Entrepreneur Inder Vhatwar was studying in London when he was struck by a business idea. The city, he saw, was full of fashion stores that catered to the Lesbian-Gay-Bisexual-Transgender (LGBT) community. But back home in India, he thought to himself, stores catered solely to straight people.
So in 2010, two years after he returned to India, he opened D’Kloset, the country’s first apparel store for LGBTs, in Mumbai. “We put a rainbow flag outside the store and there were tags inside which said ‘Queer’. The colours and cuts made it obvious too,” says Vhatwar, 30.
The shop was opened a year after a Delhi High Court order decriminalising homosexuality. A 2011 study by the Hamsafar Trust, a group dealing with gay rights, says that since the verdict, harassment of the LGBT people has decreased and they are more comfortable expressing their sexuality. “The verdict forced the subject out of the closet,’’ asserts Harrish Iyer, an equal rights advocate.
Not surprisingly, business catering to the community in the metros is on the rise. In the last few years, restaurants, tourism, stores and books are celebrating all that is gay. Among them are the first LGBT online store Azaad Bazaar in Mumbai and gay tour packages.
Perhaps the most visible impact over the years has been on the gay party business, which was earlier largely underground. At least five gay parties were held this New Year’s Eve in Mumbai. Even mainstream clubs and cafes in the city have opened their doors to the community, hosting events such as the Pink Rupee Fridays, which are advertised openly.
“We host LGBT parties once a month,” says Kaviraj Thadani, director, Cool Chef Cafe, Mumbai. “The response has been great.”
Sibi, co-founder of Gossip, a company that has been organising such events in Mumbai for over five years, says his group now holds two gay parties a month. “Earlier it was twice a year at the most. Last year when cops tried to stop a party, we went viral on Facebook and a lot of people spoke out openly, forcing them to back down.”
The growing openness finds expression in sectors like publishing as well. Fiji-Indian Shobhna S. Kumar who started Queer Ink, India’s first online queer literature store in 2009, says most of the enquiries she gets are from small towns. “People still want to remain anonymous but the number of callers has virtually exploded.”
Many believe the growing visibility, even if largely confined to the metros, underlines the potential clout of the “pink rupee”. Worldwide, pink money — the worth of the industry catering to the community — is valued in billions of dollars. Consulting firm Deloitte estimates that the purchasing power of the US LGBT community will be $835 billion in 2014.
It is time India cashed in, says a recent report by MSL, the strategic communications unit of Publicis, among the world’s top advertising and marketing agencies. Titled Out of the Closet and into the Marketplace: The birth of India’s ‘pink economy’, the report looks at the economic potential of the community.
The National AIDS Control Organisation believes that the LGBT community is 2.5 million-strong, though other studies hold that 2-13 per cent of the India population — or 20-130 million people — are gay. “As of now, there is no formal estimate of the size of this market,” says Harsh Bijoor, marketing and brand strategy consultant. “But it does exist and the potential for marketing is reasonably big.”
Ashraf Engineer, content head, MSL India, says that globally, the pink economy is worth $200-$600 billion. “Even if India were to account for a fraction of this pie, the pink economy would amount to thousands of crores of rupees.”
For many business concerns, it makes financial sense to zero in on the community. “This community comprises individuals with more disposable incomes,” says equity research editor and gay rights advocate Nitin Karani. For instance, most don’t have expenses incurred on raising children. “They are good spenders too,” Karani adds, “especially on clothes, gadgets, travel, grooming, alcohol and entertainment.”
Dynamic big businesses in the West, such as Ikea and Benetton, have been quick to make the most of the emerging market. Financial services firms including Merrill Lynch even have services tailor-made for the community. India lags light years behind.
Take advertising, where references to LGBTs are mostly mocking. Bijoor refers to a Quikr ad which has a man speaking in a so-called gay and effeminate manner. “This is a classic example of how the LGBTs have been used to cater to the non-LGBT community which is unfair.”
