Queeristan: “A Serious Book with Song, Dance and Multiple Voices”

Queeristan: “A Serious Book with Song, Dance and Multiple Voices”

Author of the newly released Queeristan, Parmesh Shahani on colour, clothes, camp, workplace and relationship equitability

Earlier this week we invited Parmesh Shahani—a passionate and persuasive advocate of LGBTQ inclusivity at the workplace, also in society, arts, fashion, music, campuses and creative hubs—for an Insta Live conversation. His newly released book Queeristan: LGBTQ Inclusion in The Workplace (Westland, ₹699) is a business book by imprint but in its pages surge the colours of a life well lived, learnt from and reflected upon. Essentially a book on workplace rights and rites for the queer community, Queeristan sparkles with information and insight through the voices the book brings in; the legal, advocacy-related “serious” research it wings in through its seemingly easy tone. It is a caravan of facts, figures and anecdotal histories. It moves from Shahani’s personal account as a gay man with a “gay job”, never a person who despairs or ducks under, to the mental health issues, societal challenges and emotional graphs of the LGBTQ community. Dress codes, love and loss, family, espousal rights and children, sex affirmation transitions, camp behaviour and dignity—it has it all.

Shahani, who founded the Godrej India Culture Lab, a Mumbai-based cultural platform has a riveting resume as a TED Senior fellow and the editorial director of Verve magazine among other achievements. He lit up the Live session with arguments that felt warm for their authenticity and carried true potential if abided by at companies committed to LGBTQ inclusion. That such inclusion is smart, innovative, can earn companies more money, help retain and attract talent and expand the boundaries of cultural experiences makes Queeristan an important book.


The author is a red colour loving, pink economy believing, gold tiara toting, rainbow man. He dresses and accessorises in ways hard to replicate, easy to love. He speaks with ki, na, yaar and other colloquial Hindi language infusions that make him an apna (ours) sort of man.

This is more of a personal interview where he talks about wearing mascara, why he is his own fashion icon, how maximalism mirrors his self and his relationship with his spouse.

Edited excerpts from an email conversation.

In Queeristan, you write you are own favourite fashion icon. It is complex and intriguing. How do you explain this as those of us who know you also understand that it is not plain self-indulgence?

Shefalee, I want to cite your own book Powder Room in which you described me as a magpie, who collects and assembles bits and pieces from all over the world. I have not changed over the ten years since that book was written! No, it is not self-indulgence to be my own fashion icon but it is certainly self-love. Self-love is something many of us struggle with – especially if we are queer – and I have too and I do wish more and more people reading this piece allow themselves some nourishing self-love. The world would be a much kinder place, na?

To me, fashion has been many things over time–a canvas for myself to paint my creativity, as well as my billboard for the world. It has been a very visible way of showcasing my own mish-mash, hodge-podge, here-there, global-local hyphenated life, thinking and aesthetics to the world. Whether Indian Ikat or African wax prints, whether preppy J Press bow ties from Yale or a slouchy kimono from Tokyo, whether a Rabari tote from Bhuj or a handmade back futuristic pack by two really cute designers from Eindhoven…I like to mix things up in a way that makes sense to me. Add to this mix my own Indian journey with fashion as a magazine editor. It resulted in great love for designers like Sreejith Jeevan, Sanjay Garg, Sneha Arora and Kallol Datta over the years, textile legends like Soraiya appa in Hyderabad, brands like Ekaya Banaras, stores like Angadi in Bengaluru, Vayu in Delhi, the erstwhile Bombay Electric and Bungalow 8 in Mumbai and my favourite store of all time—the fabulous Khadi Bhandar at Fort, Mumbai.

I connect my fashion journey to my other journeys with craft and design. If you see my home – it is as much a mix, of Indian and non-Indian, the handmade, the crafted and the kitsch, the thoughtful and the whimsical. Likewise with art. Likewise with the media I consume, the books I read or the curation I do for work and Queeristan kind of has this as well. From Homi Bhabha to Hema Malini, it kind of all comes together. I say I’m my own fashion icon because I am so comfortable, finally, after years, in my own skin.


A portrait photograph of Parmesh Shahani.

You say you are always in “camp”. You also have a colloquial style of speaking, writing, relating, engaging—a red-orange mix of warmth and persuasion. Did you strategise this it evolved as you went along evolving your gay job?

I am both conscious and unconscious of my “camp”ness, and I celebrate it. In Sontag’s 1964 essay – Notes on ‘Camp’ – she writes about the playful transgressive possibilities of camp, which I wholeheartedly embrace. To me camp is many things—how I dress, how I articulate myself to myself and the world… I also want to talk about the evocative power of queerness, what the scholar poet Akhil Katyal calls “doubleness” – to me this “doubleness” is liberating and it allows for multiplicity of meanings, possibilities and futures. Also to be queer is one thing and to constantly queer is another, and I think I am constantly queering—through my own articulation of what it means to be a corporate person, or a writer of a business book, for instance. The very format of Queeristan is queer—to have a serious business book full of song and dance and multiple voices, for instance. Having said this, while I personally love the flamboyance and liberating possibilities of camp, in no way do I think of it as the only way of being queer. There are multiple ways of being queer and camp is just one kind of expression. I have so many queer friends who are not at all camp, and that is wonderful too, you know?

Do you think the fashion industry has genuinely been inclusive, inspiring and safe for the queer over the years long before Section 377 was read down? 

I am going to share with you an excerpt from the book first:

“The fashion industry offered many opportunities to queer people in India to be themselves. It was a relatively safe space for employment, and this is the reason so many queer people are out in this industry. People often have the misconception that there are more queer people here than any other industry. This isn’t true. Queer people are everywhere. We might be more closeted in other sectors but in the fashion field, we feel comfortable enough to come out. Seeing couples like the designer Suneet Varma and his husband Rahul Arora or visiting the late Wendell Rodricks and his husband Jerome Marrel at their beautiful Goa home was tremendously inspiring to me. Even back then, despite the presence of Section 377, they were being who they were, sharing their lives with each other. Seeing so many happy queer couples gave me hope post my break-up that I too could have a happily-ever-after in India.”

