With Pride Month in full swing, it seems like India is finally waking up to the vast and unstoppable force of its LGBTQ community. With national news coverage and widespread support, it seems baffling that there is so much hate still lurking in the shadows. But the truth is that for the queer community, places where they can truly feel comfortable in expressing their relationships are few and far between. For 40-year-old Nishant Singh, this bias had become his reality and he decided it was time to do something about it.
An alumnus of St. George’s School Mussorie, Nishant had grown up with a fascination for the simplicity of life in the hills. After his schooling he made his home in the fast-paced corporate world of Mumbai but as he describes it, ‘ I began to realise that the materialistic goals and way of life were not in line with what I wanted. I felt like a nonconformist at first as I never understood the concept of a rat race or aligning personal satisfaction with materialistic gains.’ These feelings continued to grow and it a company retreat to Lonavla that made him come to terms with his dreams. He packed up and moved to North India where he travelled the hills, eventually ending up in Manali in the Spring of 2009 where he set up the now iconic Drifters’ Inn & Cafe. But as its popularity grew he realised he still hadn’t found the peace and tranquilty he had set out in search of, and decided to set up a new boutique property in the secluded hills of Mukteshwar. This project was to become, ‘The Birdcage’, a LGBTQ friendly getaway where queer couples were afforded the hospitality and welcome that they were denied elsewhere.
We caught up with Nishant to find out more about how The Birdcage took flight.
Homegrown: Can you take us through the challenges you faced when setting up The Birdcage?
Nishant Singh: I think I faced the same challenges as any other entrepreneur, shaping my dream into reality despite the constant highs and lows, a difficult but truly rewarding experience. A lot of people would have thought giving up a stable corporate life for an uncharted stint in the hills would be a big gamble, but I never thought of it that way, for me it was about coming back to where I always belonged - a simple and meaningful way of life, far from the shackles of the corporate world and urban concrete living.
I knew I would be living without the ‘perks’ of the city life and while even today friends, family and colleagues wonder how I adjust, this has been like coming home. Once I had taken the decision to shift base to the hills, it was more about adapting to the philosophies of living life here. For one, a happy realization was that unlike their urban counterparts, hill folks are not really driven by money, so while sometimes it’s difficult to get them to work, it’s still a fulfilling community driven experience. A constant support system in the form of my family and friends has been one of my biggest strengths, through this entire journey, they believed in me at every stage and encouraged me to follow my passion. It was always their unconditional love & blessings that pushed me to strive harder.
HG: Why did you settle on the name ‘The Birdcage’?
NS: While the name is derived from Mukteshwar’s rich bird life as there are some 300 odd species of birds to be found in the forests and orchards around here and even our property attracts a lot of them. However, the obvious inspiration from the iconic 1996 Robin Williams, Nathan Lane and Gene Hackman film of the same name is very much intentional. It signifies the free spirit and inclusiveness the brand stands for welcoming city dwellers, straight & gay couples, travellers with pet dogs and even reclusive writers.
The Birdcage was set up with a vision to enable and integrate inclusiveness. Our aim was to build a haven for travellers representing different stratas. Creating a space for couples, specially gay couples which was specially close to my heart, having seen the parity with which most same sex couples get treated in the country. Based on my personal experience, even today my partner and I get met with odd stares and twin beds across properties.Therefore with that vision The Birdcage stands today as a rejuvenating couple’s retreat in the hills of Kumaon. We believe in full equality for the LGBTQ community in our society. We believe that love knows no gender, so we should celebrate every expression of it.
HG: How has your sexuality shaped your life in India? Did you ever face open hostility and/or prejudice for your sexuality, and how did you go about coping with it?
NS: I think the right to express yourself is fundamental. Expression in any form, including expressing your sexuality. It saddens me to see that even in today’s day and age we are unable to respect and legalize such a basic fundamental human right. While I have been extremely lucky to have a wonderful peer and family support system while growing up as a gay man in India, I don’t think many others are this fortunate. While I have been aware of the implications and sometimes judgement that comes my way, I have always used that to work harder and better. This is one of the reasons The Birdcage strongly advocates inclusiveness, I believe members of the LGBTQ community should be given the same rights and opportunities as others and through The Birdcage, this is my small way of giving back.
The major problem we as a community face is of basic acceptance by law, and then of generic acceptance by society at large. Even today multiple members of the LGBTQ community face discrimination in day to day life struggling with some fundamental things such as employment, purchase of property, marriage or adoption. Our society at large need to come together to address these issues and make basic day to day living equal and safe for LGBTQ community.
HG: What measures have been taken at The Birdcage to ensure that it’s LGBTQ friendly?
NS: The Birdcage is an extension of our own beliefs, hence it stands for equality and inclusiveness. So more than measures and processes, it’s the way of life at our property that encourages and respects all sections of the society including LGBTQ. My partner and I, we live on the property itself and we personally look after all our guests. We are always around to mingle and socialise if guests feel up to it. All our staff is sensitized and are adept to being with us myself and also around our friends from within the community who come visiting. Some of our staff has been with us for years, and truly are like family to us. They have come to realise - to each their own. We are extremely open to hiring gay staff and have never had any trouble inducting our new hires into this friendly way of being.
HG: What impact do you feel Pink Tourism has for India’s queer community and what changes do you hope to see for people without access to safe spaces?
NS: I think we have a lot of ground to cover as a community and as a society before we look at Pink Tourism. Decriminalization of Article 377, basic awareness and sensitization to stakeholders within the society such as academics, government, private/public sector institutions need to happen so that day-to day lives of members of the LGBTQ community are seamless and peaceful.
Pink Tourism can play a part in easing the process, if we create safe and respectful spaces for members of the community, we hope to get more private/public stakeholders to join and replicate the same experience. For real change to happen, we need to start at the genesis of this ideology, creating awareness, opening dialogue and inviting participation while moulding policies/laws. I do have a lot of faith in our judiciary system and I hope to see them along with others at the helm of change.
Access to safe spaces is not just a problem for members of the LGBTQ community, it is a problem for a lot of other people including women, while we are in the throes of the #MeToo movement we need to step back and work towards creating safe spaces and access for all.