Confessions of an American – My Life in a New Delhi Gym

Weightlifter HanumanCultural confusions of a desi gym having non-desi aspirations.

[By James Baer; picture of the “Weightlifter Hanuman” designed by Renu Rani Tyagi]

“What’s different about living in Delhi compared to America?” friends back home keep on asking me. It’s one of those questions that leave one unsure where to begin, and even after a year of living here, I’m still not certain how best to respond. The main reason is that a list of differences can quickly devolve into a catalog of gripes and frustrations, as the mention of the USA reminds me of the ways in which, by comparison, Delhi is still very much the capital of a developing country. Yet I find myself increasingly reluctant to reduce my India experience to a list of complaints, because my initial culture shock has given way to a more relaxed curiosity about what is different here. As much as possible, I try to feel amusement rather than annoyance when things don’t go quite as I might wish or expect.

Saying that India is irreducible to a series of neat observations is as obvious to those of us who live here as it is unsatisfying to my American questioners, but another way in might be to give them one snapshot, describing an activity here that they are familiar with at home. And what could be easier for many of my friends to grasp than that favorite Californian urban-suburban pursuit – going to the gym?

Yes, there are gyms in Delhi, I tell them, even though the work-out culture here isn’t as widespread as it is on the coasts of the U.S. I’ve no doubt that Delhi gyms, like their LA counterparts, range from the grungy to the glitzy. LA’s gym culture is well enough developed that there is a healthy competition for members, and while you can pay a lot there to join a more exclusive joint, a membership at a mid-range gym needn’t cost more than the equivalent of about Rs. 20,000 a year. Or you can join a gym in Delhi that is one-eighth the size of my old LA club, and often much more crowded – and for nearly two and a half times the price. I could probably have found somewhere cheaper than my current gym, but I chose it simply because it’s close to where I live. Ease of access is half the battle for those whose motivation is as underdeveloped as their stamina. But more interesting than the painful price differential are the cultural differences that I noticed – some immediately, some gradually – when I started my thrice-weekly regimen.

First, it has to be said that the clientele at my gym does not represent a cross-section of Delhi society. Gym-goers in Los Angeles by definition must have some disposable income, but the steep membership fees at my Delhi club mean that it caters basically to well-off locals, with a smattering of ex-pats like myself. So the people I chat with briefly on the floor or in the locker room are kids whose parents have money, or young professionals, and very occasionally someone (like me) almost old enough to be one of their parents. Everyone seems to be studying finance, aiming for an MBA, or working in the family business. The crowd is not just young but often conspicuously well dressed, whether in their work-out clothes or in the street clothes they change into afterwards. No old shorts, ratty t-shirts and beat up tennis shoes here. This is also the only gym where I’ve ever seen someone working out in cargo pants and a designer tee-shirt and shoes: even the most stylish work-out clothes seem too infra dig for some people.

The class difference extends to locker room etiquette, in a way that was initially rather disconcerting. Many a gym member hands his clothes wordlessly to the locker room attendant, who hangs them up or folds and puts them away in their bag; or the member just casts his clothes onto the bench with the assumption that they will be dealt with. Pleases and thank-yous are clearly not required. Some people do chat cordially with the attendant, but it’s the frequent master-servant attitude that is striking, all the more so because it seems to be accepted by both parties as a given. On my way out of the locker room I usually say “Thank you” to the attendant, regardless of whether or not he’s helped me directly that day. In return, I get a smile that’s hard to interpret: is it friendliness, appreciation – or just a certain amusement that I should cluelessly waste my time and his on a superfluous pleasantry?

Of course, the gym should ultimately not be about what you wear or how you behave, but about what you do, and there’s no disputing that everyone seems pretty intent on having a proper work-out. They’re not there just to show off, and from my position at the upper end of the client age scale, I can’t criticize their energy levels. Perhaps they are inspired by the music, which is usually so loud as to make idle conversation impossible. Or maybe it’s the lyrics being pounded into their brains that energize them: the compilations chosen by my gym include a considerable number of rap and other songs with graphic and vulgar descriptions of sex. I haven’t yet figured out whether multiply-repeated lines like “You already know I wanna fuck you” have the advantageous aerobic effect of making the heart beat faster, or whether to those gym members who are also dance club denizens they’re simply too familiar to be noticed.

The impression I have is that elements like those songs are part of a blasé-seeming attitude towards sex cultivated by the gym to appeal to the majority of its clients: we’re hip, westernized and contemporary, it tries to say. Unfortunately, the façade begins to crack when exposed to a native western pair of eyes. Look at the buff trainers, their biceps and pecs nicely outlined by their tight t-shirts. In their masculinity they’re identical to their American counterparts – until you notice that they can’t seem to keep their hands off each other. The easy physical contact which many Indian males have with their friends reaches its apogee at the gym, whose raison d’être is after all the body beautiful. As they pass each other, the trainers touch each other’s hands or chests, or they walk through the workout area together with their arms slung round each other’s shoulders. By contrast, in the men’s locker room there reigns an almost universal painful modesty about nudity, which leads to much contorted divesting and vesting of underwear from beneath towels wrapped tightly around the waist.

All of these goings-on are gazed upon by ultra-defined muscular males in photos that grace the walls of the establishment, including in the locker room a large poster of a male nude, who is presumably meant to rouse us to greater heights of disciplined exercise. All perfectly normal, one might think, and impeccably heterosexual – except that the pictures are predominantly by Herb Ritts, one of the most prominent gay American photographers. Ritts is known for works that slyly subvert heterosexual conventions by depicting hyper-masculine men in a way that is particularly appealing to gay viewers. In other words, his photos are homoerotic, and several of the ones at my gym are prime examples. It’s probably the case that a lot of Americans don’t quite cotton on to this – Ritts shoots models for the Abercrombie and Fitch clothing catalogs, after all – but I’m pretty sure that an American gym would steer nervously clear of displaying his photographs on their walls.

It seems to me that my gym has adapted some of the trappings of American gym culture without completely understanding the subtle, often blurred lines that define heterosexual and homosexual male identities in the west. Transposed to India, these western traits and affectations mix haphazardly with the very different ways in which Indian men relate to one another in terms of physical appearance and contact. The result is that no
twithstanding the pounding macho music, the muscular trainers and the atmosphere of serious intent to exercise, through my western eyes my gym seems very gay!

Male sexual anxiety in the USA still often revolves around wanting to have a good-looking body while simultaneously not being mistaken for being gay. In Delhi, it seems to me that appearing gay is literally inconceivable to most men, who focus on a good physique because it is a component of the social, professional and romantic success that, to judge by their behavior, they feel they’re entitled to. “You already know I wanna fuck you,” they may be singing along in their heads – but only to the woman of their dreams. To my western eyes, however, it doesn’t always look that way. It’s just one small example of how life in Delhi is often confusing – but equally amusing.