi Gym

Weightlifter HanumanCultural confusions of a desi gym having non-desi aspirations.

[By James Baer; picture of the "Weightlifter Hanuman" designed by Renu Rani Tyagi]

“What’s different about living in Delhi compared to America?” friends back home keep on asking me. It’s one of those questions that leave one unsure where to begin, and even after a year of living here, I’m still not certain how best to respond. The main reason is that a list of differences can quickly devolve into a catalog of gripes and frustrations, as the mention of the USA reminds me of the ways in which, by comparison, Delhi is still very much the capital of a developing country. Yet I find myself increasingly reluctant to reduce my India experience to a list of complaints, because my initial culture shock has given way to a more relaxed curiosity about what is different here. As much as possible, I try to feel amusement rather than annoyance when things don’t go quite as I might wish or expect.

Saying that India is irreducible to a series of neat observations is as obvious to those of us who live here as it is unsatisfying to my American questioners, but another way in might be to give them one snapshot, describing an activity here that they are familiar with at home. And what could be easier for many of my friends to grasp than that favorite Californian urban-suburban pursuit - going to the gym?

Yes, there are gyms in Delhi, I tell them, even though the work-out culture here isn’t as widespread as it is on the coasts of the U.S. I’ve no doubt that Delhi gyms, like their LA counterparts, range from the grungy to the glitzy. LA’s gym culture is well enough developed that there is a healthy competition for members, and while you can pay a lot there to join a more exclusive joint, a membership at a mid-range gym needn’t cost more than the equivalent of about Rs. 20,000 a year. Or you can join a gym in Delhi that is one-eighth the size of my old LA club, and often much more crowded – and for nearly two and a half times the price. I could probably have found somewhere cheaper than my current gym, but I chose it simply because it’s close to where I live. Ease of access is half the battle for those whose motivation is as underdeveloped as their stamina. But more interesting than the painful price differential are the cultural differences that I noticed – some immediately, some gradually – when I started my thrice-weekly regimen.

First, it has to be said that the clientele at my gym does not represent a cross-section of Delhi society. Gym-goers in Los Angeles by definition must have some disposable income, but the steep membership fees at my Delhi club mean that it caters basically to well-off locals, with a smattering of ex-pats like myself. So the people I chat with briefly on the floor or in the locker room are kids whose parents have money, or young professionals, and very occasionally someone (like me) almost old enough to be one of their parents. Everyone seems to be studying finance, aiming for an MBA, or working in the family business. The crowd is not just young but often conspicuously well dressed, whether in their work-out clothes or in the street clothes they change into afterwards. No old shorts, ratty t-shirts and beat up tennis shoes here. This is also the only gym where I’ve ever seen someone working out in cargo pants and a designer tee-shirt and shoes: even the most stylish work-out clothes seem too infra dig for some people.

The class difference extends to locker room etiquette, in a way that was initially rather disconcerting. Many a gym member hands his clothes wordlessly to the locker room attendant, who hangs them up or folds and puts them away in their bag; or the member just casts his clothes onto the bench with the assumption that they will be dealt with. Pleases and thank-yous are clearly not required. Some people do chat cordially with the attendant, but it’s the frequent master-servant attitude that is striking, all the more so because it seems to be accepted by both parties as a given. On my way out of the locker room I usually say “Thank you” to the attendant, regardless of whether or not he’s helped me directly that day. In return, I get a smile that’s hard to interpret: is it friendliness, appreciation – or just a certain amusement that I should cluelessly waste my time and his on a superfluous pleasantry?

Of course, the gym should ultimately not be about what you wear or how you behave, but about what you do, and there’s no disputing that everyone seems pretty intent on having a proper work-out. They’re not there just to show off, and from my position at the upper end of the client age scale, I can’t criticize their energy levels. Perhaps they are inspired by the music, which is usually so loud as to make idle conversation impossible. Or maybe it’s the lyrics being pounded into their brains that energize them: the compilations chosen by my gym include a considerable number of rap and other songs with graphic and vulgar descriptions of sex. I haven’t yet figured out whether multiply-repeated lines like “You already know I wanna fuck you” have the advantageous aerobic effect of making the heart beat faster, or whether to those gym members who are also dance club denizens they’re simply too familiar to be noticed.

The impression I have is that elements like those songs are part of a blasé-seeming attitude towards sex cultivated by the gym to appeal to the majority of its clients: we’re hip, westernized and contemporary, it tries to say. Unfortunately, the façade begins to crack when exposed to a native western pair of eyes. Look at the buff trainers, their biceps and pecs nicely outlined by their tight t-shirts. In their masculinity they’re identical to their American counterparts – until you notice that they can’t seem to keep their hands off each other. The easy physical contact which many Indian males have with their friends reaches its apogee at the gym, whose raison d’être is after all the body beautiful. As they pass each other, the trainers touch each other’s hands or chests, or they walk through the workout area together with their arms slung round each other’s shoulders. By contrast, in the men’s locker room there reigns an almost universal painful modesty about nudity, which leads to much contorted divesting and vesting of underwear from beneath towels wrapped tightly around the waist.

All of these goings-on are gazed upon by ultra-defined muscular males in photos that grace the walls of the establishment, including in the locker room a large poster of a male nude, who is presumably meant to rouse us to greater heights of disciplined exercise. All perfectly normal, one might think, and impeccably heterosexual – except that the pictures are predominantly by Herb Ritts, one of the most prominent gay American photographers. Ritts is known for works that slyly subvert heterosexual conventions by depicting hyper-masculine men in a way that is particularly appealing to gay viewers. In other words, his photos are homoerotic, and several of the ones at my gym are prime examples. It’s probably the case that a lot of Americans don’t quite cotton on to this – Ritts shoots models for the Abercrombie and Fitch clothing catalogs, after all – but I’m pretty sure that an American gym would steer nervously clear of displaying his photographs on their walls.

