Boatman: A Memoir of Same-Sex Love

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John Burbidge

Paper    9789382579007


Written with honesty, passion and great personal integrity, The Boatman is a bold and fascinating account of the challenges, frustrations and fulfillment of finding love and selfhood in India.





The six years John Burbidge spent in India in the 1980s as a community development volunteer changed him in many ways, but one stands out from all the rest. It led him to confront a deeply personal secret – his attraction to his own sex. After taking the plunge with masseurs on a Bombay beach, he found himself on a rollercoaster ride of sexual adventuring that went from abstinence to addiction in two action-packed years. A complicating factor in his journey of self-discovery was the tightly knit community in which he lived and worked, with its highly regimented schedule and minimal privacy that forced him to live a double life. There was also his fraught relationship with his mother.


The Boatman is an intense and intimate exploration of city life as we don’t often know it. Revealing his love affair for India and his deep attraction for its young men, John’s story shows us how, when we dare to immerse ourselves in a culture radically different from our own, we may discover parts of ourselves we never knew existed.


Australian-born John Burbidge has lived and worked in Belgium, Canada, India and the United States. For many years, he was communications director for an international NGO engaged in community and organizational development, before becoming an independent writer and editor. His articles on a variety of subjects have appeared in magazines, newspapers, periodicals and books in several countries. He has edited volumes on civil society, rural development and memoirs, and is the author of a biography of Australian writer, Gerald Glaskin. He lives with his husband in Washington State, USA.


“A charming account of an unspoken side of life in India in the eighties told from a unique perspective. Instead of coming out to his mother, Burbidge comes out to India.” – Mahesh Dattani



Additional information


John Burbidge

Published by

Yoda Press






  1. Peter Keogh says:

    Not ever having experienced any aspect of gay life in India I found this book to be a compelling journey of a young man exploring many aspects of his life – not just the gay side of it. It is written so vividly that I could truly almost smell the street vendors and became totally embroiled in the author’s adventures. It is hard enough coming out in a Western society but to have done so in India took great personal courage! I almost felt that I had been to India after I had finished the book. A lot of the book is very sexual but written in a very truthful and at time I found deeply moving manner – not to mention some of the more quite terrifying aspects! The author’s relationship with his mother was particularly touching. I found I had to read it in one reading because I became totally involved from the first page to the last!

  2. K. Kramer says:

    A great read–difficult to put down because of the writer’s honesty and fast-moving writing style. The story of a gay man living in India and discovering his sexuality is interesting in itself, but I also appreciated the inclusion of his mother and their relationship, as well as the interactions with his work colleagues. No matter one’s sexuality, s/he can relate to this book because of the basic yet intertwining themes and emotions that we humans all experience.

  3. Karen Newkirk says:

    Reading John’s expressive depictions in The Boatman took me on a journey firstly as an Australian working in an international NGO in India, in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, meeting and interacting with Indian personalities and Indian culture. Secondly it took me into the very personal experience of a young man changing his worldview from an understanding that nice, Christian men, working for an NGO would not be homosexual to not only recognising that he is homosexual but discovering an extensive sub-culture of homosexuality in India. He was on a steep learning curve as he tried to navigate between his demanding work life in conventional India and his wonder and excitement in an unknown sub-culture. His openness to new experiences was frightening as I recognised that he was surfing this scene only minutes before AIDS did. His escape from dangerous situations left my heart palpitating. A great read.

  4. Jan Clifford says:

    Sharing the same childhood origins as Burbidge, I was interested to see how a differently sexually orientated person had to leave Australia at that time to assume his adult identity. His writing is taut and lively and the reader enters into his skin as he crosses his Rubicon and movingly negotiates unknown terrain without any guidelines.

  5. R. Bruce Williams says:

    The Boatman chronicles a story of coming out. What makes this chronicle so unique is that it tells the story of an Australian coming out in the many cultures that represent India. He adeptly straddles the culture of a non-profit closely-knit organization and the new sometimes dangerous and various cultures of India. At every turn, we urge him on, hoping that he will not only survive the occasional physical dangers but also that he will survive this courageous journey of becoming true to who he really is. Cry and laugh with John Burbridge. You will gain courage for our own journey–whatever it is.

  6. Martin Gilbraith says:

    Loved it – very evocative and quite compelling!

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