As an author and LGBTQ inclusion consultant, Parmesh Shahani has been a prominent voice in the LGBTQ space. His book Queeristan: LGBTQ Inclusion in the Indian Workplace, is a handy guide for corporates looking to make their space equitable and safe for the queer community. The author and TED fellow (with an impeccable and inimitable sartorial elegance) has travelled the world, peppering his work and life with lessons learnt on the way.
He talks about whether Indian travel industry has grown to accept what he calls a ‘pink rupee’ and tips to indulge in an LGBTQAI+-friendly travel in India
From Boston to Bombay, you have seen your share of the world. Tell us a little about your travel experiences.
I feel blessed to have travelled so much – across the world, because of my studies and work. Some of my most beautiful experiences have been at the homes of friends – my friend the historian Prajna Desai grinding pesto fresh in her apartment on the Yale campus in New Haven, as we make pasta together on a beautiful New England fall evening…or an evening spent with the scholar Saleem Kidwai in Lucknow in his home, with an Afghan hound by his feet and the music of Begum Akhtar on the music system. Because I have been a TED senior fellow, and part of other fellowships like Yale and the World Economic Forum, I’ve also been lucky to go on experiences like a safari in Arusha, Tanzania, that I wouldn’t have dreamed of doing otherwise.
Do you believe India’s travel industry is doing enough to make travelling inclusive?
No I think the industry isn’t doing enough at all – and it is sad because it is such a good opportunity. The entire LGBTQ economy in India is worth USD 200 billion dollars according to Out Now Consulting. Globally the LGBTQ travel industry is worth 211 billion dollars according to the International LGBTQ Travel Association and Out Now. Global brands like Orbitz and so many others are capitalising on it. In India, there is so much to do, but very few people are making the effort. I think it’s really silly – there are customers to serve, communities to help and money to be made! People should do more.
What is the first thing on your itinerary when you visit a new place?
I really love shopping so the first thing I do is go to the shops, especially if they have good textiles or local artisanal products. You'll often find me textile-hunting across India with friends in cities that I visit. In Hyderabad, artist Varunika Saraf once took me to Suraiya Apa's atelier for the best kalamkaris while in Chennai, poet Sharanya Manivanan and managed to get the softest towels at Kalpa Druma after grabbing a quick bite at Amethyst. On a trip to South Africa some years ago, I visited the uber cool Merchants On Long concept store in Cape Town, where I bought myself some exquisite Okapi products. Okapi is Hanneli Rupert's home-grown brand that produces ultra-luxurious artisanal handmade-in-Africa bags and accessories.
Did you ever face any discrimination while travelling? Any measures you were forced to take?
Honestly, as far as possible, I try not to go to places that are not open to non-heterosexuality. I don't want to waste my pink rupees! I'd much rather spend my money on places that are either already queer-friendly, or in the process of becoming queer-friendly.
I have had some of the most wonderful experiences in India simply because I made it clear in advance with my travel service providers that I'm queer and that I expect to be treated equally, and needless to say, we want a king bed and not two separate beds! We don’t fight on holidays! Once, the Alila Diwa Goa upgraded me and I had a tub full of romantic rose petals waiting for my partner and I when we checked in. The Oberoi Cecil in Shimla delivered a wonderful dessert by room service, with a special message.
What tips would you give for an LGBTQAI+-friendly travel in India
First of all there are some amazing queer businesses, like the cafes Zoomteography in Kolkata or Bambai Nazariya in Mumbai. Hotel chains like Lalit are brilliant and have done so much for the community. The Lalit for example, distributed over 2 lakh kilos of food to around 2 lakh individuals across the country through NGOs during the pandemic, and many of these individuals were from vulnerable LGBTQ and specifically transgender populations. Support all of these, na! Websites like Gaysi Family can give you lists of queer made products or services.
View this post on Instagram
The second tip is that queer community organisations exist not just in big cities. Imphal has Ya_All and Ahmedabad has QueerAbad, to name just two. If you can catch a queer event or learn about the queer scene while you're visiting a new place, or volunteer at a queer NGO, then nothing like it, na? So do some research and reach out to local queer organisations before you visit.
Finally, I think India is relatively good but very generic advice would be to just be careful – if you’re meeting people from apps like Grindr or Bumble – meet them in public places. Needless to say, you should always stay at places that have good references, and use services like travel guides that are whetted in advance.
Favourite place to visit in India and abroad
In India, I love Kochi – during and around the biennale. After the biennale it is nice to go stay at Kayal Island Retreat—a resort on an island on Vembanad Lake, near Kochi—to get away from the bustle. I also really like Landour – one of the best hill stations in our country. Another favourite of mine is Bhubaneshwar – I love textile shopping, driving to visit Konark, and the food. Outside India, I have loved Japan, Sweden and New Zealand very much for different reasons, and can’t wait to go back to all of these countries but if I had to choose one place to keep on going back to, it would be New York, for its sheer energy and options of things to do.
Recommend a restaurant/hotel to our readers
For a hotel, I recommend The Siam Hotel in Bangkok, designed by Bill Bensley. It is a wonderful oasis away from the hustle and bustle of the city, with its own private boat to take you up and down the river. As for restaurants, I really like the new Araku Café in Bangalore. Extraordinary food, paired with artisanal coffee from Andhra Pradesh, from a plantation that is entirely owned and managed by the tribal communities in Araku. It’s brilliant.
What are the travel must-haves in your bag? Plus, one thing that you pack but never seem to use!
My Kama Ayurveda rose lip balm. My Paro orange blossom essential oil roll-on. My mouthguard from my dentist, because I grind my teeth in my sleep. A Guru Nanak photo that my grandmom gave me before she passed on. A proper night suit. Even if I travel for one night, I unpack and make the hotel room my home, and then repack. I am very judicious with my packing – I always use whatever I take.