R. Balki, chairman, Lowe Lintas ad agency, agrees. “It’s stereotypical because marketers think the audience is not mature enough,” he says. But adman Prahlad Kakkar is not surprised. “The gay community is the butt end of jokes. Why would anyone address them at the cost of alienating a larger section of the society,” he asks.
However, some businesses are now seriously looking at the gay community as a viable market. The MSL report says the sunshine sectors are travel firms targeted at a gay clientele, such as “Indjapink” and “La Passage to India”.
A businessman, who does not want himself or his company to be identified, is not so sure. The 42-year-old Mumbai resident started a gay tours company in 2010 but soon found that he had to expand his business because there were not enough gay takers. “Barely 5 per cent of my earnings are from the LGBT community,” he says. “Travel companies are frankly not doing much business.”
Clearly, the scale of India’s pink economy as of now is hard to gauge. That is because of the scattered nature of these businesses. The report also points out that the boom is restricted to affluent, urban sections in the metros, leaving out a sizeable chunk of the gay community.
There are also questions about what makes a business pink. Is it one that caters only to gay people? “I never meant to exclude non-queer people. But I want to create a space where our crowd can walk in and feel free to be themselves,” says Vhatwar, adding that his sales have risen by 40 per cent over the years with many customers coming from the straight community.
Kumar too stresses that her business is open to everybody. “The pink economy is hard to define in India. We will have to wait a few years as there are many who do not openly say they are LGBT. But they are part of the mainstream and living successful lives as gay people.”
Karani says he would define the pink economy as the potential consumption power of the LGBT people plus others they can influence. “Certain products can be tailored to their needs alone (like gay-friendly travel companies). However, it includes products or services that anyone needs and would pick among the options available, if the associated brand is perceived to be more supportive of equal rights.”
Everybody agrees that for businesses catering to the LGBT community to grow, mindsets have to change. “We have to come out of our own prejudices. Any economy goes in sync with the contemporary mindset of the country and there is a lot of change needed there,” says Sylvester Merchant, director of the Gujarat-based Lakshya Trust which works with sexual minorities. “We still have a long way to go.”
A green kippah, traditional Jewish cap on his head, Isaac Talkar cuts a striking figure as he winds his way through the crowded by-lanes of Dongri in the heart of Mumbai city. 80-year-old Talkar, a Bene Israeli Jew is headed to the local synagogue, a daily ritual. Dongri, a predominantly Muslim neighbourhood in south Mumbai, has been his home from birth.
‘’I have lived here all my life’’, says the retired bank manager. ‘’My entire family, including my parents and siblings, migrated to Israel thirty-five ago. I have no relatives left here. They kept calling me but some attachment keeps me here. I want to die and be buried here.’’
Once a sizeable presence, today there are barely 4000 Jews left in India. Most have migrated abroad. Those who have stayed on are largely concentrated in Mumbai, in the old Muslim neighbourhoods. They wear their Jewish identity openly; their homes display the mezuzah, a decorative doorpost containing passages from the Torah openly.
There are two distinct Jewish communities with deep roots in the city. The Bene Israelis, who claim to be descendants of one of the lost tribes of Israel, arrived in India about 2500 years ago, shipwrecked off the Konkan coast, near Mumbai. Then there are the Baghdadi Jews who emigrated from Iraq as merchant traders during the British Raj.
‘’Traditionally Jews and Muslims have occupied the same neighbourhoods in Mumbai’’, says Judah Samuel, a Bene Isareli and trustee of the Shaare Raason synagogue in Dongri. Samuel’s great grandfather Abraham Reuben Kamarlekar was president of the Jewish association in Karachi before Partition. His mother’s family migrated to India after 1947. ‘’It was natural the Jews and Muslims would cluster in the same areas’’, says Samuel. ‘’Both are religions of the book. They have halal, we have kosher. Both do not eat pork. They pray five times a day while we pray three times’’.
