The Boatman: An Indian Love Story
by John Burbidge

How India changed my life

By John Burbidge

The six years I spent in India with the ICA in the 1970s and 1980s were the most transformative of my life. I went there to be part of an ambitious and innovative grassroots development project, and like many who came from abroad I was deeply challenged by the experience. I discovered parts of my psyche I was barely conscious of and learned to play roles I never imagined I could. But most of all, I was led to confront a deeply personal secret — my attraction to my own sex.

Published 30 years after the fact, The Boatman describes my roller-coaster journey of sexual adventuring while living in a tightly knit community and playing a public relations role for the Institute. Writing and publishing the book was a 13-year journey that continues today. I wrote it because I wanted to share this pivotal time in my life and as a way of thanking India for making it possible.

But I didn’t realize how significant the book’s publication would be in India. It was launched in New Delhi in February last year, shortly after the Indian Supreme Court reinstated a law criminalizing homosexuality that had been repealed by the Delhi High Court four years before. One of the main justifications for this action was that the law only affected a minuscule portion of the population. In the words of one journalist, “The Boatman provides a much-needed reality check of that view.”

I have no doubt that the law will one day be overturned, but it will take a massive and persistent effort to sway public opinion for India's lawmakers to take the political risk needed. Telling our stories as gay men and women is a key step in this process. If my story can provide the impetus for others to tell theirs, my efforts will have been worthwhile. And I, too, will be able to affirm the oft-repeated truth that development is a two-way process.

John Burbidge ( is a writer and editor. A complete list of his publications is available at For further information on The Boatman, please visit

To read an account of an interview with the author, please go to


A rich story

John has given us a rich story of discovering the wonder and colour of Indian life while working for the ICA and at the same time exploring his own sexual nature. It required a delicate balancing act between his private life and his role with the Institute. He showed great sensitivity in maintaining that balance.

This account is remarkable for its honesty. John has found the courage to tell it in detail and challenge all of us to examine our attitudes towards people of different sexual orientation. He also gives us the opportunity to experience daily life through his eyes while living in India.

In Australia, even though gay and lesbian people are free to follow their sexual preferences, they are still discriminated against when it comes to marrying their partner of choice. I hope this book will help shift people's attitudes and behaviour towards gay people.

John Telford
Hazelbrook, Australia

A triumphant tale

John is both a colleague and a friend whom I have known and worked with since the early 1970s. Reading his book was like having him sit beside me to tell his very personal story. I could hear his voice.
In the telling of the tale, John states what it took for him to discover who he truly is.  I am amazed at the herculean effort it takes to move beyond the conditioning patterns of society that deny, lock and limit a dimension of one's essential being. 

The Boatman
is a triumphant tale. In it John introduced me to a layer of Mumbai's (and India's) life that I was totally blind to. It created for me an awareness, understanding, confidence and deeper commitment to support LGBT issues that need to be resolved at the community and national levels.

Mary Kurian D’Souza
Pune, India

A brave book

I was drawn to it because of the years I spent travelling throughout India. Once I began to read The Boatman, I couldn’t put it down. I felt increasing suspense as John entered, then embraced, this hidden Indian world, taking risks – both personally and professionally – as he pursued his new-found sexuality. I congratulate him on this candid account of his Indian adventures and for the courage it displays.

As the Mardi Gras parade’s official photographer, I gained an insight into the challenges faced by the gay and lesbian community before the parades helped change attitudes and provide a sense of community and support for those facing the dilemma of “coming out”. Today Australia is a different place, with widespread acceptance of homosexuality and growing support for the legalisation of same-sex marriage.

I hope John’s book paves the way for similar acceptance in other countries such as India,  where so many suffer in silence.

Jenny Templin
Sydney, Australia

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