This is a small excerpt right at the beginning of the book. Now to answer your question, while I do think that fashion has been way more open in embracing queerness, I don’t think that queer people dress more fashionably than straight people. Fashion as a space is itself, well fashionable, right, so there are wonderful straight people in fashion who also dress up wonderfully. It gives everyone a chance to express themselves, queer or otherwise and how beautiful is this? Take someone like Ranveer Singh – straight and so confidently fashionable, and I see more and more people like this.

Secondly, while it has been excellent to talk about fashion embracing queerness and queer people I would very much like the fashion industry to take concrete steps towards institutionalising some of their good intent. Like there are so many brands putting up rainbow filters and LGBTQ friendly posts or even fashion shows but if you ask them about whether they offer same sex partnership benefits to their queer employees or gender affirmation surgery for employees who wish to transition or if they have a POSH policy that includes all genders…then there is silence. It is very good to have one Anjali Lama walking the ramp at Lakmé Fashion Week as the first trans model to do so. However, there are so many other talented trans individuals who need to be hired across the spectrum. I’d like to see the fashion industry do that, and provide the benefits to support this. It is time now for the fashion industry to not just pay lip service to queer people but actually take concrete steps towards hiring us and supporting us with progressive policies and benefits at the workplace. I am hoping that more people in the fashion industry read my book and adopt the 6-step approach to LGBTQ inclusion I have outlined.


Shahani and the Godrej team at the RISE Job Fair, Bengaluru, in 2019.

You use phrases like Nagpur orange, Lipstick red…. Additionally and unavoidably of course, pink is a running shade inside the narrative as you explain pink washing, pink money and so forth. Yet what is your personal relationship with colour? 

I am so glad you have noticed this in the book. It was about really being descriptive – about bringing colour literally and evocatively into the format of a business book. My personal relationship with colour is- more is more. As Madonna sang, “Something’s better than nothing, but nothing’s better than more”, in that supremely underrated Dick Tracy soundtrack! I am an avowed maximalist. If you come home you will see—three different wall papers in one room, then on that loads of paintings, then on that, print on print furniture, and tables crowded with things, and I think just like my clothes, it works. This whole Aman Hotels sensibility of one long grey table and one elegant flower placed on the corner of it doesn’t really cut it for me. Why waste all that space, yaar? It is so liberating to allow oneself the pleasure to be as colourful outside as one feels inside. At least for me, I haven’t enjoyed being in the closet, whether about my sexuality or my love for brightness and colour. Bling it on, I say! The inner Sindhi in me has awakened!

You talk about your “signature pout” at one place. If I had to select a behavioural signature for you, it would be the big flash and flamboyant smile. What is this pout about? 

My signature pout is about camping it up na and you know where it works best? In colleges. I used to help recruit MBA students for Godrej and after each session, all the students would join me for a giant selfie. When you pout with students and empower them to just be, they really connect with you. At fashion events nowadays everyone is pouting, so I have stopped pouting there and just do a shy eyes-lowered namaste.

You write about shedding a big tear or two at Keshav Suri’s wedding and add that your mascara ran. Do you really use mascara? 

I don’t use mascara normally – just when Keshav gets married thoda sa you have to do na, otherwise you know – LKK? (log kya kahen-gay!) Can I just tell you ki I was the simplest dressed at that wedding hanh. Everyone was in full drag; mine was just semi…and yes nail polish and make up and all…But not on a daily basis. I’m very envious of my friends who do this.


Shahani with trans activists Gauri Sawant and Zainab Patel at India Culture Lab.

Do gay men cry frequently in public—at workplaces? Weddings? 

I think all men should cry more – queer or otherwise. The burden of holding our tears inside is terrible – for us, our families, our workplaces and society at large. I have seen a lot more straight men crying over the years, and this is good. The ability to share your vulnerability with others is actually a really big strength.

Have you ever noticed women, those loyal to feminist ideologies and rights as well as those trying to negotiate patriarchy envy the queer community for its assertion its rights and its physicality? 

No, actually I haven’t noticed this. However, what I am noticing more and more – especially among the young – tomorrow’s India – is a solidarity across movements, an understanding that intersectionality is the way ahead. A recognition that the struggle for queer rights is connected with the anti-caste movement, with Black Lives Matter, with students rights, with feminism, with so many other social justice movements across the world. The youth of India are building bridges of solidarity and love, and this is importantly, especially post Covid. How can we all imagine and build not a new normal but a better and more equal normal? I think we should listen to the young, and learn from them.

You write you are pati-parmeshwar (husband doting). You fix your spouse’s dabba; lay out his clothes and so on. Can you explain what an “equal” relationship between a queer couple means?

Ha! My therapist shouldn’t read this, because she will be like—so much work I have put in, and you’re still talking like this but now what to do. I am completely pati-parmeshwar, yes, I adore him and fawn over him….and who says one can’t perform this Bollywoodised kind of romance without also being staunchly equal? I think with every couple, queer or straight, one has to be honest about oneself, about each other and what you value. With us, he knows I love doting and fawning over him, and he loves being adored, so it works. I also think that other kinds of equality, like financial equality etc are overrated. One has to be pragmatic also in our case we have an age difference and come from very different places. Where we have equality is in what we offer each other – love and acceptance and a commitment to nurture each other towards being better and better. Thankfully, our love has built a bridge across our differences over the years. For any couple queer or straight if you can work on bridge building instead of wall building you’re good!