Not much has changed since those early days. Most of Mumbai’s eight Jewish synagogues are located in the Muslim neighbourhoods of Byculla, Mazgaon and Dongri. The Gates of Mercy, the city’s oldest, is popularly called juni (old) masjid. The Magen David synagogue in Byculla, had a Muslim custodian for decades. ‘’Even today the caretaker of the Bene Israeli cemetery in Mazgaon is a Muslim’’, says well-known film critic and Mumbai historian Rafique Baghdadi. ‘’and 98% of the students attending the Jewish schools in the central Mumbai area are Muslims’’.
It’s not that the association has remained totally unaffected by the larger conflict playing out between Israel and the Arab world. ‘’During the 6-day Arab-Israeli war, Moshe Dayan’s effigy was burnt in my neighbourhood’’, remembers Judah Samuel. Dayan was a prominent Israeli military leader. ’’ I was 10 years old and my family was scared because we were the only Jewish family in that area. But no one said or did anything to us’’.
What has helped keep the harmony intact is the manner in which the Jewish community has assimilated. ‘’They speak Marathi and have a very distinctive Indian identity’’, says Mumbai-based writer Sameera Khan. Khan has spent the last decade researching old Muslim neighbourhoods in the city. ‘’ If they had been vocal about their affiliation with Israel, had taken out morchas (protests) supporting Israel then perhaps there would have been an issue. As a result Indian Muslims have never felt uncomfortable or antagonistic towards them’’.Is the reticence perhaps born out of a desire for self-preservation? I put the question to Albert Talegawkar, a solicitor whose family migrated to Israel many years ago. ‘’ Our community is very microscopic’’, he says. ‘’ We are not affected by what is happening in Israel. We do feel bad that there is a lot of publicity being given to the Israeli attacks while no one talks about the rocket attacks from Gaza. But it’s not like we support Israel blindly’’.
Isaac Talkar’s friend, Menahim Asher, once captain of Dongri’s Mohameddan XI cricket team says, ‘Our relatives are in Israel but our hearts are in India. Israel is imposed on the Arabs. Just because our forefathers were there at some point does not mean we have the right to take over.’’ ‘’It is sad that Arabs and Jews are fighting because we come from the same father, Abraham’’, adds Solomon Sopher, a Baghdadi Jew and a prominent figure in the community. ‘’I raise horses and most of my trainers are Muslims. They are also bosom friends. Many of my business partners are Muslims’’.
The close ties of cooperation and commerce help explain why ties between the two communities remained intact even after the 2008 Mumbai attacks when terrorists stormed into the Chabad House, a Jewish outreach centre in Colaba. Six of its occupants, including the rabbi and his pregnant wife, were killed. Their two-year-old son Moshe survived the attack, rescued by his Indian nanny. The attacks brought the world spotlight onto Mumbai’s Jewish community. There were fears of a possible backlash.
‘’I was concerned how the local Jewish community would react’’, says Sameera Khan. ’’The expat Jews did. But the local population did not get involved. Perhaps they felt that being a small minority they should not draw attention to themselves. I am glad they did not identify Indian Muslims as being the same as Pakistani ISI-supported terrorists. Similarly Indian Muslims don’t see Indian Jews as being the same as Israelis. They see them as another local community around whom they live and work’’.
‘’The Chabad people were not Indian Jews’’, says Talegawkar. ’’They were here to advance religious matters. The terrorists were targeting foreigners’’.
Even today, four years later, the reminders of those attacks are all too visible. Synagogues in Mumbai now have CCTVs and there is a heavy police presence. Equally visible and eloquent are the expressions are brotherhood. ‘’We love the Indian Muslims very much’’, says Sopher.’’During Ramzan and Eid we give our grounds without charging a fee. We let our compounds out to the Bohri community for their festivals and marriages’’. ‘’Post 26/11 nothing has changed. Even today I get biryani’’, adds Talkar laughingly.
This article appeared in the Express Tribune.