It seems to me that my gym has adapted some of the trappings of American gym culture without completely understanding the subtle, often blurred lines that define heterosexual and homosexual male identities in the west. Transposed to India, these western traits and affectations mix haphazardly with the very different ways in which Indian men relate to one another in terms of physical appearance and contact. The result is that notwithstanding the pounding macho music, the muscular trainers and the atmosphere of serious intent to exercise, through my western eyes my gym seems very gay!

Male sexual anxiety in the USA still often revolves around wanting to have a good-looking body while simultaneously not being mistaken for being gay. In Delhi, it seems to me that appearing gay is literally inconceivable to most men, who focus on a good physique because it is a component of the social, professional and romantic success that, to judge by their behavior, they feel they’re entitled to. “You already know I wanna fuck you,” they may be singing along in their heads – but only to the woman of their dreams. To my western eyes, however, it doesn’t always look that way. It’s just one small example of how life in Delhi is often confusing – but equally amusing.

16 comments:

Anonymous said...

Hi,

I went a few of the US gyms and found the people took pains not to be seen as gay (even if they were).I found that very amusing.I am an indian by the way.

Mamuk said...

Great piece. Loved it,

Charles D said...

I’m myself an expat in Delhi and can relate to what James is saying. Delhi, and all of India, is presently evolving in a mix of contrasting values. The consequent complications are quite interesting to observe. James has tried to bring out these confusing times. I enjoyed the piece.

Anonymous said...

One more foreigner trying to humiliate mother India. Ok just joking. Fun piece.

Anonymous said...

I’m gay and working in an international bank in Hong Kong. I will soon be posted in Delhi. This is a wonderful site and Delhi sounds fun.

Anonymous said...

Nice enough. One feels happy reading things like these... rather reveals even Americans can be observant.

Anonymous said...

Good piece but the poster is not American.

Anonymous said...

That last one has had to have come from an American, of the commonly perceived variety!

Anonymous said...

6:27 here... I know James, he's not American.

mayank said...

nice observation.. its interesting as an expat ur not annoyed ..India is still very much a developing country

Anonymous said...

"Charles D said...
I’m myself an expat in Delhi and can relate to what James is saying. Delhi, and all of India, is presently evolving in a mix of contrasting values. The consequent complications are quite interesting to observe. James has tried to bring out these confusing times."

These issues are confusing only to the western psyche. Being an Indian (who has lived in the west for a number of years), I can tell you that the heterosexual Indian male psyche is anything but confused about the extent and limitations of their sexuality. The common heterosexual Indian male never thinks about homosexuality because it is not an issue that exists at all in their minds. I am nost saying its a good thing, and it is most certainly exceedingly difficult for gay Indian men to lead anywhere near normal lives. All I am saying that the ambiguity in Indian gyms so obvious to a western eye only exists in the western mind.

Anonymous said...

There are straight people and gay people everywhere - it may be more convenient and closer to 'normal' for gay birds out West, but it can be more fun to exist here in all this chaotic ambiguity and -well, enjoy the hetero treat every now and then! They don't really mind, you know. (Okay I'm a perv.)

Reclaiming Natural Manhood said...

Is all the heterosexualization of men's spaces in India not enough that Western gays need to make such remarks about Indian men, and compare them with gays, to take away whatever freedom is left for them for male intimacy.

And, I find the following statement especially problematic:

"In their masculinity they’re identical to their American counterparts – until you notice that they can’t seem to keep their hands off each other."

Really, what do gays know about masculinity? It is so typical of gays to consider male physical intimacy as unmanly, because in their own minds they relate it with their femininity and think that it is the same for men as well. And the Western society, which is extremely heterosexualised validates their notions of masculinity. But biology and history of masculinity is totally clear on this... it is male-female intimacy beyond vaginal sex that is queer, not physical intimacy between straight men. Physical intimacy between gays is of course queer. But a straight man can have sex with another straight man and he'll still be masculine.

I think Americans should keep their notions and thoughts to themselves.

Anonymous said...

I am an Indian.. and yes straight... Why do Americans have to walk naked all over in the locker rooms in the gyms where everybody can see their penis and gays can enjoy the sight.. My question here is Why.. when they are so scared of the friendship and bonding that's there with Indian male frens.

Anonymous said...

Puhleaze... although I agree with most things the author says about Indian gyms... however I don't agree that American gyms are very str8. I was 17 when I moved to New York and started working out at a gym in Long Island... I was shocked - how many married white american men were fucking each other in the steam rooms. By the way.. USA is nothing special... Americans are much more unsophisticated than even Indians.. I moved out of the US not because I lost some job or anything.. but because I could not stand the arrogance, IGNORANCE, lack of sophictication and boorishness in Americans. Now I live in Europe and USA has no comparison to life in Europe. Americans are the most greed-driven money obsessed culture.. and sadly Indians are copying the worst of what USA has to offer.. thanks to their disgusting media spreading the disease everywhere. Most Americans think India is still in the dark ages and they really hate Indians.. even if they don't show it openly.

Anonymous said...

There is a reason why USA is the most hated country in the world - because they simply need to give their "unwanted" opinion and poke their butts everywhere.

I have yet to meet 1 single American who was sincere and honest... they are the worst creatures to walk this planet.. be careful of them.. especially the ones who come to India to work here.