The LGBT community in Mumbai, as in other parts of India, longs for acceptance, freedom and the same rights as the heterosexual community.
To spread this message, a group of 15 people gathered recently at Mumbai's famed Marine Drive to ask for hugs. And acceptance.
There are all kinds of people on Mumbai's beautiful Marine Drive promenade that borders the Arabian Sea: Jogging; chatting; cycling; walking; having a good time with friends, family and partners.
And then there are 'these' people too, on the same promenade, who call themselves 'queer'.
A group of 15-odd men and women walked on the Marine Drive promenade on one breezy December evening, holding placards that read, 'I'm gay. Will you hug me?'
But it's not just hugs they long for.
They long for acceptance. Freedom. Rights.
These are the things that people who are not 'queer' enjoy just because they are 'normal'.
In 2009, the Delhi high court declared Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, which criminalised sex between two people of the same gender, as 'unConstitutional'. On December 11, 2013, the Supreme Court of India overturned the 2009 judgment and stated it was Parliament's responsibility to amend or repeal Section 377.
Two years later, the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender -- LGBT -- community is still waiting for Section 377 to be scrapped.
Until it happens, they will continue to be at the mercy of a legal system where, if they are caught having sex (never mind, if it is consensual) with a person of the same gender, they will face criminal charges.
It is to protest this, and protest the discrimination they face not just from their parents, friends and relatives but society at large that a group of 15-odd men and women -- professionals, employees, students, interior designers -- organised Queer Hugs.
The aim was to educate the non-LGBT community and seek its support in this battle for equal rights and dignity.
Interestingly, three distinguished members of the Indian political class -- among them Shashi Tharoor, the Congress MP from Thiruvananthapuram who unsuccessfully introduced a private member's bill in the Lok Sabha to abolish Section 377; former and incumbent Union finance ministers P Chidambaram of the Congress and Arun Jaitley of the BJP who, in their individual capacities at the Times LitFest, said they thought the Supreme Court should not have overturned the Delhi high court judgment of 2009 -- have come forward in support of the LGBT community.
Though Rahul C* -- a chemical engineering student at one of the city's top engineering colleges -- hasn't faced problems on campus yet, he does not know if he should reveal his sexual orientation to his conservative Marwari family.
"I don't know how they will react," he says, though they are extremely proud of his academic achievements.
Rahul feels closer to Abeena, a transgender he considers his mother. He often seeks her help, especially when his identity and its attendant problems comes in the way of his studies.
While most of those who attended this LGBT gathering are yet to tell their parents they were homosexual, they feel their parents would not hate them or change their attitude towards them if and when they do it.
"So what?" says Kiran C* with a broad smile when some of those gathered around his group snigger and point at the placards that read, 'I am gay. Will you hug me?'
"That is the best (the sniggers) they can respond with. I can only smile and ask them for a hug," he says.
Kiran is studying journalism. While he is confident his parents will accept him, he feels they may react a bit adversely because of their association with a political party that is among the rulers in the state. But he does fear the reaction of his relatives.
"Free hugs?" two old men mutter rather scornfully as they pass Suraj Iyer. Suraj laughs when I ask if such disdain bothers him.
"If I start thinking about such tiny things, then such people, their words and their faces will occupy my life for no reason. It is better if I continue to haunt them when they go home. I live for myself," he says.
He has already discussed his sexual preferences with his parents and is open about it at work as well.
"More girls hugged me than guys," he says. "Girls feel more secure hugging a gay than guys do," he says as a small group around him bursts into laughter.
"Of course, I'd rather prefer guys hugging me than girls," he adds quickly, making those around him laugh once again.
"Jokes apart," Suraj says, "I want people to understand that we too are normal. You and I have the same sex organs. The only difference is we seek different sex organs to make love to."
Suraj often meets like-minded people on gay dating sites. "But there are risks," he cautions. "When looking out for a partner on dating apps, one must be aware of who we are approaching."
He is not coy while answering questions and says that, like any other normal person, he feels the need for sex and finds ways to satisfy his urges.
It took Sumit Pawar, who works for an NGO and the organiser of Queer Hugs, almost a week to get more than a dozen permissions from the municipal corporation, the traffic police and the Mumbai police so that the LGBT community could hold the Queer Hugs event at the Marine Drive promenade.
But that was no pain at all compared to the discrimination LGBTs face every day.
Sangeeta D* has come along with four friends -- all straight -- to be a part of Queer Hugs.
"Yes, I am a lesbian," says Sangeeta, "and I am not ashamed to say so."
"I am as gay as you are straight. I am as naturally gay as you are as naturally straight," she says, looking at her friends who have come to support her.
Her mother knows she is lesbian. How did you tell your mother, I ask.
"About six months ago, my mom and I were talking about a scene from a film. She was abusing lesbians and homosexuals. I told her then that I too was lesbian," says Sangeeta. "I told her I love a girl."
Asked how her mother coped with such a sudden revelation, if she was hurt, Sangeeta pauses for a few seconds and breaks down. Her friends look at each other, clearly annoyed with the question. "She just couldn't understand me. She was inconsolable."
Sangeeta swallows her tears and says after that day her mother accepted her sexual orientation. "I am thankful for her support. I feel sorry for hurting my mother."
Just like all those who attended the Queer Hugs campaign to protest against Section 377 of the IPC, there are just a few simple things Sangeeta wants: Acceptance, freedom and the same rights as every other Indian.
Photographs and Video: Hitesh Harisinghani/Rediff.com
* Names changed to protect their identities.